At long distance, looking over the blue waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in clear weather, you might think that you saw a lonely sea-gull, snow-white, perching motionless on a cobble of gray rock. Then, as your boat drifted in, following the languid tide and the soft southern breeze, you would perceive that the cobble of rock was a rugged hill with a few bushes and stunted trees growing in the crevices, and that the gleaming speck near the summit must be some kind of a building--if you were on the coast of Italy or Spain you would say a villa or a farm-house. Then, as you floated still farther north and drew nearer to the coast, the desolate hill would detach itself from the mainland and become a little mountain-isle, with a flock of smaller islets clustering around it as a brood of wild ducks keep close to their mother, and with deep water, nearly two miles wide, flowing between it and the shore; while the shining speck on the seaward side stood out clearly as a low, whitewashed dwelling with a sturdy round tower at one end, crowned with a big eight-sided lantern--a solitary lighthouse.
That is the Isle of the Wise Virgin. Behind it the long blue Laurentian Mountains, clothed with unbroken forest, rise in sombre ranges toward the Height of Land. In front of it the waters of the gulf heave and sparkle far away to where the dim peaks of St. Anne des Monts are traced along the southern horizon. Sheltered a little, but not completely, by the island breakwater of granite, lies the rocky beach of Dead Men's Point, where an English navy was wrecked in a night of storm a hundred years ago.
There are a score of wooden houses, a tiny, weather-beaten chapel, a Hudson Bay Company's store, a row of platforms for drying fish, and a varied assortment of boats and nets, strung along the beach now. Dead Men's Point has developed into a centre of industry, with a life, a tradition, a social character of its own. And in one of those houses, as you sit at the door in the lingering June twilight, looking out across the deep channel to where the lantern of the tower is just beginning to glow with orange radiance above the shadow of the island--in that far-away place, in that mystical hour, you should hear the story of the light and its keeper.
When the lighthouse was built, many years ago, the island had another name. It was called the Isle of Birds. Thousands of sea- fowl nested there. The handful of people who lived on the shore robbed the nests and slaughtered the birds, with considerable profit. It was perceived in advance that the building of the lighthouse would interfere with this, and with other things. Hence it was not altogether a popular improvement. Marcel Thibault, the oldest inhabitant, was the leader of the opposition.
"That lighthouse!" said he, "what good will it be for us? We know the way in and out when it makes clear weather, by day or by night. But when the sky gets swampy, when it makes fog, then we stay with ourselves at home, or we run into La Trinite, or Pentecote. We know the way. What? The stranger boats? B'EN! the stranger boats need not to come here, if they know not the way. The more fish, the more seals, the more everything will there be left for us. Just because of the stranger boats, to build something that makes all the birds wild and spoils the hunting--that is a fool's work. The good God made no stupid light on the Isle of Birds. He saw no necessity of it."
"Besides," continued Thibault, puffing slowly at his pipe, "besides-- those stranger boats, sometimes they are lost, they come ashore. It is sad! But who gets the things that are saved, all sorts of things, good to put into our houses, good to eat, good to sell, sometimes a boat that can be patched up almost like new--who gets these things, eh? Doubtless those for whom the good God intended them. But who shall get them when this sacre lighthouse is built, eh? Tell me that, you Baptiste Fortin."
Fortin represented the party of progress in the little parliament of the beach. He had come down from Quebec some years ago bringing with him a wife and two little daughters, and a good many new notions about life. He had good luck at the cod-fishing, and built a house with windows at the side as well as in front. When his third girl, Nataline, was born, he went so far as to paint the house red, and put on a kitchen, and enclose a bit of ground for a yard. This marked him as a radical, an innovator. It was expected that he would defend the building of the lighthouse. And he did.
"Monsieur Thibault," he said, "you talk well, but you talk too late. It is of a past age, your talk. A new time comes to the Cote Nord. We begin to civilize ourselves. To hold back against the light would be our shame. Tell me this, Marcel Thibault, what men are they that love darkness?"
"TORRIEUX!" growled Thibault, "that is a little strong. You say my deeds are evil?"
"No, no," answered Fortin; "I say not that, my friend, but I say this lighthouse means good: good for us, and good for all who come to this coast. It will bring more trade to us. It will bring a boat with the mail, with newspapers, perhaps once, perhaps twice a month, all through the summer. It will bring us into the great world. To lose that for the sake of a few birds--CA SERA B'EN DE VALEUR! Besides, it is impossible. The lighthouse is coming, certain."
