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One does not need to seek the brow of Cole's Hill very early on Forefathers' Day to see the star of morning rise and shine upon Plymouth. It marks the passing of one of the four longest nights of the year, those of the four days before Christmas, a memorable period for all Americans, for during it the Pilgrim Fathers came to Plymouth. According to the best authorities the exploring party set foot on the famous rock on Monday, Dec. 21 (new style). But the ship herself did not enter the harbor for five days. Friday, the 18th, the explorers reached Clark's Island after dark and spent the night most miserably, though it was next door to a miracle that they got there alive and no doubt they were thankful for that. How they battled by Manomet Point in the half gale and high sea, the night already upon them and the harbor unknown to any aboard, their rudder gone and their mast "broken in three places," we know from Bradford's graphic description. On Saturday they rested on their island and dried their clothes and their gunpowder. On Sunday they prayed and otherwise kept the Sabbath as was their want. On Monday they went ashore on the mainland, found the situation desirable, and struck boldly across the bay to the Mayflower inside the hook of the Cape, to tell the news.
So the first of the Forefathers set foot on Plymouth soil on the 21st of December, according to the revised calendar. But the Mayflower herself did not enter the harbor till five days later.
"On the 15th of December," says Bradford (on the 25th as we now reckon it, though ten days before the England they had left behind would celebrate Christmas), "they weighed anchor to go to the place they had discovered, and came within two leagues of it, but were fain to bear up again, but the 16th day the wind became fair and they arrived safely in the harbor and afterward took a better view of the place and resolved where to pitch their dwellings and the 25th day began to erect the first house for common use, to receive them and their goods.
Forefathers' Day is rightly set, then, on the 21st, though we have really an all-winter landing of the Pilgrims, the ship remaining in the harbor and being more or less their refuge until the 5th of April, 1621. In some respects the place of their landing has vastly changed. The waterfront is ugly with rough wharves and coal pockets, store-houses and factories. The famous rock itself reposes beneath a monstrous granite canopy and seems to have so little connection with the sea that one at first sight is inclined to levity, wondering where the landing party got the gang plank which bridged such a distance. Yet it was in all reverence that I sought Plymouth, hoping to in some measure bridge the three centuries that lie between that day and this, and see the New World in some measure as they saw it, at the same season.
For at least the seasons have not changed. The storms and the calms, the snow and the sunshine, come now, as then, in cycles that may not match day by day in all instances, but, taking year by year, come surprisingly near it. There is more in the Old Farmer's Almanack's serene forecast of the weather for an entire year ahead than most of us are willing to admit. There are people who back its oracle against the Weather Bureau and claim that they travel warmer and drier by so doing. Yet if one makes a study of Farmers' Almanack weather he finds that it wins by predicting the same storms and the same cold snaps, the same drought and the same rain for just about the same seasons, year after year, spreading the prophecy over days enough to give it considerable leeway. "About this time expect a storm," it says, and in the ten days of the aforesaid time the storm is pretty apt to come.
So, to my joy, I found in Plymouth on my few days there on Forefathers' Day week just about the weather Bradford reports for that first voyage of the Mayflower's shallop to its harbor. "After some hour's sailing," says Bradford, "it began to snow and rain, and about the middle of the afternoon the wind increased and the sea became very rough and they broke their rudder and it was as much as two men could do to steer her with a couple of oars. But their pilot bade them be of good cheer as he saw the harbor, but the storm increased and night coming on they bore what sail they could to get in while they could see. But herewith they broke their mast in three pieces and their sail fell overboard in a very grown sea, so that they were like to have been cast away."
Anyone who knows that Massachusetts coast in December will recognize the weather, a wind from the northeast bringing mingled rain and snow, not a gale, but a squally wind, with a "very grown sea" such as beat upon the coast at the beginning of this week, sending the white horses racing up the beach below Manomet Head, which has been named for them, and smashing in continuous thunder on the stern and rockbound cliffs between White Horse Beach and Plymouth harbor.
