The position of a light-house keeper, in a sea infested by submarines, is a peculiar one; but Peter Ramsay, keeper of the Hatchets’ Light, had reasons for feeling that his lonely tower, six miles from the mainland, was the happiest habitation in the world.
At five o’clock, on a gusty October afternoon, of the year 1916, Peter had just finished his tea and settled down, with a pipe and the last number of the British Weekly, for five minutes’ reading, before he turned to the secret of his happiness again. Precisely at this moment, the Commander of the U-99, three miles away to the north, after making sure through his periscope that there were no patrol boats in the vicinity, rose to the surface, and began to look for the Hatchets’. He, too, had reasons for wishing to get inside the light-house, if only for half an hour. It was possible only by trickery; but he thought it might be done under cover of darkness, and he was about to reconnoiter.
When he first emerged, he had some difficulty in descrying his goal across that confused sea. His eye was guided by a patch of foam, larger than the ordinary run of white-caps, and glittering in the evening sun like a black-thorn blossom. As the sky brightened behind it, he saw, rising upright, like the single slim pistil of those rough white petals, the faint shaft of the light-house itself.
He stole nearer, till these pretty fancies were swallowed up in the savagery of the place. It greeted him with a deep muffled roar as of a hundred sea-lions, and the air grew colder with its thin mists of spray. The black thorns and white petals became an angry ship-wrecking ring of ax-headed rocks, furious with surf; and the delicate pistil assumed the stature of the Nelson Column.
It made his head reel to look up at its firm height from the tossing conning-tower, as he circled the reef, making his observations. He noted the narrow door, twenty feet up, in the smooth wall of the shaft. There was no way of approaching it until the rope-ladder was let down from within. But, after midnight, when the custodian’s wits might be a little drowsy, he thought his plan might succeed. He noted the pool on the reef, and the big boulder near the base of the tower. There was only one thing which he did not see, an unimportant thing in war-time. He did not see the beauty of that unconscious monument to the struggling spirit of man.
Its lofty silence and endurance, in their stern contrast with the tumult below, had touched the imagination of many wanderers on that sea; for it soared to the same sky as their spires on land, and its beauty was heightened by the simplicity of its practical purpose. But it made no more impression on Captain Bernstein than on the sea-gulls that mewed and swooped around it.
When his observations were completed, the U-99 sheered off and submerged. She had to lie “doggo,” at the bottom of the sea, for the next few hours; and there were several of her sisters waiting, a mile or so to the north, on a fine sandy bottom, to compare notes. Two of these sisters were big submarine mine-layers of a new type. The U-99 settled down near them, and began exchanging under-water messages at once.
“If you lay your mines properly, and lie as near as possible to the harbor mouth, you can leave the rest to me. They will come out in a hurry, and you ought to sink two-thirds of them.” This was the final message from Captain Bernstein; and, shortly after eight o’clock, all the other submarines moved off, in the direction of the coast. The U-99 remained in her place, till the hour was ripe.
About midnight, she came to the surface again. Everything seemed propitious. There were no patrols in sight; and, in any case, Captain Bernstein knew that they seldom came within a mile of the light-house, for ships gave it a wide berth, and there was not likely to be good hunting in the neighborhood. This was why the U-boats had found it so useful as a rendezvous lately.
It was a moonless night; and, as the U-99 stole towards the Hatchets’ for the second time, even Captain Bernstein was impressed by the spectacle before him. Against a sky of scudding cloud and flying stars, the light-house rose like the scepter of the oldest Sea-god. The mighty granite shaft was gripped at the base by black knuckles of rock in a welter of foam. A hundred feet above, the six-foot reflectors of solid crystal sheathed the summit with fire, and flashed as they revolved there like the facets of a single burning jewel.
“They could be smashed with a three-inch gun,” thought Bernstein, “and they are very costly. Many thousand pounds of damage could thus be done, and perhaps many ships endangered.” But he concluded, with some regret, that his other plans were more promising.