Fortin was right, of course. But Thibault's position was not altogether unnatural, nor unfamiliar. All over the world, for the past hundred years, people have been kicking against the sharpness of the pricks that drove them forward out of the old life, the wild life, the free life, grown dear to them because it was so easy. There has been a terrible interference with bird-nesting and other things. All over the world the great Something that bridges rivers, and tunnels mountains, and fells forests, and populates deserts, and opens up the hidden corners of the earth, has been pushing steadily on; and the people who like things to remain as they are have had to give up a great deal. There was no exception made in favour of Dead Men's Point. The Isle of Birds lay in the line of progress. The lighthouse arrived.
It was a very good house for that day. The keeper's dwelling had three rooms and was solidly built. The tower was thirty feet high. The lantern held a revolving light, with a four-wick Fresnel lamp, burning sperm oil. There was one of Stevenson's new cages of dioptric prisms around the flame, and once every minute it was turned by clockwork, flashing a broad belt of radiance fifteen miles across the sea. All night long that big bright eye was opening and shutting. "BAGUETTE!" said Thibault, "it winks like a one-eyed Windigo."
The Department of Marine and Fisheries sent down an expert from Quebec to keep the light in order and run it for the first summer. He took Fortin as his assistant. By the end of August he reported to headquarters that the light was all right, and that Fortin was qualified to be appointed keeper. Before October was out the certificate of appointment came back, and the expert packed his bag to go up the river.
"Now look here, Fortin," said he, "this is no fishing trip. Do you think you are up to this job?"
"I suppose," said Fortin.
"Well now, do you remember all this business about the machinery that turns the lenses? That 's the main thing. The bearings must be kept well oiled, and the weight must never get out of order. The clock-face will tell you when it is running right. If anything gets hitched up here's the crank to keep it going until you can straighten the machine again. It's easy enough to turn it. But you must never let it stop between dark and daylight. The regular turn once a minute--that's the mark of this light. If it shines steady it might as well be out. Yes, better! Any vessel coming along here in a dirty night and seeing a fixed light would take it for the Cap Loup-Marin and run ashore. This particular light has got to revolve once a minute every night from April first to December tenth, certain. Can you do it?"
"Certain," said Fortin.
"That's the way I like to hear a man talk! Now, you've got oil enough to last you through till the tenth of December, when you close the light, and to run on for a month in the spring after you open again. The ice may be late in going out and perhaps the supply-boat can't get down before the middle of April, or thereabouts. But she'll bring plenty of oil when she comes, so you'll be all right."
"All right," said Fortin.
"Well, I've said it all, I guess. You understand what you've got to do? Good-by and good luck. You're the keeper of the light now."
"Good luck," said Fortin, "I am going to keep it." The same day he shut up the red house on the beach and moved to the white house on the island with Marie-Anne, his wife, and the three girls, Alma, aged seventeen, Azilda, aged fifteen, and Nataline, aged thirteen. He was the captain, and Marie-Anne was the mate, and the three girls were the crew. They were all as full of happy pride as if they had come into possession of a great fortune.
It was the thirty-first day of October. A snow-shower had silvered the island. The afternoon was clear and beautiful. As the sun sloped toward the rose-coloured hills of the mainland the whole family stood out in front of the lighthouse looking up at the tower.
"Regard him well, my children," said Baptiste; "God has given him to us to keep, and to keep us. Thibault says he is a Windigo. B'EN! We shall see that he is a friendly Windigo. Every minute all the night he shall wink, just for kindness and good luck to all the world, till the daylight."
On the ninth of November, at three o'clock in the afternoon, Baptiste went into the tower to see that the clockwork was in order for the night. He set the dial on the machine, put a few drops of oil on the bearings of the cylinder, and started to wind up the weight.
It rose a few inches, gave a dull click, and then stopped dead. He tugged a little harder, but it would not move. Then he tried to let it down. He pushed at the lever that set the clockwork in motion.
He might as well have tried to make the island turn around by pushing at one of the little spruce trees that clung to the rock.
Then it dawned fearfully upon him that something must be wrong. Trembling with anxiety, he climbed up and peered in among the wheels.
