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The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands

The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


A light--clear, ruddy and brilliant, like a huge carbuncle--uprose one evening from the deep, and remained hovering about forty feet above the surface, scattering its rays far and wide, ov...
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  A light--clear, ruddy and brilliant, like a huge carbuncle--uprose oneevening from the deep, and remained hovering about forty feet above thesurface, scattering its rays far and wide, over the Downs to Ramsgateand Deal, along the coast towards Dover, away beyond the North Foreland,across the Goodwin Sands, and far out upon the bosom of the great NorthSea.

  It was a chill November evening, when this light arose, in the year--well, it matters not what year. We have good reasons, reader, forshrouding this point in mystery. It may have been recently; it may havebeen "long, long ago." We don't intend to tell. It was not the firsttime of that light's appearance, and it certainly was not the last. Letit suffice that what we are about to relate did happen, sometime orother within the present century.

  Besides being cold, the evening in question was somewhatstormy--"gusty," as was said of it by a traveller with a stern visageand remarkably keen grey eyes, who entered the coffee-room of an hotelwhich stood on the margin of Ramsgate harbour facing the sea, and fromthe upper windows of which the light just mentioned was visible.

  "It is, sir," said the waiter, in reply to the "gusty" observation,stirring the fire while the traveller divested himself of his hat andgreatcoat.

  "Think it's going to blow hard?" inquired the traveller, plantinghimself firmly on the hearth-rug, with his back to the fire, and histhumbs hooked into the armholes of his waistcoat.

  "It may, sir, and it may not," answered the waiter, with the caution ofa man who has resolved, come what may, never to commit himself."Sometimes it comes on to blow, sir, w'en we don't look for it; at othertimes it falls calm w'en we least expects it. I don't pretend tounderstand much about the weather myself, sir, but I shouldn't wonder ifit _was_ to come on to blow 'ard. It ain't an uncommon thing atRamsgate, sir."

  The traveller, who was a man of few words, said "Humph!" to which thewaiter dutifully replied "Yessir," feeling, no doubt, that theobservation was too limited to warrant a lengthened rejoinder.

  The waiter of the Fortress Hotel had a pleasant, sociable, expressivecountenance, which beamed into a philanthropic smile as he added--

  "Can I do anything for you, sir?"

  "Yes--tea," answered the traveller with the keen grey eyes, turning, andpoking the fire with the heel of his boot.

  "Anything _with_ it, sir?" asked the waiter with that charminglyconfident air peculiar to his class, which induces one almost to believethat if a plate of elephant's foot or a slice of crocodile's tail wereordered it would be produced, hot, in a few minutes.

  "D'you happen to know a man of the name of Jones in the town?" demandedthe traveller, facing round abruptly.

  The waiter replied that he had the pleasure of knowing at least sevenJoneses in the town.

  "Does one of the seven deal largely in cured fish and own a smallsloop?" asked the traveller.

  "Yessir, he do, but he don't live in Ramsgate; he belongs to Yarmouth,sir, comes 'ere only now and then."

  "D'you know anything about him?"

  "No, sir, he don't frequent this 'otel."

  The waiter said this in a tone which showed that he deemed that factsufficient to render Jones altogether unworthy of human interest; "but Ibelieve," he added slowly, "that he is said to 'ave plenty of money,bears a bad character, and is rather fond of his bottle, sir."

  "You know nothing more?"

  "Nothing, sir."

  "Ham and eggs, dry toast and shrimps," said the keen-eyed traveller inreply to the reiterated question.

  Before these viands were placed on the table the brief twilight hadpassed away and darkness en-shrouded land and sea. After they had beenconsumed the traveller called for the latest local paper, to which hedevoted himself for an hour with unflagging zeal--reading it straightthrough, apparently, advertisements and all, with as much diligence asif it were a part of his professional business to do so. Then he tossedit away, rang the bell, and ordered a candle.

  "I suppose," he said, pointing towards the sea, as he was about to quitthe room, "that that is the floating light?"

  "It is one of 'em, sir," replied the waiter. "There are three lights onthe sands, sir; the Northsan 'ead, the Gull-stream, and the Southsan'ead. That one, sir, is the Gull."

  "How far off may it be?"

  "About four miles, sir."

  "What is the mate's name?"

  "Welton, sir, John Welton."

  "Is he aboard just now?"

