A LIGHTSHIP IDYLL.
When first the Trinity Brothers put a light out yonder by the Gunnel Rocks, it was just a trifling makeshift affair for the time–none of your proper lightships with a crew of twelve or fourteen hands; and my father and I used to tend it, taking turn and turn with two other fellows from the Islands. I’m talking of old days. The rule then– they have altered it since–was two months afloat and two ashore; and all the time we tossed out there on duty, not a soul would we see to speak to except when the Trinity boat put off with stores for us and news of what was doing in the world. This would be about once a fortnight in fair weather; but through the winter time it was oftener a month, and provisions ran low enough, now and then, to make us anxious. “Was the life dreary?” Well, you couldn’t call it gay; but, you see, it didn’t kill me.
For the first week I thought the motion would drive me crazy–up and down, up and down, in that everlasting ground-swell–although I had been at the fishing all my life, and knew what it meant to lie-to in any ordinary sea. But after ten days or so I got not to mind it. And then there was the open air. It was different with the poor fellows on the Lighthouse, eighteen miles to seaward of us, to the south-west. They drew better pay than ours, by a trifle; but they were landsmen, to start with; and cooped in that narrow tower at night, with the shutters closed and the whole building rocking like a tree, it’s no wonder their nerves wore out. Four or five days of it have been known to finish a man; and in those times a lighthouse-keeper had three months of duty straight away, and only a fortnight on shore. Now he gets only a fortnight out there, and six weeks to recover in. With all that, they’re mostly fit to start at their own shadow when the boat takes them off.
But on the lightship we fared tolerably. To begin with, we had the lantern to attend to. You’d be surprised how much employment that gives a man–cleaning, polishing, and trimming. And my father, though particular to a scratch on the reflector, or the smallest crust of salt on the glass, was a restful, cheerful sort of a man to bide with. Not talkative, you understand–no light-keeper in the world was ever talkative–but with a power of silence that was more comforting than speech. And out there, too, we found all sorts of little friendly things to watch and think over. Sometimes a school of porpoises; or a line of little murrs flying; or a sail far to the south, making for the Channel. And sometimes, towards evening, the fishing-boats would come out and drop anchor a mile and a half to south’ard, down sail, and hang out their riding lights; and we knew that they took their mark from us, and that gave a sociable feeling.
On clear afternoons, too, by swarming up the mast just beneath the cage, I could see the Islands away in the east, with the sun on their cliffs; and home wasn’t so far off, after all. The town itself, which lay low down on the shore, we could never spy, but glimpsed the lights of it now and then, after sunset. These always flickered a great deal, because of the waves, like little hills of water, bobbing between them and us. And always we had the Lighthouse for company. In daytime, through the glass, we could watch the keepers walking about in the iron gallery round the top: and all night through there it was beckoning to us with its three white flashes every minute. No, we weren’t exactly gay out there, and sometimes we made wild weather of it. Yet we did pretty well; except for the fogs, when our arms ached with keeping the gong going.