The escapement wheel was cracked clean through, as if some one had struck it with the head of an axe, and one of the pallets of the spindle was stuck fast in the crack. He could knock it out easily enough, but when the crack came around again, the pallet would catch and the clock would stop once more. It was a fatal injury.
Baptiste turned white, then red, gripped his head in his hands, and ran down the steps, out of the door, straight toward his canoe, which was pulled up on the western side of the island.
"DAME!" he cried, "who has done this? Let me catch him! If that old Thibault--"
As he leaped down the rocky slope the setting sun gleamed straight in his eyes. It was poised like a ball of fire on the very edge of the mountains. Five minutes more and it would be gone. Fifteen minutes more and darkness would close in. Then the giant's eye must begin to glow, and to wink precisely once a minute all night long. If not, what became of the keeper's word, his faith, his honour?
No matter how the injury to the clockwork was done. No matter who was to be blamed or punished for it. That could wait. The question now was whether the light would fail or not. And it must be answered within a quarter of an hour.
That red ray of the vanishing sun was like a blow in the face to Baptiste. It stopped him short, dazed and bewildered. Then he came to himself, wheeled, and ran up the rocks faster than he had come down.
"Marie-Anne! Alma!" he shouted, as he dashed past the door of the house, "all of you! To me, in the tower!"
He was up in the lantern when they came running in, full of curiosity, excited, asking twenty questions at once. Nataline climbed up the ladder and put her head through the trap-door.
"What is it?" she panted. "What has hap--"
"Go down," answered her father, "go down all at once. Wait for me. I am coming. I will explain."
The explanation was not altogether lucid and scientific. There were some bad words mixed up with it.
Baptiste was still hot with anger and the unsatisfied desire to whip somebody, he did not know whom, for something, he did not know what. But angry as he was, he was still sane enough to hold his mind hard and close to the main point. The crank must be adjusted; the machine must be ready to turn before dark. While he worked he hastily made the situation clear to his listeners.
That crank must be turned by hand, round and round all night, not too slow, not too fast. The dial on the machine must mark time with the clock on the wall. The light must flash once every minute until daybreak. He would do as much of the labour as he could, but the wife and the two older girls must help him. Nataline could go to bed.
At this Nataline's short upper lip trembled. She rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her dress, and began to weep silently.
"What is the matter with you?" said her mother, "bad child, have you fear to sleep alone? A big girl like you!"
"No," she sobbed, "I have no fear, but I want some of the fun."
"Fun!" growled her father. "What fun? NOM D'UN CHIEN! She calls this fun!" He looked at her for a moment, as she stood there, half defiant, half despondent, with her red mouth quivering and her big brown eyes sparkling fire; then he burst into a hearty laugh.
"Come here, my little wild-cat," he said, drawing her to him and kissing her; "you are a good girl after all. I suppose you think this light is part yours, eh?"
The girl nodded.
"B'EN! You shall have your share, fun and all. You shall make the tea for us and bring us something to eat. Perhaps when Alma and 'Zilda fatigue themselves they will permit a few turns of the crank to you. Are you content? Run now and boil the kettle."
It was a very long night. No matter how easily a handle turns, after a certain number of revolutions there is a stiffness about it. The stiffness is not in the handle, but in the hand that pushes it.
Round and round, evenly, steadily, minute after minute, hour after hour, shoving out, drawing in, circle after circle, no swerving, no stopping, no varying the motion, turn after turn--fifty-five, fifty- six, fifty-seven--what's the use of counting? Watch the dial; go to sleep--no! for God's sake, no sleep! But how hard it is to keep awake! How heavy the arm grows, how stiffly the muscles move, how the will creaks and groans. BATISCAN! It is not easy for a human being to become part of a machine.
Fortin himself took the longest spell at the crank, of course. He went at his work with a rigid courage. His red-hot anger had cooled down into a shape that was like a bar of forged steel. He meant to make that light revolve if it killed him to do it. He was the captain of a company that had run into an ambuscade. He was going to fight his way through if he had to fight alone.
The wife and the two older girls followed him blindly and bravely, in the habit of sheer obedience. They did not quite understand the meaning of the task, the honour of victory, the shame of defeat. But Fortin said it must be done, and he knew best. So they took their places in turn, as he grew weary, and kept the light flashing.
