From the Children’s Friend, 1950-51 –
The Lantern in the Tower
by Elizabeth Cheatham Walton
Chapter 1: The Dark Sea
Patty’s eyes opened wide.
“Belle,” she called softly. “Belle.”
There was no pad, pad of the big white setter’s feet, nor any low friendly whimper answering her call. She was wide enough awake now to remember. Belle had gone back to the lighthouse with Andy. It couldn’t have been the dog.
Outside, the waves crashed on the beach with a steady roar. Inside, the windows were pale gray squares and the furniture dark, shadowy blotches, like crouching, shapeless forms poised to spring. but Patty was not afraid of the dark, or of strange noises in the night. She was afraid of only one thing – the sea. She, a fisherman’s daughter, was afraid of the sea! Do what she would to hide it or batter it down, the ugly fear was there. She slid down in her bed and drew the soft checked quilt up around her neck, glad that she was safe inside in the warm, comfortable dark.
She heard it again, the sound that had awakened her. Downstairs in the kitchen a few words were shouted as though in a quarrel.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The grandfather’s clock at the head of the stairs outside Patty’s door ticked loudly. That was the only sound in the house now. Who was quarreling in the kitchen? Her father and mother never quarreled.
Patty listened. At first she heard nothing; then once more loud voices broke the stillness. She sat up straight in bed.
“I tell you we have to do it,” the voice said.
“Do what?” thought Patty.
She was curious; yet she wondered if she ought to listen. Were her mother and father downstairs? If they weren’t, sh9ould she wake them?
Patty slipped out of bed. Holding up her long white nightgown in her left hand, she tiptoed out into the hall and over to the door of her father’s and mother’s room. For a few minutes she stood there waiting until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Her mother was in bed and asleep, but although her father’s place was mussed and slept-in, he was not there.
What had made him get up and go down into the kitchen to quarrel with someone in the middle of the night?
For the first time since she had heard the voices, Patty was really frightened. She feared that something terrible was happening – something so bad that her father was even keeping it from her mother, from whom Patty had never known him to keep anything – something, perhaps having to do with the war that was going on between the North and the South.
She crept over to the balustrade that surrounded the stairway in the second story hall. Kneeling on the floor, she took a square spoke in each hand and pressed her face between them. Her brown eyes were open wide, her slim, straight features intent with listening. For a while all that she heard was a low hum of voices. Not one word could she understand. Then the loud talking broke out again.
“It doesn’t make any difference what you say, we have to wreck the light.”
That wasn’t Patty’s father’s voice. But what did the speaker mean? Someone else wanted to know, too, and that was her father.
“How are you going to do that?” he asked very quietly. “You don’t aim to knock the tower down, do you?”
It was the lighthouse they meant! Patty was more frightened than ever now. Wreck the light! The Cape Henry light, built in George Washington’s time; the first light ever commissioned by Congress; the light that Andy loved so dearly! She clutched the spokes and leaned forward.
“I wish we could,” growled a surly voice in answer to her father. “If we could pull the tower down brick from brick, it would be a long time rebuildin’; then the Federal warships couldn’t find their way between Capes. The Yankees have Norfolk now, and they’ll be comin’ here soon. But we can’t pull the tower down, so we aim to make away with the lantern; then the tower’s no good.”
“And do you think Andy will let you get away with that?” asked Patty’s father. “He’s there now, and he’s mighty big, and plum devoted to that light.”
Patty thrilled with pride at those words. Andy was big, and he was devoted to the light. He wasn’t afraid of the sea, and he tended the light faithfully that others might not meet death on the Cape Charles Shoals.
“He can’t do much against a crowd of us,” the shrill-voiced one answered. “We won’t hurt him. We’ll just tie him up and leave him be.”
Patty’s father began his quiet argument again.
“I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t,” he emphasized. Patty could picture him slowly shaking his graying head. “You won’t gain enough to pay for what the Yankees will do to you when you’re caught – and caught you will be. With them in Norfolk, we’re as good as in Yankee hands now.”
“But if we don’t put out the light,” argued a softer voiced man, “they’ll bring more ships and troops down the coast to prey upon us. I’d like to see a few of their ships go on the Cape Charles Shoals, I would.”
“Well, I’ll have no part in it,” exclaimed Patty’s father in a louder voice than he usually employed. Patty heard a dull thump as though a doubled-up fist had come down on the table. “It’s a fool-hardy idea, and even if it weren’t, for every soldier or sailor that you keep from our shores, you are liable to kill more women and children and men who aren’t fighting. I’d have none of it, I tell you, even if my son weren’t the keeper of the light.”
“You won’t be a traitor!” shouted the loud-voiced one in a more rasping tone than ever. “You wouldn’t tell the Yankees! We don’t aim to kill women and children, and we’ve promised not to hurt your son.”
Patty heard a chair scrape across the floor as though someone had risen. She thought it was her father.
“When has William Parker ever been a traitor?” he asked quietly. There was no answer. “Not one of you knows a time. I’ve been loyal to the state of Virginia and to the Confederacy, and I aim to be loyal to the end. But that doesn’t mean I have to join every fool scheme any bunch of Virginians happens to think up. Fishermen who destroy lighthouses are headin’ for no good end.”
There was a growl of angry voices at that.
“Now don’t mutter,” he went on. “That’s what I think of you. But just to prove that I grant you the right to do as you please without any interference from me, I’ll leave you and go up to bed right now. You are free to stay here and argue, or go and get the rest of your crowd and march on the lighthouse.”
Patty heard heavy footsteps on the kitchen floor. She let go the spokes of the balustrade, and gathering up her nightgown in both hands, raced for her room.
Clump. clump. Squeak. Clump. Clump. Squeak.