It was long past Peter’s usual bedtime; but he was trimming his oil lamp, just now, in his tiny octagonal sitting-room, half-way up the tower. He had been busy all the evening, with the secret of his happiness, which was a very queer one indeed. He was trying to write a book, trying and failing. His papers were scattered all over the worn red cloth that tried—and failed—to cover his oak table, exactly as poor Peter’s language was trying to clothe his thought. Indeed, there were many clues to his life and character in that room, which served many purposes. It had only one window, hardly larger than the arrow-defying slits of a Norman castle. It was his kitchen, and a cooking-stove was fitted compactly into a corner. It was his library; and, facing the window, there was a book-shelf, containing several tattered volumes by Mark Rutherford; a Bible; the “Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture,” by Gladstone; the “First Principles” of Herbert Spencer; and the Essays of Emerson. There was also a small volume, bound in blue leather, called “The Wonders of the Deep.” The leather binding was protected by a brown paper jacket, for it was a prize, awarded by the Westport Grammar School, in 1864, to Peter Ramsay, aged fourteen, for his excellence in orthography. This, of course, was the beginning of all his dreams; and it was still their sustainment, though the death of his father, who had been the captain of a small coasting steamer, had thrown Peter on the world before he was fifteen, and ended his hopes of the scholarship, which was to have carried him eventually to the heights.
The bound volumes were buttressed between piles of the British Weekly. The only picture on the wall was a framed oleograph of Gladstone, his chief hero, though Peter had long ago renounced the theology of the Impregnable Rock. Whether the great statesman deserved this worship or not is a matter for historians. The business of this chronicle is to record the views of Peter, and these were quite clear.
He was restless to-night. It was his sixty-sixth birthday, and it reminded him that he was behindhand with his great work. Nobody else had reminded him of it, for he was quite alone in the world. He was beginning to wonder, almost for the first time, whether he was really destined to fail. He had begun to look his age at last; but he was a fine figure of a man still. His white hair and flowing white beard framed a face of the richest mahogany brown, in which the blood mantled like wine over the cheek-bones. His deep eyes, of the marine blue, that belongs only to the folk of the sea, were haunted sometimes by visionary fires, like those in the eyes of an imaginative child. He might have posed for the original fisherman of his first name. Of course, he was regarded as a little eccentric by the dwellers on the coast, whom he had often amazed by what they called his “innocence.” The red nosed landlord of the Blue Dolphin had often been heard, on Sundays, to say that we should all do well if we were as innocent as Peter. When he visited the little town of Westport (which was now a naval base), the urchins in the street sometimes expressed their view of the matter by waiting until he was safely out of hearing, and then crowing like cocks.
Nobody knew of Peter Ramsay’s secret, or the urchins might not have waited at all, and even the kindest of his friends would have regarded him as daft. But the comedy was not without its tragic aspect. Peter Ramsay may have been cracked, but it was with the peculiar kind of crack that you get in the everlasting hills, a rift that shows the sky. With his imperfect equipment and hopeless lack of technique, he was trying to write down certain truths, for the lack of which the civilized world, at that moment, was in danger of destruction.
This does not mean that Peter was the sole possessor of those truths. He was only one among millions of simple and unsophisticated souls, all over the world, who possessed those truths dumbly, and knew, with complete certainty, that their intellectual leaders, for the most part, lacked them, or had lost them in a multitude of details. These dumb millions were right about certain important matters; and their leaders, for all their dialectical cleverness, had lost sight of the truth which has always proceeded ex ore infantium. It was the tragedy of the twentieth century, and it had culminated in the tragedy of philosophical Germany. There were certain features of modern books, modern paintings, and modern music, that mopped and mowed like faces through the bars of a mad-house, clamoring for dishonor and brutality in every department of life. These things could not be dissociated from the international tragedy. They were its heralds. Peter Ramsay was one of those obscure millions who were the most important figures in Armageddon because they, and they alone, in our modern world, had retained the right to challenge the sophistries of Germany. They had not needed the war to teach them the reality of evil; and if they had sinned, they had never for a moment tried to prove that they did right in sinning.
