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The House on the Beach by Rebecca Harding Davis

"What is that black mass yonder, far up the beach, just at the edge of the breakers?"

The fisherman to whom we put the question drew in his squid-line, hand over hand, without turning his head, having given the same answer for half a dozen years to summer tourists: "Wreck. Steamer. Creole."

"Were there many lives lost?"

"It's likely. This is the worst bit of coast in the country, The Creole was a three-decker," looking at it reflectively, "Lot of good timber there."

As we turned our field-glasses to the black lump hunched out of the water, like a great sea-monster creeping up on the sand, we saw still farther up the coast a small house perched on a headland, with a flag flying in the gray mist, and pointed it out to the Jerseyman, who nodded: "That there wooden shed is the United States signal station;" adding, after a pause, "Life-saving service down stairs."

"Old Probabilities! The house he lives in!"


Visions of the mysterious old prophet who utters his oracles through the morning paper, of wrecks and storms, and of heroic men carrying lines through the night to sinking ships, filled our brains. Townspeople out for their summer holiday have keen appetites for the romantic and extraordinary, and manufacture them (as sugar from beets) out of the scantiest materials. We turned our backs on the fisherman and his squid-line. The signal station and the hull of the lost vessel were only a shed and timber to him. How can any man be alive to the significance of a wreck and fluttering flag which he sees twenty times a day? Noah, no doubt, after a year in the ark, came to look upon it as so much gopher-wood, and appreciated it as a good job of joinery rather than a divine symbol.

We believe, however, that our readers will find in the wrecked Creole and the wooden shed, and the practical facts concerning them, matter suggestive enough to hold them a little space. They fill a yet unwritten page in the history of our government, and of great and admirable work done by it, of which the nation at large has been given but partial knowledge. Or, if we choose to look more deeply into things, we may find in the old hulk and commonplace building hints as significant of the Infinite Order and Power underlying all ordinary things, and of our relations to it, as in the long-ago Deluge and the ark riding over it.

The little wooden house stands upon a lonely stretch of coast in Ocean county, New Jersey. Several miles of low barren marshes and sands gray with poverty-grass on the north separate it from Manasquan Inlet and the pine woods and scattered farm-houses which lie along its shore, while half a mile below, on the south, is the head of Barnegat Bay, a deep, narrow estuary which runs into and along the Jersey coast for more than half its extent, leaving outside a strip of sandy beach, never more than a mile wide. All kinds of sea fish and fowl take refuge in this bay and the interminable reedy marshes, and for a few weeks in the snipe-and duck-season sportsmen from New York find their way to "Shattuck's" and the houses of other old water-dogs along the bay. But during the rest of the year the wooden shed and its occupants are left to the companionship of the sea and the winds.

The little building (with a gigantic "No. 10" whitewashed outside) stands close to the breakers, just above high-water mark in winter. It is divided into two large rooms, upper and lower, with a tiny kitchen in the rear and an equally comfortless bedroom overhead. The doors of the lower room (which, like those of a barn, fill the whole end of the house) being closed, we sought for Old Probabilities up stairs, and found very little at first sight to gratify curiosity or any craving for mystery. There was a large wooden room, with walls and floor of unpainted boards, the ceiling hung with brilliantly colored flags, a telegraphic apparatus, one or two desks, books, writing materials—a scientific working-room, in short, with its implements in that order which implied that only men had used them.

There were in 1874 one hundred and eight such signal stations as this, modest, inexpensive little offices, established over the United States, from the low sea-coast plains to the topmost peak of the Rocky Mountains.

If we were accurate chroniclers, we should have to go back to Aristotle and the Chaldeans to show the origin and purpose of these little offices, just as Carlyle has to unearth Ulfila the Moesogoth to explain a word he uses to his butter-man. The world is so new, after all, and things so inextricably tangled up in it! In this case, as it is the sun and wind and rain which are the connecting links, it is easy enough to bring past ages close to us. The Chaldeans, building their great embankments or raiding upon Job's herds, are no longer a myth to us when we remember that they were wet by the rain and anxious about the weather and their crops, just as we are; in fact, they felt such matters so keenly, and were so little able to cope with these unknown forces, that they made gods of them, and then, beyond prayers and sacrifices, troubled themselves no further about the matter. Even the shrewd, observant Hebrews, living out of doors, a race of shepherds and herdsmen, never looked for any rational cause for wind or storm, but regarded them, if not as gods, as the messengers of God, subject to no rules. It was He who at His will covered the heavens with clouds, who prepared rain, who cast forth hoar-frost like ashes: the stormy wind fulfilled His word. Men searched into the construction of their own minds, busied themselves with subtle philosophies, with arts and sciences, conquered the principles of Form and Color, and made not wholly unsuccessful efforts to solve the mystery of the sun and stars; but it was not until 340 B.C. that any notice was taken of the every-day matters of wind and heat and rain.

