The Keepers Of The Lamp by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

It was in a purple twilight of May that I first saw the lamp shining. For me, a child of seven, the voyage had been a tiring one: it seemed many hours since, with a ringing of bells, and hearts adventurously throbbing with the screw of our small steamboat, we had backed and swung, casting our wash in waves along the quay-walls, and so, after a pause during which we held our breath and drifted from the line of watching faces, had headed away for the great empty sky-line beyond which the islands lay. I knew that they lay yonder; for, the evening before, my father had led me up a tall hill and pointed them out to me– black specks in the red ball of the sun. But to-day, as hour after hour went by with the pant of the engines, the lift and slide of the Atlantic swell, the tonic wind humming against the stays, my eyes grew heavy, and at length my head dropped against my father’s shoulder. And then–to me it seemed the next instant–he woke me up and pointed towards the islands as they rose out of the indigo sea. At first they looked rather like low-lying clouds, but after a minute or two there was no mistaking them; for, as if they had just discovered us, they hung out lamp after lamp, some steady, some intermittent, but all of them gleaming yellow along the floor of the sea save one, a crimson light which hid and showed itself again northward of the rest. Crimson was my favourite colour in those days, and even as I dropped back into sleep I decided that I liked this lamp the best of all.

I awoke again to the sound of voices. We were passing a pilot-boat out there on the watch for ships. Her crew hailed us as we went by, and I saw their faces in the green radiance of our starboard light–gaunt, dark faces, altogether foreign. One of the men, the oldest, was bareheaded, with long grey locks, and wore a yellow neckcloth with his shirt open below it, and his naked chest showing. Their voices as they answered our skipper were clear and gay like the voices of children.

And, next, we were alongside a quay. Our seats, our bulwarks, even our decks, shone with dew. A crowd stood on the dim quay-edge and looked down on us, and chattered, but in soft voices. There was a policeman too, and I wondered how he came there. Above this shadowy moving crowd rode the stars I had known at home. I took my father’s hand. At the head of the gangway he stooped, hoisted me on his shoulders, and carried me up and up through narrow mysterious streets, around dark corners, past belated islanders hurrying down to the steamer; but always upward, until he pushed open a door and set me down blinking in a whitewashed bedroom lit by a couple of candles: and with that came sleep.

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Happy days followed: blue and white days–days vaulted and floored with blue, flashing with white granite, with the rush of white water beneath the shadow of the leaning sail, with white cirrus clouds, with white wings of seabirds. It was the height of the nesting season, and the birds had brought us to the islands; my father with paint-box and camera–though, our time being short, he relied almost wholly on the latter. A naturalist, and by temper the gentlest of men, in his methods he was a born pioneer. You can hardly imagine how cumbrous and well-nigh hopeless a business it was in those days, not so long past, to pursue after wild life with a camera; but a thousand disheartening failures left him still grasping the inviolable shade, still confident that in photography, if it could only be given with rapidity and precision, lay the naturalist’s hope. Blurred negatives were all the spoil, and, sorry enough, we bore back after long days of tossing and climbing among the Outer Islands; but we had the reward of living among the birds. They filled our thoughts, our lives for the time:–great cormorants and northern divers, flitting red-legged oyster-catchers, shags spreading their wings to the wind and sun, sea-parrots, murrs, razor-bills, gannets questing by ones and twos–now poised, now dropping like plummets with a resounding splash; sandpipers and curlews dotting the beaches, and wading; tern, common gulls, herring-gulls, and kittiwakes, and, at nightfall, shearwaters popping from their holes and swimming and skimming around our boat as we headed for home. And then, the nests we discovered!–nay, the nests that at times we walked among, picking our steps like egg-dancers!–nests boldly planted on the bare rock ledges; nests snugly hidden among the clusters of blue thrift and the massed sea-pinks. They bloomed everywhere, these sea-pinks; sheet upon sheet of pale rose-colour, soon to show paler and fade before the rosy splendours of the mesembryanthemum. But the thrift had no rival to fear, condensing blue heaven and blue sea in the flower it lifted against both; and to lie prone and make a frame of it for some winding channel when the tide-rip flashed and tossed was to send the eye plunging into blue like an Eastern diver after pearls.