Peter knew all this, though he would not have said it in so many words. In his book, he was trying to meet the main onset of all those destructive forces. He had realized that the modern world had no faith, since the creeds had gone into the melting pot; and he was trying to write down, plainly, for plain men, exactly what he believed.
He turned over the red-lined pages of the big leather-bound ledger, half diary, half commonplace book, in which, for the last forty years, he had made his notes. It was a queer medley, beginning with passages written in his youth, that recalled many of his old struggles. There was one, in particular, that always reminded him of a school friend named Herbert Potts, who had eventually won the coveted scholarship. They used to go for walks together, over the hills, and talk about science and religion.
“So you don’t believe there is any future life,” Peter had said to him one day.
“Not for the individual,” replied Herbert Potts, adjusting his glasses, with a singularly intellectual expression.
“But if there is none for the individual, it means the end of all we are fighting for, because the race will come to an end, eventually,” said Peter. “Why, think, Potts, think, it means that all your progress drops over a precipice at last. It means that instead of the Figure of Love, we must substitute the Figure of Death, stretching out his arms and saying to the whole human race, ‘Come unto Me! Suffer little children to come unto Me!'”
“I am afraid all the evidence points that way,” said Potts, and as he had just passed the London matriculation examination, the words rang like a death-knell in Peter’s foolish heart. He remembered how the words had recurred to him in his dreams that night, and how he awoke in the gray dawn to find that his pillow was wet with tears.
There were many other memories in his book, memories of the long struggle, the wrestling with the angel, and at last the music of that loftier certainty which he longed to impart.
A little after midnight, he threw aside the hopeless chaos of the manuscript, into which he had been trying to distil the essence of his scrap-book. He rose and went upstairs to his bedroom on the next floor. It was a little smaller than his sitting-room, and contained a camp-bed, a wash-stand, with a cracked blue jug and basin, and a chest of drawers. Over the head of the bed was a photogravure reproduction of The Light of the World; and on the wall, facing it, an illuminated prayer: Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord! Under this, affixed to the wall, was the telephone which connected the Hatchets’ with the Naval Station on the coast, by an under-sea wire.
But in spite of this modern invention, Peter Ramsay had quietly gone back through the centuries. He looked as if he were talking to a very great distance indeed, a distance so great that it became an immediate presence. (Do not mathematicians declare that if you could throw a stone into infinity, it would return to your hand?) He was kneeling down by the bed, clasping his hands, lifting his face, closing his eyes, and moving his lips, exactly like a child at his prayers.
It is an odd fact, and doubtless it would have fortified the great ironic intellects of our day (though seventy feet in this unfathomable universe may hardly be reckoned as depth) to know that in the darkness of the reef outside, seventy feet below, four shadowy figures had just landed from a collapsible boat, belonging to the U-99. Three of them were now hauling it out of reach of the waves. The fourth was Captain Bernstein. He stood, fingering his revolver, and looking up at the two lighted windows.
Concerning these things, Peter received no enlightenment; but he rose from his knees with a glowing countenance, and hurried down to his work again.
“I’ll begin at the beginning,” he muttered.
He took a clean sheet of paper and headed it: Chapter I. Under this, he wrote the first four words of the Bible: “In the beginning, God.” Then he crossed them out, and wrote again: “First Principles,” as a better means of approach to the moderns.
He consulted his ledger, and decided that a certain paragraph, written long ago, must take the first place in his book. He wrote it down just as it stood.
“We have forgotten the first principles of straight thinking—the axioms. We have forgotten that the whole is greater than the part. Hence comes much fallacy among modern writers, even great ones, like that pessimist who has said that man, the creature, possesses more nobility than that from which he came.
“One thing must be acknowledged as known, even by agnostics,—namely, that if we have experienced here on earth the grandeurs of the soul of Beethoven and Shakespeare, there must be at the heart of things, before ever this earth was born, something infinitely greater. It is infinitely greater because it is the Producer—not the Product.