Aristotle, the Gradgrind of philosophers, first noted down the known facts on this subject in his work On Meteors. His theories and deductions were necessarily erroneous, but he struck the foundation of all science, the collection of known facts. Theophrastus, one of his pupils, made a compilation of prognostics concerning rain, wind and storm, and there investigation ceased for ages. For nearly two thousand years the citizens of the world rose every morning to rejoice in fair weather or be wet by showers, to see their crops destroyed by frost or their ships by winds, and never made a single attempt to discover any scientific reason or rules in the matter—apparently did not suspect that there was any cause or effect behind these daily occurrences. They accounted for wind or rain as our grandfathers did for a sudden death, by the "visitation of God." In fact, Nature—which is the expression of Law most inexorable and minute—was the very last place where mankind looked to find law at all.

About two hundred and thirty years ago Torricelli discovered that the atmosphere, the space surrounding the earth, which seemed more intangible than a dream, had weight and substance, and invented the barometer, the tiny tube and drop of mercury by which it could be seized and held and weighed as accurately as a pound of lead. As soon as this invisible air was proved to be matter, the whole force of scientific inquiry was directed toward it. The thermometer, by which its heat or cold could be measured—the hygrometer, which weighed, literally by a hair, its moisture or dryness—were the results of the research of comparatively a few years. Somewhat later came the curious instrument which measures its velocity. As soon as it was thus made practicable for any intelligent observer to handle, weigh and test every quality of the air, it became evident that wind and storm, even the terrible cyclone, were not irresponsible forces, carrying health or death to and fro where they listed, but the result of plain, immutable; laws. It was an American in this our Quaker City who reduced the wind to a commonplace effect of a most ordinary cause. Franklin, one winter's day passing with a lighted candle out of a warm room into a cold one, saw that as he held it above his head the flame was blown outward before him: when he held it near the floor, the flame was blown into the room. The shrewd observer stood in the doorway, instead of hurrying out, as most of us would have done, to save the wasting candle. The warm air in the heated room, he conjectured, was expanded by the heat, consequently it rose as high as it could, and made a way for itself out of the room at the upper part of the doorway, while the heavier cold air from without rushed in below to fill the vacated space. What if he took the equatorial regions or great tracts of arid desert for the heated room? The air over them, subjected by the heat to constant rarefaction, must rise, must overflow above, and must force the colder air from the surrounding regions in below. Two sheets of air will thus set in vertically on both sides, rise, and again separate above. Here was an explanation of the great, steady, uninterrupted aërial currents which, at the rate of from fifteen to eighteen miles per hour, sweep the surface of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The candle, no doubt, was wasted, but the secret of the trade-winds was discovered.

The idea was correct as far as it went. It did not go very far, it is true. It had not taken into account the earth's rotation, whose force, according to Herschel, "gives at least one-half of their average momentum to all the winds which occur over the whole world;" nor the infinite variation in the movements of the atmosphere which we call winds, caused by the change in the sun's motion, by the differing amounts of vapor held in them, by the physical configuration of the earth below, by the vicinity of the sea or arid deserts, and by the passage of storms or electric currents.