And Nataline--well, there is no way of describing what Nataline did, except to say that she played the fife.
She felt the contest just as her father did, not as deeply, perhaps, but in the same spirit. She went into the fight with darkness like a little soldier. And she played the fife.
When she came up from the kitchen with the smoking pail of tea, she rapped on the door and called out to know whether the Windigo was at home to-night.
She ran in and out of the place like a squirrel. She looked up at the light and laughed. Then she ran in and reported. "He winks," she said, "old one-eye winks beautifully. Keep him going. My turn now!"
She refused to be put off with a shorter spell than the other girls. "No," she cried, "I can do it as well as you. You think you are so much older. Well, what of that? The light is part mine; father said so. Let me turn. va-t-en."
When the first glimmer of the little day came shivering along the eastern horizon, Nataline was at the crank. The mother and the two older girls were half asleep. Baptiste stepped out to look at the sky. "Come," he cried, returning. "We can stop now, it is growing gray in the east, almost morning."
"But not yet," said Nataline; "we must wait for the first red. A few more turns. Let's finish it up with a song."
She shook her head and piped up the refrain of the old Canadian chanson:
"En roulant ma boule-le roulant
En roulant ma bou-le."
And to that cheerful music the first night's battle was carried through to victory.
The next day Fortin spent two hours in trying to repair the clockwork. It was of no use. The broken part was indispensable and could not be replaced.
At noon he went over to the mainland to tell of the disaster, and perhaps to find out if any hostile hand was responsible for it. He found out nothing. Every one denied all knowledge of the accident. Perhaps there was a flaw in the wheel; perhaps it had broken itself. That was possible. Fortin could not deny it; but the thing that hurt him most was that he got so little sympathy. Nobody seemed to care whether the light was kept burning or not. When he told them how the machine had been turned all night by hand, they were astonished. "CRE-IE!" they cried, "you must have had a great misery to do that." But that he proposed to go on doing it for a month longer, until December tenth, and to begin again on April first, and go on turning the light by hand for three or four weeks more until the supply-boat came down and brought the necessary tools to repair the machine--such an idea as this went beyond their horizon.
"But you are crazy, Baptiste," they said, "you can never do it; you are not capable."
"I would be crazy," he answered, "if I did not see what I must do. That light is my charge. In all the world there is nothing else so great as that for me and for my family--you understand? For us it is the chief thing. It is my Ten Commandments. I shall keep it or be damned."
There was a silence after this remark. They were not very particular about the use of language at Dead Men's Point, but this shocked them a little. They thought that Fortin was swearing a shade too hard. In reality he was never more reverent, never more soberly in earnest.
After a while he continued, "I want some one to help me with the work on the island. We must be up all the nights now. By day we must get some sleep. I want another man or a strong boy. Is there any who will come? The Government will pay. Or if not, I will pay, moi-meme."
There was no response. All the men hung back. The lighthouse was still unpopular, or at least it was on trial. Fortin's pluck and resolution had undoubtedly impressed them a little. But they still hesitated to commit themselves to his side.
"B'en," he said, "there is no one. Then we shall manage the affair en famille. Bon soir, messieurs!"
He walked down to the beach with his head in the air, without looking back. But before he had his canoe in the water he heard some one running down behind him. It was Thibault's youngest son, Marcel, a well-grown boy of sixteen, very much out of breath with running and shyness.
"Monsieur Fortin," he stammered, "will you--do you think--am I big enough?"
Baptiste looked him in the face for a moment. Then his eyes twinkled.
"Certain," he answered, "you are bigger than your father. But what will he say to this?"
"He says," blurted out Marcel--"well, he says that he will say nothing if I do not ask him."
So the little Marcel was enlisted in the crew on the island. For thirty nights those six people--a man, and a boy, and four women (Nataline was not going to submit to any distinctions on the score of age, you may be sure)--for a full month they turned their flashing lantern by hand from dusk to day-break.
The fog, the frost, the hail, the snow beleaguered their tower. Hunger and cold, sleeplessness and weariness, pain and discouragement, held rendezvous in that dismal, cramped little room. Many a night Nataline's fife of fun played a feeble, wheezy note. But it played. And the crank went round. And every bit of glass in the lantern was as clear as polished crystal. And the big lamp was full of oil. And the great eye of the friendly giant winked without ceasing, through fierce storm and placid moonlight.