  "Yessir, it's the master's month ashore. The master and mate 'ave itmonth an' month about, sir--one month afloat, next month ashore; but itseems to me, sir, that they have 'arder work w'en ashore than they 'avew'en afloat--lookin' after the Trinity stores, sir, an' goin' off in thetender to shift and paint the buoys an' such like; but then you see,sir, w'en it's their turn ashore they always gits home to spend thenights with their families, sir, w'ich is a sort of compensation, as itwere,--that's where it is, sir."

  "Humph! d'you know what time it is slack water out there in theafternoon just now?"

  "About three o'clock, sir."

  "Call me at nine to-morrow; breakfast at half-past; beefsteaks, coffee,dry toast. Good-night."

  "Yessir--good-night, sir--Number 27, sir, first floor, left-hand side."

  Number 27 slammed his door with that degree of violence which indicatesa stout arm and an easy conscience. In less than quarter of an hour thekeen grey eyes were veiled in slumber, as was proved unmistakably to thehousehold by the sounds that proceeded from the nose to which these eyesbelonged.

  It is not unfrequently found that strength of mind, vigour of body, highcolour, and a tremendous appetite are associated with great capacity forsnoring. The man with the keen grey eyes possessed all these qualities,as well as a large chin and a firm mouth, full of very strong whiteteeth. He also possessed the convenient power of ability to go to sleepat a moment's notice and to remain in that felicitous condition until hechose to awake. His order to be "called" in the morning had referencemerely to hot water; for at the time of which we write men were stilladdicted to the ridiculous practice of shaving--a practice which, asevery one knows, is now confined chiefly to very old men--who naturallyfind it difficult to give up the bad habit of a lifetime--and to littleboys, who _erroneously_ suppose that the use of a sharp penknife willhasten Nature's operations.

  Exactly at nine o'clock, a knock at the door and "'Ot water, sir,"sounded in the ears of Nunber 27. At half-past nine precisely Number 27entered the coffee-room, and was so closely followed by the waiter withbreakfast that it seemed as if that self-sacrificing functionary had satup all night keeping the meal hot in order to testify, by excessivepunctuality, the devotion of his soul to duty.

  The keen-eyed man had a keen appetite, if one might judge fromappearances in such a matter. A thick underdone steak that overwhelmedhis plate appeared to melt away rapidly from before him. Potatoes hedisposed of in two bites each; small ones were immolated whole. Ofmustard he used as much as might have made a small-sized plaster; pepperhe sowed broadcast; he made no account whatever of salt, and sugar wasas nothing before him. There was a peculiar crash in the sound producedby the biting of his toast, which was suggestive at once of irresistiblepower and thorough disintegration. Coffee went down in half-cup gulps;shrimps disappeared in shoals, shells and all; and--in short, hisproceedings might have explained to an intelligent observer how it isthat so many men grow to be exceedingly fat, and why it is that hotelproprietors cannot afford to lower their apparently exorbitant charges.The waiter, standing modestly by, and looking on with solemn interest,mentally attributed the traveller's extraordinary powers and high healthto the fact that he neither smoked nor drank. It would be presumptuousin us to hazard a speculation on this subject in the face of an opinionheld by one who was so thoroughly competent to judge.

  Breakfast over, the keen-eyed man put on his hat and overcoat andsallied forth to the harbour, where he spent the greater part of theforenoon in loitering about, inspecting the boats--particularly thelifeboat--and the shipping with much interest, and entering intoconversation with the boatmen who lounged upon the pier. He was verygracious to the coxswain of the lifeboat--a bluff, deep-chested, hearty,neck-or-nothing sort of man, with an intelligent eye, almost as keen ashis own, and a manner quite as prompt. With this coxswain he conversedlong about the nature of his stirring and dangerous duties. He thenmade inquiry about his crew: how many men he had, and theircircumstances; and, by the way, whether any of them happened to be namedJones. One of them was so named, the coxswain said--Tom Jones. Thisled the traveller to ask if Tom Jones owned a small sloop. No, hedidn't own a sloop, not even a boat. Was there any other Jones in thetown who owned a small sloop and dealt largely in cured fish? Yes therewas, and he was a regular gallow's-bird, if all reports were true, thecoxswain told him.

  The traveller did not press the subject long. Having brought it up asit were incidentally, he dismissed it carelessly, and again concentratedhis attention and interest on the lifeboat.

  To all the men with whom he conversed this bluff man with the keen greyeyes put the same question, and he so contrived to put it that it seemedto be a matter of comparatively little interest to him whether there wasor was not a man of the name of Jones in the town. Nevertheless, hegained all the information about Jones that he desired, and then, hiringa boat, set out for the floating light.