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But when after sunset the blue deepened to violet, always in the heart of it glowed the crimson light upon Off Island. Night after night I watched it from my window, and wondered what manner of people they were who tended it, living out yonder on a rock where no grass grew, and in a roar of tide which the inhabitants of the greater islands heard on still days in the few inland valleys where it was possible to lose sight of the sea. I knew that thousands of puffins bred there, and we were to visit the rock some day; but, what with the tides and an all but ceaseless ground swell, our opportunity was long in coming, and Old Seth (our boatman) kept putting it off until I began to disbelieve in it altogether.

It came, though, at last, with a cloudless morning and a north-easterly breeze, brisk and steady, the clearest day in a fortnight of clear days. We were heading northward close-hauled through a sound dividing two of the greater islands–Old Seth at the tiller, my father tending the sheet, and I perched on the weather gunwale and peering over and down on the purple reefs we seemed to avoid so narrowly–when Seth lifted his voice in a shout, and then, with a word of warning, paid out sheet, brought the boat’s nose round and ran her in towards a silver-white beach on our left. As we downed sail, I saw a girl on the bank above the beach, leaning on a hoe and gazing at us over a low hedge of veronica.

Seth hailed her again, and she came running to the waterside. There she stood and eyed us shyly: a dark-haired girl, bare-headed, and with the dust of the potato-patch on her shoes and ankles.

“Any message for Reub Hicks, my dear? We’m bound over to Off Island.”

She hesitated, looking from Seth to us; and while she hesitated a flush mounted to her tanned face and deepened there.

“Come,” Old Seth coaxed her, “you needn’ be afeard to trust us with your little secrets.”

She seemed, at all events, to have made up her mind to trust us. From the pocket of her skirt she drew a tattered, paper-covered book, opened it, and was about to tear out a couple of pages, but paused.

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“I’d like to send it,” said she; but still paused, and at length passed the open book to Seth.

“I see.” He nodded. “Seems a pity–don’t it?–to tear up good printed stuff. Tell ‘ee what,” he suggested: “you leave me take the book over as ’tis, and this evenin’, if you’ll be waitin’ here, I’ll bring it back safe.”

She brightened at once. “That’ll do brave. Tell ‘en I hope he’s keepin’ well, and give my love to the others.”

“Right you are,” promised Seth cheerfully, pushing off.

“And don’t you forget!” she called after us.

Seth laughed. “That’s a very good girl, now,” he commented as he settled himself to the tiller again. “Must be a poor job courtin’ with a light-house man: not much walkin’ together for they. No harm, I s’pose, in your seem’ the maid’s book.” He handed it to my father, who shook his head.

“Aw,” went on Seth, guessing why he hesitated, “there’s no writin’ in it–only print.” He held the book open. It was a nautical almanack, and night by night the girl had pencilled out the hour of sunset. Night by night the first flash of the Off Island lamp carried her lover’s message to her, and, as Seth explained (but it needed no explanation), at that signal she blotted out yet one more of the days between her and the marriage day.

Off Island rose from the sea a sheer mass of granite, about a hundred and fifty feet in height, and all but inaccessible had it not been for a rock stair-way hewn out by the Brethren of the Trinity House. The keepers had spied our boat, and a tall young man stood on one of the lower steps to welcome us: not Reuben, but Reuben’s younger brother Sam. Reuben met us at the top of the staircase, where the puffins built so thickly that a false step would almost certainly send the foot crashing through the roof of one of their oddly shaped houses. He too was a tall youth; an inch or two taller, maybe, than his brother, whom we had left in charge of the boat. It would have puzzled you to guess their ages. Young they surely were, but much gazing in the face of the salt wind had creased the corners of their eyes, and their faces wore a beautiful gravity, as though they had been captured young and dedicated to some priestly service.