When the tenth of December came, the light went to sleep for the winter, and the keepers took their way across the ice to the mainland. They had won the battle, not only on the island, fighting against the elements, but also at Dead Men's Point, against public opinion. The inhabitants began to understand that the lighthouse meant something--a law, an order, a principle.
Men cannot help feeling respect for a thing when they see others willing to fight or to suffer for it.
When the time arrived to kindle the light again in the spring, Fortin could have had any one that he wanted to help him. But no; he chose the little Marcel again; the boy wanted to go, and he had earned the right. Besides, he and Nataline had struck up a close friendship on the island, cemented during the winter by various hunting excursions after hares and ptarmigan. Marcel was a skilful setter of snares. But Nataline was not content until she had won consent to borrow her father's CARABINE. They hunted in partnership. One day they had shot a fox. That is, Nataline had shot it, though Marcel had seen it first and tracked it. Now they wanted to try for a seal on the point of the island when the ice went out. It was quite essential that Marcel should go.
"Besides," said Baptiste to his wife, confidentially, "a boy costs less than a man. Why should we waste money? Marcel is best."
A peasant-hero is seldom averse to economy in small things, like money.
But there was not much play in the spring session with the light on the island. It was a bitter job. December had been lamb-like compared with April. First, the southeast wind kept the ice driving in along the shore. Then the northwest wind came hurtling down from the Arctic wilderness like a pack of wolves. There was a snow-storm of four days and nights that made the whole world--earth and sky and sea--look like a crazy white chaos. And through it all, that weary, dogged crank must be kept turning--turning from dark to daylight.
It seemed as if the supply-boat would never come. At last they saw it, one fair afternoon, April the twenty-ninth, creeping slowly down the coast. They were just getting ready for another night's work.
Fortin ran out of the tower, took off his hat, and began to say his prayers. The wife and the two elder girls stood in the kitchen door, crossing themselves, with tears in their eyes. Marcel and Nataline were coming up from the point of the island, where they had been watching for their seal. She was singing
"Mon pere n'avait fille que moi,
Encore sur la mer il m'envoi-e-eh!"
When she saw the boat she stopped short for a minute.
"Well," she said, "they find us awake, n'est-c'pas? And if they don't come faster than that we'll have another chance to show them how we make the light wink, eh?"
Then she went on with her song--
"Sautez, mignonne, Cecilia.
Ah, ah, ah, ah, Cecilia!"
You did not suppose that was the end of the story, did you?
No, an out-of-doors story does not end like that, broken off in the middle, with a bit of a song. It goes on to something definite, like a wedding or a funeral.
You have not heard, yet, how near the light came to failing, and how the keeper saved it and something else too. Nataline's story is not told; it is only begun. This first part is only the introduction, just to let you see what kind of a girl she was, and how her life was made. If you want to hear the conclusion, we must hurry along a little faster or we shall never get to it.
Nataline grew up like a young birch tree--stately and strong, good to look at. She was beautiful in her place; she fitted it exactly. Her bronzed face with an under-tinge of red; her low, black eyebrows; her clear eyes like the brown waters of a woodland stream; her dark, curly hair with little tendrils always blowing loose around the pillar of her neck; her broad breast and sloping shoulders; her firm, fearless step; her voice, rich and vibrant; her straight, steady looks--but there, who can describe a thing like that? I tell you she was a girl to love out-of-doors.
There was nothing that she could not do. She could cook; she could swing an axe; she could paddle a canoe; she could fish; she could shoot; and, best of all, she could run the lighthouse. Her father's devotion to it had gone into her blood. It was the centre of her life, her law of God. There was nothing about it that she did not understand and love. From the first of April to the tenth of December the flashing of that light was like the beating of her heart--steady, even, unfaltering. She kept time to it as unconsciously as the tides follow the moon. She lived by it and for it.
There were no more accidents to the clockwork after the first one was repaired. It ran on regularly, year after year.
Alma and Azilda were married and went away to live, one on the South Shore, the other at Quebec. Nataline was her father's right-hand man. As the rheumatism took hold of him and lamed his shoulders and wrists, more and more of the work fell upon her. She was proud of it.
