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Keeper Of The Bishop by A.E.W. Mason

 

For a fortnight out of every six weeks the little white faced man walked the garrison on St. Mary's Island in a broadcloth frock-coat, a low waistcoat and a black riband of a tie fastened in a bow; and it gave him great pleasure to be mistaken for a commercial traveller. But during the other four weeks he was head-keeper of the lighthouse on the Bishop's Rock, with thirty years of exemplary service to his credit. By what circumstances he had been brought to enlist under the Trinity flag I never knew. But now, at the age of forty-eight he was entirely occupied with a great horror of the sea and its hunger for the bodies of men; the frock-coat which he wore during his spells on shore was a protest against the sea; and he hated not only the sea but all things that were in the sea, especially rock lighthouses, and of all rock lighthouses especially the Bishop.

"The Atlantic's as smooth as a ballroom floor," said he. It was a clear, still day and we were sitting among the gorse on the top of the garrison, looking down the sea towards the west. Five miles from the Scillies, the thin column of the Bishop showed like a cord strung tight in the sky. "But out there all round the lighthouse there are eddies twisting and twisting, without any noise, and extraordinary quick, and every other second, now here, now there, you'll notice the sea dimple, and you'll hear a sound like a man hiccoughing, and all at once, there's a wicked black whirlpool. The tide runs seven miles an hour past the Bishop. But in another year I have done with her." To her Garstin nodded across from St. Mary's to that grey finger post of the Atlantic. "One more winter, well, very likely during this one more winter the Bishop will go — on some night when a storm blows from west or west-nor'west and the Irish coast takes none of its strength."

He was only uttering the current belief of the islands. The first Bishop lighthouse had been swept away before its building was finished, and though the second stood, a fog bell weighing no less than a ton, and fixed ninety feet above the water, had been lifted from its fittings by a single wave, and tossed like a tennis-ball into the sea. I asked Garstin whether he had been stationed on the rock at the time.

"People talk of lightships plunging and tugging at their cables," he returned. "Well, I've tried lightships, and what I say is, ships are built to plunge and tug at their cables. That's their business. But it isn't the business of one hundred and twenty upright feet of granite to quiver and tremble like a steel spring. No, I wasn't on the Bishop when the bell went. But I was there when a wave climbed up from the base of the rock and smashed in the glass wall of the lantern, and put the light out. That was last spring at four o'clock in the morning. The day was breaking very cold and wild, and one could just see the waves below, a lashing tumble of grey and white water as far as the eye could reach. I was in the lantern reading 'It's never too late to mend.' I had come to where the chaplain knocks down the warder, and I was thinking how I'd like to have a go at that warder myself, when all the guns in the world went off together in my ears. And there I was dripping wet, and fairly sliced with splinters of glass, and the wind blowing wet in my face, and the lamp out, and a bitter grey light of morning, as though there never, never had been any sun, and all the dead men in the sea shouting out for me one hundred feet below," and Garstin shivered, and rose to his feet. "Well, I have only one more winter of it."

"And then?" I asked.

"Then I get the North Foreland, and the trippers come out from Margate, and I live on shore with my wife and — By the way, I wanted to speak to you about my boy. He's getting up in years. What shall I make of him? A linen- draper, eh? In the Midlands, what? or something in a Free Library, handing out Charles Reade's books? He's at home now. Come and see him!"

In Garstin's quarters, within the coastguard enclosure, I was introduced to his wife and the lad, Leopold. "What shall we call him?" Mrs. Garstin had asked, some fifteen years before. "I don't know any seafaring man by the name of Leopold," Garstin had replied, after a moment of reflection. So Leopold he was named.

Mrs. Garstin was a buxom, unimaginative woman, but she shared to the full her husband's horror of the sea. She told me of nights when she lay alone listening to the moan of the wind overhead, and seeing the column of the Bishop rock upon its base, and of mornings when she climbed from the sheltered barracks up the gorse, with her heart tugging in her breast, certain, certain that this morning, at least, there would be no Bishop lighthouse visible from the top of the garrison.

"It seems a sort of insult to the works of God," said she, in a hushed voice. "It seems as if it stood up there in God's face and cried, 'You can't hurt me!'"

"Yes, most presumptuous and provoking," said Garstin; and so they fell to talking of the boy, who, at all events, should fulfil his destiny very far inland from the sea. Mrs. Garstin leaned to the linen-drapery; Garstin inclined to the free library.

"Well, I will come down to the North Foreland," said I, "and you shall tell me which way it is."

"Yes, if—" said Garstin, and stopped.

"Yes, if—" repeated his wife, with a nod of the head.

"Oh! it won't go this winter," said I.

And it didn't. But, on the other hand, Garstin did not go to the North Foreland, nor for two years did I hear any more of him. But two years later I returned to St. Mary's and walked across the beach of the island to the little graveyard by the sea. A new tablet upon the outer wall of the church caught and held my eye. I read the inscription and remained incredulous. For the Bishop still stood. But the letters were there engraved upon the plate, and as I read them again, the futility of Garstin's fears was enforced upon me with a singular pathos.