The science of meteorology, especially as regards wind, is as yet searching for general principles, which can only be deduced from countless facts. We do not now, like Saint Paul, talk of the wind Euroclydon as of a special agent of God, but describe it by stating that it is an aërial ascending current over the Mediterranean, produced by the heated sands of Africa and Arabia. We can even measure its heat at 200° Fahrenheit, and its velocity at fifty-four miles per hour. But it attacks us just as unexpectedly as it did the apostle, and brings disease and death to Naples or Palermo to-day just as surely as it did to Cambyses. The popular verdict on the matter would no doubt be that when meteorologists can not only describe the sirocco, but give warning of its coming, their science will justify its claim to consideration. The common sense of mankind always demands as a royalty from every science daily practical benefits to the mass of men and women. It is not enough for meteorologists to have proved that the atmosphere varies in weight, in temperature or velocity of motion according to fixed rules, or to be able to explain why no rain falls on a certain portion of the coast of Portugal, while a like coast-exposure in England is incessantly drenched; or to have determined beyond a doubt that precisely as the ocean of water, under the influence of the moon and wind, ebbs and flows and has its succession of storms or calms, the ocean of air in which we are enveloped answers to the influence of the sun in great tidal movements, and has also its vast steadily moving waves of cold or heat or moisture. These discoveries of general truths must be brought to bear directly on men's daily life before they will have fulfilled their true purpose. It would seem as if nothing were more easy than to bring them so to bear. Meteorology, more intimately perhaps than any other science, concerns our ordinary affairs. The health of mankind, navigation, agriculture, commerce, the hourly business and needs of every man, from the merchant sending out his cargo and the consumptive waiting for death in the east wind, to the laundress hanging out the family wash, are ruled by that most mysterious, most uncurbed of powers, the weather. We may rub along through life with scanty knowledge of the history of dead nations or the philosophy of living ones, but heat and cold, the climate of the coming winter, yesterday's rainfall or to-morrow's frost, are matters which take hold of every one of us and affect us every hour of the day. Now, to bring the known general truths of this science to practical rules, or to base upon them predictions of storms or changes in the weather during any future period, requires, as Sir John Herschel stated twelve years ago, "patient, incessant and laborious observations, carried on in every region of the globe." One reason why this is required is the perpetually shifting conditions of heat, wind and storm. A man who sat down to work a mathematical problem in the days of Job, if there was such a man, found its result just the same as the school-boy does to-day: figures not only never lie, but never alter. But the man who solves an equation of which the winds and waters are members finds that the sum to be added varies with every hour. There are, so far as is yet known, no regularly recurring cycles of weather on which to base predictions: the conditions of heat and wind and moisture are never precisely the same at any given point. Hence the necessity, if we would give the science stability and bring it to bear on our daily life, of educated, skilled observers at different points to collect and report simultaneously the daily details of the present conditions.

It is this daily detail of fact which the United States government supplies through the little stations of observation one of which we have stumbled into on the Jersey beach. Americans, indeed, have from the first taken hold of this science with a most characteristic effort to reduce it to practical uses, to bring it at once to bear on the well-being at least of farmers and navigators. Dove had no sooner published his chart of isothermal lines and charts, showing the temperature throughout the world of each month, and also of abnormal temperatures, than our government issued the Army Meteorological Register for the United States, which for accuracy and fullness had never been equaled. In these the temperature and rainfall for each month of the year were shown. The forecasts of the weather now published daily in this country, and which come so directly home to every man's business that Old Probabilities is a real personage to us all, have been given in England for several years under the supervision of Admiral Fitzroy.

But it is high time now that we should come back to our little wooden house on the beach, and tell what we know of its occupants and uses. The courteous gentleman (in a blue flannel suit for "roughing it") who sits at the telegraphic wires is Sergeant G——, belonging to the Signal Service Department of the army. Instruction in this department is given at Fort Whipple, Va. One hundred officers besides Sergeant G—— are now in charge of stations, with 139 privates as assistants. The average force at Fort Whipple is 140 men. These men are, in point of fact, soldiers liable to be called into active service in the field: their duty there, however, is not fighting, but signaling and telegraphy—a duty quite as dangerous as the bearing of arms. Fresh recruits for this service are divided into those capable of receiving instruction only in field duty and those for "full service," which includes, with military signaling and telegraphy, the taking of meteoric observations, the collating and publication of such observations, and the deduction from them of correct results. Passing two examinations successfully in the latter course, the signal-service soldier is detailed for duty at a post as assistant, and after six months' satisfactory service is returned to Fort Whipple for the special instruction given to observer-sergeants. When qualified for this work he is detailed, as a vacancy occurs, for actual service.

