DRIFT FROM TWO SHORES
DRIFT FROM TWO SHORES
THE MAN ON THE BEACH
He lived beside a river that emptied into a great ocean. The
narrow strip of land that lay between him and the estuary was
covered at high tide by a shining film of water at low tide with
the cast-up offerings of sea and shore. Logs yet green and
saplings washed away from inland banks battered fragments of
wrecks and orange crates of bamboo broken into tiny rafts yet
odorous with their lost freight lay in long successive curves--
the fringes and overlappings of the sea. At high noon the shadow
of a seagull's wing or a sudden flurry and gray squall of sand-
pipers themselves but shadows was all that broke the monotonous
glare of the level sands.
He had lived there alone for a twelvemonth. Although but a few
miles from a thriving settlement during that time his retirement
had never been intruded upon his seclusion remained unbroken. In
any other community he might have been the subject of rumor or
criticism but the miners at Camp Rogue and the traders at Trinidad
Head themselves individual and eccentric were profoundly
indifferent to all other forms of eccentricity or heterodoxy that
did not come in contact with their own. And certainly there was no
form of eccentricity less aggressive than that of a hermit had
they chosen to give him that appellation. But they did not even do
that probably from lack of interest or perception. To the various
traders who supplied his small wants he was known as "Kernel"
"Judge" and "Boss." To the general public "The Man on the Beach"
was considered a sufficiently distinguishing title. His name his
occupation rank or antecedents nobody cared to inquire. Whether
this arose from a fear of reciprocal inquiry and interest or from
the profound indifference before referred to I cannot say.
He did not look like a hermit. A man yet young erect well-
dressed clean-shaven with a low voice and a smile half
melancholy half cynical was scarcely the conventional idea of a
solitary. His dwelling a rude improvement on a fisherman's cabin
had all the severe exterior simplicity of frontier architecture
but within it was comfortable and wholesome. Three rooms--a
kitchen a living room and a bedroom--were all it contained.
He had lived there long enough to see the dull monotony of one
season lapse into the dull monotony of the other. The bleak
northwest trade-winds had brought him mornings of staring sunlight
and nights of fog and silence. The warmer southwest trades had
brought him clouds rain and the transient glories of quick
grasses and odorous beach blossoms. But summer or winter wet or
dry season on one side rose always the sharply defined hills with
their changeless background of evergreens; on the other side
stretched always the illimitable ocean as sharply defined against
the horizon and as unchanging in its hue. The onset of spring and
autumn tides some changes among his feathered neighbors the
footprints of certain wild animals along the river's bank and the
hanging out of party-colored signals from the wooded hillside far
inland helped him to record the slow months. On summer
afternoons when the sun sank behind a bank of fog that moving
solemnly shoreward at last encompassed him and blotted out sea and
sky his isolation was complete. The damp gray sea that flowed
above and around and about him always seemed to shut out an
intangible world beyond and to be the only real presence. The
booming of breakers scarce a dozen rods from his dwelling was but a
vague and unintelligible sound or the echo of something past
forever. Every morning when the sun tore away the misty curtain he
awoke dazed and bewildered as upon a new world. The first sense
of oppression over he came to love at last this subtle spirit of
oblivion; and at night when its cloudy wings were folded over his
cabin he would sit alone with a sense of security he had never
felt before. On such occasions he was apt to leave his door open
and listen as for footsteps; for what might not come to him out of
this vague nebulous world beyond? Perhaps even SHE--for this
strange solitary was not insane nor visionary. He was never in
spirit alone. For night and day sleeping or waking pacing the
beach or crouching over his driftwood fire a woman's face was
always before him--the face for whose sake and for cause of whom
he sat there alone. He saw it in the morning sunlight; it was her
white hands that were lifted from the crested breakers; it was the
rustling of her skirt when the sea wind swept through the beach
grasses; it was the loving whisper of her low voice when the long
waves sank and died among the sedge and rushes. She was as
omnipresent as sea and sky and level sand. Hence when the fog
wiped them away she seemed to draw closer to him in the darkness.
On one or two more gracious nights in midsummer when the influence
of the fervid noonday sun was still felt on the heated sands the
warm breath of the fog touched his cheek as if it had been hers
and the tears started to his eyes.
