XII. At Sea Again.

I was roused from my mid-Noto reverie by tidings that our boat was ready and waiting just below the bridge. This was not the steamer which had long since gone on its way, but a small boat of the country we had succeeded in chartering for the return voyage. The good inn-folk, who had helped in the hiring, hospitably came down to the landing to see us off.

The boat, like all Japanese small boats, was in build between a gondola and a dory, and dated from a stage in the art of rowing prior to the discovery that to sit is better than to stand even at work. Ours was a small specimen of its class, that we might the quicker compass the voyage to Nanao, which the boatmen averred to be six ri (fifteen miles). My estimate, prompted perhaps by interest, and certainly abetted by ignorance, made it about half that distance. My argument, conclusive enough to myself, proved singularly unshaking to the boatmen, who would neither abate the price in consequence nor diminish their own allowance of the time to be taken.

The boat had sweeps both fore and aft, each let in by a hole in the handle to a pin on the gunwale. She was also provided with a sail hoisting on a spar that fitted in amidships. The sail was laced vertically: a point, by the way, for telling a Japanese junk from a Chinese one at sea, for Cathay always laces horizontally.

Whatever our private beliefs on the probable length of the voyage, both crew and passengers agreed charmingly in one hope, namely, that there might be as little rowing about it as possible. Our reasons for this differed, it is true; but as neither side volunteered theirs, the difference mattered not. So we slipped down the canal.

The hoopskirt fisher-dames were just where we had left them some hours before, and were still too much absorbed in doing nothing to waste time looking at us. I would gladly have bothered them for a peep at their traps, but that it seemed a pity to intrude upon so engrossing a pursuit. Besides, I feared their apathy might infect the crew. Our mariners, though hired only for the voyage, did not seem averse to making a day of it, as it was.

One thing, however, I was bent on stopping to inspect, cost what it might in delay or discipline; and that was a fish-lookout. To have seen the thing from a steamer's deck merely whetted desire for nearer acquaintance. To gratify the wish was not difficult; for the shore was dotted with them like blind light-houses off the points. I was for making for the first visible, but the boatmen, with an eye to economy of labor, pointed out that there was one directly in our path round the next headland. So I curbed my curiosity till on turning the corner it came into view. As good luck would have it, it was inhabited.

We pulled up alongside, gave its occupants good-day, and asked leave to mount. The fishermen, hospitable souls, offered no objection. This seemed to me the more courteous on their part, after I had made the ascent, for there were two of them in the basket, and a visitor materially added to the already uneasy weight. But then they were used to it. The rungs of what did for ladder were so far apart as to necessitate making very long legs of it in places, which must have been colossal strides for the owners. The higher I clambered, the flimsier the structure got. However, I arrived, not without unnecessary trepidation, wormed my way into the basket and crouched down in some uneasiness of mind. The way the thing swayed and wriggled gave me to believe that the next moment we should all be shot catapultwise into the sea. To call it topheavy will do for a word, but nothing but experience will do for the sensation. This oscillation, strangely enough, was not apparent from the sea; which reminds me to have noticed differences due the point of view before.

I was greeted by an extensive outlook. The shore, perhaps a hundred yards away, ran shortly into a fisher hamlet, and then into a long line of half submerged rocks, like successive touches of a skipping stone. Beyond the end of this indefinite point, and a little to the right of it, stood another lookout. This was our only near neighbor, though others could be seen in miniature in the distance, faint cobwebs against the coast. The bay stretched away on all sides, landlocked at last, except where to the east an opening gave into the sea of Japan.

To a dispassionate observer the basket may have been twenty feet above the water. To one in the basket, it was considerably higher - and its height was emphasized by its seeming insecurity. The fishermen were very much at home in it, but to me the sensation was such as to cause strained relations between my will to stay and my wish to be gone.

But strong feelings are so easily changed into their opposites! I can imagine one of these eyries a delightful setting to certain moods. A deserted one should be the place of places for reading a romance. The solitude, the strangeness, and the cradle-like swing, would all compose to shutting out the world. To paddle there some May morning, tie one's boat out of sight beneath, and climb up into the nest to sit alone half poised in the sky in the midst of the sea, should savor of a new sensation. After a little acclimatization it would probably become a passion. Certainly, with a pipe, it should induce a most happy frame of mind for a French novel. The seeming risk of the one situation would serve to point those of the other.

The fishermen received my thanks with amiability, watched us with stolid curiosity as we pulled off, and then relapsed into their former semi-comatose condition. Their eyrie slipped perspectively astern, sank lower and lower, and suddenly was lost against the background of the coast.

The favoring breeze we were always hoping for never came. This was a bitter disappointment to the boatmen, who thus found themselves prevented from more than occasional whiffs of smoking. Once we had out the spar and actually hoisted the sail, a godsend of an excuse to them for doing nothing for the next few minutes; but it shortly had to come down again and on we rowed.

Our surroundings made a pretty sight. A foreground of water, smooth as one could wish had he nowhere to go, with illusive cat's-paws of wind playing coyly all around, marking the great shield with dark scratches, and never coming near enough to be caught except when the sail was down. Fold upon fold of low hills in the distance, with hamlets showing here and there at their bases by the sea. And then, almost like a part of the picture, so subtly did the sensations blend, the slow cadenced creak of the sweeps on the gunwale, a rhythmic undercurrent of sound.