At last it came to pass, one day in January, that Baptiste died. He was not gathered to his fathers, for they were buried far away beside the Montmorenci, and on the rocky coast of Brittany. But the men dug through the snow behind the tiny chapel at Dead Men's Point, and made a grave for Baptiste Fortin, and the young priest of the mission read the funeral service over it.
It went without saying that Nataline was to be the keeper of the light, at least until the supply-boat came down again in the spring and orders arrived from the Government in Quebec. Why not? She was a woman, it is true. But if a woman can do a thing as well as a man, why should she not do it? Besides, Nataline could do this particular thing much better than any man on the Point. Everybody approved of her as the heir of her father, especially young Marcel Thibault.
Yes, of course. You could not help guessing it. He was Nataline's lover. They were to be married the next summer. They sat together in the best room, while the old mother was rocking to and fro and knitting beside the kitchen stove, and talked of what they were going to do. Once in a while, when Nataline grieved for her father, she would let Marcel put his arm around her and comfort her in the way that lovers know. But their talk was mainly of the future, because they were young, and of the light, because Nataline's life belonged to it.
Perhaps the Government would remember that year when it was kept going by hand for two months, and give it to her to keep as long as she lived. That would be only fair. Certainly, it was hers for the present. No one had as good a right to it. She took possession without a doubt. At all events, while she was the keeper the light should not fail.
But that winter was a bad one on the North Shore, and particularly at Dead Men's Point. It was terribly bad. The summer before, the fishing had been almost a dead failure. In June a wild storm had smashed all the salmon nets and swept most of them away. In July they could find no caplin for bait for the cod-fishing, and in August and September they could find no cod. The few bushels of potatoes that some of the inhabitants had planted, rotted in the ground. The people at the Point went into the winter short of money and very short of food.
There were some supplies at the store, pork and flour and molasses, and they could run through the year on credit and pay their debts the following summer if the fish came back. But this resource also failed them. In the last week of January the store caught fire and burned up. Nothing was saved. The only hope now was the seal- hunting in February and March and April. That at least would bring them meat and oil enough to keep them from starvation.
But this hope failed, too. The winds blew strong from the north and west, driving the ice far out into the gulf. The chase was long and perilous. The seals were few and wild. Less than a dozen were killed in all. By the last week in March Dead Men's Point stood face to face with famine.
Then it was that old Thibault had an idea.
"There is sperm oil on the Island of Birds," said he, "in the lighthouse, plenty of it, gallons of it. It is not very good to taste, perhaps, but what of that? It will keep life in the body. The Esquimaux drink it in the north, often. We must take the oil of the lighthouse to keep us from starving until the supply-boat comes down."
"But how shall we get it?" asked the others. "It is locked up. Nataline Fortin has the key. Will she give it?"
"Give it?" growled Thibault. "Name of a name! of course she will give it. She must. Is not a life, the life of all of us, more than a light?"
A self-appointed committee of three, with Thibault at the head, waited upon Nataline without delay, told her their plan, and asked for the key. She thought it over silently for a few minutes, and then refused point-blank.
"No," she said, "I will not give the key. That oil is for the lamp. If you take it, the lamp will not be lighted on the first of April; it will not be burning when the supply-boat comes. For me, that would be shame, disgrace, worse than death. I am the keeper of the light. You shall not have the oil."
They argued with her, pleaded with her, tried to browbeat her. She was a rock. Her round under-jaw was set like a steel trap. Her lips straightened into a white line. Her eyebrows drew together, and her eyes grew black.
"No," she cried, "I tell you no, no, a thousand times no. All in this house I will share with you. But not one drop of what belongs to the light! Never."
Later in the afternoon the priest came to see her; a thin, pale young man, bent with the hardships of his life, and with sad dreams in his sunken eyes. He talked with her very gently and kindly.
"Think well, my daughter; think seriously what you do. Is it not our first duty to save human life? Surely that must be according to the will of God. Will you refuse to obey it?"
Nataline was trembling a little now. Her brows were unlocked. The tears stood in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She was twisting her hands together.
"My father," she answered, "I desire to do the will of God. But how shall I know it? Is it not His first command that we should love and serve Him faithfully in the duty which He has given us? He gave me this light to keep. My father kept it. He is dead. If I am unfaithful what will he say to me? Besides, the supply-boat is coming soon--I have thought of this--when it comes it will bring food. But if the light is out, the boat may be lost. That would be the punishment for my sin. No, MON PERE, we must trust God. He will keep the people. I will keep the light."'
