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Title: The Lighthouse on Shivering Sand Author: J. S. Fletcher * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0609321h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2006 Date most recently updated: April 2022 This eBook was produced by: Malcolm Farmer Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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When Mordecai Chiddock came to join the lighthouse staff on Shivering Sand, Jezreel Cornish was taking his allowance of sleep, and Chiddock,
being new to the place, did not know who it was he would meet when Cornish woke up. Otherwise, the boat which had brought him and a month's provisions over from the mainland would never have gone back without him.
Until Chiddock came we had never been more than two at the Shivering Sand. That was a bad arrangement, of course, and it was I who got the worst of it. Once Reuben Cleary fell sick, and had to take to his bed. That was just after the monthly boat had been, and until it came again I had to work night and day and nurse him into the bargain. Then there was Pharaoh Nanjulian; he was a melancholy sort from his youth, and the loneliness and monotony affected his brain. His wits gave out at last, and he used to spend the whole day in singing psalms and hymns, and preaching to the sea-birds. We had great storms that autumn, and the monthly boat came a fortnight late, and found me about done for, what with living day and night with a madman, and doing work for two. And it was because of what I said—not mincing matters—that it was decided to send a third man, so that in such cases as those of Cleary and Nanjulian the other man should not be utterly and badly alone.
Chiddock was the man who was sent. Of course, neither Cornish nor myself knew who would be sent; all we knew was that the September boat would bring a third keeper off with it.
It was a fine, bright morning when he came, and I watched him narrowly as he came on to the platform at the foot of the lighthouse, which you could only make at certain times. He was a thick-set, swarthy man of middle age; he had curling black hair and beard, and his eyes were shiftier than I cared about. However, he bade me good morning civilly enough, and when he had got his own things up from the boat, gave me a ready hand with the month's stores. It was not till the boat was off again that he seemed disposed for conversation.
"My name's Chiddock," he says. "Mordecai Chiddock."
"Mine's John Graburn," I answered him.
He offered me a plug of tobacco, and took a sort of comprehensive glance all around him.
"This," he says, "is a lonelier place than most of 'em."
"You'll make all the more company," I says. "There'll be three of us now."
He gave a glance at the door at the top of the stone stairway, as if he expected to see the third man appear.
"Ah," he said, "and what sort of shipmate is the other partner?"
"Oh, he's all right," said I, off-hand. "He's only been here this last month, but he's a decent man, is Jezreel."
Chiddock turned round on me like a flash, and I saw a queer look come into his eyes.
"Jezreel!" he said, short and sharp-like. "That's an uncommon name. I knew a man of that name once. This man's other name, what might it be, now, Graburn?"
"Cornish," I answered, "Jezreel Cornish."
Then I knew that something was amiss, for his cheeks lost all their dark colour and turned a strange pasty white, and I saw sweat burst out on them. He came a step nearer and looked at me with burning eyes, and his lips quivered under his black moustache.
"Jezreel Cornish!" he says, almost in a whisper. "Jezreel Cornish! A tallish, scraggy-built man with a long, sharp nose and red hair and ferrety eyes; is it a man like that?"
"And what if it is?" I said, watching him.
He drew a long breath, and, turning, looked out across the bay after the boat from the mainland, as if he would call her back. But she was already a speck in the distance, and he turned again to me, breathing hard.
"If it is," he says, muttering his words, "if it is, mister—well, then, I wish I was in that craft out there, or on shore, or anywhere, that's all. Jezreel Cornish—ah!"
I saw his face suddenly change from white to red, and from red to white, and, turning, there was Cornish himself coming down the stairs, yawning and stretching after his sleep. And quick as lightning the newcomer's hand went round to his hip-pocket, and I guessed what he had there.
"If that's a pistol you've got," I says, sharp and quick, "you can leave it where it is. I'm boss here, and——"
He seemed to give no more heed to me than if I had been a child, and he kept his eyes on Cornish with the watchfulness of a dog that expects a blow. And I turned then to look at Cornish, wondering what it was that was about to happen.
