Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 20

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IT was the Caskets Light.

A lighthouse of the nineteenth century is a high cylinder of masonry, surmounted by scientifically constructed machinery for throwing light. The Casket lighthouse in particular is a white tower supporting three light-rooms. These three chambers revolve on clock-wheels, with such precision that the man on watch who sees them from sea can invariably take ten steps during their irradiation, and twenty-five during their eclipse. Everything is based on the focal plan and on the rotation of the octagon drum, which is formed of eight wide simple lenses in range, having above and below it two series of dioptric rings; it is protected from the violence of the winds and waves by glass a millimetre thick, yet sometimes broken by the sea-eagles, which dash themselves like great moths against these gigantic lanterns. The building which encloses and sustains this mechanism, and in which it is set, is also mathematically constructed. Everything about it is plain, exact, bare, precise, correct. A lighthouse is a mathematical figure.

In the seventeenth century a lighthouse was a sort of ornament to the sea-shore. The architecture of a lighthouse tower was magnificent and extravagant. It was covered with balconies, balusters, lodges, alcoves, weather-cocks,—nothing but masks, statues, foliage, volutes, reliefs, figures large and small, medallions with inscriptions. "Pax in bello," said the Eddystone lighthouse. (We may as well observe, by the way, that this declaration of peace did not always disarm the ocean. Winstanley repeated it on a lighthouse which he constructed at his own expense, on a wild spot near Plymouth. The tower being finished, he shut himself up in it to have it tried by the tempest. The storm came, and carried off the lighthouse and Winstanley in it.) Such excessive adornment afforded too great a hold to the hurricane; as generals too brilliantly equipped in battle, draw the enemy's fire. Besides whimsical designs in stone, they were loaded with whimsical designs in iron, copper, and wood. On the sides of the lighthouse there jutted out, clinging to the walls among the arabesques, engines of every description, useful and useless,—windlasses, tackles, pullies, counterpoises, ladders, cranes, grapnels. On the pinnacle around the light, delicately wrought iron-work held great iron chandeliers, in which were placed pieces of rope steeped in resin,—wicks which burned doggedly, and which no wind extinguished; and from top to bottom the tower was covered by a complication of sea standards, banderoles, banners, flags, and pennons, which rose from stage to stage, from story to story,—a medley of all hues, all shapes, all heraldic devices, all signals, all confusion, up to the light-chamber, making in the storm a gay riot of colour about the blaze. This insolent light on the brink of the abyss seemed to breathe defiance, and inspired shipwrecked men with a spirit of daring.

But the Caskets Light was not one of this kind. It was at that period a primitive sort of lighthouse. Henry I. built it after the loss of the "White Ship." It was an unpretending tower perched upon a rock and surmounted with a brazier enclosed by an iron railing,—a head of hair flaming in the wind. The only improvement made in this lighthouse since the twelfth century was a pair of forge-bellows worked by a pendulum and a stone weight, which had been added to the light-chamber in 1610.

The fate of the sea-birds that chanced to fly against these old lighthouses was more tragic than those of our days. The birds dashed against them, attracted by the light, and fell into the brazier, where they could be seen struggling like black spirits in a hell; at times they would fall back again between the railings upon the rock, smoking, lame, blind, like half-burnt flies out of a lamp.

To a full-rigged ship in good trim, answering readily to the pilot's handling, the Caskets Light is useful; it cries, "Look out!" It warns her of the shoal. To a disabled ship it is simply terrible. The hull, paralyzed and inert, with no defence against the fury of the storm or the mad heaving of the waves,—a fish without fins, a bird without wings,—can but go where the wind wills. The lighthouse reveals the end, points out the spot where it is doomed to disappear, and casts a ghastly light upon the place of burial. In short, it is but a funeral torch to illumine the yawning chasm, to warn against the inevitable. What more tragic mockery!