“There are some who say that this is only putting the mystery back a stage. This is not a true statement. The mystery is that there should be anything in existence at all. The moment you have a grain of sand in existence, the impossible has happened, and the miracle of the things that we see around us can only be referred to some primal miracle, greater than all, because it contained all their possibilities within itself.
“Beyond this, we are all agnostics. But our reason, building on what we see around us, carries us thus far. Modern thinkers have reversed this process. They begin with man as the summit, and explain him by something less. This again they explain by something less; and slowly whittle away all the visible universe till they arrive at the smallest possible residuum. There is no more tragic spectacle in this age than that of the philosophers who, like Herbert Spencer, having reduced the whole universe to a nebula, try to bridge the gulf between this nebula and nothingness. The great intellect of Spencer grovels below the mental capacity of a child of ten as he makes this absurd attempt, announcing that perhaps the primal nebula might be conceived as thinning itself out until nothingness were reached. It is the agnostics who evade the issue. For there are certain things here and now which we must accept. We know that Love and Thought are greater than the dust to which we consign them. There is only one choice before us. Either there is nothing behind these things, or else there is everything behind them. If we say that there is nothing behind them, all our human struggle goes for nothing. We abandon even the axioms of our reason, and we are doubly traitors to the divine light that lives in every man. If we say that there is everything behind the universe, each of us has his own private door into that divine reality, the door of his own heart.”
At this moment three of the shadowy figures on the reef below were ensconcing themselves behind a boulder of rock, close to the base of the tower, and the fourth figure was groping about on the reef, collecting a handful of stones.
“I have heard men say,” Peter continued, “that they cannot believe in a God who would permit all the suffering on this earth, or else he must be a limited God who cannot help himself.
“This is another question involving the freedom of the will. How long would a world hold together if we could all depend on a miracle to help us at every turn, or even to save the innocent from the consequences of our guilt? Those who ask the question usually assume that our sufferings here are the end of all. The fact that the opposite assumption accords better with our sense of justice is surely no reason for denying it, especially when it follows from the answer given in the first paragraph. These men, asking for miraculous proof of omnipotence, to save the world from suffering, are asking for nothing less than the abolition of law in the universe; and it is only in law that freedom can be found. The rising of the sun cannot be timed to suit each individual; but this is what modern thinkers demand. They say that an all-powerful God could do even this. When they have settled between themselves exactly what they wish, doubtless the Almighty could answer their prayer. Till then, it is better to say ‘Thy law is a lantern unto my feet.'”
At this moment a stone came through the little window behind Peter. The glass scattered itself in splinters all over his red tablecloth. He leapt to his feet, blew the lamp out, and went to the window. He could see nothing in the darkness at first; but as he stood and listened, he thought he heard a voice in the pauses of the wind, crying for help.
Instantly, he hurried out and down the winding stair to the narrow door. He shot back the great bolts, and opened it. He stood there fifteen feet above the rocks, framed in the opening, his white hair and beard blowing about him, as he peered to right and left.
“Come down and help us, for God’s sake!” the voice cried again.
And as Peter’s eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he saw a dark figure crawling laboriously over the reef to the foot of the tower, where it fell as if in a faint. Peter’s only thought was that a fishing boat had foundered. He dropped the rope ladder at once and descended. He stooped over the fallen man. In the same flash of time, he recognized that this was an enemy seaman, and three more shadowy figures leapt from their hiding-place behind a boulder of rock and gripped him.
“There is no cause for fear,” said their leader, rising to his feet. “Our boat has foundered; but we shall die of cold if we stay out here. You must take us into the light-house.”
Peter regarded them curiously, saying nothing. The leader went up the ladder, and beckoned to the others, who ordered Peter to go next, and then followed him.
“I regret that it was necessary to smash your window,” said Captain Bernstein, as the queer group gathered round the lamp in Peter’s living room. “But we might have died out there on a night like this, before you could have heard us shouting. We shall not harm you, although there are four of us. We are in danger ourselves. My friends and I are sick of this work; and, if we are sure of good treatment, we are prepared to help the British with all the information in our possession.”
