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The Man At The Semaphore
by [?]

In the early days of the Californian immigration, on the extremest point of the sandy peninsula, where the bay of San Francisco debouches into the Pacific, there stood a semaphore telegraph. Tossing its black arms against the sky,–with its back to the Golden Gate and that vast expanse of sea whose nearest shore was Japan,–it signified to another semaphore further inland the “rigs” of incoming vessels, by certain uncouth signs, which were again passed on to Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, where they reappeared on a third semaphore, and read to the initiated “schooner,” “brig” “ship,” or “steamer.” But all homesick San Francisco had learned the last sign, and on certain days of the month every eye was turned to welcome those gaunt arms widely extended at right angles, which meant “sidewheel steamer” (the only steamer which carried the mails) and “letters from home.” In the joyful reception accorded to that herald of glad tidings, very few thought of the lonely watcher on the sand dunes who dispatched them, or even knew of that desolate Station.

For desolate it was beyond description. The Presidio, with its voiceless, dismounted cannon and empty embrasures hidden in a hollow, and the Mission Dolores, with its crumbling walls and belfry tower lost in another, made the ultima thule of all San Francisco wandering. The Cliff house and Fort Point did not then exist; from Black Point the curving line of shore of “Yerba Buena”–or San Francisco–showed only a stretch of glittering wind-swept sand dunes, interspersed with straggling gullies of half-buried black “scrub oak.” The long six months’ summer sun fiercely beat upon it from the cloudless sky above; the long six months’ trade winds fiercely beat upon it from the west; the monotonous roll-call of the long Pacific surges regularly beat upon it from the sea. Almost impossible to face by day through sliding sands and buffeting winds, at night it was impracticable through the dense sea-fog that stole softly through the Golden Gate at sunset. Thence, until morning, sea and shore were a trackless waste, bounded only by the warning thunders of the unseen sea. The station itself, a rudely built cabin, with two windows,–one furnished with a telescope,–looked like a heap of driftwood, or a stranded wreck left by the retiring sea; the semaphore–the only object for leagues–lifted above the undulating dunes, took upon itself various shapes, more or less gloomy, according to the hour or weather,–a blasted tree, the masts and clinging spars of a beached ship, a dismantled gallows; or, with the background of a golden sunset across the Gate, and its arms extended at right angles, to a more hopeful fancy it might have seemed the missionary Cross, which the enthusiast Portala lifted on that heathen shore a hundred years before.

Not that Dick Jarman–the solitary station keeper–ever indulged this fancy. An escaped convict from one of her Britannic Majesty’s penal colonies, a “stowaway” in the hold of an Australian ship, he had landed penniless in San Francisco, fearful of contact with his more honest countrymen already there, and liable to detection at any moment. Luckily for him, the English immigration consisted mainly of gold-seekers en route to Sacramento and the southern mines. He was prudent enough to resist the temptation to follow them, and accepted the post of semaphore keeper,–the first work offered him,–which the meanest immigrant, filled with dreams of gold, would have scorned. His employers asked him no questions, and demanded no references; his post could be scarcely deemed one of trust,–there was no property for him to abscond with but the telescope; he was removed from temptation and evil company in his lonely waste; his duties were as mechanical as the instrument he worked, and interruption of them would be instantly known at San Francisco. For this he would receive his board and lodging and seventy-five dollars a month,–a sum to be ridiculed in those “flush days,” but which seemed to the broken-spirited and half-famished stowaway a princely independence.