Keeper Of The
Bishop by A.E.W. Mason
For a fortnight out of every six weeks the little white
faced man walked the garrison on St. Mary's Island in a broadcloth
frock-coat, a low waistcoat and a black riband of a tie fastened in a bow;
and it gave him great pleasure to be mistaken for a commercial traveller. But
during the other four weeks he was head-keeper of the lighthouse on the
Bishop's Rock, with thirty years of exemplary service to his credit. By what
circumstances he had been brought to enlist under the Trinity flag I never
knew. But now, at the age of forty-eight he was entirely occupied with a
great horror of the sea and its hunger for the bodies of men; the frock-coat
which he wore during his spells on shore was a protest against the sea; and
he hated not only the sea but all things that were in the sea, especially
rock lighthouses, and of all rock lighthouses especially the Bishop.
"The Atlantic's as smooth as a ballroom floor," said he. It was a clear,
still day and we were sitting among the gorse on the top of the garrison,
looking down the sea towards the west. Five miles from the Scillies, the thin
column of the Bishop showed like a cord strung tight in the sky. "But out
there all round the lighthouse there are eddies twisting and twisting,
without any noise, and extraordinary quick, and every other second, now here,
now there, you'll notice the sea dimple, and you'll hear a sound like a man
hiccoughing, and all at once, there's a wicked black whirlpool. The tide runs
seven miles an hour past the Bishop. But in another year I have done with
her." To her Garstin nodded across from St. Mary's to that grey finger post
of the Atlantic. "One more winter, well, very likely during this one more
winter the Bishop will go — on some night when a storm blows from west
or west-nor'west and the Irish coast takes none of its strength."
He was only uttering the current belief of the islands. The first Bishop
lighthouse had been swept away before its building was finished, and though
the second stood, a fog bell weighing no less than a ton, and fixed ninety
feet above the water, had been lifted from its fittings by a single wave, and
tossed like a tennis-ball into the sea. I asked Garstin whether he had been
stationed on the rock at the time.
"People talk of lightships plunging and tugging at their cables," he
returned. "Well, I've tried lightships, and what I say is, ships are built to
plunge and tug at their cables. That's their business. But it isn't the
business of one hundred and twenty upright feet of granite to quiver and
tremble like a steel spring. No, I wasn't on the Bishop when the bell went.
But I was there when a wave climbed up from the base of the rock and smashed
in the glass wall of the lantern, and put the light out. That was last spring
at four o'clock in the morning. The day was breaking very cold and wild, and
one could just see the waves below, a lashing tumble of grey and white water
as far as the eye could reach. I was in the lantern reading 'It's never too
late to mend.' I had come to where the chaplain knocks down the warder, and I
was thinking how I'd like to have a go at that warder myself, when all the
guns in the world went off together in my ears. And there I was dripping wet,
and fairly sliced with splinters of glass, and the wind blowing wet in my
face, and the lamp out, and a bitter grey light of morning, as though there
never, never had been any sun, and all the dead men in the sea shouting out
for me one hundred feet below," and Garstin shivered, and rose to his feet.
"Well, I have only one more winter of it."
"And then?" I asked.
"Then I get the North Foreland, and the trippers come out from Margate,
and I live on shore with my wife and — By the way, I wanted to speak to
you about my boy. He's getting up in years. What shall I make of him? A
linen- draper, eh? In the Midlands, what? or something in a Free Library,
handing out Charles Reade's books? He's at home now. Come and see him!"
In Garstin's quarters, within the coastguard enclosure, I was introduced
to his wife and the lad, Leopold. "What shall we call him?" Mrs. Garstin had
asked, some fifteen years before. "I don't know any seafaring man by the name
of Leopold," Garstin had replied, after a moment of reflection. So Leopold he
Mrs. Garstin was a buxom, unimaginative woman, but she shared to the full
her husband's horror of the sea. She told me of nights when she lay alone
listening to the moan of the wind overhead, and seeing the column of the
Bishop rock upon its base, and of mornings when she climbed from the
sheltered barracks up the gorse, with her heart tugging in her breast,
certain, certain that this morning, at least, there would be no Bishop
lighthouse visible from the top of the garrison.
"It seems a sort of insult to the works of God," said she, in a hushed
voice. "It seems as if it stood up there in God's face and cried, 'You can't
"Yes, most presumptuous and provoking," said Garstin; and so they fell to
talking of the boy, who, at all events, should fulfil his destiny very far
inland from the sea. Mrs. Garstin leaned to the linen-drapery; Garstin
inclined to the free library.
"Well, I will come down to the North Foreland," said I, "and you shall
tell me which way it is."
"Yes, if—" said Garstin, and stopped.
"Yes, if—" repeated his wife, with a nod of the head.
"Oh! it won't go this winter," said I.
And it didn't. But, on the other hand, Garstin did not go to the North
Foreland, nor for two years did I hear any more of him. But two years later I
returned to St. Mary's and walked across the beach of the island to the
little graveyard by the sea. A new tablet upon the outer wall of the church
caught and held my eye. I read the inscription and remained incredulous. For
the Bishop still stood. But the letters were there engraved upon the plate,
and as I read them again, the futility of Garstin's fears was enforced upon
me with a singular pathos.
