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The Lighthouse

The following is from The Lighthouse by R. M. Ballantyne:

Chapter Twenty Eight--The Lighthouse Completed--Ruby's Escape from Trouble by a Desperate Venture

There came a time at last when the great work of building the Bell Rock Lighthouse drew to a close. Four years after its commencement it was completed, and on the night of the 1st of February, 1811, its bright beams were shed for the first time far and wide over the sea.

It must not be supposed, however, that this lighthouse required four years to build it. On the contrary, the seasons in which work could be done were very short. During the whole of the first season of 1807, the aggregate time of low-water work, caught by snatches of an hour or two at a tide, did not amount to fourteen days of ten hours! while in 1808 it fell short of four weeks.

A great event is worthy of very special notice. We should fail in our duty to our readers if we were to make only passing reference to this important event in the history of our country.

That 1st of February, 1811, was the birthday of a new era, for the influence of the Bell Rock Light on the shipping interests of the kingdom (not merely of Scotland, by any means), was far greater than people generally suppose.

Here is a fact that may well be weighed with attention; that might be not inappropriately inscribed in diamond letters over the lintel of the lighthouse door. Up to the period of the building of the lighthouse, the known history of the Bell Rock was a black record of wreck, ruin, and death. Its unknown history, in remote ages, who shall conceive, much less tell? Up to that period, seamen dreaded the rock and shunned it--ay, so earnestly as to meet destruction too often in their anxious efforts to avoid it. From that period the Bell Rock has been a friendly point, a guiding star--hailed as such by storm-tossed mariners--marked as such on the charts of all nations. From that date not a single night for more than half a century has passed, without its wakeful eye beaming on the waters, or its fog-bells sounding on the air; and, best of all, not a single wreck has occurred on that rock from that period down to the present day!

Say not, good reader, that much the same may be said of all lighthouses. In the first place, the history of many lighthouses is by no means so happy as that of this one. In the second place, all lighthouses are not of equal importance. Few stand on an equal footing with the Bell Rock, either in regard to its national importance or its actual pedestal. In the last place, it is our subject of consideration at present, and we object to odious comparisons while we sing its praises!

Whatever may be said of the other lights that guard our shores, special gratitude is due to the Bell Rock--to those who projected it--to the engineer who planned and built it--to God, who inspired the will to dare, and bestowed the skill to accomplish, a work so difficult, so noble, so prolific of good to man!

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The nature of our story requires that we should occasionally annihilate time and space.

Let us then leap over both, and return to our hero, Ruby Brand.

His period of service in the Navy was comparatively brief, much more so than either he or his friends anticipated. Nevertheless, he spent a considerable time in his new profession, and, having been sent to foreign stations, he saw a good deal of what is called "service", in which he distinguished himself, as might have been expected, for coolness and courage.

But we must omit all mention of his warlike deeds, and resume the record of his history at that point which bears more immediately on the subject of our tale.

It was a wild, stormy night in November. Ruby's ship had captured a French privateer in the German Ocean, and, a prize crew having been put aboard, she was sent away to the nearest port, which happened to be the harbour of Leith, in the Firth of Forth. Ruby had not been appointed one of the prize crew; but he resolved not to miss the chance of again seeing his native town, if it should only be a distant view through a telescope. Being a favourite with his commander, his plea was received favourably, and he was sent on board the Frenchman.

Those who know what it is to meet with an unexpected piece of great good fortune, can imagine the delight with which Ruby stood at the helm on the night in question, and steered for home! He was known by all on board to be the man who understood best the navigation of the Forth, so that implicit trust was placed in him by the young officer who had charge of the prize.

The man-of-war happened to be short-handed at the time the privateer was captured, owing to her boats having been sent in chase of a suspicious craft during a calm. Some of the French crew were therefore left on board to assist in navigating the vessel.

This was unfortunate, for the officer sent in charge turned out to be a careless man, and treated the Frenchmen with contempt. He did not keep strict watch over them, and the result was, that, shortly after the storm began, they took the English crew by surprise, and overpowered them.

Ruby was the first to fall. As he stood at the wheel, indulging in pleasant dreams, a Frenchman stole up behind him, and felled him with a handspike. When he recovered he found that he was firmly bound, along with his comrades, and that the vessel was lying-to. One of the Frenchmen came forward at that moment, and addressed the prisoners in broken English.

"Now, me boys," said he, "you was see we have konker you again. You behold the sea?" pointing over the side; "well, that bees your bed to-night if you no behave. Now, I wants to know, who is best man of you as onderstand die cost? Speak de trut', else you die."

The English lieutenant at once turned to Ruby.

"Well, cast him loose; de rest of you go b'low--good day, ver' moch indeed."

Here the Frenchman made a low bow to the English, who were led below, with the exception of Ruby.

"Now, my goot mans, you onderstand dis cost?"

"Yes. I know it well."

"It is dangereoux?"

"It is--very; but not so much so as it used to be before the Bell Rock Light was shown."

"Have you see dat light?"

"No; never. It was first lighted when I was at sea; but I have seen a description of it in the newspapers, and should know it well."