Her father’s left shoe squeaked. Patty counted the steps. Each clump was a step, the squeak coming when he put his left foot down. He came steadily toward the top, more slowly than usual. Patty knew what that meant. He was feeling old and beaten tonight. He had lost the argument, and with it, perhaps innocent lives on the Cape Charles Shoals. He reached the upstairs hall, walked across it, went into his own room and closed the door. Patty was alone with her knowledge of the fishermen’s plans.
She sat down in the middle of her bed and pulled the quilt up around her. For the first time she realized that she was cold.
What could she do? The thought of telling the Federals crossed her mind, but deep down in her heart she turned violently against the idea. Virginia was her state, and it was part of the confederacy. She couldn’t be what her friends and neighbors called a traitor, but she could tell Andy. She owed the crowd of fishermen no loyalty; she hadn’t promised to keep still as her father had.
The thought made her jump out of bed and run to look at the grandfather’s clock in the hall. She squinted her eyes until she could see the black figures, but the picture in the center of mountains and a river remained a misty gray. Twelve o’clock. They meant to steal the lantern that very night!
Patty hurried back to her own room and over to the window. Overhead the sky was full of stars, and only their mild light relieved the darkness. Far off the breakers roared steadily on the beach.
Did she dare go to the lighthouse and warn Andy before the fishermen had gathered their crowd and arrived? She could. She knew the way very well, directly along the sea; she couldn’t get lost, even in the darkness. But did she dare?
Over and over she said to herself that she couldn’t go; yet even as she was saying it, she was sure that she was going. No one knew about her knowledge; no one need ever know; yet she herself knew. Yes, she had to go. This time she couldn’t let her fear of the sea beat her down and keep her from doing what she could for her beloved older brother and the people that might die on the Cape Charles Shoals.
She turned away from the window. The continuous roar of the sea frightened her more and more as she thought of hurrying along beside those huge waves, pounding unseen out there in the night.
She sat down on the floor with her back to the window. In the darkness she pulled on her long white stockings and poked her feet into her high black shoes. Her thin hands trembled as she drew the laces through the eyelets. Over and over she said to herself.
“I must go. I must go. I am not afraid. I am not afraid.”
Her shoes on, she scrambled to her feet. Over to the curtained-in corner of her room she tiptoed. Drawing the curtain aside, she looked at her dresses, one on each of four hooks. Out came the red-bordered calico one. She had decided to wear that. It was old and partly soiled already. It might get torn and ruined tonight.
Around her head went her long brown braids, and a few pins held them there. There was no time for proper brushing now. She must hurry.
“I might have to crawl under something,” she said to herself. “Long braids and ribbons could get caught and keep me from ever getting anywhere.”
Fully dressed, she hesitated in the middle of the room. It was easy enough to get ready, but now came the hard part.
The door of her mother’s and father’s room was closed. She might light a candle now. But suppose her father were still awake and saw the light underneath the door? Perhaps she had better go in the dark. But what if she stumbled and fell? Everyone would wake then. In the end she decided to light the candle. It threw a ring of gold around her and put everything else in blacker darkness. Shading it with the hand next to her parents’ room, she started off.
At the head of the steps she stopped to listen. There was not a sound downstairs. The fishermen had gone, as she had felt sure they would, if they were to gather a crowd and steal the lantern before dawn overtook them.
She crept down to the first floor on tiptoe. Her shadow on the wall cast by the flickering light of her candle, shivered and shook. She imagined that the shadow was her real self, trembling and shaking and afraid.
“Won’t I ever be brave like other fishermen’s women?” she said to herself.
Now she was at the foot of the steps. She crossed the hall into the kitchen and set the candle on the table near the door. It was unlocked as the fishermen had left it. Patty grasped the big iron latch and swung the heavy door open. A gust of wind rushed into the room and blew the candle out.
Before Patty stretched the walk of single boards that led down to the beach. A misty, gray line, it seemed, disappearing among the dunes. That was the way she had to go; then along the beach for several miles to that other walk of narrow boards that led up to the light. If the fishermen had gone to gather their crowd she was ahead of them; but she must hurry to keep ahead, for they cold take bigger and faster steps than she.
The wind whipped Patty’s skirts around her legs and tore at her tightly braided hair. She was cold. She hadn’t thought of that, for in the southern part of Virginia, the days are warm; even in the fall, while the nights are cold. She turned back into the kitchen, took her mother’s shawl from its hook, and wrapped it tightly around her.
“This will do it,” she said to herself. “I will be warm now.”
Then she turned to face the dark outdoor world.
She walked steadily on, only letting herself stop long enough to reach behind her and pull the door shut gently. In the morning her mother and father would find the burned-out candle and perhaps notice the empty hook where the shawl had been; then they would discover she was missing. What would they think?
She tiptoed down the few front steps, under her mother’s and father’s window, down the board walk among the dunes, and out on to the beach.
Patty had never been so close to the sea on a dark, cold night before. Moonlight summer nights were one thing, but this was another, and the sight terrified her as nothing else had ever done. At her feet were a few scallops of white foam and behind them shallow pools of water; then the blackness and a continuous roaring sound. Patty felt that the roaring blackness was so immense and evil that at any minute it might come and swallow her up.
“No wonder the men were afraid to sail with Columbus,” she thought. “No wonder. Why, I’m afraid to stand here on the shore right now.”
She knew that she had no time to be afraid or to stand still. She resolved not to look out across the water where her wide-open eyes could see nothing but the foam scallops at her feet. She would hurry down the beach, looking straight ahead until the light in the tower came into view. Still, a little thought kept reminding her that perhaps the light would not be burning when she got there. Perhaps the fishermen knew a short cut.
“But if I hurry,” she answered, beating down the nagging thought, “if I hurry, surely it will be burning still.”