For the Bishop still stood and Garstin had died on the Christmas Eve of that last year which he was to spend upon rock lighthouses. Of how he died the tablet gave a hint, but no more than a hint. There were four words inscribed underneath his name:

"And he was not."

I walked back to Hugh Town, wondering at the tragedy which those four words half hid and half revealed, and remembering that the tide runs seven miles an hour past the Bishop, with many eddies and whirlpools. Almost unconsciously I went up the hill above Hugh Town and came to the signal station on the top of the garrison. And so occupied was I with my recollections of Garstin that it did not strike me as strange that I should find Mrs. Garstin standing now where he had stood and looking out to the Bishop as he was used to look.

"I had not heard," I said to her.

"No?" she returned simply, and again turned her eyes seawards. It was late on a midsummer afternoon. The sun hung a foot or so above the water, a huge ball of dull red fire, and from St. Mary's out to the horizon's rim the sea stretched a rippling lagoon of the colour of claret. Over the whole expanse there was but one boat visible, a lugger, between Sennen and St. Agnes, beating homewards against a light wind.

"It was a storm, I suppose," said I. "A storm out of the west?"

"No. There was no wind, but — there was a haze, and it was growing dark." Mrs. Garstin spoke in a peculiar tone of resignation, with a yearning glance towards the Bishop as I thought, towards the lugger as I know. But even then I was sure that those last words: "There was a haze and it was growing dark," concealed the heart of her distress. She explained the inscription upon the tablet, while the lugger tacked towards St. Mary's, and while I gradually began to wonder what still kept her on the island.

At four o'clock on the afternoon of that Christmas Eve, the lighthouse on St. Agnes' Island showed its lamps; five minutes later the red beams struck out from Round Island to the north; but to the west on the Bishop all was dark. The haze thickened, and night came on; still there was no flash from the Bishop, and the islands wondered. Half an hour passed; there was still darkness in the west, and the islands became alarmed. The Trinity Brethren subsidise a St. Agnes' lugger to serve the Bishop, and this boat was got ready. At a quarter to five suddenly the Bishop light shot through the gloom, but immediately after a shutter was interposed quickly some half-a-dozen times. It was the signal of distress, and the lugger worked out to the Bishop with the tide. Of the three keepers there were now only two.

It appeared from their account that Garstin took the middle day watch, that they themselves were asleep, and that Garstin should have roused them to light the lamps at a quarter to four. They woke of their own accord in the dark, and at once believed they had slept into the night. The clock showed them it was half-past four. They mounted to the lantern room, and nowhere was there any sign of Garstin. They lit the lamps. The first thing they saw was the log. It was open and the last entry was written in Garstin's hand and was timed 3.40 P.M. It mentioned a ketch reaching northwards. The two men descended the winding-stairs, and the cold air breathed upon their faces. The brass door at the foot of the stairs stood open. From that door thirty feet of gun-metal rungs let in to the outside of the lighthouse lead down to the set-off, which is a granite rim less than a yard wide, and unprotected by any rail. They shouted downwards from the doorway, and received no answer. They descended to the set-off, and again no Garstin, not even his cap. He was not.

Garstin had entered up the log, had climbed down to the set-off for five minutes of fresh air, and somehow had slipped, though the wind was light and the sea whispering. But the whispering sea ran seven miles an hour past the Bishop.

This was Mrs. Garstin's story and it left me still wondering why she lived on at St. Mary's. I asked after her son.

"How is Leopold? What is he — a linen-draper?" She shaded her eyes with her hand and said:

"That's the St. Agnes' lugger from the Bishop, and if we go down to the pier now we shall meet it."

We walked down to the pier. The first person to step on shore was Leopold, with the Trinity House buttons on his pilot coat.

"He's the third hand on the Bishop now," said Mrs. Garstin. "You are surprised?" She sent Leopold into Hugh Town upon an errand, and as we walked back up the hill she said: "Did you notice a grave underneath John's tablet?"

"No," said I.

"I told you there was a mention in the log of a ketch."

"Yes."

"The ketch went ashore on the Crebinachs at half-past four on that Christmas Eve. One man jumped for the rocks when the ketch struck, and was drowned. The rest were brought off by the lugger. But one man was drowned."

"He drowned because he jumped," said I.

"He drowned because my man hadn't lit the Bishop light," said she, brushing my sophistry aside. "So I gave my boy in his place."

And now I knew why those words — "There was a haze and it was growing dark" — held the heart of her distress.

"And if the Bishop goes next winter," she continued, "why, it will just be a life for a life;" and she choked down a sob as a young voice hailed us from behind.

But the Bishop still stands in the Atlantic, and Leopold, now the second hand, explains to the Margate trippers the wonders of the North Foreland lights.

 
 
 

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