To see Manomet in stormy December is to know how grim it is. The wooded headland which the little shallop so desperately won by in the gloom of that December twilight and storm has changed little if any since that time. Stern and rock-bound it certainly is. The sea of centuries has beaten against the great drumlins of boulder-till and has not moved the boulders that bind them together. At the most it has but washed out the smaller ones, leaving the sea front surfaced with great white granite rocks that gleam like marble in the sundown to the limits of the washing tide, then shine olive green with the froth of the waves. From the sands of White Horse Beach to those of the Spit in Plymouth harbor there is no place where that storm-tossed shallop might have made a landing with any hope of safety. To have turned toward the shore as the pilot bade them when the mast broke would have been to drown the whole company in the surf, in which case Plymouth would never have been. No one knows the name of the "lustie seaman" who then usurped the command and bade the rowers "if they were men, about with her, or else they were all cast away." On the words of this courageous unknown hung the lives of the company and perhaps the fate of the expedition itself. It is a stern and rock-bound coast in very truth, and if it seemed as dark and forbidding on that December nightfall in 1620 as it did on one of the same date this year, I for one would not have blamed them had they sailed away, never to come back. For a quarter of a mile off shore scattered boulders curried the surf and fluffed it into white foam. Its deafening roar was filled with menace. Salt spray and sleet mingled cut one's face rods back from the shore, and high up the dark hill behind rose the gnarled woodland, wailing and tossing its giant branches. With the fall of night no light was visible from sea or shore. All was as primal, as chaotic, as menacing as it had been on that Friday night three centuries before when the Pilgrims' shallop beat in by the point, its tiny white sail drowned like the wing of a seagull in the dusky welter of the sea.
That night, as on the night that the Pilgrims came, the wind changed to the westward and blew the storm to sea. Yet all night from Cole's Hill I saw the dark clouds to seaward, lingering there and refusing to be driven completely away, and in the gray of dawn the morning star rose out of them, overmatching with its clear light that of the Gurnet which shone from the murk of their depths below. The frozen ground rang beneath the heel and the cold had bitten deep. Out of the northwest a few flakes of snow came and it was long before the sun shone through the clouds and touched the top of Manomet Hill. Yet when it did it came with a burst of golden glory and filled the sky with such rosy and benign colors that one half expected to see a flight of Raphael's cherubs through it to earth. And all the land beneath was softened with a blue haze from east to south, making of it a country of romance through which pricked towers of Aladdin palaces and in which one knew at sight that he might find all his dearest dreams coming true: Thus the Pilgrims saw it that first morning from Clark's Island and the sight must have warmed the hearts of them and dried the tears out as it dried the garments wet with salt spray and cold rain.
The wind from the west was keen for the next few days, but it blew all the forebodings out of the sky and to find the south side of a hill or even a thicket was to find perfect comfort. The sea off Manomet was no longer chaotic and menacing, but was stippled with dancing light on a soft, rich blue that was as soothing to the sense as the other had been disquieting. Along the south of White Horse Beach the lapidary surf had strewn quartz pebbles that gleamed in the clear sun like precious stones. It took little effort of the imagination to find pocketfuls of rubies, pearls, sapphires, and amethysts among these, and had it indeed been "bright jewels of the mine" which the voyagers sought they might have been pardoned for thinking they had found them there. And all ashore under this alluring blue haze lay a country that was superlatively lovely even under frozen skies and on the shortest day of the year.
Southerly toward it the shallop sailed in 1620, under flocks of whirling white gulls, through flocks of black and white Labrador ducks that then wintered in numbers along our shores, from Clark's Island to the mouth of Town Brook.
