MR. SETH ATKINS
The stars, like incandescent lights fed by a fast weakening dynamo, grew pale, faded, and, one by one, went out. The slate-colored sea, with its tumbling waves, changed color, becoming a light gray, then a faint blue, and, as the red sun rolled up over the edge of the eastern horizon, a brilliant sapphire, trimmed with a silver white on the shoals and along the beach at the foot of the bluff.
Seth Atkins, keeper of the Eastboro Twin-Lights, yawned, stretched, and glanced through the seaward windows of the octagon-shaped, glass-enclosed room at the top of the north tower, where he had spent the night just passed. Then he rose from his chair and extinguished the blaze in the great lantern beside him. Morning had come, the mists had rolled away, and the dots scattered along the horizon—schooners, tugs, and coal barges, for the most part—no longer needed the glare of Eastboro Twin-Lights to warn them against close proximity to the dangerous, shoal-bordered coast. Incidentally, it was no longer necessary for Mr. Atkins to remain on watch. He drew the curtains over the polished glass and brass of the lantern, yawned again, and descended the winding iron stairs to the door at the foot of the tower, opened it and emerged into the sandy yard.
Crossing this yard, before the small white house which the government provided as a dwelling place for its lightkeepers, he opened the door of the south tower, mounted the stairs there and repeated the extinguishing process with the other lantern. Before again descending to earth, however, he stepped out on the iron balcony surrounding the light chamber and looked about him.
The view, such as it was, was extensive. To the east the open sea, the wide Atlantic, rolling lazily in the morning light, a faint breeze rippling the surfaces of the ground-swell. A few sails in sight, far out. Not a sound except the hiss and splash of the surf, which, because of a week of calms and light winds, was low even for that time of year—early June.
To the north stretched the shores of the back of the Cape. High clay bluffs, rain-washed and wrinkled, sloping sharply to the white sand of the beach a hundred feet below. Only one building, except those connected with the lighthouses, near at hand, this a small, gray-shingled bungalow about two hundred yards away, separated from the lights by the narrow stream called Clam Creek—Seth always spoke of it as the “Crick”—which, turning in behind the long surf-beaten sandspit known, for some forgotten reason, as “Black Man’s Point,” continued to the salt-water pond which was named “The Cove.” A path led down from the lighthouses to a bend in the “Crick,” and there, on a small wharf, was a shanty where Seth kept his spare lobster and eel-pots, dory sails, nets, and the like. The dory itself, with the oars in her, was moored in the cove.
A mile off, to the south, the line of bluffs was broken by another inlet, the entrance to Pounddug Slough. This poetically named channel twisted and wound tortuously inland through salt marshes and between mudbanks, widening at last to become Eastboro Back Harbor, a good-sized body of water, with the village of Eastboro at its upper end. In the old days, when Eastboro amounted to something as a fishing port, the mackerel fleet unloaded its catch at the wharves in the Back Harbor. Then Pounddug Slough was kept thoroughly dredged and buoyed. Now it was weed-grown and neglected. Only an occasional lobsterman’s dory traversed its winding ways, which the storms and tides of each succeeding winter rendered more difficult to navigate. The abandoned fish houses along its shores were falling to pieces, and at intervals the stranded hulk of a fishing sloop or a little schooner, rotting in the sun, was a dismal reminder that Eastboro’s ambitious young men no longer got their living alongshore. The town itself had gone to sleep, awakening only in the summer, when the few cottagers came and the Bay Side Hotel was opened for its short season.
Behind the lighthouse buildings, to the west—and in the direction of the village—were five miles of nothing in particular. A desolate wilderness of rolling sand-dunes, beach grass, huckleberry and bayberry bushes, cedar swamps, and small clumps of pitch-pines. Through this desert the three or four rutted, crooked sand roads, leading to and from the lights, turned and twisted. Along their borders dwelt no human being; but life was there, life in abundance. Ezra Payne, late assistant keeper at the Twin-Lights, was ready at all times to furnish evidence concerning the existence of this life.
“My godfreys domino!” Ezra had exclaimed, after returning from a drive to Eastboro village, “I give you my word, Seth, they dummed nigh et me alive. They covered the horse all up, so that he looked for all the world like a sheep, woolly. I don’t mind moskeeters in moderation, but when they roost on my eyelids and make ‘em so heavy I can’t open ‘em, then I’m ready to swear. But I couldn’t get even that relief, because every time I unbattened my mouth a million or so flew in and choked me. That’s what I said—a million. Some moskeeters are fat, but these don’t get a square meal often enough to be anything but hide-racks filled with cussedness. Moskeeters! My godfreys domino!”
Ezra was no longer assistant lightkeeper. He and his superior had quarreled two days before. The quarrel was the culmination, on Ezra’s part, of a gradually developing “grouch” brought on by the loneliness of his surroundings. After a night of duty he had marched into the house, packed his belongings in a battered canvas extension case, and announced his intention of resigning from the service.
