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- Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish - 1/22 -
STORIES BY FOREIGN AUTHORS
POLISH, GREEK, BELGIAN, HUNGARIAN
THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER OF ASPINWALL BY HENRYK SIENKIEWICZ
THE PLAIN SISTER BY DEMETRIOS BIKELAS
THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS BY MAURICE MAETERLINCK
SAINT NICHOLAS EVE BY CAMILLE LEMONNIER
IN LOVE WITH THE CZARINA BY MAURICE JOKAI
THE LIGHT-HOUSE KEEPER OF ASPINWALL
From "Yanko the Musician and other Stories." Translated by Jeremiah Curtin. Published by Little, Brown & Co.
Copyright, 1893, by Little, Brown & Co.
On a time it happened that the light-house keeper in Aspinwall, not far from Panama, disappeared without a trace. Since he disappeared during a storm, it was supposed that the ill-fated man went to the very edge of the small, rocky island on which the light-house stood, and was swept out by a wave. This supposition seemed the more likely as his boat was not found next day in its rocky niche. The place of light-house keeper had become vacant. It was necessary to fill this place at the earliest moment possible, since the light-house had no small significance for the local movement as well as for vessels going from New York to Panama. Mosquito Bay abounds in sandbars and banks. Among these navigation, even in the daytime, is difficult; but at night, especially with the fogs which are so frequent on those waters warmed by the sun of the tropics, it is nearly impossible. The only guide at that time for the numerous vessels is the light-house.
The task of finding a new keeper fell to the United States consul living in Panama, and this task was no small one: first, because it was absolutely necessary to find the man within twelve hours; second, the man must be unusually conscientious,--it was not possible, of course, to take the first comer at random; finally, there was an utter lack of candidates. Life on a tower is uncommonly difficult, and by no means enticing to people of the South, who love idleness and the freedom of a vagrant life. That light-house keeper is almost a prisoner. He cannot leave his rocky island except on Sundays. A boat from Aspinwall brings him provisions and water once a day, and returns immediately; on the whole island, one acre in area, there is no inhabitant. The keeper lives in the light-house; he keeps it in order. During the day he gives signals by displaying flags of various colors to indicate changes of the barometer; in the evening he lights the lantern. This would be no great labor were it not that to reach the lantern at the summit of the tower he must pass over more than four hundred steep and very high steps; sometimes he must make this journey repeatedly during the day. In general, it is the life of a monk, and indeed more than that,--the life of a hermit. It was not wonderful, therefore, that Mr. Isaac Falconbridge was in no small anxiety as to where he should find a permanent successor to the recent keeper; and it is easy to understand his joy when a successor announced himself most unexpectedly on that very day. He was a man already old, seventy years or more, but fresh, erect, with the movements and bearing of a soldier. His hair was perfectly white, his face as dark as that of a Creole; but, judging from his blue eyes, he did not belong to a people of the South. His face was somewhat downcast and sad, but honest. At the first glance he pleased Falconbridge. It remained only to examine him. Therefore the following conversation began:
"Where are you from?"
"I am a Pole."
"Where have you worked up to this time?"
"In one place and another."
"A light-house keeper should like to stay in one place."
"I need rest."
"Have you served? Have you testimonials of honorable government service?"
The old man drew from his bosom a piece of faded silk resembling a strip of an old flag, unwound it, and said:
"Here are the testimonials. I received this cross in 1830. This second one is Spanish from the Carlist War; the third is the French legion; the fourth I received in Hungary. Afterward I fought in the States against the South; there they do not give crosses."
Falconbridge took the paper and began to read.
"H'm! Skavinski? Is that your name? H'm! Two flags captured in a bayonet attack. You were a gallant soldier."
"I am able to be a conscientious light-house keeper."
"It is necessary to ascend the tower a number of times daily. Have you sound legs?"
"I crossed the plains on foot." (The immense steppes between the East and California are called "the plains.")
"Do you know sea service?"
"I served three years on a whaler."
"You have tried various occupations."
"The only one I have not known is quiet."
"Why is that?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "Such is my fate."
"Still you seem to me too old for a light-house keeper."
"Sir," exclaimed the candidate suddenly in a voice of emotion, "I am greatly wearied, knocked about. I have passed through much as you see. This place is one of those which I have wished for most ardently. I am old, I need rest. I need to say to myself, 'Here you will remain; this is your port.' Ah, sir, this depends now on you alone. Another time perhaps such a place will not offer itself. What luck that I was in Panama! I entreat you--as God is dear to me, I am like a ship which if it misses the harbor will be lost. If you wish to make an old man happy- -I swear to you that I am honest, but--I have enough of wandering."
The blue eyes of the old man expressed such earnest entreaty that Falconbridge, who had a good, simple heart, was touched.
"Well," said he, "I take you. You are light-house keeper."
The old man's face gleamed with inexpressible joy.
"I thank you."
"Can you go to the tower to-day?"
"Then good-bye. Another word,--for any failure in service you will be dismissed."
That same evening, when the sun had descended on the other side of the isthmus, and a day of sunshine was followed by a night without twilight, the new keeper was in his place evidently, for the light-house was casting its bright rays on the water as usual. The night was perfectly calm, silent, genuinely tropical, filled with a transparent haze, forming around the moon a great colored rainbow with soft, unbroken edges; the sea was moving only because the tide raised it. Skavinski on the balcony seemed from below like a small black point. He tried to collect his thoughts and take in his new position; but his mind was too much under pressure to move with regularity. He felt somewhat as a hunted beast feels when at last it has found refuge from pursuit on some inaccessible rock or in a cave. There had come to him, finally, an hour of quiet; the feeling of safety filled his soul with a certain unspeakable bliss. Now on that rock he can simply laugh at his previous wanderings, his misfortunes and failures. He was in truth like a ship whose masts, ropes, and sails had been broken and rent by a tempest, and cast from the clouds to the bottom of the sea,--a ship on which the tempest had hurled waves and spat foam, but which still wound its way to the harbor. The pictures of that storm passed quickly through his mind as he compared it with the calm future now beginning. A part of his wonderful adventures he had related to Falconbridge; he had not mentioned, however, thousands of other incidents. It had been his misfortune that as often as he pitched his tent and fixed his fireplace to settle down permanently, some wind tore out the stakes of his tent, whirled away the fire, and bore him on toward destruction. Looking now from the balcony of the tower at the illuminated waves, he remembered everything through which he had passed. He had campaigned in the four parts of the world, and in wandering had tried almost every occupation. Labor-loving and honest, more than once had he earned money, and had always lost it in spite of every prevision and the utmost caution. He had been a gold-miner in Australia, a diamond-digger in Africa, a rifleman in public service in the East Indies. He established a ranch in California,--the drought ruined him; he tried trading with wild tribes in the interior of Brazil,--his raft was wrecked on the Amazon; he
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