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Title: The Pillar Of Light Author: Talbot Mundy * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1204321h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2012 Most recent update: December 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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DAY broke on the Red Sea, pale and hard-yellow, like low- grade molten brass. The big revolving light on Matthew Island ceased to turn; its reddish rays sickened and waned and died; the dirty, shark-infested waves—oily and breakerless—reflected the molten shimmer of the sky, and the humidity increased by a degree or two.
No birds twittered. There was nothing, either animal or human, amid the awful desolation of the Twelve Apostles, that seemed glad to greet the dawn. Aloes were the only thing that grew there, unless you count the sickly-looking patch of vegetables, some twenty feet by twenty, that succeeding reliefs of sergeants had coaxed on to the bald, hot hideous rock to make them homesick.
Sergeant Stanley, of the Fifty-Fifth ("God's Own"), arose from his sleepless cot as a bugler turned out the shirt sleeved guard. There followed in time-accustomed sequence the growled command—sweet-toned 'reveille,' wasting its sweetness over unresponsive desolation, the click of arms presented, and the Union Jack rising up a white-smeared flagpole; it flapped once or twice, and then drooped despondently "Order Um-m-ms! commanded Stanley. "Guard... dismiss!"
Another twelve-hours' sun-baked idleness was under way.
Stanley saw to the sweeping of the guard-room, and the making of the serried rows of beds; then he strolled to the one and only bungalow, to ask whether or not his officer was up as yet. A Somali boy answered that he was not up. Stanley turned, and the boy followed him along the winding foot-path that descended down the cliff-side to a ledge of rock beside the sea.
Near the bottom of the path they were preceded by a thousand scampering crabs, which fought with each other for the right of way and flopped into the water noisily, like frightened ghouls caught prowling after dawn. The Somali boy singled out the largest of them and crushed it with a well-aimed stone; instantly a hundred other crabs cut short their scurry to the sea to tear it into little pieces and devour it.
"Ugh!" growled Stanley. "You, Twopence! What in blazes d'you mean by that? Isn't there hell enough on this rock without your adding to it? Get back d'you hear—back to your master!"
The Somali grinned, but he obeyed. He knew the temper of the white man marooned on the Twelve Apostles, and he could gage the consequence of disobedience pretty accurately, from experience. Stanley kicked the struggling crabs into the sea, and watched for a while the huge fin of a tiger shark scouting to and fro in lazy, zigzag sweeps that scarcely produced a ripple on the blood-hot water.
As the sun grew higher, the oily waves died down—beaten down it seemed, by the brazen reflection of the sky, and from the distance, growing gradually nearer, came the steady thug-thug-thug of a propeller. Big, black, bristling with iron wind-scoops, a Peninsular and Oriental liner hurried past, slam-banging down the Red Sea at sixteen knots to make a head-wind for her passengers.
"Not so much as a signal!" muttered Stanley to himself. "Lord help 'em, they think they're suffering! Punkahs above the tables, and lemonade, and ice! Open sea ahead of 'em, all the worst of it behind, and can't even run a string o' flags up to pass the time o' day!'
The sun turned paler yellow yet, and as it rose a yard or two above the cast-iron ring of the horizon, the sea below where Stanley stood turned pale green and transparent. He could look down into it, and see the million rainbow-tinted fishes feeding on each other—the everlasting cannibal-fight for the survival of the biggest. A shark, sneaking amid the coral out of reach of larger sharks, swept suddenly among the fish in lightning flashes.
Then, to digest his bellyful, he came and rested lazily beneath the ledge of rock where Stanley stood. And the long arm of a giant octopus reached out, flicking at the end like a beckoning finger, and pulled him—struggling —fighting—plunging downward to the parrot-beak below. Stanley shuddered. "That's no way to die!" he muttered. Then he glanced again over to the hurrying liner, and his look hardened into something scarcely civilized.
"It's for the likes o' them that the likes of us are festering here; let 'em pay the price! Let 'em say then if it's worth it!"
