Our company was rough and much of the type so well described by Bret Harte and other Western authors. Still, our host did his best to make us comfortable, and his little daughter, a dainty specimen of Florida womanhood, rose early to prepare us a breakfast. Afterwards we proceeded with our guide, Tom Hart, a man who can always be heard of at Marco, who knows the whole coast well and is an admirable fellow, to a spot at which, the previous year, he assisted to gaff three fish in a single day. Our lunch consisted of green cocoanuts, a small sackful of Florida oranges, cold venison (venison is the staple diet of this part of Florida), biscuits, together with many bottles of ginger ale which we had brought with us ; for this part of Florida is under what is known as the 'Prohibition Law,' the sale of alcohol being (nominally) forbidden.
The morning opened grandly. It was perfectly calm, the sunshine was brilliant, and I was strongly reminded of the Nile on a March day, yet Hart was dissatisfied. As we made our way up the beautiful creek, I looked at as much of the horizon as I could see, but there was not so much as a cloud ' of the size of a man's hand.' We proceeded leisurely, stopping now and then to dip our great palmetto hats into the water, in order that they might keep our heads a little cool, for the heat even at ten o'clock was almost too much for endurance. Among the other contents of our boat were four dozen bottles of British beer which I had obtained with great difficulty for a party of young Englishmen who, I had heard, had formed a small settlement in this very creek. They had taken up their residence on an island there, and were endeavouring to earn a living by growing vegetables for the northern markets. I fear they fared but ill. One of them had the appointment as postman, worth 60 l. a year. His duty was to convey the mail some hundreds of miles in a sailing boat, and out of this 60 l. he had to provide himself with a boat and new sails.
I should like to say ' right here,' as the Americans have it, that the custom of shipping off young men to Florida is one that cannot be too severely deprecated.
The country is not rich ; orange-growing sounds well enough on paper, but is in nine cases out of ten a most disastrous pursuit, infinitely more of a lottery, indeed, than growing hops at home. The 1895 crop, for example, has, according to the Press, been ruined by the frost. It is true that many young Englishmen who have been sent to Florida are scamps, but others are thoroughly hard-working fellows, and it is sad to see them living lives of semi-starvation. After seven or eight years' residence it is almost impossible to recognise the young public school or 'Varsity man. He has acquired the strange sallow Florida complexion, he has grown long and thin, his accent is infinitely more Transatlantic than that of the Eastern or Western American. He has lost all hope, and has almost forgotten the old country. Probably he marries some girl of humble origin there, settles down to a life of ' plume hunting' (shooting rare birds for their feathers), button-wood cutting, or some other precarious and arduous existence.
By way of experiment, I brought home one of these young Florida Englishmen, who was never able to earn more than a bare pittance during his five years there. He obtained active employment here immediately on his arrival, and is now on a fair way to a competency. His employer describes him as 'one of the hardest-working lads he has ever met'.
Many young Britons in these far-away settlements are completely forgotten by those at home. Some of them have not received an English letter, or seen an English newspaper, for years. The particular youth I have in my mind was an orphan, whose guardian had neglected him ; and it was strange to find that the boy had at one time occupied a leading position at one of our great public schools. His four or five years of semi-savage life caused him to completely forget for a time his spelling and writing.
This has nothing to do with fishing, but it is curious to note that in the famous Tichborne trial a great point was made of the fact that ' the claimant,' as Orton was called, had completely forgotten his French in his wild life in Australia. I found that numbers of these young Englishmen of good birth, breeding, and education had become uncouth and ignorant, and the monotonous and semi-barbarous existence had the curious effect of almost destroying their memory of home things. It is impossible to imagine the isolated existence they lead. In the northern part of Florida, though the English do not appear to flourish, they have, at any rate, decent surroundings. There I met with a retired colonel in the army who was driving a milkcart, while his wife—an extremely refined woman, who had been accustomed to the society of her station at home—was helping to eke out their existence as a washerwoman, working at the same tub with black women. The gardener at one of the hotels we stayed at was a public school boy. A rough man, who earned his living by carrying fruit up and down the coast in a boat, was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, had almost completely forgotten his native country, and had not the least desire for any other kind of existence than the adventurous life he was leading.
But to hark back to my day at Marco. We had gone about a mile, and Hart was resting on his oars for a moment, when on a sudden, within three feet of the boat, there was a huge swish and swirl—a miniature maelstrom for a moment—and there appeared a great black back and huge projecting fin.
' Tarpon,' said Hart.
It was my first sight of a big fish, and I must frankly confess that I felt nervous when I looked at my comparatively small rod and its frail line. He must have been a daring fellow who first thought of the idea of killing a tarpon with rod and reel. Presently the excitement of the sport was upon me. We proceeded as rapidly as possible up the creek, and anchored under the lee of an island. During the night Hart had gone out with his casting net and captured a couple of dozen mullet, varying in size from twelve to eighteen inches. In a moment he had his knife out, and off came the head of a mullet. Then he threaded the hook through it with a large skewer, attached the leather trace to the line, and cast for me—not a long cast, under the circumstances—perhaps twenty-five or thirty yards. The bait sank to the bottom, and I sat with the check off the reel, and some loose line gathered in the boat, awaiting events.