The priest looked at her long and steadily. A glow came into his face. He put his hand on her shoulder. "You shall follow your conscience," he said quietly. "Peace be with you, Nataline."
That evening just at dark Marcel came. She let him take her in his arms and kiss her. She felt like a little child, tired and weak.
"Well," he whispered, "you have done bravely, sweetheart. You were right not to give the key. That would have been a shame to you. But it is all settled now. They will have the oil without your fault. To-night they are going out to the lighthouse to break in and take what they want. You need not know. There will be no blame--"
She straightened in his arms as if an electric shock had passed through her. She sprang back, blazing with anger.
"What?" she cried, "me a thief by round-about,--with my hand behind my back and my eyes shut? Never. Do you think I care only for the blame? I tell you that is nothing. My light shall not be robbed, never, never!"
She came close to him and took him by the shoulders. Their eyes were on a level. He was a strong man, but she was the stronger then.
"Marcel Thibault," she said, "do you love me?"
"My faith," he gasped, "I do. You know I do."
"Then listen," she continued; "this is what you are going to do. You are going down to the shore at once to make ready the big canoe. I am going to get food enough to last us for the month. It will be a hard pinch, but it will do. Then we are going out to the island to-night, in less than an hour. Day after to-morrow is the first of April. Then we shall light the lantern, and it shall burn every night until the boat comes down. You hear? Now go: and be quick and bring your gun."
They pushed off in the black darkness, among the fragments of ice that lay along the shore. They crossed the strait in silence, and hid their canoe among the rocks on the island. They carried their stuff up to the house and locked it in the kitchen. Then they unlocked the tower, and went in, Marcel with his shot-gun, and Nataline with her father's old carabine. They fastened the door again, and bolted it, and sat down in the dark to wait.
Presently they heard the grating of the prow of the barge on the stones below, the steps of men stumbling up the steep path, and voices mingled in confused talk. The glimmer of a couple of lanterns went bobbing in and out among the rocks and bushes. There was a little crowd of eight or ten men, and they came on carelessly, chattering and laughing. Three of them carried axes, and three others a heavy log of wood which they had picked up on their way.
"The log is better than the axes," said one; "take it in your hands this way, two of you on one side, another on the opposite side in the middle. Then swing it back and forwards and let it go. The door will come down, I tell you, like a sheet of paper. But wait till I give the word, then swing hard. One--two--"
"Stop!" cried Nataline, throwing open the little window. "If you dare to touch that door, I shoot."
She thrust out the barrel of the rifle, and Marcel's shot-gun appeared beside it. The old rifle was not loaded, but who knew that? Besides, both barrels of the shot-gun were full.
There was amazement in the crowd outside the tower, and consternation, and then anger.
"Marcel," they shouted, "you there? MAUDIT POLISSON! Come out of that. Let us in. You told us--"
"I know," answered Marcel, "but I was mistaken, that is all. I stand by Mademoiselle Fortin. What she says is right. If any man tries to break in here, we kill him. No more talk!"
The gang muttered; cursed; threatened; looked at the guns; and went off to their boat.
"It is murder that you will do," one of them called out, "you are a murderess, you Mademoiselle Fortin! you cause the people to die of hunger!"
"Not I," she answered; "that is as the good God pleases. No matter. The light shall burn."
They heard the babble of the men as they stumbled down the hill; the grinding of the boat on the rocks as they shoved off; the rattle of the oars in the rowlocks. After that the island was as still as a graveyard.
Then Nataline sat down on the floor in the dark, and put her face in her hands, and cried. Marcel tried to comfort her. She took his hand and pushed it gently away from her waist.
"No, Marcel," she said, "not now! Not that, please, Marcel! Come into the house. I want to talk with you."
They went into the cold, dark kitchen, lit a candle and kindled a fire in the stove. Nataline busied herself with a score of things. She put away the poor little store of provisions, sent Marcel for a pail of water, made some tea, spread the table, and sat down opposite to him. For a time she kept her eyes turned away from him, while she talked about all sorts of things. Then she fell silent for a little, still not looking at him. She got up and moved about the room, arranged two or three packages on the shelves, shut the damper of the stove, glancing at Marcel's back out of the corners of her eyes. Then she came back to her chair, pushed her cup aside, rested both elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, and looked Marcel square in the face with her clear brown eyes.
