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The Pilot and his Wife By Jonas Lie Characters: 10233

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

On the stern, pine-clad southern coast of Norway, off the picturesquely-situated town of Arendal, stand planted far out into the sea the white walls of the Great and Little Torungen Lighthouses, each on its bare rock-island of corresponding name, the lesser of which seems, as you sail past, to have only just room for the lighthouse and the attendant's residence by the side. It is a wild and lonely situation,-the spray, in stormy weather, driving in sheets against the walls, and eagles and sea-birds not unfrequently dashing themselves to death against the thick glass panes at night; while in winter all communication with the land is very often cut off, either by drift or patchy ice, which is impassable either on foot or by boat.

These, however, and others of the now numerous lights along that dangerous coast, are of comparatively recent erection. Many persons now living can remember the time when for long reaches the only lighting was the gleam of the white breakers themselves. And the captain who had passed the Ox? light off Christiansand might think himself lucky if he sighted the distant Jomfruland up by Krager?.

About a score of years before the lighthouse was placed on Little Torungen there was, however, already a house there, if it could be dignified by that name, with its back and one side almost up to the eave of the roof stuck into a heap of stones, so that it had the appearance of bending forward to let the storm sweep over it. The low entrance-door opened to the land, and two small windows looked out upon the sea, and upon the boat, which was usually drawn up in a cleft above the sea-weed outside.

When you entered, or, more properly speaking, descended into it, there was more room than might have been expected; and it contained sundry articles of furniture, such as a handsome press and sideboard, which no one would have dreamt of finding under such a roof. In one corner there stood an old spinning-wheel covered with dust, and with a smoke-blackened tuft of wool still hanging from its reel; from which, and from other small indications, it might be surmised that there had once been a woman in the house, and that tuft of wool had probably been her last spin.

There sat now on the bench by the hearth a lonely old man, of a flint-hard and somewhat gloomy countenance, with a mass of white hair falling over his ears and neck, who was generally occupied with some cobbling work, and who from time to time, as he drew out the thread, would make some remark aloud, as if he thought he still had the partner of his life for audience. The look askance over his brass spectacles with which he greeted any casual stranger who might come into the house had very little welcome in it, and an expression about his sunken mouth and sharp chin said plainly enough that the other might state his business at once and be gone. He sought no company; and the only time he had ever been seen at church was when he came rowing over to Trom? with his wife's body in her coffin. When the pastor sprinkled earth upon it, it was observed that the tears streamed down his cheeks, and it was long after dark before he quitted the churchyard to return. He had become a proverb for obstinacy for miles beyond his own residence; and people who dealt with him for fish in the harbour, if they once began to bargain, were as likely as not to see him without a word just quietly row away.

All that was known further about "Old Jacob," as he was called, was that he had once been a pilot, and that he had had a son who had taken to drinking, through whose fault it had been eventually that the father had lost his certificate; and it was thought that on the occasion in question the father had taken the son's blame upon himself. Since then he had shunned society, and had retired with his wife to his present habitation, whither, after their son was drowned, they had brought their little orphan granddaughter, who now was his sole companion. His only ostensible means of living were by shoemaking, and by fishing, the produce of which he generally disposed of to passing ships, and, during the earlier period of his sojourn there, by shooting occasionally. But it was understood that he received a small regular contribution from several of the pilots, certificated or otherwise, of the district, for keeping a fire alight on his hearth during the dark autumn nights, and so giving them, by the light from his two windows, something to steer by when they arrived off the coast after nightfall. Whether the light was shown for their benefit particularly, or whether it was not rather intended for the guidance of smuggling vessels standing in under cover of the night to land their cargoes, it was not their business to inquire. Its friendly assistance was, at all events, not unacknowledged by these latter, and very acceptable presents, in the shape of kegs of spirits, bags of coffee, tobacco, meal, and so forth, would, from time to time, come rolling into the old man's room, so that upon the whole, he was well-to-do enough out there upon his rock.