"Ver goot; you will try to come to dat light an' den you will steer out from dis place to de open sea. Afterwards we will show you to France. If you try mischief--voila!"

The Frenchman pointed to two of his comrades who stood, one on each side of the wheel, with pistols in their hands, ready to keep Ruby in order.

"Now, cut him free. Go, sare; do your dooty."

Ruby stepped to the wheel at once, and, glancing at the compass, directed the vessel's head in the direction of the Bell Rock.

The gale was rapidly increasing, and the management of the helm required his undivided attention; nevertheless his mind was busy with anxious thoughts and plans of escape. He thought with horror of a French prison, for there were old shipmates of his who had been captured years before, and who were pining in exile still. The bare idea of being separated indefinitely, perhaps for ever, from Minnie, was so terrible, that for a moment he meditated an attack, single-handed, on the crew; but the muzzle of a pistol on each side of him induced him to pause and reflect! Reflection, however, only brought him again to the verge of despair. Then he thought of running up to Leith, and so take the Frenchmen prisoners; but this idea was at once discarded, for it was impossible to pass up to Leith Roads without seeing the Bell Rock light, and the Frenchmen kept a sharp lookout. Then he resolved to run the vessel ashore and wreck her, but the thought of his comrades down below induced him to give that plan up.

Under the influence of these thoughts he became inattentive, and steered rather wildly once or twice.

"Stiddy. Ha! you tink of how you escape?"

"Yes, I do," said Ruby, doggedly.

"Good, and have you see how?"

"No," replied Ruby, "I tell you candidly that I can see no way of escape."

"Ver good, sare; mind your helm."

At that moment a bright star of the first magnitude rose on the horizon, right ahead of them.

"Ha! dat is a star," said the Frenchman, after a few moments' observation of it.

"Stars don't go out," replied Ruby, as the light in question disappeared.

"It is de light'ouse den?"

"I don't know," said Ruby, "but we shall soon see."

Just then a thought flashed into Ruby's mind. His heart beat quick, his eye dilated, and his lip was tightly compressed as it came and went. Almost at the same moment another star rose right ahead of them. It was of a deep red colour; and Ruby's heart beat high again, for he was now certain that it was the revolving light of the Bell Rock, which shows a white and red light alternately every two minutes.

"Voila! that must be him now," exclaimed the Frenchman, pointing to the light, and looking enquiringly at Ruby.

"I have told you," said the latter, "that I never saw the light before. I believe it to be the Bell Rock Light; but it would be as well to run close and see. I think I could tell the very stones of the tower, even in a dark night. Anyhow, I know the rock itself too well to mistake it."

"Be there plenty watter?"

"Ay; on the east side, close to the rock, there is enough water to float the biggest ship in your navy."

"Good; we shall go close."

There was a slight lull in the gale at this time, and the clouds broke a little, allowing occasional glimpses of moonlight to break through and tinge the foaming crests of the waves. At last the light, that had at first looked like a bright star, soon increased, and appeared like a glorious sun in the stormy sky. For a few seconds it shone intensely white and strong, then it slowly died away and disappeared; but almost before one could have time to wonder what had become of it, it returned in the form of a brilliant red sun, which also shone for a few seconds, steadily, and then, like the former, slowly died out. Thus, alternating, the red and white suns went round.

In a few minutes the tall and graceful column itself became visible, looking pale and spectral against the black sky. At the same time the roar of the surf broke familiarly on Ruby's ears. He steered close past the north end of the rock, so close that he could see the rocks, and knew that it was low water. A gleam of moonlight broke out at the time, as if to encourage him.

"Now," said Ruby, "you had better go about, for if we carry on at this rate, in the course we are going, in about an hour you will either be a dead man on the rocks of Forfar, or enjoying yourself in a Scotch prison!"

"Ha! ha!" laughed the Frenchman, who immediately gave the order to put the vessel about; "good, ver good; bot I was not wish to see the Scottish prison, though I am told the mountains be ver superb."

While he was speaking, the little vessel lay over on her new course, and Ruby steered again past the north side of the rock. He shaved it so close that the Frenchman shouted, "Prenez garde," and put a pistol to Ruby's ear.

"Do you think I wish to die?" asked Ruby, with a quiet smile". Now, captain, I want to point out the course, so as to make you sure of it. Bid one of your men take the wheel, and step up on the bulwarks with me, and I will show you."

This was such a natural remark in the circumstances, and moreover so naturally expressed, that the Frenchman at once agreed. He ordered a seaman to take the wheel, and then stepped with Ruby upon the bulwarks at the stern of the vessel.

"Now, you see the position of the lighthouse," said Ruby, "well, you must keep your course due east after passing it. If you steer to the nor'ard o' that, you'll run on the Scotch coast; if you bear away to the south'ard of it, you'll run a chance, in this state o' the tide, of getting wrecked among the Farne Islands; so keep her head due east."

Ruby said this very impressively; so much so, that the Frenchman looked at him in surprise.

"Why you so particulare?" he enquired, with a look of suspicion.