  The weather, that had appeared threatening during the night, suddenlybecame calm and fine, as if to corroborate the statement of the waiterof the Fortress Hotel in regard to its uncertainty; but knowing men inoilcloth sou'westers and long boots gave it as their opinion that theweather was not to be trusted. Fortunately for the traveller, itremained trustworthy long enough to serve his purpose. The calmpermitted his boat to go safely alongside of the light-ship, and toclimb up the side without difficulty.

  The vessel in which he found himself was not by any means what we shouldstyle clipper-built--quite the reverse. It was short for its length,bluff in the bows, round in the stern, and painted all over, exceptingthe mast and deck, of a bright red colour, like a great scarlet dragon,or a gigantic boiled lobster. It might have been mistaken for the firstattempt in the ship-building way of an infatuated boy, whoseacquaintance with ships was founded on hearsay, and whose taste incolour was violently eccentric. This remarkable thing had one immensemast in the middle of it, supported by six stays, like the Norse galleysof old, but it had no yards; for, although the sea was indeed its home,and it incessantly braved the fury of the storm, diurnally cleft thewaters of flood and ebb-tide, and gallantly breasted the billows ofocean all the year round, it had no need of sails. It never advanced aninch on its course, for it had no course. It never made for any port.It was never either homeward or outward bound. No streaming eyes everwatched its departure; no beating hearts ever hailed its return. Itsbowsprit never pointed either to "Greenland's icy mountains, or India'scoral strand," for it had no bowsprit at all. Its helm was never swayedto port or starboard, although it _had_ a helm, because the vesselturned submissive with the tides, and its rudder, being lashed hard andfast amidships--like most weather-cocks--couldn't move. Its doom was totug perpetually, day and night, from year to year, at a gigantic anchorwhich would not let go, and to strain at a monster chain-cable whichwould not snap--in short, to strive for ever, like Sisyphus, aftersomething which can never be attained.

  A sad destiny, some may be tempted to exclaim. No, reader, not so sadas it appears. We have presented but one side of the picture. Thatcurious, almost ridiculous-looking craft, was among the aristocracy ofshipping. Its important office stamped it with nobility. It lay there,conspicuous in its royal colour, from day to day and year to year, tomark the fair-way between the white cliffs of Old England and theoutlying shoals--distinguished in daylight by a huge ball at itsmast-head, and at night by a magnificent lantern with argand lamps andconcave reflectors, which shot its rays like lightning far and wide overthe watery waste, while, in thick weather, when neither ball nor lightcould be discerned, a sonorous gong gave its deep-toned warning to theapproaching mariner, and let him know his position amid the surroundingdangers. Without such warnings by night and by day, the world wouldsuffer the loss of thousands of lives and untold millions of gold.Indeed the mere absence of such warnings for one stormy night wouldcertainly result in loss irreparable to life and property. As wellmight Great Britain dispense with her armies as with her floatinglights! That boiled-lobster-like craft was also, if we may be allowedto say so, stamped with magnanimity, because its services weredisinterested and universal. While other ships were sailing grandly totheir ports in all their canvas panoply, and swelling with the pride ofcostly merchandise within, each unmindful of the other, _this_ shipremained floating there, destitute of cargo, either rich or poor, neverin port, always on service, serene in all the majesty of her one settledself-sacrificing purpose--to guide the converging navies of the worldsafely past the dangerous shoals that meet them on their passage to theworld's greatest port, the Thames, or to speed them safely thence whenoutward-bound. That unclipperly craft, moreover, was a gallant vessel,because its post was one of danger. When other ships fled on the wingsof terror--or of storm trysails--to seek refuge in harbour androadstead, this one merely lengthened her cable--as a knight might shakeloose the reins of his war-horse on the eve of conflict--and calmlyawaited the issue, prepared to let the storm do its worst, and to meetit with a bold front. It lay right in the Channel, too, "i' theimminent deadly breach," as it were, prepared to risk encounter with thethousands of ships, great and small, which passed to and frocontinually;--to be grazed and fouled by clumsy steersmen, and to be runinto at night by unmanageable wrecks or derelicts; ready for anything infact--come weal come woe, blow high blow low--in the way of duty, forthis vessel was the Floating Light that marked the Gull-stream off thecelebrated and fatal Goodwin Sands.