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.
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.