Before the fogs came--for he arrived there in winter--he had found
surcease and rest in the steady glow of a lighthouse upon the
little promontory a league below his habitation. Even on the
darkest nights and in the tumults of storm it spoke to him of a
patience that was enduring and a steadfastness that was immutable.
Later on he found a certain dumb companionship in an uprooted tree
which floating down the river had stranded hopelessly upon his
beach but in the evening had again drifted away. Rowing across
the estuary a day or two afterward he recognized the tree again
from a "blaze" of the settler's axe still upon its trunk. He was
not surprised a week later to find the same tree in the sands
before his dwelling or that the next morning it should be again
launched on its purposeless wanderings. And so impelled by wind
or tide but always haunting his seclusion he would meet it
voyaging up the river at the flood or see it tossing among the
breakers on the bar but always with the confidence of its
returning sooner or later to an anchorage beside him. After the
third month of his self-imposed exile he was forced into a more
human companionship that was brief but regular. He was obliged to
have menial assistance. While he might have eaten his bread "in
sorrow" carelessly and mechanically if it had been prepared for
him the occupation of cooking his own food brought the vulgarity
and materialness of existence so near to his morbid sensitiveness
that he could not eat the meal he had himself prepared. He did not
yet wish to die and when starvation or society seemed to be the
only alternative he chose the latter. An Indian woman so hideous
as to scarcely suggest humanity at stated times performed for him
these offices. When she did not come which was not infrequent he
did not eat.
Such was the mental and physical condition of the Man on the Beach
on the 1st of January 1869.
It was a still bright day following a week of rain and wind. Low
down the horizon still lingered a few white flecks--the flying
squadrons of the storm--as vague as distant sails. Southward the
harbor bar whitened occasionally but lazily; even the turbulent
Pacific swell stretched its length wearily upon the shore. And
toiling from the settlement over the low sand dunes a carriage at
last halted half a mile from the solitary's dwelling.
"I reckon ye'll hev to git out here" said the driver pulling up
to breathe his panting horses. "Ye can't git any nigher."
There was a groan of execration from the interior of the vehicle a
hysterical little shriek and one or two shrill expressions of
feminine disapprobation but the driver moved not. At last a
masculine head expostulated from the window: "Look here; you agreed
to take us to the house. Why it's a mile away at least!"
"Thar or tharabouts I reckon" said the driver coolly crossing
his legs on the box.
"It's no use talking; I can never walk through this sand and horrid
glare" said a female voice quickly and imperatively. Then
apprehensively "Well of all the places!"
"Well I never!"
"This DOES exceed everything."
"It's really TOO idiotic for anything."
It was noticeable that while the voices betrayed the difference of
age and sex they bore a singular resemblance to each other and a
certain querulousness of pitch that was dominant.
"I reckon I've gone about as fur as I allow to go with them
hosses" continued the driver suggestively "and as time's
vallyble ye'd better unload."
"The wretch does not mean to leave us here alone?" said a female
voice in shrill indignation. "You'll wait for us driver?" said a
masculine voice confidently.
"How long?" asked the driver.
There was a hurried consultation within. The words "Might send us
packing!" "May take all night to get him to listen to reason"
"Bother! whole thing over in ten minutes" came from the window.
The driver meanwhile had settled himself back in his seat and
whistled in patient contempt of a fashionable fare that didn't know
its own mind nor destination. Finally the masculine head was
thrust out and with a certain potential air of judicially ending
a difficulty said:--
"You're to follow us slowly and put up your horses in the stable
or barn until we want you."
An ironical laugh burst from the driver. "Oh yes--in the stable
or barn--in course. But my eyes sorter failin' me mebbee now
some ev you younger folks will kindly pint out the stable or barn
of the Kernel's. Woa!--will ye?--woa! Give me a chance to pick
out that there barn or stable to put ye in!" This in arch
confidence to the horses who had not moved.
Here the previous speaker rotund dignified and elderly alighted
indignantly closely followed by the rest of the party two ladies
and a gentleman. One of the ladies was past the age but not the
fashion of youth and her Parisian dress clung over her wasted
figure and well-bred bones artistically if not gracefully; the
younger lady evidently her daughter was crisp and pretty and
carried off the aquiline nose and aristocratic emaciation of her
mother with a certain piquancy and a dash that was charming. The
gentleman was young thin with the family characteristics but
With one accord they all faced directly toward the spot indicated