For the Bishop still stood and Garstin had died on the Christmas Eve of
that last year which he was to spend upon rock lighthouses. Of how he died
the tablet gave a hint, but no more than a hint. There were four words
inscribed underneath his name:
"And he was not."
I walked back to Hugh Town, wondering at the tragedy which those four
words half hid and half revealed, and remembering that the tide runs seven
miles an hour past the Bishop, with many eddies and whirlpools. Almost
unconsciously I went up the hill above Hugh Town and came to the signal
station on the top of the garrison. And so occupied was I with my
recollections of Garstin that it did not strike me as strange that I should
find Mrs. Garstin standing now where he had stood and looking out to the
Bishop as he was used to look.
"I had not heard," I said to her.
"No?" she returned simply, and again turned her eyes seawards. It was late
on a midsummer afternoon. The sun hung a foot or so above the water, a huge
ball of dull red fire, and from St. Mary's out to the horizon's rim the sea
stretched a rippling lagoon of the colour of claret. Over the whole expanse
there was but one boat visible, a lugger, between Sennen and St. Agnes,
beating homewards against a light wind.
"It was a storm, I suppose," said I. "A storm out of the west?"
"No. There was no wind, but — there was a haze, and it was growing
dark." Mrs. Garstin spoke in a peculiar tone of resignation, with a yearning
glance towards the Bishop as I thought, towards the lugger as I know. But
even then I was sure that those last words: "There was a haze and it was
growing dark," concealed the heart of her distress. She explained the
inscription upon the tablet, while the lugger tacked towards St. Mary's, and
while I gradually began to wonder what still kept her on the island.
At four o'clock on the afternoon of that Christmas Eve, the lighthouse on
St. Agnes' Island showed its lamps; five minutes later the red beams struck
out from Round Island to the north; but to the west on the Bishop all was
dark. The haze thickened, and night came on; still there was no flash from
the Bishop, and the islands wondered. Half an hour passed; there was still
darkness in the west, and the islands became alarmed. The Trinity Brethren
subsidise a St. Agnes' lugger to serve the Bishop, and this boat was got
ready. At a quarter to five suddenly the Bishop light shot through the gloom,
but immediately after a shutter was interposed quickly some half-a-dozen
times. It was the signal of distress, and the lugger worked out to the Bishop
with the tide. Of the three keepers there were now only two.
It appeared from their account that Garstin took the middle day watch,
that they themselves were asleep, and that Garstin should have roused them to
light the lamps at a quarter to four. They woke of their own accord in the
dark, and at once believed they had slept into the night. The clock showed
them it was half-past four. They mounted to the lantern room, and nowhere was
there any sign of Garstin. They lit the lamps. The first thing they saw was
the log. It was open and the last entry was written in Garstin's hand and was
timed 3.40 P.M. It mentioned a ketch reaching northwards. The two men
descended the winding-stairs, and the cold air breathed upon their faces. The
brass door at the foot of the stairs stood open. From that door thirty feet
of gun-metal rungs let in to the outside of the lighthouse lead down to the
set-off, which is a granite rim less than a yard wide, and unprotected by any
rail. They shouted downwards from the doorway, and received no answer. They
descended to the set-off, and again no Garstin, not even his cap. He was
Garstin had entered up the log, had climbed down to the set-off for five
minutes of fresh air, and somehow had slipped, though the wind was light and
the sea whispering. But the whispering sea ran seven miles an hour past the
This was Mrs. Garstin's story and it left me still wondering why she lived
on at St. Mary's. I asked after her son.
"How is Leopold? What is he — a linen-draper?" She shaded her eyes
with her hand and said:
"That's the St. Agnes' lugger from the Bishop, and if we go down to the
pier now we shall meet it."
We walked down to the pier. The first person to step on shore was Leopold,
with the Trinity House buttons on his pilot coat.
"He's the third hand on the Bishop now," said Mrs. Garstin. "You are
surprised?" She sent Leopold into Hugh Town upon an errand, and as we walked
back up the hill she said: "Did you notice a grave underneath John's
"No," said I.
"I told you there was a mention in the log of a ketch."
"The ketch went ashore on the Crebinachs at half-past four on that
Christmas Eve. One man jumped for the rocks when the ketch struck, and was
drowned. The rest were brought off by the lugger. But one man was
"He drowned because he jumped," said I.
"He drowned because my man hadn't lit the Bishop light," said she,
brushing my sophistry aside. "So I gave my boy in his place."
And now I knew why those words — "There was a haze and it was
growing dark" — held the heart of her distress.
"And if the Bishop goes next winter," she continued, "why, it will just be
a life for a life;" and she choked down a sob as a young voice hailed us from
But the Bishop still stands in the Atlantic, and Leopold, now the second
hand, explains to the Margate trippers the wonders of the North Foreland