Keepers of the Light
"How she be, Tolley?" Smith asked giving space for the older man to pass down the stairs.
"Lost another one." Was the curt reply, passing by in a hurry for his three days off.
Smith stifled a laugh and started up, but paused, looked back down and counted the steps.
"There are 264 steps on the stairs, not counting the pedestal floor and the beam floor." That's what Tolley had told Smith on his arrival almost two years ago. Other than grunts and hmm's Tolley wasn't one for conversation.
Yet the three days before Tolley had arrived at the lighthouse to relieve Smith he had announced there were only 263 steps. Standing on the beam floor, Tolley would not allow any denial of his count. "Not a miscount. You count it on your way down and prove it yourself."
Smith had started a count but at the halfway window he stopped to look. The new authority board members were out on the dock. By end of the month the lighthouse would be mechanized with a never sleeping mechanical man taking care of the beam. Plus another mechanical man as backup just for insurance purposes. Only when he reach bottom did Smith remember about counting.
Hollenbeck sat at the watch window. "Storm coming lad." He never seemed worried about anything, not storms, not the beam failing, not being replaced, and certainly not by Tolley's assertion that the lighthouse circular stairway was somehow sinking, losing a step a week. What if it was, he'd be at his home with his wife in retirement.
Smith put his gear in the small alcove cupboard just below the beam floor. Then stepped up to look out over the gray sound. The far hills just visible at full clear daylight, only a few twinkling passing ship lights at night. It was all so boring.
"What did you bring to read?" Hollenbeck asked, not really interested. He smoked a pipe, drank a bit of spiked tea, and never read anything except the log sheet.
Smith showed the new Strand magazine with a new Sherlock Holmes story. "Good writer is he? Crawling around on the floors looking for stains and such. Seems a man could do better than that with his life." Hollenbeck noted.
Smith said nothing. As if sitting for long hours watching a ship channel was something enjoyable.
"Better give her a wipe down and ready her for duty." Hollenbeck said, not once bothering to take his eyes off the sound. "Coming in fast, the storm is."
"I counted 262 steps coming up." Smith said as an afterthought. Maybe he had miscounted too. Good lord, counting steps on a staircase. He ahd put into the post office and would hear soon. No more of this tiresome job.
"The new man will be here tomorrow morning, and he'll take my place on Wednesday." Hollenbeck offered.
"That soon? "
"They want us all here on Saturday." Hollenbeck continued. Saturday was always the worst day, all the weekenders would be out in their paddle boats and sailboats, running into each other if not getting run over by the ferries and cargo ships.
"Lost sight of the far coast." Smith said.
"Aye." was Hollenbeck's reply. "Get her lit."
Smith went through the procedure to light the gas lamp and turned the spindle that made the light
sweep out over the sound to the south and then back up to the island which parted the channel. Another light there swept down lower to show both channel entrances. It was already working.
"They have their mechanical man already there. I heard that this morning at the newsstand."
Sure. Bicycles were putting single horses out of work, and paired bicycles were appearing now. Talk of big balloons taking people across the channel at half the time of the fastest ferry. Sure.
A crack of light across the water near the far hills. A small steamer still out, its walking arm visible against the beam from the island. Another crack this time nearer and the sound of the entrance door banging.
"Better go down and lock it. Tolley must not have pushed it shut. I'll get her started, the late ferry is late again."
Smith started down, and remembered to count. At the bottom he had a count of 261. Another miscount. There was no metal stair gone. Where could it go anyway? Into the hard stone pedestal and the hard rock underneath that?
He found the door open. Tolley was gone and up over the dune to the nearest bar. Smith started to close the door when a hand came over his shoulder from behind to help pull the door closed. Smith turned to say thank you but paused. The mechanical man stood in front of him, a foot taller, thinner, with a curious smile painted on his copper face. "Come on up then, follow me, and count the steps will you."
They got to the beam floor. Hollenbeck was on the telephone to the lifeboat station. "Yeah, the late ferry she just disappeared in the island beam, I put mine out there and there's nothing. The storm worsening here.....yes, I've got Smith....yes, your new man is here too. I'll have the line lit up."
The line was hundred yard long set of new gas lights that swung from the lighthouse to the cove just north. "Come on you, whatever your name is, we've got to go back down."
"259" The mechanical said in a mechanical clicking manner.
"What?" "Steps." "Stupid machine."
At the bottom before going into the connected shed Smith stopped the new man. "How many steps?" "255" was the answer. "I can see you're not going to be of much help. No way another five or so stairway steps have sunk into bedrock. Now go back upstairs, I'll run the line myself."
The wind was battering the wooden shed and Smith had trouble getting the line window open. The lights were set every ten yards on a simple pulley line. The hard part was lighting the last few while the first were outside whipping back and forth but he got them out and bolted the window shut. The line was expendable.
He came back to the start of the stairs. The lights inside the lighthouse were flickering. He took a step up. "One." A light just above went out. Quickly others followed. One hand on the wall, one on the rail, Smith raised his boot up onto the next step slowly. "Two." At forty the lowest window showed the beam light doing its job. "Forty one." He looked up, the light at the top seemed closer for some reason. He looked down and could not see the floor. He stepped up. At the halfway window he should have been at 132 but reached it at 88.
Storms had been worse than this one, why was this one so strange. He'd miscounted that was it.
He looked up, he could see Hollenbeck staring down at him. "Hurry up." "I'm halfway there." Smith called back but there was no response. Hollenbeck had been replaced by the curious smiling man.
"One hundred." Smith stopped. He looked down. The light over the entrance floor was visible and seemed only a few steps away. He wiped his eyes. Strain, that was it. Eyestrain. He looked up. The beam floor was nearly on top of him. He looked out the halfway window, knowing it was the halfway because it was bigger than the quarter and three quarter way windows. A crack of light and the face of Tolley screaming to be let in.
Smith looked around, steps were merging with each other above and below him. He was only a few steps up from the entrance floor, yet the beam floor was just as close. He began suffocating. Then felt the beam floor crushing down on him. The door swung open and Tolley stood in the doorway, a bright beam behind him, highlighting him.
Smith looked down, his legs had sunk into the floor up to his knees. He was screaming back at Tolley in the door way, up at the curious smile. Screaming. Hollenbeck looking over the railing. "Just three more steps, lad, just three more."
"But I'm sinking, into quicksand, no quicklime, no, no, no."
The lifeboats were out fishing the passengers from the late ferry, hung up on the rocks just yards away from the lighthouse. The mechanical man controlled the beam light. Hollenbeck had come down to the entrance.
"Bad night, eh?" Tolley said, having arrived with the town fire department to help out.
"I can't find Smith." Hollenbeck said.
Tolley looked around with a sigh. "Lost another one."