“To the everlastin’ brimstone with the job!” he snarled, addressing Mr. Atkins, who, partially dressed, emerged from the bedroom in bewilderment and sleepy astonishment. “To thunder with it, I say! I’ve had all the gov’ment jobs I want. Life-savin’ service was bad enough, trampin’ the condemned beach in a howlin’ no’theaster, with the sand cuttin’ furrers in your face, and the icicles on your mustache so heavy you got round-shouldered luggin’ ‘em. But when your tramp was over, you had somebody to talk to. Here, by godfreys! there ain’t nothin’ nor nobody. I’m goin’ fishin’ again, where I can be sociable.”
“Humph!” commented Seth, “you must be lonesome all to once. Ain’t my company good enough for you?”
“Company! A heap of company you are! When I’m awake you’re asleep and snorin’ and—”
“I never snored in my life,” was the indignant interruption
“What? YOU’LL snore when you’re dead, and wake up the whole graveyard. Lonesome!” he continued, without giving his companion a chance to retort, “lonesome ain’t no name for this place. No company but green flies and them moskeeters, and nothin’ to look at but salt water and sand and—and—dummed if I can think of anything else. Five miles from town and the only house in sight shut tight. When I come here you told me that bungalow was opened up every year—”
“So it has been till this season.”
“And that picnics come here every once in a while.”
“Don’t expect picnickers to be such crazy loons as to come here in winter time, do you?”
“I don’t know. If they’re fools enough to come here ANY time, I wouldn’t be responsible for ‘em. There ain’t so many moskeeters in winter. But just LOOK at this hole. Just put on your specs and LOOK at it! Not a man—but you—not a woman, not a child, not a girl—”
“Ah ha! ah ha! NOW we’re gettin’ at it! Not a girl! That’s what’s the matter with you. You want to be up in the village, where you can go courtin’. You’re too fur from Elsie Peters, that’s where the shoe pinches. I’ve heard how you used to set out in her dad’s backyard, with your arm round her waist, lookin’ at each other, mushy as a couple of sassers of hasty-puddin’. Bah! I’ll take care my next assistant ain’t girl-struck.”
“Girl-struck! I’d enough sight ruther be girl-struck than always ravin’ and rippin’ against females. And all because some woman way back in Methusalem’s time had sense enough to heave you over. At least, that’s what everybody cal’lates must be the reason. You pretend to be a woman-hater. All round this part of the Cape you’ve took pains to get up that kind of reputation; but—”
“There ain’t no pretendin’ about it. I’ve got brains enough to keep clear of petticoats. And when you get to be as old as I be and know as much as I do—though that ain’t no ways likely, even if you live to be nine hundred and odd, like Noah in Scripture—you’ll feel the same way.”
“Aw, come off! Woman-hater! You hate women same as the boy at the poorhouse hated ice cream—‘cause there ain’t none around. Why, I wouldn’t trust you as fur as I could see you!”
This was the end of the dialogue, because Mr. Payne was obliged to break off his harangue and dodge the stove-lifter flung at him by the outraged lightkeeper. As the lifter was about to be followed by the teakettle, Ezra took to his heels, bolted from the house and began his long tramp to the village. When he reached the first clumps of bayberry bushes bordering the deeply rutted road, a joyful cloud of mosquitoes rose and settled about him like a fog.
So Seth Atkins was left alone to do double duty at Eastboro Twin-Lights, pending the appointment of another assistant. The two days and nights following Ezra’s departure had been strenuous and provoking. Doing all the housework, preparation of meals included, tending both lights, rubbing brass work, sweeping and scouring, sleeping when he could and keeping awake when he must, nobody to talk to, nobody to help—the forty-eight hours of solitude had already convinced Mr. Atkins that the sooner a helper was provided the better. At times he even wished the disrespectful Payne back again, wished that he had soothed instead of irritated the departed one. Then he remembered certain fragments of their last conversation and wished the stove-lifter had been flung with better aim.
Now, standing on the gallery of the south tower, he was conscious of a desire for breakfast. Preparing that meal had been a part of his assistant’s duties. Now he must prepare it himself, and he was hungry and sleepy. He mentally vowed that he would no longer delay notifying the authorities of the desertion, and would urge them to hurry in sending some one to fill the vacant place.
Grumbling aloud to himself, he moved around the circle of the gallery toward the door. His hand was on the latch, when, turning, he cast another glance over the rail, this time directly downward toward the beach below. And there he saw something which caused him to forget hunger and grievances of all kinds; something which, after one horrified look to make sure, led him to dart into the light chamber, spring at a reckless gait down the winding stair, out of the tower, rush to the edge of the bluff, and plunge headlong down the zigzag path worn in the clay.
On the sand, at the foot of the bluff below the lights, just beyond reach of the wash of the surf, lay a man, or the dead body of a man, stretched at full length.
Categories: English Literature