Of late years he had fallen i

nto feeble health, and found it not so easy to row the long distance over to land. Even in his best days he had, owing to an old injury to one of his legs, found some difficulty in getting down to the boat; and now, therefore, he sat during the greater part of the day over the hearth, in his woolen jacket and leather breeches, with his indoor work. Now and then, when his granddaughter-a child with a thick crop of hair falling about her ears, and a rough dog constantly at her heels-would burst into the house with all the freshness of the outside air blowing round her, as it were, and deliver herself of her intelligence, he might be drawn, perhaps, to the window to look out over the sea, and afterwards, like a growling bear disturbed from its lair, even follow her with some difficulty out of the door with the spyglass. There he would station himself, so as to use her shoulder as a rest for his shaking hand, and with his never-ceasing directions and growling going on behind her neck, she would do her best to fix the glass on the desired object. His crossness would then disappear, little by little, in their joint speculation as to what ship it could be, or in whatever remarks it might suggest; and after giving his decision, the old man would generally hobble in again.

He was really very proud of his granddaughter's cleverness. She could distinguish with her naked eye as clearly as he could through the glass. She never made a mistake about the craft, large or small, that belonged to that part of the coast, and could, besides, say to a nicety, what sort of master each had. Her superiority of sight she asserted, too, with a tyranny to which he made no resistance, although it might have tried a temper many degrees more patient than his was.

One day, however, she was at a loss. They made out a crescent on the flag, and this caused even the old man a moment's astonishment. But he declared then, for her information, shortly and decisively, that it was a "barbarian."

This satisfied her for a moment. But then she asked-

"What is a barbarian, grandfather?"

"It is a Turk."

"Yes, but a Turk?"

"Oh! it's-it's-a Mohammedan-"

"A what!-a Moham-"

"A Mohammedan-a robber on board ship."

"On board ship!"

He was not going to give up his ascendancy in the matter, hard as she pushed him; so he bethought him of a pack of old tales there-anent, and went on to explain drily-

"They go to the Baltic-to Russia-to salt human flesh."

"Human flesh!"

"Yes, and sometimes, too, they seize vessels in the open sea and do their salting there."

She fixed a pair of large, terrified eyes on him, which made the old man continue-

"And it is especially for little girls they look. That meat is the finest, and goes by tons down to the Grand Turk."

Having played this last trump, he was going in again, but was stopped by her eager question-

"Do they use a glass there on board?" And when he said they did, she slipped quickly by him through the door, and kept cautiously within as long as the vessel was to be seen through the window-pane on the horizon.

The moods of the two were for once reversed. The old man looked very sly over his work, whilst she was quiet and cowed. Once only she broke out angrily-

"But why doesn't the king get rid of them? If I was captain of a man-of-war, I'd-"

"Yes, Elizabeth, if you were captain of a man-of-war!-what then?"

The child's conceptions apparently reached no further than such matters as these as yet. She had seen few human beings as she grew up, and in recent years, after her grandmother's death, she and her grandfather had been the only regular inhabitants of the island. Every now and then there might perhaps come a boat on one errand or another, and a couple of times she had paid a visit to her maternal aunt on land, at Arendal. Her grandfather had taught her to read and write, and with what she found in the Bible and psalm-book, and in 'Exploits of Danish and Norwegian Naval Heroes,' a book in their possession, she had in a manner lived pretty much upon the anecdotes which in leisure moments she could extract from that grandfather, so chary of his speech, about his sailor life in his youth.

They had besides, in the little inner room, a small print, without a frame, of the action near the Heather Islands, in which he had taken part. It represented the frigate Naiad, with the brigs Samso, Kiel, and Lolland, in furious conflict with the English ship of the line Dictator, which lay across the narrow harbour with the brig Calypso, and was pounding the Naiad to pieces. The names of the ships were printed underneath.

On the print there was little to be seen but mast-heads and cannon-mouths, and a confusion of smoke, but in this had the child lived whole years of her life; and many a time in fancy had she stood there and fought the Englishman. Men-of-war and their officers had become the highest conception of her fancy, and the dearest wish of her heart was that a man-of-war might some day pass so near to Torungen that she would be able to see distinctly everything on board.

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