Having thus discovered how our friend the sergeant came into his post, we looked about to see what he had to do there. The brilliantly-colored flags overhead drew the eye first. These flags serve the purpose of an international language on the high seas, where no other language is practicable. Twenty thousand distinct messages can be sent by them. Rogers's system has been, adopted by the United States Navy, the Lighthouse Board, the United States Coast Survey and the principal lines of steamers. Each flag represents a number, and four flags can be hoisted at once on the staff. With the flags there is given a book containing the meaning of each number. Thus, a wrecked ship cries silently to the shore, "Send a lifeboat" by flags 3, 8, 9, or says that she is sinking by 6, 3, 2; or a vessel under full sail hails another by 8, 6, 0, or bids her "bon voyage" with 8, 9, 7. Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing colors in cloudy days or when the flags will not fly, other systems of signaling are used: that of cones similar to umbrellas being considered in the English service one of the most efficient, a different arrangement of cones on the staff representing the nine numerals. Men may convert themselves into cones in an emergency by raising or letting fall their arms, and two men thus give any signal necessary. As the flags, however, belong more especially to Sergeant G—— 's duty on the field of battle or to exceptional cases of storm and danger, we pass them by to examine into his daily round of duty. Outside, a queer little house of lattice-work perched on a headland shelters the thermometers and barometers: on a still higher point directly over the foaming breakers is the anemometer, the little instrument which measures the swiftness of the fiercest cyclone as easily as the lightest spring breeze. It consists of four brass cups shaped to catch the wind, and attached to the ends of two horizontal iron rods, which cross each other and are supported in the middle by a long pole on which they turn freely. The cups revolve with just one-third of the wind's velocity, and make five hundred revolutions whilst a mile of wind passes over them. A register of these revolutions is made by machinery similar to a gas-meter. The popular idea, by the way, of the speed of the wind runs very far beyond the truth: we are apt to say of a racer that he goes like the wind, when the fact is the horse of a good strain of blood leaves the laggard tempest far behind; the ordinary winds of every day travel only five miles an hour, a breeze of sixteen and a quarter miles an hour being strong enough to cause great discomfort in town or field: thirty-three miles is dangerous at sea, and sixty-five miles a violent hurricane, sweeping all before it.

Our friend the sergeant examines seven times a day at stated periods the condition of the atmosphere as to heat, weight and moisture, the velocity of the wind, the kind, amount and speed of the clouds, and measures the rainfall and the ocean swell: all these observations are recorded, and three are daily reported to headquarters at Washington. In these telegrams a cipher is used—as much, we presume, to ensure accuracy in the figures as for purposes of secresy. In this cipher the fickle winds are given the names of women with a covert sarcasm quite out of place in the respectable old weather-prophet whom every housewife consults before the day's work begins. Thus, when the telegraph operator receives the mysterious message, "Francisco Emily alone barge churning did frosty guarding hungry," how is he to know that it means "San Francisco Evening. Rep. Barom. 29.40, Ther. 61, Humidity 18 per cent., Velocity of wind 41 miles per hour, 840 pounds pressure, Cirro-stratus. N.W. 1/4 to 2/4, Cumulo-stratus East, Rainfall 2.80 inch."?

Besides these simultaneous reports from the one hundred and eight United States stations which are telegraphed to the central office at Washington, there are received there daily three hundred and eighty-three volunteer reports from every part of the country, these being the system of meteorological observations under control of the Smithsonian Institution for twenty-four years, and given in charge to the Signal Service Bureau in 1874. In addition to these, again, are simultaneous reports from Russia, Turkey, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, England, Algiers, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Canada—in all two hundred and fourteen. When we add together, therefore, the

United States Signal Service reports   108
Volunteer reports   383
International reports   214
Reports of medical corps of army   123

we have a grand total of eight hundred and twenty-eight daily simultaneous reports received at the central office, where Brigadier-General Albert J. Myer and his brevet aide, Captain H.W. Howgate (or, if you choose, Old Probabilities himself), wait to scan through these many watchful eyes the heavens around the world and utter incessant prophecies and warnings. Besides the regular observations, report is also made of casual phenomena—lightning, auroras, time of first and last frosts, etc., etc.

The history of the Signal Service Bureau and the establishment of these stations and telegraph-lines, bringing the whole country under the instant oversight of one intelligent observer, would, if it were briefly written, be full of points of dramatic interest. As yet it must be gathered out of acts of Congress and official reports. The service has now existed for fourteen years, but is still without that full recognition by Congress which would ensure its permanency. "With interests depending on its daily work as great as can by any possibility rest upon any other branch of the service, it is yet regarded as an experiment, an offshoot of regular army service existing on sufferance, liable at any moment to be hindered in its operations, if not totally abolished." The benefit of this daily work, however, affects too nearly and constantly the mass of the people to allow much danger of its final extinction. What the real value of this practical work is can be gathered not only from the dry statistics of annual reports, but from the increased confidence placed in it by the people, the unscientific working majority.

