I looked out and saw him still at the window, his eyes on a waning planet, his cheek resting on the little glove laid in his right hand, and singing more sweetly than any nightingale:
with time decay,
Beauty must fade away,
Castles are sacked in war,
Chieftains are scattered far,
Truth is a fixed star,
why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark,
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar.”
Alister did more than pick pink-pale oleanders by the dyke side that morning. His business with the captain was soon despatched, and in the course of it he “fore-gathered,” as he called it, with the man of business who had spoken to us on the night of the great fire, and whose own warehouse was in ruins. He proved to be a Scotchman by birth, and a man of energy (not a common quality in the tropics), and he was already busy about retrieving his fortune. The hasty repair of part of the building, in which to secure some salvage, and other similar matters, was his first object; and he complained bitterly of the difficulty of inducing any of the coloured gentlemen to do a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage,” except when immediate need pressed them. They would then work, he said, but they would not go on working till the job was done, only till they had earned enough wages to take another idle “spell” upon.
Several Chinamen were already busy among the ruins of the burnt houses, as we saw, and it was Chinese labour that Alister’s friend had resolved to employ; but he seemed to think that, though industrious, those smiling, smooth-faced individuals, who looked as if they had come to life off one of my mother’s old tea-cups, were not to be trusted alone among the salvage.
“Every thief among ’em ’s as good as a conjurer,” he declared, “and can conceal just anything up his sleeve.”
Thus it came about that when Dennis and I went down to the stelling to meet Alister, as we had agreed, and delivered the messages of hospitality with which the young engineer and Dennis’s cousin had charged us, we found that he had made an engagement to help the burnt-out store-owner for such time as we should be out of seamen’s work, on terms which were to include his board and lodging.
“Alister, dear! I admire ye with all me heart,” said Dennis impetuously. “I never saw such an industrious, persevering fellow. If all Scotch lads take the tide of life at the flood as you do, small blame to ye for making your fortunes; and well ye deserve it.”
“There’s not a doubt about it,” replied Alister complacently. “And I’ll tell ye more. Find me arty grand work, if it’s at the other end of the airth, whether it’s digging a dyke in the desert, or bigging a mountain up to the moon, and I’ll find ye an Aberdeenshire man not far from the head of it.”