“How did you escape from the submarine?” said Peter.
“We were alone on deck,” replied Bernstein, “and we took our chance of swimming for the Hatchets’.”
Peter surveyed the four drenched figures thoughtfully. One of them was not realistic enough to satisfy him. There were several obviously dry patches about the shoulders.
“There’s a pool on the reef,” said Peter at last to this man. “Did you find it too cold?”
A change came over Bernstein’s face at once.
“There’s no time to be wasted,” he said. “If you want to help your country, go to your telephone and give this message to the naval base, exactly as I tell it to you. You must say you have just sighted three submarines, two hundred yards due north of the Hatchets’ light. You must say that you have sighted them yourself, because they would not take our word for it; and you must not say anything about our being here at present. If you depart from these instructions, you will be shot instantly. Now, then, go to your telephone and speak.”
Peter gathered up his beloved leather-bound book from the table, and held it under his arm. It was his most precious possession, and the protective act was quite unconscious. Then, for the second time that night, he went into his bedroom, followed by the four Germans. He was white and shaking. He could not understand what these men were after, and the message they proposed seemed to be useful to his own side. After all, the only kind of message that he could send would be something very like it. He might as well deliver it, since these crazy autocrats had decided that it must be given thus, and not otherwise.
He laid the precious book down on the bed, turned to the telephone, and lifted the receiver to his ear. As he did so, the cold muzzle of a revolver pressed against his right temple. The first buzzings of the telephone resolved themselves into a voice from the coast of England, asking what he wanted. Then, it seemed as if a new light were thrown upon the character of the words he was about to speak. He knew instinctively that, if he spoke them, he would be working for the enemy.
In the same instant, he saw exactly what he must do.
“This is Peter Ramsay speaking,” he said, “from the Hatchets’ Light. I have just sighted three submarines due north of the Hatchets’.”
He paused. Then, with a rush, he said:
“Trap! Germans in light-house, forcing me to say this!”
The hand of one of his captors struck down the hook of the receiver. In the same instant, the shot rang out, and Peter Ramsay dropped sidelong, a mere bundle of old clothes and white hair, dabbled with blood.
The German at the telephone replaced the receiver on the hook which he was still holding down.
“Crazy old fool,” muttered Bernstein. He was staring at the red-lined scrap-book on the bed. It lay open at a page describing in Peter’s big sprawling hand, an open-air service among some Welsh miners which he had once witnessed, a memorial service on the day of Gladstone’s funeral. He had been greatly impressed by their choral singing of what was supposed to be Gladstone’s favorite hymn, and it ended with a quotation:
The murderer stooped and laid the revolver near the right hand of the dead man. One of his men touched him on the elbow as he did it, and pointed to Peter’s own old-fashioned revolver on the little shelf beside the bed. Captain Bernstein nodded and smiled. The idea was a good one, and he put Peter’s own revolver in his stiffening fingers. He had just succeeded in making it look quite a realistic suicide, when the telephone bell rang sharply, making him start upright, as if a hand were laid upon his shoulder. He took the receiver again and listened.
“Can’t hear,” he said, trying to imitate Peter’s gruff voice. “No—I dropped the telephone on the floor—no—it was a mistake—no—I said three submarines—two hundred yards due north of the Hatchets’ Light—all right, sir.”
He hung the receiver up again, and looked at the others.
“We may succeed yet,” he said. “Come quickly.”
A minute later they were standing on the lee of the reef. Bernstein blew a whistle thrice. It was answered from the darkness by another, shrill as the cry of a sea-gull; and in five minutes more, the four men and the collapsible boat were aboard their submarine. It submerged at once, and went due south at twelve knots an hour below the unrevealing seas.
Commander Pickering, the officer on duty at the naval base, was not sure whether it was worth while paying any attention to the message from the old man at the Hatchets’. He went to the window and looked at the starry flash of the light-house in the distance.