He was not a quick man at noticing things, Cornish, and he had got to the foot of the stairs before he looked fully at Chiddock. But when he looked, I saw all the colour go out of his face, too, and when it came back it was a sort of dark red, and there was that in his eyes which meant murder. He crouched his body up and together, as an animal does when it's going to spring, and he came forward with his sharp teeth showing under his ragged red moustache; and I knew then that I was going to have a troublous time before the boat came again. For these two, Chiddock and Cornish, stood glaring at each other for all the world like wild beasts that are mad to be at grips, and I could see that it needed but a word to let hell loose between them.
Cornish was the first to speak, and I shouldn't have known his voice; it was so changed and so awful. And it was to me that he spoke, and not to Chiddock.
"Is this the new keeper, Graburn?" says he. "Am I looking at him?"
"You are," I says, "and not any pleasanter than he's looking at you, Jezreel Cornish. And I'm not so blind that I can't see that there's black, cruel, bad blood between you two, and I tell you I'll have none of that sort of thing here; so mind your manners, both of you."
"And he'll be here with us, night and day, shut up with us on Shivering Sand!" says Cornish, watching Chiddock with the eyes of a hungry devil. "Shut up on Shivering Sand, and with me!"
"And with me, and both of you under my orders!" I rapped out sternly. "And I'll see that——"
Cornish spat on the ground at his feet.
"Last time I set eyes on your devil's face, Mordecai Chiddock," he says, in a voice that had suddenly turned as mild as milk, "I told you I'd murder you when the time came for my chance. It's come! I've got you to myself now, and by God above, I'll kill you!"
What next happened was over in a flash. For Chiddock suddenly whipped the revolver out of his pocket and had Cornish covered. But before he could shoot I knocked it out of his hand, and the next instant had kicked it clean over the edge of the rock into the sea. And with that Chiddock suddenly turned more frightened than before, and it seemed to me that he was going to whimper like a child whose nurse has just checked it.
But Cornish only laughed in a sniggering, sneering fashion, and he turned away from us and went slowly up the stairway into the lighthouse, leaving Chiddock standing there before me with his limbs trembling as if he'd suddenly got the ague, and his damp face whiter than ever. When he spoke his voice was as spiritless as could be, and I saw the man was badly frightened.
"You've left me defenceless, Mr. Graburn," he says, in a queer-sounding voice. "He'll kill me!"
"There's going to be no killing while I'm about here, my man," I answered; "and you'd best tell me what all this is about. There's a blood feud between you?"
But, instead of answering me directly, he began to talk and murmur to himself, and I could make nothing of what I overheard; and all the time he talked his eyes, as restless as a freshly trapped animal's, were searching the sea all round us, as if he hoped to signal some vessel to come and take him off.
"There's no living soul will come to this rock until the boat comes a month hence, Chiddock," says I. "You can make up your mind to that. So if you want me to help you you'd best to speak, quick."
He turned then, and glowered at me with a sullen rage burning in his eyes.
"If you hadn't treated me as you have," he said, nodding towards the spot where the revolver had gone, "I'd have shot him there and then, and been free of him. As it is, you'll have to stand between us."
"Jezreel Cornish has no firearms," I said. "There's nothing on the rock but an old fowling-piece, and the powder and shot are in my care, and nobody but me can come at them."
Now, this was not strictly true, because I had a revolver of my own carefully hidden away for emergencies; but I was not going to let anybody know of it. However, Chiddock seemed to think nothing of what I had just said.
"He'll kill me," he repeated, "and it'll be murder on your part if you let him! You'll have to get me away, Mr. Graburn; and till you do, how will I get meat or sleep? I'm hungry and thirsty now."
"It strikes me you're a coward!" says I. "Sit you down while I go up and see what Cornish can tell me about this."
He sat himself down on a rock as obediently as a child might, and I climbed the stair and made into our living-room, where I found Cornish eating and drinking as unconcernedly as if nothing had happened.
"Now then, Cornish," I says, sitting down between him and the door, "what's all this about? I'm headkeeper here, and I'm going to know what you're after."