Stanley was just one man of a hundred and fifty thousand who take their turns in guarding the Empire's outposts, only his happened to be a rather more than usually awful turn. He was a railway porter's son, dragged up in the slums a stone's throw from Liverpool Street Station, and his history was like a thousand others: caught stealing; sent to truant-school by a paternal Government; claimed from the truant-school as soon as he was old enough, and broken in to selling newspapers and blacking boots and carrying handbags; taught to touch his forelock (he never had a hat in those days) to anybody who would tip him twopence; half-starved, wholly beaten, ever inch of him, and rubbed into the muck of poverty and vice and crime; taught that a gentleman is a free-handed cad with money, and that a smug is a man who has a sense of duty. And then -
At the age of eighteen, caught and coaxed and cajoled by a recruiting sergeant. Sworn, and drilled, and taught to clean himself. Treated like a man by his superiors, and exactly on his merits by his equals—a thing that he had never known before. Sardined in the bowels of a troopship, and introduced, along with prickly heat and fever, to a race who, from past experience, with Englishmen, believed the things he said because he said them. And, barely yet recovered from the shock of his new-found sahibdom, starved and frozen and led—led all the time by men who understood the business—through a hill campaign in Northern India.
Promoted after that to the rank of sergeant—a full-fledged, tested connecting-link between the bayonets and the brains. A man of pride and cleanliness bewildering to new recruits—straight-backed and polished as a service cleaning-rod.
But the desolation of the Twelve Apostles, as those Red Sea island rocks are named, had seeped into his soul. Even the British sergeant must be busy, unless he is to lose that indefinable, but absolutely certain Regimental grip that tightens up his moral fiber while it trains his muscles. There was nothing here to watch but fishes and the outlines of the eleven other barren crags. It was too hot to drill; the regulations allowed an officer to dispense with every routine that was not absolutely necessary to the preservation of good order and discipline. It was too lonely and wild and awful to do anything but quarrel with any one who was fool enough to speak.
A man could not swim for fear of sharks and worse things; he could not play games, because the ragged rock-surface was hot enough to raise blisters through the soles of ammunition boots; he could not read because the sweat ran into his eyes; and through the long, wet-blanket nights he could not sleep for prickly heat. It was hell, ungarnished. And there were five months and one week more of it ahead—for a second lieutenant, two sergeants, four corporals, and fifty men.
The Fifty-Fifth (and don't forget that they are 'God's Own,' and ready to prove it in close order at a moment's notice) were stationed that year at Aden, fresh from a five year breeze-swept residence on Shorncliffe heights; and Aden is a perfectly good copy of the Inferno on its own account, with devils and deviltry thrown in. But Aden is absolutely child's play—a pellucid, angel-haunted paradise—compared to any single one of the Twelve Apostles. And of all the Twelve, the one that men have christened Matthew is the worst—the baldest—the bleakest—the hottest—the one with most claim to be the model that Satan tried to imitate.
It was because of the coral-guarded natural wharf that Matthew was chosen and a light was built on it—two hundred feet above sea-level, and sixty-thousand candle-power; and because the coast-dwellers of the Red Sea practice piracy as a religion, and had yet to have instilled into them their latter-day disrespectful awe for the would-be Pax Britannica, the Fifty-Fifth were forced to send a six-monthly contingent to guard the brass and copper fittings that were worth a Red Sea Fortune.
Once a month, or thereabouts, the Admiralty steamboat came, with stores and year-old magazines for the lighthouse keeper, and mail from home (perhaps); and once in six months came the cockroach-ridden transport from Aden with the fifty man relief. In the interim was torment, in which pirates came no nearer than the sky-line to curse the warning pillar of light that prevented so many profitable wrecks.
Sergeant Stanley shuddered at the sea and at the aching sky-line, and then turned and shuddered at the baking rock behind him. He loafed up the path again and found the men squabbling at breakfast; it was beneath his dignity to join in the discussion, but there were four corporals to snub; he did that properly; and the other sergeant was a ten-year enemy of his. By the time he had insulted him sufficiently—with caustic service-comment on his method of maintaining discipline—he had worked himself into a frame of mind that looked on suicide as foolish only because it deprived the dead man of his power for harm. His mental attitude emanated from him like an aura, and was quite obvious in his perfunctory salute when he reached the bungalow again.
"Rounds all correct, sir!" he reported.
"Morning, sergeant!" said the one-starred representative of Empire, nodding to him from his long chair on the veranda, and hitching his pajamas into more official shape.
Second-Lieutenant Brasenose laughed aloud, with all the cynicism of one- and-twenty fun-filled years.
"Come up and sit on the veranda!" he suggested. "Have some chota hazri with me—these eggs aren't more than a month old!"
"It'll be another bender of a day, sir!" said Stanley, taking the proffered seat, and wondering to himself at the whiteness of the skin that showed down the front of the pajama-jacket. "Tender as a chicken!" he thought.
