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THE MERMAID OF LIGHTHOUSE POINT


Some forty years ago, on the northern coast of California, near the
Golden Gate, stood a lighthouse. Of a primitive class, since
superseded by a building more in keeping with the growing magnitude
of the adjacent port, it attracted little attention from the
desolate shore, and, it was alleged, still less from the desolate
sea beyond. A gray structure of timber, stone, and glass, it was
buffeted and harried by the constant trade winds, baked by the
unclouded six months' sun, lost for a few hours in the afternoon
sea-fog, and laughed over by circling guillemots from the Farallones.
It was kept by a recluse--a preoccupied man of scientific tastes,
who, in shameless contrast to his fellow immigrants, had applied to
the government for this scarcely lucrative position as a means of
securing the seclusion he valued more than gold. Some believed that
he was the victim of an early disappointment in love--a view
charitably taken by those who also believed that the government
would not have appointed "a crank" to a position of responsibility.
Howbeit, he fulfilled his duties, and, with the assistance of an
Indian, even cultivated a small patch of ground beside the
lighthouse. His isolation was complete! There was little to attract
wanderers here: the nearest mines were fifty miles away; the virgin
forest on the mountains inland were penetrated only by sawmills and
woodmen from the Bay settlements, equally remote. Although by the
shore-line the lights of the great port were sometimes plainly
visible, yet the solitude around him was peopled only by Indians,--a
branch of the great northern tribe of "root-diggers,"--peaceful and
simple in their habits, as yet undisturbed by the white man, nor
stirred into antagonism by aggression. Civilization only touched
him at stated intervals, and then by the more expeditious sea from
the government boat that brought him supplies. But for his
contiguity to the perpetual turmoil of wind and sea, he might have
passed a restful Arcadian life in his surroundings; for even his
solitude was sometimes haunted by this faint reminder of the great
port hard by that pulsated with an equal unrest. Nevertheless, the
sands before his door and the rocks behind him seemed to have been
untrodden by any other white man's foot since their upheaval from
the ocean. It was true that the little bay beside him was marked on
the map as "Sir Francis Drake's Bay," tradition having located it as
the spot where that ingenious pirate and empire-maker had once
landed his vessels and scraped the barnacles from his adventurous
keels. But of this Edgar Pomfrey--or "Captain Pomfrey," as he was
called by virtue of his half-nautical office--had thought little.

For the first six months he had thoroughly enjoyed his seclusion.
In the company of his books, of which he had brought such a fair
store that their shelves lined his snug corners to the exclusion of
more comfortable furniture, he found his principal recreation.
Even his unwonted manual labor, the trimming of his lamp and
cleaning of his reflectors, and his personal housekeeping, in which
his Indian help at times assisted, he found a novel and interesting
occupation. For outdoor exercise, a ramble on the sands, a climb
to the rocky upland, or a pull in the lighthouse boat, amply
sufficed him. "Crank" as he was supposed to be, he was sane enough
to guard against any of those early lapses into barbarism which
marked the lives of some solitary gold-miners. His own taste, as
well as the duty of his office, kept his person and habitation
sweet and clean, and his habits regular. Even the little
cultivated patch of ground on the lee side of the tower was
symmetrical and well ordered. Thus the outward light of Captain
Pomfrey shone forth over the wilderness of shore and wave, even
like his beacon, whatever his inward illumination may have been.

It was a bright summer morning, remarkable even in the monotonous
excellence of the season, with a slight touch of warmth which the
invincible Northwest Trades had not yet chilled. There was still a
faint haze off the coast, as if last night's fog had been caught in
the quick sunshine, and the shining sands were hot, but without the
usual dazzling glare. A faint perfume from a quaint lilac-colored
beach-flower, whose clustering heads dotted the sand like bits of
blown spume, took the place of that smell of the sea which the
odorless Pacific lacked. A few rocks, half a mile away, lifted
themselves above the ebb tide at varying heights as they lay on the
trough of the swell, were crested with foam by a striking surge, or
cleanly erased in the full sweep of the sea. Beside, and partly
upon one of the higher rocks, a singular object was moving.