"What I'm after," he says, coolly, "is killing that man outside, which I shall surely do. There's no hurry. The last time I met him I told him what I should do, and I should have done it then, but he was too cunning, and gave me the slip. That he cannot do this time. He can't swim to the mainland, and he can't fly; he's netted. I can bide my time, but he'll never go off this rock alive!"
"What's he done to you?" I asked him. "As you're so candid about killing him, you might as well be candid about the crime you've got against him."
Before he answered he cut himself a great slab of the corned beef he was eating, and ate heartily of it, just as if he hadn't a trouble in the world.
"That man," he said at last, nodding towards the open door, through which you could see a patch of dancing sea, "that man isn't a man at all; he's a devil! A low, mean, black devil, Mr. Graburn. Him and me was shipmates once, and we were in Valparaiso together, and there we made a nice bit of money—never mind how. I was struck down with a bad fever; the last thing I remembered was trusting him with my money, and his promising to send most of it home to my wife in England. Then the deliriums came on, and I never knew any more until I came to in a charity hospital. The skunk had taken all I had and left me. What's more, he sailed home to England, found my wife, got her to sell up the home and a bit of a little shop she'd got together on pretence of sending the money to me, and persuaded her to trust him with the sending of it—which, naturally, he never did. And when I did come home, my wife was dead—died in the workhouse, where I found the kids. And, of course, I've got to kill him!"
"If all you say's true, Cornish," I said, "he deserves more than that. But I'll have no killing here, understand, now!"
"I don't say that I'll kill him to-day, or to-morrow," he says, paying no more heed to me than if I hadn't been there. "Any time'll do me, now that he's trapped. I'll play with him as a cat plays with a mouse. I'll make him as he can't sleep o' nights with fear that death's close on him. I shall enjoy thinking what way I'll kill him; I'll invent something good!"
"I'm inclined to think trouble and anger have turned your brain, Cornish," says I.
"You can think what you're pleased to think," he says, still as cold in his manner as a jelly-fish, "but you'll see Mordecai Chiddock's corpse before the boat comes again."
"If his living body's turned into a corpse by you, Jezreel Cornish," says I, "you'll only swing for it."
He laughed at that in his sneering fashion.
The sound of it made me frightened, for I could not bring myself to decide whether the man was in his right mind or gone out of his senses like Pharaoh Nanjulian.
"You wouldn't have a chance of escape," I said.
"Who says I wanted one?" he says. "Since I found my wife dead in the workhouse I've only lived to kill Mordecai Chiddock. And I say you shall see his corpse, Mr. Graburn—and I don't care if you see mine after you've seen his. But I tell you, once for all, I'll kill him!"
I left him sitting there, still eating, and went down to the rocks again, to find Chiddock where I had left him. He turned round on me with fright in his eyes.
"If what I've heard about you is true," I said, "you're the lowest-down scoundrel I ever heard of, Chiddock. Death's too good for you, it's too easy. You ought to be skinned alive!"
"I knew that you'd side with him!" he growled. "But it'll be found out, and it'll be murder against the two of you—mind you that, mister."
"Leave that to me," says I, and put down at his side some victuals and drink that I had brought out with me. "And in the meantime," I says, "get that food into you and be more of a man."
He made no reply to that, but fell upon the victuals like a famished wolf, while I turned back again to the lighthouse. I had a notion in my head, and I was going to put it into shape at once.
There was nothing for it but to keep these two men apart. That Cornish would kill Chiddock I now had no doubt—no more than that Chiddock would have killed Cornish if I had not knocked the revolver out of his hand. Now, that revolver had given me an idea. I, being the only man of the three with a weapon, was certainly master of the situation. And accordingly, as soon as I re-entered the lighthouse, I went to my own chamber, secured and loaded my revolver, and turned into the living-room to speak, with authority, to Jezreel Cornish.
Jezreel had finished his eating, but he still sat at his end of the table, staring moodily at the empty plate. I sat down at the other end; when he at last looked up it was to look straight into the barrel of the revolver.
"What's—what's the meaning of that?" he growled.