"Just like any other day, sergeant! They mold 'em all on one pattern hereabouts! There's no originality—rocks, Arabs, heat, Somalis—everything's the same as it was in old King Solomon's time! Go on, help yourself to eggs. Twopence! Where are you? Bring the sergeant a cup, can't you! 'Pon my soul, I believe the lighthouse-keeper's been here since Solomon's day too!"
"He's the ignorantest man I ever talked to!" said Sergeant Stanley, sniffing at an egg suspiciously.
"That one no good?" asked the officer. "Chuck it away—try your luck on the next; my second one didn't stink a bit!"
"It beats me, sir, how you keep your appetite!" said Stanley, with grudging admiration.
"The answer to that's easy, sergeant. I keep busy! It's perfectly obvious why you men don't enjoy life on the island: you lie on your cots all day and smoke and quarrel until you're peeved all to pieces. Any fool could explain that! What is puzzling is how the lighthouse-keeper enjoys himself so much. He simply loves his job. He doesn't take any exercise beyond climbing up and down the tower every now and then; and he hardly ever reads; he doesn't drink, and he doesn't smoke, and he eats his service rations and prefers 'em to soft tack; and 'pon my soul and honor, I believe he's the happiest man I ever met!"
"He's too ignorant to understand, sir!" said Stanley.
"He understands natives well enough! answered Brasenose. "Have you noticed how he's tamed his Somali assistants? A man who can tame Somalis isn't ignorant—he's wise!"
"I'd as soon tame sharks, sir!" answered Stanley.
Brasenose leaned back and looked at him through puckered eyes. "Have you tried catching 'em?" he asked.
"How—catching 'em, sir?"
"Hook and line—fun of the world! They fight you for half an hour sometimes. See here!" He bared a freckled forearm that was lean and brown and sinewy beyond belief. "I got all that catching 'em. Look at this!" He showed the callous where a thirty-fathom line had ripped across his fingers. "A shark did that—a thirteen-footer. Caught him out beyond the reef there—fought him for three-quarters of an hour, and gaffed him right in among the rocks. You ought to have seen the fun, too, when we got him into the boat! He thrashed about like a good 'un and all but did for one of the boat-boys before we settled him at last with an ax! You ought to take to fishing sharks, sergeant—it 'ud be no end good for you—keep your mind off grouching, and all that kind of thing, and give you enough exercise to keep you fit!"
"I'd get sunstroke, sir!" said Stanley, who had no enthusiasm left.
"Go out at night then. I go in the daytime, but there's no reason why you should; they'll take the hook all right at night. Take a whale-boat and two or three of the boys tonight, after I get back, and try your luck!"
"How about the men, sir?" suggested Stanley. "They're in need of watching! They're quarreling like wild-cats half the time, and if I go away for more than half an hour at a stretch, they fight!"
"There's another sergeant, and I'll keep a close eye on them myself. Take a whale-boat tonight. If you're not back by daybreak it won't matter—I'll see to everything. Come up here and tell me what luck you've had after you get back."
It almost amounted to an order, and Stanley, whose theories on sport had been picked up in the slums of Whitechapel and were closely associated with the art of sitting still and betting on a certainty, cursed him inwardly for an interfering jackanapes. To his face, though, he was civil.
"Very well, sire," he answered, getting up to go. "Shall I take the barrack servants?"
"Yes; take four of them, if you like. And take some food along with you; they'll eat it, if you won't, and they'll show you where the best fishing is —round between Simeon and Levi is a pretty good spot—tell 'em to take you there first. So long, sergeant!"
Second-Lieutenant Brasenose went in, whistling, to dress, and then—after a careful inspection of the men and quarters—ran singing to the wharf, where he started off for another day's hot but otherwise unqualified amusement. Stanley, when inspection was at an end and the men were sprawling on their cots again exuding discontent, stood down by the shore alone for a whole hour, gazing eastward to the hard horizon. Beyond it there was land. What kind of land was immaterial: it was not the Twelve Apostles!
That afternoon he packed stores into a whale-boat, and added fish-hooks and a line as an afterthought. He spent a whole hour choosing four from the ten half-naked barrack servants. It was noticeable that he picked the least contented.
That night, as the first rays of the giant revolving lantern lit on the oily sea, and began to sweep its surface in sixty-second, astronomically perfect, revolutions, they silhouetted for a second the form of a regulation helmet in the stern of a four-oared boat. The boat was headed east by northeast, and there lay no islands in its course.
