BUSINESS had brought the two of us to an inn on the West Coast, and all its windows opened on a wide harbour, hill-enclosed. Only small coasting craft were there, mostly ketches; but we had topsail schooners also and barquantines, those ascending and aerial rigs that would be flamboyant but for the transverse spars of the foremast, giving one who scans them the proper apprehension of stability and poise.
To come upon a craft rigged so, though at her moorings and with sails furled, her slender poles upspringing from the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is to me as rare and sensational a delight as the rediscovery, when idling with a book, of a favourite lyric. That when she is at anchor; but to see her, all canvas set for light summer airs, at exactly that distance where defects and harshness in her apparel dissolve, but not so far away but the white feathers at her throat are plain, is to exult in the knowledge that man once reached such greatness that he imagined and created a thing which was consonant with the stateliness of the slow ranging of great billows, and the soaring density of white cumulus clouds, and with the brightness and compelling mystery of the far horizon at sundown.
Some mornings, when breakfast-time came with the top of the tide, we could look down on the plan of a deck beneath, with its appurtenances and junk, casks, houses, pumps, and winches, rope and spare spars, binnacle and wheel, perhaps a boat, the regular deck seams curving and persisting under all. An old collier ketch she might be, with a name perhaps as romantic as the Mary Ann; for the owners of these little vessels delight to honour their lady relatives.
Away in mid-stream the Mary Ann would seem but a trivial affair, no match for the immensities about her, diminished by the vistas of shores and beaches, and the hills. But seen close under our window you understood why her men would match her, and think it no hardihood, with gales and the assaults of ponderous seas. Her many timbers, so well wrought as to appear, at a distance, a delicate and frail shape, are really heavy. Even in so small a craft as a ketch they are massive enough to surprise you into wondering at the cunning of shipwrights, those artists who take gross lumps of intractable timber and metal, and compel them to subtle mouldings and soft grace, to an image which we know means life that moves in rhythmic loveliness.
Talk of the art of book and picture making! There is an old fellow I met in this village who will take the ruins of a small forest, take pine boles, metal, cordage, and canvas, and without plans, but from the ideal in his eye, build you the kind of lithe and dainty schooner that, with the cadences of her sheer and moulding, and the soaring of her masts, would keep you by her side all day in harbour; build you the kind of girded, braced, and immaculate vessel, sound at every point, tuned and sweet to a precision that in a violin would make a musician flush with inspiration, a ship to ride, lissom and light, the uplifted western ocean, and to resist the violence of vaulting seas and the drive of hurricane. She will ride out of the storm afterwards, none to applaud her, over the mobile hills travelling express, the rags of her sails triumphant pennants in the gale, the beaten seas pouring from her deck.
He, that modest old man, can create such a being as that; and I have heard visitors to this village, leisured and cultured folk, whose own creative abilities amount to no more than the arranging of some decorative art in strata of merit, talk down to the old fellow who can think out a vessel like that after supper, and go out after breakfast to direct the laying of her keel--talk down to him, kindly enough, of course, and smilingly, as a "working man."
I told you there were two of us, at this inn. We met at meals. I think he was a commercial traveller. A tall young fellow, strongly built, a pleasure to look at; carefully dressed, intelligent, with hard and clear grey eyes. He had a ruddy but fastidious complexion, though he was, I noticed, a hearty and careless eater. He was energetic and swift in his movements, as though the world were easily read, and he could come to quick decisions and successful executions of his desires. He had no moments of laxity and hesitation, even after a breakfast, on a hot morning, too, of ham and eggs drenched in coffee. He made me feel an ineffective, delicate, and inferior being.
He would bang out to business, after breakfast and a breezy chat with me; and I lapsed, a lazy and shameless idler, into the window, to wonder among the models outside, the fascinating curves of ships and boats, as satisfying and as personal to me as music I know, as the lilt of ballads and all that minor rhythm which wheels within the enclosing harmonies and balance of stars and suns in their orbits. Those forms of ships and boats are as satisfying as the lines which make the strength and swiftness of salmon and dolphins, and the ease of the flight of birds with great pinions; and, in a new schooner which passed this window, on her first voyage to sea--a tall and slender ship, a being so radiant in the sun as to look an evanescent and immaterial vision--as inspiring and awful as the remoteness of a spiritual and lovely woman.
"I can't make out what you see in those craft," said my companion one morning. "They're mostly ancient tubs, and at the most they only muck about the coast. Now a P. & O. or a Cunarder! That's something to look at." He was looking down at me, and there was a trace of contempt in his smile.
He was right in a way. I felt rebuked and embarrassed, and could not explain to him. These were the common objects of the Channel after all, old and weather-broken, sea wagons from the Cowes point of view, source of alarm and wonder to passengers on fine liners when they sight them beating stubbornly against dirty winter weather, and hanging on to the storm. Why should they take my interest more than battleships and Cunarders? Yet I could potter about an ancient hooker or a tramp steamer all day, when I wouldn't cross a quay to a great battleship. I like the pungent smells of these old craft, just as I inhale the health and odour of fir woods. I love their men, those genuine mariners, the right diviners of sky, coast, and tides, who know exactly what their craft will do in any combination of circumstances as well as you know the pockets of your old coat; men who can handle a stiff and cranky lump of patched timbers and antique gear as artfully as others would the clever length of hollow steel with its powerful twin screws.
But when my slightly contemptuous companion spoke I had no answer, felt out of date and dull, a fogey and an idle man. I had no answer ready--none that would have satisfied this brisk young man, none that would not have seemed remote and trivial to him.
He left me. Some other visitor had left behind Stevenson's Ebb Tide, and trying to think out an excuse that would quiet the qualms I began to feel for this idle preference of mine for old junk, I began picking out the passages I liked. And then I came on these words of Attwater's (though Stevenson, for certain, is speaking for himself): "Junk . . . only old junk! . . Nothing so affecting as ships. The ruins of an empire would leave me frigid, when a bit of an old rail that an old shellback had leaned on in the middle watch would bring me up all standing."