"The meaning, Jezreel, my lad, is that," says I, "I'm master here in more ways than one, but especially because I'm the only man of the three that's got a weapon. Now, you and the man outside are not going to meet. It's your turn for duty; you'll go up that stair, and I shall lock you in. When it's your hour for coming off I'll let you out; but you'll not see him, because he'll be locked up, too, until you're locked in your own chamber. You and him, Cornish, are going to do all the work this next month; I'm going to do nothing but play gaoler and cook until the boat comes and takes one of you off. Now you can just go up to your duty, and I'll draw the bolt on you. Get under way, Cornish!"
"And what if I don't?" he says, looking ugly.
"There's no ifs in this case," says I. "Come!"
He stared hard at me and the revolver for a good minute, then he pushed back his chair and got up.
"I want some tobacco out of the cupboard," he says. "I suppose I can get that?"
"You can get what you like out of the cupboard," I answered him, "so long as you get upstairs thereafter. And remember I've got the drop on you, Cornish."
He mumbled something that I couldn't catch, and going over to the cupboard where we kept our general stores, went in. He mumbled and grumbled all the time he was in the cupboard, and his face was angry and scowling when he came out. But he marched straight off to the door of the winding stair which led up to the lantern, and in another second I had turned the key on him.
Now, I ought to tell you what this lighthouse was like. Some fifteen miles from the mainland, it stood on a gaunt, bare rock which rose behind a permanent bank in the sea, that had long been known as the Shivering Sand because of the strange motion of the water over it. The entrance was gained by a stone stairway, which led to a double door some twenty feet above the rock; when you passed that door you found yourself in the living-room, which made a half of the circular space of the lighthouse; the other half was divided into four segments, each forming separate chambers. A winding stair went out of the living-room into an upper room, which we used for stores, material, and such-like; where it passed from one to the other was a strong door, the one that I had secured against Cornish's descent.
Above that was a stair of eighty-nine steps to the lamp-room and lantern, from which a revolving light shone out to warn all craft away from us.
So long as I was master I saw no difficulty in keeping Chiddock and Cornish separate. Every door in the place was fitted with good strong locks; on Cornish's I resolved to fit a bolt from a store of hardware which I had by me. Before I released one man from duty I would lock the other in his room; when the released man was safely locked up I would let the other out.
All this being settled, and Cornish safely secured, I went to the door and called to Chiddock, telling him that it would now be safe for him to enter. He came to the foot of the stairway, cringing and fearful; the more I saw of him the more I knew what an arrant coward he was. As things turned out I had to go halfway down the stair and explain what I had done before he would consent to gather his things together and come up.
"Now then, Chiddock," I said, showing him his chamber, "this is your room. You know the arrangement. You came here to do one turn of work in three, as things are you'll do one in two. And keep to what I've arranged, or I'll let Jezreel Cornish loose on you."
"He'll not forgive you for baulking him," he muttered. "Look to yourself, mister. You did me a bad turn in knocking that revolver away. I know Cornish when he's roused."
I made no answer to that, but went about the job of fixing the bolt on the outside of Cornish's door. And with this and other things the afternoon passed quietly, and at the usual time I began to busy myself in making ready for supper.
Mordecai Chiddock sat watching me as if he meant to eat all that I was preparing for the table. For a man in his position and under such fear, he was the hungriest man I ever met, and when we sat down he fell upon the food and the hot coffee as if he had tasted nothing for years.
It gave me no pleasure to sit at meat with a man who had robbed his mate and his mate's wife and children, and I soon got up and left him to finish, after which I served out our usual allowance of rum. I made no answer when he gave me some sort of pledge or toast; instead, I carried my tot into my own chamber and sat down on my bunk to drink it at my leisure. After that I remember lying down for my usual forty winks and feeling more than usually sleepy, and then I remember nothing until I woke to find myself staring at Jezreel Cornish, whose sharp nose and ferrety eyes were very close to my face. It did not take a moment to realise that I was bound about arms and shoulders with a rope that pressed somewhat unpleasantly, and that my revolver was in Cornish's right hand.
"You made a mistake in letting me go to that cupboard, Graburn," he said, sneering at me. "I drugged the coffee and the rum.