Ten minutes later still, while Second-Lieutenant Brasenose—pajama- clad again and sun-burnt—sat writing up his daily official log, a knock came at his door, and it was followed by the grizzled, wrinkled face of the lighthouse-keeper, yellow in the lamplight.
"Has any one got leave of absence?" he demanded.
"Yes. Sergeant Stanley—and four boys. I was just writing in the log here that the climate and conditions seem to be very trying to the men. I told Stanley he may go shark fishing, to try and get rid of his grouch. If that's a success, I shall try to get the men interested too."
"Did you tell him where to go?" asked the lighthouse keeper.
"Yes—more or less. Between Simeon and Levi, I suggested."
The lighthouse-keeper nodded, and closed the door behind him again without another word. Brasenose sat still and listened to his heavy foot steps crunching the coral in the direction of the light.
"Strange old codger!" he muttered to himself. "I wouldn't care for his job! Lord! Fancy a lifetime of it!"
Fifteen minutes after that, the four-oared cutter from the lighthouse slid down the ways into the sea, and the phosphorus creamed and dripped and bubbled from its bows.
"Now hurry!" said the lighthouse-keeper, and some one grunted.
Then, with the short, quick, deep-in-the-middle stroke of Somali oarsmen, the cutter sped into the night, east by northeast—a trail of phosphor- fire behind it, and a string of oar-dipped iridescent pools on either hand.
And, still five minutes later, the lighthouse-keeper paused at the threshold of his light to answer Brasenose's question.
"Yes, that's my cutter gone away."
"What's she after?" asked Brasenose. it was none of his business, but he was curious.
"Catching things!" said the lighthouse-keeper surlily. he shut the door in the Lieutenant's face.
The Somali's gaze was fixed on the big revolving light behind them; and Stanley would put the helm up or down in the direction of his nod. But no one spoke; the glow of Stanley's pipe, the kunk-tunk of oars against the thole pins, and the heavy breathing of the boatmen were all that distinguished them from the Flying Dutchman's jolly-boat.
The brown skins of the Somalis blended with the night; Stanley's khaki shirt was of a piece with it; and the boat's sides, dripping phosphorus, were but another splash of dancing light amid the luminous, life-laden blackness. They were low-sided—half-hidden in the trough of a beam-on Red Sea swell—rising over it second after second, only to sink between again, invisible. And behind them, up above their heads, the revolving light on Mathew kept up its ceaseless vigil, winking at them every sixty seconds with a bloodshot eye.
It irritated Stanley. He could feel it every time it revolved. It seemed to be taking one quick look at him every minute of the sixty that made up what seemed to be a year, as if it watched him to be certain where he was. He began to turn his head at the second he expected it, to catch the reddish gleam from the corner of his eye, and look away again; and when he fought that inclination, and gazed steadfastly ahead of him into the blackness, he caught himself wincing when the light was due.
Then he began to count the periods—and then the seconds in between them. The chunking of the oars against the thole pins became the measured intervals before the light appeared, and it irritated him when their tale differed. He swore at the Somalis, ordering them to keep better time; and the Somalis swore back at him. That was his first reminder that authority depended now upon himself, and that he was alone, with no traditions and training of the Fifty-Fifth to back him up. The discontented men whom he had picked had consented readily enough to row him shoreward; for on Mathew he had been a sergeant, and what he said seemed good. But here, in the welter of the sea, he was nothing but a white man at the mercy of four blacks. Ashore they would be the men who knew the ropes, not he; conditions would be reversed, and he would have nothing but a very little money and a nearly inexhaustible supply of ignorance to sustain him in command. Might and right and the proof of both of them are what give control in Red Sea waters; here were wrong and helplessness, and the Somalis recognized them—and began to show it. They snarled. He drew out a small revolver and laid it ostentatiously upon the seat beside him.
For a while after that the heavy breathing and the laboring at the oars went on in silence. The Somali who rowed stroke had only one foot braced against the stretcher; the big toe protruded up above it, and it moved—once toward Stanley, once away again—with each strain at the oar. Thirty times between each two revolutions of the light the stretcher creaked, and the toe jerked forward and back again. if it were thirty-one times, or twenty-nine times, the universe was wrong, and Stanley was ill at ease. That timing of the toe became even more important than direction.