"My friend," she said, "are you an honest man, un brave garcon?"
For an instant he could say nothing. He was so puzzled. "Why yes, Nataline," he answered, "yes, surely--I hope."
"Then let me speak to you without fear," she continued. "You do not suppose that I am ignorant of what I have done this night. I am not a baby. You are a man. I am a girl. We are shut up alone in this house for two weeks, a month, God knows how long. You know what that means, what people will say. I have risked all that a girl has most precious. I have put my good name in your hands."
Marcel tried to speak, but she stopped him.
"Let me finish. It is not easy to say. I know you are honourable. I trust you waking and sleeping. But I am a woman. There must be no love-making. We have other work to do. The light must not fail. You will not touch me, you will not embrace me--not once--till after the boat has come. Then"--she smiled at him like a sunburned angel-- "well, is it a bargain?"
She put out one hand across the table. Marcel took it in both of his own. He did not kiss it. He lifted it up in front of his face.
"I swear to you, Nataline, you shall be to me as the Blessed Virgin herself."
The next day they put the light in order, and the following night they kindled it. They still feared another attack from the mainland, and thought it needful that one of them should be on guard all the time, though the machine itself was working beautifully and needed little watching. Nataline took the night duty; it was her own choice; she loved the charge of the lamp. Marcel was on duty through the day. They were together for three or four hours in the morning and in the evening.
It was not a desperate vigil like that affair with the broken clockwork eight years before. There was no weary turning of the crank. There was just enough work to do about the house and the tower to keep them busy. The weather was fair. The worst thing was the short supply of food. But though they were hungry, they were not starving. And Nataline still played the fife. She jested, she sang, she told long fairy stories while they sat in the kitchen. Marcel admitted that it was not at all a bad arrangement.
But his thoughts turned very often to the arrival of the supply- boat. He hoped it would not be late. The ice was well broken up already and driven far out into the gulf. The boat ought to be able to run down the shore in good time.
One evening as Nataline came down from her sleep she saw Marcel coming up the rocks dragging a young seal behind him.
"Hurra!" he shouted, "here is plenty of meat. I shot it out at the end of the island, about an hour ago."
But Nataline said that they did not need the seal. There was still food enough in the larder. On shore there must be greater need. Marcel must take the seal over to the mainland that night and leave it on the beach near the priest's house. He grumbled a little, but he did it.
That was on the twenty-third of April. The clear sky held for three days longer, calm, bright, halcyon weather. On the afternoon of the twenty-seventh the clouds came down from the north, not a long furious tempest, but a brief, sharp storm, with considerable wind and a whirling, blinding fall of April snow. It was a bad night for boats at sea, confusing, bewildering, a night when the lighthouse had to do its best. Nataline was in the tower all night, tending the lamp, watching the clockwork. Once it seemed to her that the lantern was so covered with snow that light could not shine through. She got her long brush and scraped the snow away. It was cold work, but she gloried in it. The bright eye of the tower, winking, winking steadily through the storm seemed to be the sign of her power in the world. It was hers. She kept it shining.
When morning came the wind was still blowing fitfully off shore, but the snow had almost ceased. Nataline stopped the clockwork, and was just climbing up into the lantern to put out the lamp, when Marcel's voice hailed her.
"Come down, Nataline, come down quick. Make haste!"
She turned and hurried out, not knowing what was to come; perhaps a message of trouble from the mainland, perhaps a new assault on the lighthouse.
As she came out of the tower, her brown eyes heavy from the night- watch, her dark face pale from the cold, she saw Marcel standing on the rocky knoll beside the house and pointing shoreward.
She ran up beside him and looked. There, in the deep water between the island and the point, lay the supply-boat, rocking quietly on the waves.
It flashed upon her in a moment what it meant- She turned and looked up at the lamp, still burning.
"I kept you!" she cried.
Then she turned to Marcel; the colour rose quickly in her cheeks, the light sparkled in her eyes; she smiled, and held out both her hands, whispering, "Now you shall keep me!"
There was a fine wedding on the last day of April, and from that time the island took its new name,--the Isle of the Wise Virgin.
Return to the Henry van Dyke library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Key Of The Tower