"And as for locking me up like a gaolbird, you forgot that a man like me thinks nothing of coming down a hundred-foot rope. I told you I should kill Mordecai Chiddock."
"You've murdered him!" I gasped.
"I'm murdering him," he says, as cool as ever. "He's a-staring at his death in the face. I'm a merciful man, Graburn, I'm giving him time to repent. Come and see him die. And—quick!"
He suddenly menaced me so meaningly with the revolver that I struggled to my feet and let him half-pull, half-thrust me from the room. He forced me across the living-room, and through the double door, and down the stair upon the plateau of rock into the brightest and silverest moonlight I ever remember—a night so calm and still and beautiful that you'd have wondered any human being could have had anything but good thoughts in his heart between then and sunrise. But Jezreel Cornish was no longer a human being; the devil had taken possession of him.
"Come and see Mordecai Chiddock being a-murdered of, Graburn," he said, chuckling as if it was all a joke. "Come and hear him a-begging and a-praying for mercy—Mordecai what never had no mercy on man nor woman! Come, I tell you!" and he dragged me along as if I had been no more than an infant. "Now look at Mordecai Chiddock, a-facing of his death like the brave sailorman he is!"
From the point to which he dragged me I could see all the devilish ingenuity of what Cornish had done. In the outline of the rock on which Shivering Sand Lighthouse stood there was a crescent-shaped indentation which might have been cut through as you cut into a cheese with a tin scoop. We stood on the edge of one side of this; on the other, dangling from ropes which had been fastened about his waist and under his armpits, the bright moonlight shining full upon him, hung Mordecai Chiddock, a swaying, trembling figure against the silent, pitiless rock behind him.
And he was up to his waist in the advancing tide, and he would soon be submerged and drowned!
I felt myself seized with a sudden fury at the sight of this specimen of Cornish's cruelty, and turned on him with a feeling that would have manifested itself in an attack on him if I had not been bound.
"You devil!" I cried. "You——"
But he raised the revolver, and for a second I thought my time was come.
"Keep a civil tongue, Mr. Graburn," he said, sullenly. "It doesn't much matter to me whether you live or die, but I don't want to murder you. After all, I'm not murdering Chiddock; I'm carrying out justice on him. Nice to hear him, isn't it?"
The wretch swinging in the rising sea not ten yards in front of us had caught sight of me and burst into frantic entreaties for help. But these entreaties were mingled with the most awful curses and blasphemies I had ever heard, and suddenly Cornish began to add a demoniac laughter and jeering to them.
There was nothing but Chiddock's head left above the waves at last. I knew exactly where the water would rise to, and that in another five minutes he would have gone. And Cornish knew that too, and an idea seemed to strike him. He laughed aloud—a devilish laugh that made my blood turn to ice.
"He's only a few minutes left," he said, "I'll go nearer and whisper a few words of parting to him. It'll be a friendly thing to remind him of what a lot of friends he'll meet presently."
He made off towards the point where Chiddock was hanging, with the evident intention of calling over the edge into the wretched man's very ears.
As he came near, just as if Providence had it in mind that he should be cheated of seeing his victim die, he tripped over the rope by which Chiddock was secured. He pitched head foremost over the edge of the rock, and I heard his head strike on the ledge beneath, and saw him cleave the oily-faced water like a plummet. And after that neither I nor any man ever saw Jezreel Cornish again.
It was then that I fainted, hearing a long cry of final despair from Chiddock. It may have been unconsciousness rather than fainting—it was long after daybreak when I came round. I crawled to the edge of the rock, and looked into the cove. Chiddock hung limp against the rock, his head dangling on his shoulder.
I could do nothing to help myself; Cornish had made certain in securing me. During the day I contrived to drag myself into shelter against the fierce sunlight, but I almost went mad with hunger and thirst and horror of my situation. That night no light shone out from the Shivering Sand. But its failure saved me, for the darkened lighthouse roused suspicion, and before midnight a fast Government vessel was at the rock to find one dead man hanging over the waves where another was tossing, and a man who was not far from dead, and utterly delirious, babbling incoherently of what he had seen.
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