Before long, if the big toe beckoned to him thirty times exactly he would have luck that night, and if it didn't—He hated to think what would happen if it didn't! He counted, and it beckoned twenty-nine times; so he tried again. He might have counted wrong, he thought, or have missed one movement in the darkness. He waited two revolutions, and then commenced—one ... kunk ... two ... kunk ... three ... kunk—twenty-nine, and no light had appeared. He lived a lifetime almost, between the last stroke and the reappearance of the light, screwing his head round to catch the first glint of it and listening with both ears for the squeaking of the stretcher. And when the light did come, the Somalis had stopped rowing!
The luck was out, then! Well, luck or no luck, he was going on! He rose from his seat and cursed the rowers, letting the tiller bang to whichever side it would while he emphasized his rhetoric with shaken fists. "Row!" he growled. "Thirty times a minute, d'ye hear!"
He could see the stroke-man's face, but not the others. He heard a voice, though, from the bow—one low, guttural exclamation that made the stroke-man prick his ears and look behind him; when he looked back he was grinning, and from then on he ceased to watch the light. When he started to row again, he set the time hardly half as fast as formerly; and count how he might, Stanley could not make the oar-strokes fit in with the light. He cursed them, and coaxed them, and threatened them, and offered them rewards; but they only laughed, and kept on pulling at their own pace. Away up forward, somewhere in the illimitable blackness, the bow-oar began to croon a Somali boat-song—leisurely as the gait of centuries, minor keyed and melancholy—and the pace slowed down still further to the time of it. And suddenly the stroke-oar shouted a long, deep-throated ululating howl that pierced the blackness all around them, and brought the gooseflesh breaking on Stanley's skin.
He thought he heard an answering yell, but he told himself that would be impossible; there was no land between him and Matthew, or between him and Arabia either. His pipe had gone out, and he tried to light it, to show how perfectly at ease he was; but his hand, curved into a shelter round the blazing match, shook so violently that the stroke-oar grinned again.
He looked behind him, to judge how great a distance lay between them and the lighthouse, and—one on either hand, twenty yards away, and well outside the phosphorescent swirl the oars had made—he saw two other little pools of fire that kept pace with them. He forgot the steering then, to watch them, fascinated. Sometimes they diverged a little to the right or left, but they always followed, and when the rowers ceased, to call his attention to the steering, the pools of fire came nearer—much nearer. One came right under the counter of the boat, and from the middle of it a big black fin protruded. Something bumped the bottom of the boat.
"Row!" yelled Stanley.
He picked up his revolver, in a frenzy of night-intensified horror, hurled it at the fin, and missed.
The revolver bubbled downward in a splurge of phosphorus, and the shark, rolling lazily, dived after it, belly upward—eighteen feet of black, fire-dripping, hungry cruelty.
"Give way there!" shouted Stanley, now beside himself with fear. "Row!"
He had no revolver now. He shook his fists at them, and the stroke-man suddenly unshipped his oar, thrust at him, and sent him sprawling on the seat. The older shark swept nearer silently. The stroke-man shouted. Stanley drew his hand inside the boat one-fiftieth of a second ahead of the snapping jaws. The shark's nose brushed his sleeve! The boat rocked as the whole length of the monster rolled, porpoise-like, against its side. Stanley leaned forward with his head between his hands. He was voiceless, almost—physically sick with fear.
"O God!!" he groaned. 'Not that way! That's a dog's death!"
The Somalis began to row again, listlessly, not troubling about direction; Stanley slipped off his seat on to the bottom, and sat there where the sides of the boat would hide the horrors from him. They seemed less awful when he could not see them. The stroke-oar shouted again, and stopped rowing, and this time Stanley was sure that he heard an answering shout. Suddenly, he caught the chunk of oars behind him. He leaped up like a maniac.
He was a deserter. They were after him! Was this to be the end of his attempt! Back to the torment of the island he had left—with disgrace, and irons, and trial, and ignominy added to it! Reduced to the ranks—two years maybe four years on the Andamans ... caught like a noosed steer—punished—and turned loose, pensionless without a character!
He would die sooner! He would dive among the sharks before they caught him! With the foolish, childish instinct of a man hard gripped by fear, he began to pull his boots off.