Factories and dwellings line Town Brook, now in place of the primeval forests of pine and oak. Its waters leap one dam after another, but cannot escape pollution till their dark tide mingles with that of the clear sea. But for all that the contour of the chasms in the big sand hills through which it flows to the sea is changed but little. The low sun leaves it in shadow most of the day and one can fancy the Pilgrim children and perhaps their elders glancing often up its shadowy canon under black growth, a mysterious gulch down which at any time might stride the savages they so feared, or other, worse terrors of the unknown wilderness. The little knowledge of their day was but a tiny oasis in the vast desert of unknown things, and in that country to the south and west that was so alluring under the golden glow of the sun through its soft blue haze might dwell both gorgons and chimeras dire. For though the children were not with the explorers when they landed from the shallop on Forefathers' Day, they came five days later in the Mayflower itself.
There were twenty-eight of these children, varying in age from the babe in arms to well-grown, lusty youths and maidens. Christmas was at hand, and one fancies that all knew much about it, and spoke little, perhaps not at all. So far as record goes they had broken absolutely from all that they believed the follies of the fatherland. Yet in the hearts of many, one can but think, must have remained warm memories of Yule logs, of the boar's head, piping hot and decked out with holly berries, and of the low-ceiled, oak-wainscotted dining halls of Old World houses all alight with candles and green with Christmas decorations. It is a pity that in repudiating the folly they had to repudiate also the fun. For just ashore in this land of mystery to which they had come were opportunities for Christmas greenery and Christmas feasting which they would have done well to take. The English holly they had left behind, yet along Town Brook grew the black alder with its red berries that are so pretty a substitute for the others, a holly itself, or at least an Ilex. All about Plymouth in the low grounds may be found these cheery, bright red berries, even over on the seaward slope of Manomet Head I found them, snuggling in hollows where tiny rivulets trickle down to the sea, though on the ridge above them the oaks were dwarfed and storm-beaten till one has difficulty in recognizing them for the variety of tree that they are.
It is easy to believe that down to the very rack on which they landed crept the club-moss which the descendants of the Pilgrims so soon learned to call "evergreen." Tons of it we use today in our Christmas decorations, nor does the supply from the Massachusetts woods seem to diminish, ground-pine, common, and "coral" evergreen, all varieties of the club-moss, that are commonest out of the dozen that we have in all. Just up those dark gullies Town Brook would have led them, as it will lead anyone today, to a country that now, as it was then, is rich in winter beauties of the woodland with which the exiles might well have decorated the cabin of the Mayflower. And just within the woods in any direction waited for them, had they had the will and the wisdom to seek them, all kinds of Christmas cheer. Deer were there, wild turkeys in great flocks and two varieties of grouse as tame as chickens on a farm, and more delicious than any Christmas goose which might have been served them in Holland or England. There were no savages about Plymouth at the time and they might have travelled the woods boldly, instead of taking prudent council of their fears. But they need not have gone so far as that for their Christmas feast. The sandy flats of nearby creeks were full of clams and the sea of fish. The boar's head they might not have, but there were splendid substitutes for it if they had cared to make their Christmas feast of products of the new land to which they had come.
Against all this, no doubt, they sternly set their faces, and indeed, instead of feasting and good cheer on their December 25th, they set soberly to work to build their first common house, cutting greenery indeed, but not for decoration, and dining abstemiously on the stores that they had shipped months before in England. One can but believe that had they for a few bright holidays put their fears behind them with their solemnity and celebrated their own safe landing with a few roasted turkeys, a few boiled cod and some clam soup, eaten in an evergreen-decorated cabin of their good ship, or about a barbecue fire on shore, they might have taken a step toward warding off the sickness which was even then fastening itself upon them. But they certainly did not, and in visiting their landing-place on their landing-day and trying to see the world here as they then saw it, one must put such riotous thoughts out of mind, as he must put the great present-day town out of it.
Those two things aside on any before Christmas week it is possible to see the landing-place of the Pilgrims much as they saw it, to feel the same stormy weather sweep across the same sea and to see landward the same hills clad with dark forests tossing their giant branches and seeming to hold much of mystery and dread. To know just a little of what they saw and felt one need but to stand on the brow of Manomet Head when a December night lowers and the northeast wind is hurling the surf on the rocks out of "a very grown sea."