To this mood of philosophic sadness, my excesses of the night before no doubt contributed; for more things than virtue are at times their own reward: but I was greatly healed at least of my distresses. And while I was yet enjoying my abstracted humour, a turn of the beach brought me in view of the signal-station, with its watch-house and flag-staff, perched on the immediate margin of a cliff. The house was new and clean and bald, and stood naked to the Trades. The wind beat about it in loud squalls; the seaward windows rattled without mercy; the breach of the surf below contributed its increment of noise; and the fall of my foot in the narrow verandah passed unheard by those within.
There were two on whom I thus entered unexpectedly: the look-out man, with grizzled beard, keen seaman's eyes, and that brand on his countenance that comes of solitary living; and a visitor, an oldish, oratorical fellow, in the smart tropical array of the British man-o'-war's man, perched on a table, and smoking a cigar. I was made pleasantly welcome, and was soon listening with amusement to the sea-lawyer.
"No, if I hadn't have been born an Englishman," was one of his sentiments, "damn me! I'd rather 'a been born a Frenchy! I'd like to see another nation fit to black their boots." Presently after, he developed his views on home politics with similar trenchancy. "I'd rather be a brute beast than what I'd be a liberal," he said. "Carrying banners and that! a pig's got more sense. Why, look at our chief engineer--they do say he carried a banner with his own 'ands: "Hooroar for Gladstone!" I suppose, or "Down with the Aristocracy!" What 'arm does the aristocracy do? Show me a country any good without one! Not the States; why, it's the 'ome of corruption! I knew a man--he was a good man, 'ome born--who was signal quartermaster in the Wyandotte. He told me he could never have got there if he hadn't have 'run with the boys'--told it me as I'm telling you. Now, we're all British subjects here----" he was going on.
"I am afraid I am an American," I said apologetically.
He seemed the least bit taken aback, but recovered himself; and with the ready tact of his betters, paid me the usual British compliment on the riposte. "You don't say so!" he exclaimed. "Well, I give you my word of honour, I'd never have guessed it. Nobody could tell it on you," said he, as though it were some form of liquor.
I thanked him, as I always do, at this particular stage, with his compatriots: not so much perhaps for the compliment to myself and my poor country, as for the revelation (which is ever fresh to me) of Britannic self-sufficiency and taste. And he was so far softened by my gratitude as to add a word of praise on the American method of lacing sails. "You're ahead of us in lacing sails," he said. "You can say that with a clear conscience."
"Thank you," I replied. "I shall certainly do so."
At this rate, we got along swimmingly; and when I rose to retrace my steps to the Fowlery, he at once started to his feet and offered me the welcome solace of his company for the return. I believe I discovered much alacrity at the idea, for the creature (who seemed to be unique, or to represent a type like that of the dodo) entertained me hugely. But when he had produced his hat, I found I was in the way of more than entertainment; for on the ribbon I could read the legend: "H.M.S. Tempest."
"I say," I began, when our adieus were paid, and we were scrambling down the path from the look-out, "it was your ship that picked up the men on board the Flying Scud, wasn't it?"
"You may say so," said he. "And a blessed good job for the Flying-Scuds. It's a God-forsaken spot, that Midway Island."
"I've just come from there," said I. "It was I who bought the wreck."
"Beg your pardon, sir," cried the sailor: "gen'lem'n in the white schooner?"
"The same," said I.
My friend saluted, as though we were now, for the first time, formally introduced.
"Of course," I continued, "I am rather taken up with the whole story; and I wish you would tell me what you can of how the men were saved."
"It was like this," said he. "We had orders to call at Midway after castaways, and had our distance pretty nigh run down the day before. We steamed half-speed all night, looking to make it about noon; for old Tootles--beg your pardon, sir--the captain --was precious scared of the place at night. Well, there's nasty, filthy currents round that Midway; YOU know, as has been there; and one on 'em must have set us down. Leastways, about six bells, when we had ought to been miles away, some one sees a sail, and lo and be'old, there was the spars of a full- rigged brig! We raised her pretty fast, and the island after her; and made out she was hard aground, canted on her bilge, and had her ens'n flying, union down. It was breaking 'igh on the reef, and we laid well out, and sent a couple of boats. I didn't go in neither; only stood and looked on; but it seems they was all badly scared and muddled, and didn't know which end was uppermost. One on 'em kep' snivelling and wringing of his 'ands; he come on board all of a sop like a monthly nurse. That Trent, he come first, with his 'and in a bloody rag. I was near 'em as I am to you; and I could make out he was all to bits-- 'eard his breath rattle in his blooming lungs as he come down the ladder. Yes, they was a scared lot, small blame to 'em, I say! The next after Trent, come him as was mate."