Then another thought occurred to him. He sprang forward, sat down on the stroke-man's thwart and seized the oar. The man resisted. Stanley kicked and pushed him away toward the stern. After that he set the pace himself and made it a rowser—rowing until the veins swelled on his temples, and his breath came in noisy gasps; his head grew giddy with the heat and sweat and effort. The others had hard work to keep pace with him, but he kept them going until he noticed that the Somali in the stern had put the helm hard up and held it so. And when he saw what had happened, it was too late. Splitting the phosphorescent wave in front of it like a fire-lit wedge—chunking regularly like the stroke of Nemesis—swirling, fire-hung, and beautiful a four-oared cutter swung out of the darkness suddenly, bow-on. The fire-splashed oars tossed upward—the helm went hard over in a gurling, phosphorescent welter—and the two, lighthouse cutter and station whale-boat, rose and fell side by side in the same trough of the lazy-looking waves.
Then long brown arms seized Stanley by the shoulders and the legs; and—too sick with fear, and shame, and disappointment even to struggle—he was lifted out and laid, back downward, in the cutter.
"Hayah!" said a voice he had not heard before.
"How!" came the ready answer.
"Hunk ... kunk! Hunk ... kunk! Hunk ... kunk!" began the oars again.
The revolving light on Matthew began growing nearer, and the cutter's oars were echoed by the laboring whale boat crew, who kept their station close behind, between the following tiger-sharks. The stroke-man passed Stanley a can of drinking-water, and he emptied it.
"Who sent you?" he demanded.
No one answered him. Only the revolving light on Matthew winked, and grew brighter every time it turned.
A BLACK crag loomed up from the blackness: the oars flashed upward at a muttered order and rattled on the thwarts; and the cutter's side ground against stone steps hewn at the lighthouse foot.
"Bring him along!" said a quiet voice. Stanley looked up to see the shadow of a grizzled man who held a lantern and looked down on him from the top step with little more than curiosity.
The Somalis seized and carried him, protesting, up the steps, where steps, where they held him for the lantern-bearer to look him over. It was old Jim Bates, the lighthouse-keeper. Stanley flushed from head to foot. "Is this your doing?" he demanded. "What d'you mean by—" "That'll do!" said the lighthouse-keeper, lowering the light.
He turned his back without a word of explanation and walked up the winding path that led to the white tower on the cliff above him. The Somalis hustled the unwilling Stanley up the path behind him; he struggled, and the sweat on his wrists made them slippery, so that he almost broke away. Then they pulled their loin-cloths off and twisted them like tourniquets around his elbows, and Stanley yelled aloud with the pain of it. But Jim Bates never once looked round.
A moment later, Stanley saw him talking to the sentry on an upstanding crag that jutted out seaward by the lighthouse; he could just make out their two forms, like black shadows—the sentry leaning on his rifle, and the old man pointing somewhere away beyond. But the Somalis hustled him along and pushed him through the lighthouse door and up some more steps, and turned the key of a round, whitewashed, bare-walled room on him.
There was no light in there, but a little that was something less than light filtered in through a slit in the outer wall, and once a minute he could see the flash as the revolving lantern up above swept round on its interminable vigil. On the floor above him, too, he could hear the purr and click of the revolving mechanism.
Ten minutes later the door opened again and a Somali beckoned him.
"Come on!" he said, and preceded him without any explanation.
Stanley followed. He felt like a fool, obeying the behest of a nearly naked savage.
He wanted to be proud, but he could not feel proud; he had to do as he was told, and follow up the winding steps.
The door was open on the floor above, and he saw Jim Bates, with a long- necked oil-can in his hand, stooping down above the mechanism, testing something. The Somali left Stanley standing there, but Jim Bates took no notice. Stanley coughed, to call attention to himself, but Bates continued oiling; then he pulled his watch out, studied the indicator, and gave a half- turn to a finely threaded screw, when he appeared satisfied, for he laid the oil-can down and walked toward the door.
"Come on!" he said to Stanley, as he started up the steps. Stanley, without the slightest notion why he did so, followed him.
They wound on and on, up the narrowing spiral—past a clean-swept sleeping-room, through which the shaft of the revolving lantern passed; past a kitchen and a living room, with indicators in them, so that the man in charge might watch the revolutions of the light even while he cooked and ate; past a store-room, and an oil-room, and another engine-room—up on to an iron-railed platform round the outside of the light.
"Sit down!" said Jim Bates, jerking his thumb in the direction of a camp- stool.
Stanley sat on it, for his knees were trembling from the climb, and the steamy heat affected him. He tried to speak, but the light raced round and dazzled him; up there on the platform it seemed to be turning three times to the minute instead of one, and before he had time to recover from the glare of it, it was round again, purring on its roller bearings, and looking straight into his soul and mocking at him.
"Look out yonder!" said the lighthouse-keeper. "Don't try to face the lamp!"