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Reuben touched his cap, and, taking the book from Seth without a word, led us to the cottage, where his mother stood scouring a deal table: a little woman with dark eyes like beads, and thin grey hair tucked within a grey muslin cap. She had kilted her gown high and tucked up her sleeves, and looked to me, for all the world, like a doll on a penwiper. But her hands were busy continually; the small room shone and gleamed with her tireless cleansing and polishing; and in the midst of it her eyes sparkled with expectation of news from the outer world.

Seth understood her, and rattled at once into a recital of all the happenings on the islands: births, marriages, and deaths, sickness, courtship, and boat-building, the price of market-stuff, and the names of vessels newly arrived in the roads. But after a minute she turned from him to my father.

“‘Tis all so narrow, sir–Seth’s news. I want to know what’s happenin’ in the world.”

Now, much was happening in those May weeks–much all over Europe, but much indeed in France, where Paris was passing through the sharp agonies of the Commune. The latest my father had to tell was almost a week old; but two days before we set sail for the islands the Versaillais troops had swept the boulevards, and every steamer had brought newspapers from the mainland. Mrs. Hicks’ eyes grew bigger and rounder as she listened; but she had listened a very short while before she cried–

“Father must hear this! He’s up polishin’ the lantern, sir. Begging your pardon, but he must hear you tell it; he must indeed.” With immense pride she added, “He was over to France, one time.”

She marched us off to the lantern, up the winding stairway, up the ladder, and into the great glass cage, where stood an old man busily polishing the brass reflector.

“Father, here’s a gentleman come, with news from France!”

As the old man came forward with a fumbling step, my father drew a thick bundle from his coat pocket. “I’ve brought you some newspapers,” said he; “they will tell you more than I can.”

He held them out, but the wife interposed hurriedly. “Not to him, sir. Give them to Reuben, if you please, and thank you. But he, sir–he’s blind.”

I looked, as my father looked. A film covered both pupils of the old man’s eyes.

“He’ve been blind these seven years,” Reuben explained in a low voice. “Me and Sam are the regular keepers now; but the Board lets him live on here, and he’s terrible clever at polishing.”

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“He knows the lamp so well as ever he did,” broke in the old woman; “the leastest little scratch, he don’t miss it. How he doesn’ break his poor neck is more’n I can tell; but he don’t–though ’tis a sore trial.”

While they explained, the old man’s hand went out to caress the lamp, but stopped within an inch of the sparkling lenses.

“Iss,” said he musingly, “with this here cataract I misses a brave lot. There’s a lot to be seen up here, for a man with eyesight. Will ‘ee tell me, please sir, what’s the news from France? I was over there, one time.”

It turned out he had once paid a visit to one of the small Breton ports: Roscoff I think it was, and have a suspicion that smuggling lay at the bottom of the business there.

“Well now,” he commented as my father told something of his tale, “I wouldn’ have thought it of the Johnnies. They treated me very pleasant, and I speak of a man as I find en.” He turned his sightless eyes on the family he had brought up to think well of Frenchmen.

“They are different folk in Paris.”

“Iss, that’s a big place. Cherbourg’s a big place, too, they tell me. I came near going there, one time; but my travellin’s over. It do give a man something to think over, though. I wish my son here could have travelled a bit before settlin’ down.”

But Reuben, on the far side of the lantern, was turning the pages of the tattered almanack.

“Well-a-well!” said the old woman. “A body must be thankful for good sons, and mine be that. But I’d love to end my days settin’ in a window and watchin’ folks go by to church.”

It was past seven o’clock when we hoisted sail again, and as we drew near the greater islands a crimson flash shot out over the sea in our wake. On a dim beach ahead stood a girl waiting.

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