The help given to farmers should rank perhaps first in estimating the value of this work. At midnight of each day the midnight forecast is telegraphed to twenty centres of distribution, located strictly with regard to the agricultural population. The telegrams, as soon as received, are printed by signal-service men, rapidly enveloped in wrappers already stamped and addressed, and sent by the swiftest conveyance to every post-office which can be reached before 2 P.M. of the same day, and when received are displayed on bulletin-boards. The average time elapsing from the moment when the bulletin leaves the central office until it reaches every post-office from Maine to Florida is ten hours. In 1874, 6286 of these farmers' bulletins were issued, and when we consider that by each one of them reliable information as to the chances of success or failure in planting or reaping was given, we gain some idea of the directness and force of the work of this bureau.

The river reports of the office include not only regular daily observations of the changing depths of the great water-highways, but forecasts of coming floods or sudden rises and falls of the river-levels. Before the great floods in the Mississippi Valley in 1874 the warnings given by this means, and which could have been given by no other, saved an incalculable amount of property and human life. Bulletins are also issued regarding approaching freezing of our canals in the winter months, and have enabled shippers to avoid the accidents common heretofore when enormous quantities of grain, etc. in transit have been detained by this means, to the serious disturbance of the market.

Cautionary day and night signals are displayed at the principal ports and harbors when dangerous winds or storms are anticipated. In one year 762 of these warning signals were displayed, and 561 were verified by storms of destructive winds which otherwise would not have been foreseen. In not a single instance during the last two years has a great storm reached, without warning from the office, the lakes or seaports of the country. The amount of shipping, property and life thus saved to the country is simply incalculable.

Tri-daily deductions or probabilities of the weather, wind and storms, with part of the data on which they rest, are published in all the principal papers of the country, and each man and woman can testify as to their use of them. Who now goes to be married or to bury his dead or to begin a journey without consulting the two oracular lines in italics at the head of the leading column? They have come to take part in our domestic lives. The people would miss politics or the markets or literature out of the paper with less regret than Probabilities should the service be discontinued.

Besides this practical labor, there is the publication of nine daily charts on which are inscribed 2160 readings of different instruments, giving an accurate view of the general meteoric condition; monthly charts and charts condensing the results of years of observation; records furnished for the study of scientific men more comprehensive and regular than can be offered by any similar institution in any country.

A special bit of history comes to light respecting our little wooden shed at the head of Barnegat Bay. An act of Congress approved March, 1873, authorized the establishment of signal stations at lighthouses or life-saving stations along dangerous coasts, and the connection of the same by telegraphs, thirty thousand dollars being appropriated for that end. In consequence, signal stations were established on the Massachusetts coast, from Norfolk, Va., to Cape Hatteras, and more closely along this dangerous lee-shore of New Jersey, and telegraph-lines were laid connecting them with each other and also with the central office. The plan for the future is to net the whole coast—the lake, Atlantic and Pacific shores—with these stations and telegraph-wires. By this means information of coming storms can be conveyed by signal to vessels, or of wrecks, by telegraph, to other life-saving stations: the close watch kept upon the ocean-swell and currents will give warning inland of approaching changes in the weather; for it is a singular fact that the ocean-swell communicates this intelligence more quickly than the barometer, in quite another sense than the poet's

Every wave has tales to tell

Of storms far out at sea.

Our little station belongs to the advanced guard of this proposed line which is to encircle the coast, the whole work of establishing these stations and telegraph-lines having been, done by Sergeant G—— and his comrades. Indeed, when we look at all the work done by our blue-coated friend, his steady, unintermitting attention to duty by day and night year after year, his comfortless quarters in the wooden shed on the lonely beach, and the almost absolute solitude for an educated man during many months of the year, we begin to think his station not the least honorable among the soldiers of the republic. Almost any man, set down on the battle-field, one army to meet and another to back him, with the crash of music and arms, the magnetic fury of combat blazing in the air, would rise to the height of the moment and prove himself manly. But to be faithful to petty tasks hour after hour, through all kinds of privation and weather, for years, is quite a different matter.

The reports of the chief officer give us a hint of some of the privations borne by the observer-sergeants, educated young fellows like our friend. In 1872 the chief ordered one of these men to establish a station on the western coast of Alaska and on the island of St. Paul in Behring Sea, which was done, the observer continuing for a year in that farthest outpost. His record of frozen fogs which wrap the island like a pall, of cyclones from the Asian seas that lash its rocky coast, of vast masses of electric clouds seen nowhere else which sweep incessantly over it toward the Pole, reads more like the story of a nightmare dream than a scientific statement.