Stanley did as he was told. He looked out and downward across a world of blackness that might have been the Pit. Once in every minute every single inch of the horizon and the black welter in between was eyed out by the blood-red rays behind him; and dancing on the night-black wave-tops, the phosphorescent fire seemed to be laughing back at the man-made, man-watched, man-protecting lamp.
"See yonder!" said the keeper, pointing.
Over to the eastward twenty little lights were dancing on the water, irregularly spaced. They were yellow and they looked like hearth-lights.
"Dhows!" said Bates, as if the one word conveyed a history, and a treatise on the history, with a lecture on morality thrown in. It was five minutes before he spoke again. "They dowse them glims when they're busy!" he said presently.
Stanley cared nothing for the lights; he was busy thinking. What evidence was there against him? Nothing! He had got a night's leave, and had gone off in a whale boat, and had come back again. How and when, and why he came back, was nobody's concern except his own—unless he chose to force an explanation from the lighthouse-keeper!
"They're fishing now!" confided Bates suddenly, in his usual abrupt tones that invited no reply. "They come where they can see the light and curse it while they fish!" he added, as if he felt rather sorry for them.
"Good luck to 'em then!" growled Stanley. "They can't curse it more emphatic than what I do!"
But Bates took no notice of him; when he did talk he seemed to be talking to himself, and he never appeared to listen to an answer.
"If any one deserted from this island, they'd catch him sure!" he volunteered, after another five-minutes' vigil with a watch in his hand and one eye on the lantern.
"Who said I was a deserter?" snarled Stanley promptly. Here was his opening at last; he could clear himself of suspicion and make the lighthouse- keeper feel like a fool!
But Bates did not answer him. He waited until the light flashed round, took one quick, keen look at him, and then went down the steps again. He was gone ten minutes, while Stanley sat motionless, with his chin resting on the blood warm iron rail in front of him.
"They'd kill a man for the buttons on his shirt!" said a voice behind him suddenly, and Stanley started, to find that Bates was back again, looking across his shoulder at the dancing lights.
"Used to be a wreck here, maybe once a month!" he added. Then he walked round the platform and leaned against the railing on the far side.
Stanley wanted to swear, but the words would not come. He wanted to jeer at Bates for an interfering fool—to laugh at him—to threaten him with dire vengeance—to force an apology—to reassert his dignity and sergeantdom. But Bates's silence and the darkness of the mystery of the night had taken hold of him, and he had begun to feel very unimportant, away up there above the purring engines. A sergeant of the line seemed a very little thing, and his personal opinions even less, amid that teeming, hungry desolation with its black, steel-dotted dome.
"See yonder!" said Bates, after a minute or two of communing. He certainly was communing, this grizzled veteran; his silence was as eloquent as other people's speech, if only one could understand it, as the Somalis evidently did. He pointed to another group of lights—four of them this time, red and green beside each other, and two white lights up above; they were far away on the horizon.
"She's headin' this way!" he remarked.
The white lights spaced a little, and the green light disappeared.
"Changed her course, you see!"
The steamer light grew gradually nearer; other lights blazed out as her sides came into view, and she passed—a little group of heaving and falling dots of fire, that died away at last below the southern sky-line.
"Three more of 'em!" said the lighthouse-keeper. "Look!" A liner went by, in a blaze of light, and with a dull-red glow above her smoke-stacks; Stanley could hear her twin propellers chugging, and—when the great light swung its rays to wink at her—he could see the bellying wind-sail up on the forward mast.
"She'll be a Frenchman! There'll be eight hundred souls aboard of her!" Jim Bates seemed in a communicative mood.
"Why should we watch out for Frenchies?" demanded Stanley, in another effort to assert his manhood.
"Why not?" said the lighthouse-keeper, pulling out his watch, and counting revolutions. Then he went down the steps again, and was absent for ten minutes.
Stanley sat still and watched the sky-line, facing alternately to the north and south. Almost incessantly the steamer lights seemed to pop upon the sky-line—coming and going up and down the hell-hot gateway of the East.
"Frenchies!" said a voice beside him. "Dutchmen—Germans—Roosians - Eyetalians—Norwegians—English—they're maybe half o' them English. They make us from the north or south, as the case may be, and steer wide. 'Hum dekta hai!' as the lascars say. 'I'm on the watch!'"
"What do they care?" growled Stanley.
Jim Bates walked once around the platform, and pulled his watch out, and checked off a revolution before he answered him. "The point is, we care, my son!"