"Because I am going to leave you," said Ruby, pointing to the Bell Rock, which at that moment was not much more than a hundred yards to leeward. Indeed, it was scarcely so much, for the outlying rock at the northern end named Johnny Gray, lay close under their lee as the vessel passed. Just then a great wave burst upon it, and, roaring in wild foam over the ledges, poured into the channels and pools on the other side. For one instant Ruby's courage wavered, as he gazed at the flood of boiling foam.

"What you say?" exclaimed the Frenchman, laying his hand on the collar of Ruby's jacket.

The young sailor started, struck the Frenchman a backhanded blow on the chest, which hurled him violently against the man at the wheel, and, bending down, sprang with a wild shout into the sea.

So close had he steered to the rock, in order to lessen the danger of his reckless venture, that the privateer just weathered it. There was not, of course, the smallest chance of recapturing Ruby. No ordinary boat could have lived in the sea that was running at the time, even in open water, much less among the breakers of the Bell Rock. Indeed, the crew felt certain that the English sailor had allowed despair to overcome his judgment, and that he must infallibly be dashed to pieces on the rocks, so they did not check their onward course, being too glad to escape from the immediate neighbourhood of such a dangerous spot.

Meanwhile Ruby buffeted the billows manfully. He was fully alive to the extreme danger of the attempt, but he knew exactly what he meant to do. He trusted to his intimate knowledge of every ledge and channel and current, and had calculated his motions to a nicety.

He knew that at the particular state of the tide at the time, and with the wind blowing as it then did, there was a slight eddy at the point of Cunningham's Ledge. His life, he felt, depended on his gaining that eddyIf he should miss it, he would be dashed against Johnny Gray's rock, or be carried beyond it and cast upon Strachan's Ledge or Scoreby's Point, and no man, however powerful he might be, could have survived the shock of being launched on any of these rocks. On the other hand, if, in order to avoid these dangers, he should swim too much to windward, there was danger of his being carried on the crest of a billow and hurled upon the weather-side of Cunningham's Ledge, instead of getting into the eddy under its lee.

All this Ruby had seen and calculated when he passed the north end of the rock the first time, and he had fixed the exact spot where he should take the plunge on repassing it. He acted so promptly that a few minutes sufficed to carry him towards the eddy, the tide being in his favour. But when he was about to swim into it, a wave burst completely over the ledge, and, pouring down on his head, thrust him back. He was almost stunned by the shock, but retained sufficient presence of mind to struggle on. For a few seconds he managed to bear up against wind and tide, for he put forth his giant strength with the energy of a desperate man, but gradually he was carried away from the rock, and for the first time his heart sank within him.

Just then one of those rushes or swirls of water, which are common among rocks in such a position, swept him again forward, right into the eddy which he had struggled in vain to reach, and thrust him violently against the rock. This back current was the precursor of a tremendous billow, which came towering on like a black moving wall. Ruby saw it, and, twining his arm amongst the seaweed, held his breath.

The billow fell! Only those who have seen the Bell Rock in a storm can properly estimate the roar that followed. None but Ruby himself could tell what it was to feel that world of water rushing overhead. Had it fallen directly upon him, it would have torn him from his grasp and killed him, but its full force had been previously spent on Cunningham's Ledge. In another moment it passed, and Ruby, quitting his hold, struck out wildly through the foam. A few strokes carried him through Sinclair's and Wilson's tracks into the little pool formerly mentioned as Port Stevenson.

[The author has himself bathed in Port Stevenson, so that the reader may rely on the fidelity of this description of it and the surrounding ledges.]

Here he was in comparative safety. True, the sprays burst over the ledge called The Last Hope in heavy masses, but these could do him no serious harm, and it would take a quarter of an hour at least for the tide to sweep into the pool. Ruby therefore swam quietly to Trinity Ledge, where he landed, and, stepping over it, sat down to rest, with a thankful heart, on Smith's Ledge, the old familiar spot where he and Jamie Dove had wrought so often and so hard at the forge in former days.

He was now under the shadow of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, which towered high above his head; and the impression of immovable solidity which its cold, grey, stately column conveyed to his mind, contrasted powerfully with the howling wind and the raging sea around. It seemed to him, as he sat there within three yards of its granite base, like the impersonation of repose in the midst of turmoil; of peace surrounded by war; of calm and solid self-possession in the midst of fretful and raging instability.

No one was there to welcome Ruby. The lightkeepers, high up in the apartments in their wild home, knew nothing and heard nothing of all that had passed so near them. The darkness of the night and the roaring of the storm was all they saw or heard of the world without, as they sat in their watch tower reading or trimming their lamps.

But Ruby was not sorry for this; he felt glad to be alone with God, to thank Him for his recent deliverance.

Exhausting though the struggle had been, its duration was short, so that he soon recovered his wonted strength. Then, rising, he got upon the iron railway, or "rails", as the men used to call it, and a few steps brought him to the foot of the metal ladder conducting to the entrance-door.

Climbing up, he stood at last in a place of safety, and disappeared within the doorway of the lighthouse.

Chapter Twenty Nine--The Wreck


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