At intervals, a wayfarer under sail, bound the other way, crept slowly by, carrying, as it seemed to our envious eyes, his own capful of wind with him; and once a boat, bound our way and not under sail, passed us not far off. Our boatmen were beautifully blind to this defeat till their attention had been specifically called to it for an explanation. They then declared the victor to be lighter than we, and this in face of our having chosen their craft for just that quality. What per cent of such statements, I wonder, do the makers expect to have credited? And if any appreciable amount, which is the more sold, the artless deceiver or his less simple victim?

But we always headed in the direction of Nanao, and the shores floated by through the long spring afternoon. At last they began to contract upon us till, by virtue of narrowing, they shot us through the straits in water clear as crystal, and then widening again, dropped us adrift in Wakura bay. Though not so beloved of bora, the bay was most popular with other fish. Schools of porpoises turned cart-wheels for our amusement, and in spots the water was fairly alive with baby jelly-fish. On the left lay Monkey island, so called from a certain old gentleman who had had a peculiar fondness for those animals. His family of poor relations had disappeared at his death, and the island was now chiefly remarkable for a curious clay formation, which time had chiseled into cliffs so mimicking a folding screen that they were known by the name. They were perfectly level on top and perpendicular on the sides, and as double-faced as the most matter-of-fact nicknamer could desire. Sunset came, found us still in the bay and left us there. Then the dusk crept up from the black water beneath, like an exhalation. It grew chilly.

Just as we were turning the face of Screen cliff a sound of singing reached us, ricochetting over the water. It had a plaintive ring such as peasant songs are wont to have, and came, as we at length made out, from a boat homeward bound from the island, steering a course at right angles to our own. The voices were those of women, and as our courses swept us nearer each other, we saw that women alone composed the crew. They had been faggot-cutting, and the bunches lay piled amidships, while fore and aft they plied their oars, and sang. The gloaming hid all but sound and sex, and threw its veil of romance over the trollers, who sent their hearts out thus across the twilight sea. The song, no doubt some common ditty, gathered a pathos over the water through the night. It swept from one side of us to the other, softened with distance, lingered in detached strains, and then was hushed, leaving us once more alone with the night.

Still we paddled on. It was now become quite dark, quite cold, quite calm, and we were still several good miles off from Nanao. At length on turning a headland the lights of the town and its shipping came out one by one from behind a point, the advance guards first, then the main body, and wheeling into line took up their post in a long parade ahead. We began to wonder which were the nearer. There is a touch of mystery in making a harbor at night. In the daytime you see it all well-ordered by perspective. But as you creep slowly in through the dark, the twinkles of the shipping only doubtfully point their whereabouts. The most brilliant may turn out the most remote, and the faintest at first the nearest after all. Your own motion alone can sift them into place. If we could voyage through the sea of space, it would be thus we might come upon some star-cluster and have the same delightful doubt which should become our sun the first.

In half an hour they were all about us; the nearer revealing by their light the dark bodies connected with them; the farther still showing only themselves. The teahouses along the water-front made a milky-way ahead. We threaded our course between the outlying lights while the milky-way resolved itself into star-pointed silhouettes. Then skirting along it, we drew up at last at a darksome quay, and landed Yejiro to hunt up an inn. I looked at my watch; it was ten o'clock. We had not only passed my estimate of time somewhere in the middle of the bay; we had exceeded even the boatmen's excessive allowance. Somehow we had put six hours to the voyage. I began to realize I had hired the wrong men. Nor was the voyage yet over, if remaining attached to the boat for fully an hour more be entitled to count. For Yejiro did not return, and the boatmen and I waited.

I was glad enough to make pretence at arrival by getting out of the boat on to the quay. The quay was a dismal place. I walked out to the farther end, where I found an individual haunting it with an idea to suicide apparently. His course struck me as so appropriate that I felt it would be hollow mockery to argue the point with him. He must have become alarmed at the possibility, however, for he made off. Heaven knows he had small cause to fear; I was certainly at that moment no unsympathetic soul.

Having only come to grief on the quay, I next tried a landward stroll with much the same effect. The street or place that gave upon the wharf was as deserted as the wharf itself. Half the houses about it were dark as tombs; the other half showed only glimmering shoji taunting me by the sounds they suffered to escape, or by a chance silhouette thrown for a moment upon the paper wall by some one within. And now and then, as if still further to enhance the solitude, a pair passed me by in low self-suited talk.

Still no sign of the boy. Every few minutes I would walk back to the boat and linger beside it till I could no longer stand the mute reproach of the baskets huddled in a little pile on the stones, poor, houseless immigrants that they were. And from time to time I made a touching spectacle of myself, by pulling out my watch and peering, by what feeble light I could find, anxiously at its face to make out the hour.

At last Yejiro turned up in the company of a policeman. This official, however, proved to be accompanying him in a civil capacity, and, changing into a guide, led the way through several dark alley-waysto an inn of forbidding face, but better heart. There did we eventually dine, or breakfast, for by that time it was become the next day.