“Old Peter probably sighted a school of porpoises. They frightened him into a fit,” he said.
The two men of the naval reserve who were waiting for orders, watched him like schoolboys expecting a holiday; but he could not make up his mind. He left the window and studied the big chart on the wall, where the movements of a dozen submarines were marked in red ink from point to point as the daily reports came in, till the final red star announced their destruction. He chewed his lip as he pondered. There was a fleet of submarine destroyers in Westport Harbor at this moment, but they had only just come in from a long spell, and he was loath to turn them out on a wild-goose chase.
“Confound the old idiot,” he muttered again. “He can’t even talk straight. Wanted to say that he had seen submarines, and starts jabbering about Germans in the light-house. Ring him up again, Dawkins, and find out whether he is drunk or talking in his sleep.”
Dawkins went to the telephone. For five minutes, he alternately growled into the mouth-piece and moved the hook up and down.
“Don’t get any answer at all, sir.”
“That’s queer. He can’t be asleep yet after that beautiful conversation.”
Commander Pickering went to the window again with his night-glasses.
“Damned if there isn’t a light in both his rooms, and it’s getting on for two o’clock in the morning. There’s something rum happening. We’ll take a sporting chance on it, and make a regular sweep of the bay. I’ll go out to the Hatchets’ myself on the Silver King. I think the old boy is dotty, and I suppose the Admiral will have my scalp for it to-morrow; but there’s just one chance in a hundred thousand that Mr. Peter Ramsay did spot a squadron of U-boats. If so, we may as well strafe them properly.”
He went to the telephone himself this time, and began issuing orders all over the base. His final sentence was an after-thought, an echo and an elaboration of the queer warning he had received from the Hatchets’.
“Don’t go straight out. Make a sweep round by the south. There may be a trap; and you may as well let the dirigibles go ahead of you and do some scouting.”
“It often happens with these chaps,” said Commander Pickering to Dawkins, as they stood in Peter’s bedroom an hour before dawn. “It’s the lonely life that does it. They ought always to have a couple of men in these places; and, if it hadn’t been for the war, of course, there would have been two men at the Hatchets’. Look here, at all this stuff. The poor chap had religious mania or something. See what he has written on these scraps of paper, twenty or thirty times over, every blessed text he could find about lanterns and lights, and it’s all mixed up with bits from Herbert Spencer on the Unknowable.”
“It was well known all over Westport,” said Dawkins, “that old Peter had a screw loose about religion, but he seemed such a reliable old boy. You don’t think he could have seen anything to set him off like, sir? It seems funny that the door was left open like that.”
“Lord knows what he may have been playing at before he did this. We’d better go upstairs, and have a look at the light.”
The two men plodded up the steep winding stair, poking into every corner on their way up, till they emerged on the little railed platform under the great crystal moons of the lantern. The glare blinded them.
“Turn those lights off,” said Commander Pickering.
Dawkins ducked into the tower and obeyed.
Half a dozen patrol boats, each with its tiny black gun, at bow and stern, were cruising to and fro over rough seas, that looked from that height very much like the wrinkles on poor old Peter’s gray face. Another sailor hauled himself to the platform, breathing hard from the ascent, and saluted.
“A telephone message for you, sir,” he said. “There’s been a lot of mines discovered off the point. We should have run straight into them, if we had neglected your warning and steered a straight course out.”
Commander Pickering looked at Dawkins in silence. Far away to eastward, the dawn was breaking, red as blood, through a low fringe of ragged gray clouds. In a few moments the crystal moons of the Hatchets’ Light were afire with it, and breaking it up into the colors of the rainbow round the black figures of the three men.
“We’ll have to apologize to Peter,” said Dawkins at last.
“It was a very lucky coincidence,” said Commander Pickering; and he led the way downstairs at a smart pace to Peter’s room again.
“There’s no doubt that he shot himself,” he said. “Look at all this. The man was stark mad. See what he has written on the title-page, under his own name: ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church.'”
Categories: English Literature