Pomfrey was interested but not startled. He had once or twice seen
seals disporting on these rocks, and on one occasion a sea-lion,--
an estray from the familiar rocks on the other side of the Golden
Gate. But he ceased work in his garden patch, and coming to his
house, exchanged his hoe for a telescope. When he got the mystery
in focus he suddenly stopped and rubbed the object-glass with his
handkerchief. But even when he applied the glass to his eye for a
second time, he could scarcely believe his eyesight. For the
object seemed to be a WOMAN, the lower part of her figure submerged
in the sea, her long hair depending over her shoulders and waist.
There was nothing in her attitude to suggest terror or that she was
the victim of some accident. She moved slowly and complacently
with the sea, and even--a more staggering suggestion--appeared to
be combing out the strands of her long hair with her fingers. With
her body half concealed she might have been a mermaid!

He swept the foreshore and horizon with his glass; there was
neither boat nor ship--nor anything that moved, except the long
swell of the Pacific. She could have come only from the sea; for
to reach the rocks by land she would have had to pass before the
lighthouse, while the narrow strip of shore which curved northward
beyond his range of view he knew was inhabited only by Indians.
But the woman was unhesitatingly and appallingly WHITE, and her
hair light even to a golden gleam in the sunshine.

Pomfrey was a gentleman, and as such was amazed, dismayed, and
cruelly embarrassed. If she was a simple bather from some vicinity
hitherto unknown and unsuspected by him, it was clearly his
business to shut up his glass and go back to his garden patch--
although the propinquity of himself and the lighthouse must have
been as plainly visible to her as she was to him. On the other
hand, if she was the survivor of some wreck and in distress--or, as
he even fancied from her reckless manner, bereft of her senses, his
duty to rescue her was equally clear. In his dilemma he determined
upon a compromise and ran to his boat. He would pull out to sea,
pass between the rocks and the curving sand-spit, and examine the
sands and sea more closely for signs of wreckage, or some
overlooked waiting boat near the shore. He would be within hail if
she needed him, or she could escape to her boat if she had one.

In another moment his boat was lifting on the swell towards the
rocks. He pulled quickly, occasionally turning to note that the
strange figure, whose movements were quite discernible to the naked
eye, was still there, but gazing more earnestly towards the nearest
shore for any sign of life or occupation. In ten minutes he had
reached the curve where the trend opened northward, and the long
line of shore stretched before him. He swept it eagerly with a
single searching glance. Sea and shore were empty. He turned
quickly to the rock, scarcely a hundred yards on his beam. It was
empty too! Forgetting his previous scruples, he pulled directly
for it until his keel grated on its submerged base. There was
nothing there but the rock, slippery with the yellow-green slime of
seaweed and kelp--neither trace nor sign of the figure that had
occupied it a moment ago. He pulled around it; there was no cleft
or hiding-place. For an instant his heart leaped at the sight of
something white, caught in a jagged tooth of the outlying reef, but
it was only the bleached fragment of a bamboo orange-crate, cast
from the deck of some South Sea trader, such as often strewed the
beach. He lay off the rock, keeping way in the swell, and
scrutinizing the glittering sea. At last he pulled back to the
lighthouse, perplexed and discomfited.

Was it simply a sporting seal, transformed by some trick of his
vision? But he had seen it through his glass, and now remembered
such details as the face and features framed in their contour of
golden hair, and believed he could even have identified them. He
examined the rock again with his glass, and was surprised to see
how clearly it was outlined now in its barren loneliness. Yet he
must have been mistaken. His scientific and accurate mind allowed
of no errant fancy, and he had always sneered at the marvelous as
the result of hasty or superficial observation. He was a little
worried at this lapse of his healthy accuracy,--fearing that it
might be the result of his seclusion and loneliness,--akin to the
visions of the recluse and solitary. It was strange, too, that it
should take the shape of a woman; for Edgar Pomfrey had a story--
the usual old and foolish one.

Then his thoughts took a lighter phase, and he turned to the memory
of his books, and finally to the books themselves. From a shelf he
picked out a volume of old voyages, and turned to a remembered
passage: "In other seas doe abound marvells soche as Sea Spyders of
the bigness of a pinnace, the wich they have been known to attack
and destroy; Sea Vypers which reach to the top of a goodly maste,
whereby they are able to draw marinners from the rigging by the
suction of their breathes; and Devill Fyshe, which vomit fire by
night which makyth the sea to shine prodigiously, and mermaydes.
They are half fyshe and half mayde of grate Beauty, and have been
seen of divers godly and creditable witnesses swymming beside
rocks, hidden to their waist in the sea, combing of their hayres,
to the help of whych they carry a small mirrore of the bigness of
their fingers." Pomfrey laid the book aside with a faint smile.
To even this credulity he might come!




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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