Then he went down again, and Stanley sat and watched the heaving steamer lights for fifteen minutes. By the time Bates came back he had decided to make friends with him. He had not exactly changed his opinion about Bates's ignorance, but he felt forced to admit a certain respect for him; and it was just possible, too, that Bates had decided not to report him to the lieutenant in the morning. He decided to do a little tactful questioning on the last point. "Have a smoke?" he suggested, holding out his pouch when Bates appeared again.
"Try a chew, then!"
'Tain't right and proper! I've got this light to watch! I keep fit to watch it! See those lights yonder?"
The fishing lights were still bobbing up and down upon the water, and Jim Bates stood and gazed at them for three or four minutes before he spoke again. "If this light wasn't here," he said presently, "them pirates 'ud quit fishing. They'd hang around this rock. There'd be a steamer—maybe two or three of 'em—pile up here in half no time, an' dirty work done. If I weren't fit an' well to run the light, it 'ud mean the same thing. An' if you soldiers weren't here to hoist that flag in the morning an' guard me, this light 'ud be here just as long as it took them pirates to get here! D'you begin to understand?" This time it was Stanley who did not answer for a full five minutes.
"How about when the light goes wrong?" he asked then. "What if the engine gives out? What then?"
"I sweat her round by hand, son, with one eye on the indicator! I sweated her round once fourteen nights hand running until the relief-boat came—me and the Somalis takin' turns!"
"An' you did that for a lot o' foreigners that can't even take the trouble to dip an ensign when they pass?"
"No. Nor yet for the pay, neither!"
"What did you do it for, then?" Bates looked hard at him "Struck me it was the game!" he answered. "There's a crank there for that purpose."
The oily waves swished up against the rock below; the phosphorescent glow danced interminably through the darkness. Down the middle of the narrow sea, from six to ten miles wary of the twelve night-hidden rocks, the liners and the tramps plowed busily with swaying masthead lights. Round and round purred the tireless lantern, blinking warning of the danger to every point in turn; and the yellow lights to the eastward of the sea-line bobbed and dipped and rolled. From somewhere in the blackness came a human voice, high pitched in a sing-song cadence.
"Hark!" said the lighthouse-keeper; and Stanley pricked his ears for what he knew was coming.
Then, from down below him, where the big up-ended crag protruded seaward, deep-throated and resonant rose the voice of the sentry whom he could not see:
"Num-ber ... Five ... A-l-l-'s w-e-l-l!"
"Hum dekta hai!" hummed the lighthouse-keeper without looking at Stanley.
"A-a-a-a-l-l's ... w-e-l-l!" came another distant voice. And silence followed, broken only by the purring of the lamp and the swishing of the waves below, which seemed part and parcel of the silence.
Stanley swallowed a lump in his throat and shifted his position restlessly. The lighthouse-keeper nodded, and went below again.
Stanley laid his chin on the iron rail and stared at the distant moving lights, with eyes that took in nothing. He was thinking of the past - Houndsditch and the cold, wind-swept street-corners where the newsboys stood; bustle and clamor and dirt, and nothing in the world to fight for but elbow- room and bread—begrudged pittance of the starveling underdog; suspicion; sometimes the cold, uncomfortable hand of charity and always the everlasting, haunting fear of hunger. Home, sweet home, in fact! What did he owe the Empire, or the world at large?
The lighthouse-keeper brushed past him on his way around the platform. Stanley held out a hand and stopped him.
"Where was you born?" he demanded.
"Bermundsey—Long Lane. In the rookeries back o' the big glue factory."
"Well—you had a chance, didn't you? You lived—you didn't have to fight?"
"I begged, son, until the truant-officers got hold of me. When they were through with me I sold papers, and blacked boots, and carried bags for a living: d'you know what that means?"
Stanley did not answer. He laid his chin on the rail again and gazed out into the night. The lighthouse-keeper checked the revolutions, and went below; the dancing yellow lights moved off to the eastward; the red and green and white lights came and went along the sea-lane; but Stanley never moved. The breeze fell, and the heat and the humidity intensified. Away over to the eastward the faintest fore flickering of yellow light began to play on the horizon, and from below him came the deep-throated sentry-call:
Then the light went out with a suddenness that hurt, and the purring of the engine ceased. Stanley stood up with a jerk and rubbed his eyes.
"Had a bad dream, son?" asked the lighthouse-keeper, emerging through the door on to the platform. "It's time to turn the guard."
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