In the next spring the chief ordered another sergeant to found a station on Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain-peak east of the Mississippi. Professor Mitchell discovered and measured this mountain about twenty years ago. While taking meteorological observations upon it he was overtaken by a storm, lost his way, and was dashed to pieces over one of its terrible precipices. Several years after his death the government, suddenly recognizing his right to some acknowledgment from science, ordered his body to be disinterred and buried on the topmost peak of the mountain. It was a work of weeks, the body in its coffin being carried by the hardy mountaineers up almost impassable heights. But it reached the top at last, and lies there in the sky above all human life, with the mountain for a monument. One is startled by such a pathetic whim of poetic justice in a government. It was to this peak that the sergeant was ordered to carry his instruments and to make an abiding-place for himself. And here, after two days' journey from the base, he arrived at night in a storm of snow and hail—the guides having cleared the way with axes—set up his instruments, and took observations above the clouds while trees and rocks were sheeted with ice, and there was no shelter for himself or his companions from the furious tempests. A hut was built after a few days, and here the observer remained with the lonely grave as companion, taking hourly observations during several months.

Another officer was sent to the top of Pike's Peak, where he lived in a rudely-constructed cabin until his health broke down; he was then replaced by another, who after a year was obliged to yield also. As soon as one soldier succumbs in these perilous outposts another goes forward. The rarity of the air at this great altitude (nearly thirteen thousand feet) produces nausea, fever and dizziness: added to this were the intense cold and exposure to terrific storms. Sergeant Seyboth records several nights when he with his companions were forced, in a driving tempest, to leave the shelter of their hut and work all night heaping rocks upon its roof to keep it from being blown away; beneath them, many thousand feet, was the rolling sea of clouds. Again and again these men were lost in the drifted snow of the cañons while passing from station to station, and barely escaped with their lives. So imminent, indeed, was their danger during the winter of 1873 that prayers for their safety were offered continually in the churches below.

Frederick Meyer, another of these signal-service soldiers, was sent on the North Polar expedition with Captain Hall. No such marvelous tale as that contained in his formal report was ever found in fiction. Sergeant Meyer made observations every three hours on the voyage north, and hourly when coming south, during a year and two months. At the end of that time, as is well known to our readers, he, with part of the crew of the Polaris, was deserted by the ship, and left on a floe of ice in 79° north latitude, the steamer going southward without attempting their relief. Even in that moment of extremity he made an effort to secure the case containing his observations, but it was washed away from him by heavy seas. For six months these nineteen human beings drifted on the mass of ice over the polar seas, through all the darkness and horrors of an Arctic winter, without fire except such as was made by burning one of their boats—a feeble blaze daily, enough to warm a quart of water in which to soak their pemmican—without shelter save such as the heaped ice and snow afforded, and on starvation diet. After four months the floe began to melt so rapidly that it was but twenty yards wide. "We dared not sleep," says Sergeant Meyer, "fearing the ice would break under us and we should find our grave in the Arctic Sea." Several times the ice did break beneath them, and they were washed into the flood, but scrambled up again on the fast-melting floe. During the whole of this time the signal-service soldier continued faithful to his work, taking such observations as were possible with the instruments left to him. The boat had been burned long before, and they warmed their water with an Esquimaux lamp. On April 22d their provisions consisted of but ten biscuits. Starvation was before them when a bear was shot, and they lived on its raw meat for two weeks. At the end of that time a steamer passed within sight. The poor wretches on the ice hoisted a flag and shouted, but the vessel passed out of sight. Another ship a few days later came within the horizon and disappeared. The next day was foggy: again a steamer was sighted, and for hours the shipwrecked crew strove to make themselves seen and heard through the fog, firing shots, hoisting their torn flag and shouting at the tops of their voices. They were seen at last, and taken aboard the Tigress, "more like ghastly spectres who had come up through hell," says one of the narrators, "than living men."

The pay of the signal-service soldiers is small, and it is hardly to be supposed that they are all enthusiasts in science, or so in love with meteorology that they cheerfully brave danger and hardships such as these for its sake. We must look for the secret of their loyalty to their steady, tedious work in that quiet devotion to duty which we find in the majority of honest men—the feeling that they must go through with what they have once undertaken. And, after all, the majority of men are honest, and loyalty to irksome work is so commonplace a matter that it is only when we see it carry a man steadily through great and sudden peril, or consider how in its great total the work of obscure individuals has lifted humanity to higher levels in the last three centuries, that we can understand how good a thing it is.

At some future time we shall ransack the lower floor of the little house on the beach and discover what is to be found there.