I had been a forty nine-er and a lucky one at that. Having made a small fortune in gold, that is to say, enough to put a substantial stake in a successful shipping business, my stock had risen and I was then a man who could spend time at leisure. Moreover, I had taken to sailing as a diverting amusement and, having become an accomplished boatman, I made holidays for that purpose late in the summer of 1853. For the adventure I took passage to Florida, and thence onward aboard a schooner to the island of New Providence where I purchased a small oyster sloop; gaff-rigged and easily managed single-handed. From New Providence I set off south eastward with every hope of exploring islands and coastal features along the Bahamian archipelago.
I had been six days out when I met with trouble. That day I had set forth from a perfectly tranquil village harbor and, at sea, had made good use of the moderate wind, but late in the afternoon, a severe and fast approaching storm became manifest to the east and so I was obliged to seek shelter at once. To the southwest I discerned a small island and, it being about one league closer than any other land, I shook out some reefing on the mainsail – a little more than caution should allow – and set a fast reach for it. A swell had risen and walls of steel gray water broke and fell away into a wide ribbon of foaming white beneath the isle’s low cliffs. Above those cascading waves stood a lighthouse tower, striped red and white, and I was thankful to see that this little lump of land could not be completely uninhabited.
I guided the sloop to the leeward of the islet and beached on a strip of sand where I dropped an anchor at the stern and drew a heavy rope to land, hoping that my efforts would be sufficient to secure her for the night. Then I tramped, wind-swept and wet – for heavy rain was already squalling across the place – in the direction of the lighthouse. Presently, I stood at the entrance to the tower that rose some sixty feet above me and pulled hard upon the bell rope. Before long the door swung away from me and there, framed in the dark portal, stood the Keeper.
He hastened me inside with a movement of one hand and with the other he closed the heavy door against the eddying gusts and locked it. The ground floor space was evidently used for storage, the curved brick walls were unpainted and around the room stood barrels and crates. In the center there hung a large weight whose cable emerged from a hole in the ceiling and of this he cautioned me to stay clear. He beckoned me to follow him up the narrow iron stair that wound to the next chamber – the galley – but continuing upward we arrived next at the mess quarters. Here I was bade to sit though he went back below without uttering a word. Looking about the small room I conceived that it might resemble the turret chamber of some ancient castle in Europe. Though fitted for its purpose the place was austere and dim; it being poorly lit by just one small and narrow window. For furnishings there were two small chairs, a writing desk and shelving upon which a collection of books rested. There pervaded throughout a peculiar and unpleasant fishy smell – the odor, I later learned, of whale oil used to light the beacon.
Footsteps sounded upon iron and my host emerged through the stair well and set before me a tolerable light repast and strong tea. He took nothing, but he did suffer to sit with me and ask from whence and why I had come. I explained the circumstances which caused me to be there and he told me that I’d been fortunate as the storm was increasing and would certainly have carried me off had I not found his rocky outpost. Then at some repose, I was able to study the man: he was tall and thin, of middle years and attired in thick blue serge and good stout boots. The complexion of his solemn face was sallow and there being no light in his eyes they were dark, brooding and impenetrable. He was taciturn too and, I apprehended, resentful of my arrival there. He gave every appearance of a man who was unwell or under a great strain, as if something dark oppressed his soul and I found his presence discomfiting. Though grateful to him I was never-the-less gladdened when he said he must go to the lantern above and make preparations for lighting the beacon, adding, that the ferocity of the storm would there occupy him throughout the night. The dread thought occurred that I must expect to spend the next hours confined in that dismal tower and I tried to disregard the disturbance of the worsening weather without and to ignore the deepening feeling of unease within. He placed the books at my disposal and, the riot now so forceful that it would be unthinkable to proceed outside, I took one up as he ascended to his work. By the light of the small window I perused a heavy tome which gave directions on the operation and maintenance of lighthouse equipment and I endeavored to convince myself of its interest to me.
Above, the Keeper seemed diligent about his work and I could hear movement as I supposed he, at turns, looked to sea, prepared the lamp and checked the clockwork mechanism that governed the rotation of the light beam. Whether he chose to avoid my society or was simply taken up with the demands of his duties I knew not, but I had no complaint to be left alone. I read and wrote in solitude for some hours, though once, he did call below that I might make use of the galley, which I did, but he took no sustenance and I supped alone as he kept to his business in the lantern room.
In time, darkness fell and having lighted the lamp he descended to the mess room. An unpleasant sensation crept over me as he came backward down the stairs. When he turned and spoke I regarded him for a moment, but then, his countenance so deeply disagreeable to me, I felt compelled to look away. He told me to follow him up to the next chamber, situated directly below the lantern, and there he would show me where I should bed. I did as asked and observed two bunks; they were as ship’s bunks but shaped on the wall side to fit the constraining tight curvature of the quarters. I asked him why two bunks were necessitated and he answered that generally there were two Keepers on duty. Naturally, I inquired where this other fellow now was and, at this, his expression darkened still more. Gravely, he replied that the second Keeper had been obliged to sail from the island that morning, but he offered no explanation why and his demeanor conveyed to me the conviction that it would be unwise for me to pursue the matter. I saw at once that he was concealing something of moment and I fancied that a foul deed had taken place between them, I felt too that whatever the horror may have been, it had taken place not long before my arrival. Then the bleak speculation came to me that perhaps the other Keeper had not sailed away – could it be that his murdered body lay somewhere on the island, or upon its shores?
My disquiet may have shown, I couldn’t be sure, but he immediately ascended the stairway and left me alone to vex with all manner of dark thoughts and suspicions. By the light of a kerosene lamp I bedded down in the little bunk and considered what might become of me that night – what unspeakable act of violence might be done? Had this other man been butchered by knife? Perhaps he had been pushed off the lantern balcony to meet with a rocky death some sixty or more feet below? Was I now lying in a dead man’s bed? These thoughts gnawed at me while the unremitting tempest raged around the tower. The storm tumbled and howled like a pack of wolves and the ironwork of the lantern balcony elicited freakish whistling and screaming that, it seemed to me then, might summon the dead. I turned in the bunk and tried to drive out the unsettling images that crowded my mind. I recalled words to old songs and nursery rhymes and lightened my thoughts with memories of the day I first struck gold in the hills of California. I thought too of my wife; warm and safe at home and I longed to be with her – what folly it had been to take on this adventure! If the terrible clamor of the wind had not provided torment enough there were also the eerie sounds from the heart of the lighthouse itself – the large clockwork, that by fits and starts, rasped and whirred and sounded a regular and mournful bell to give notice that it was revolving as it should. Every half hour or so, the Keeper would noisily wind up the suspended weight that drove the mechanism through its nightly task. Worst of all were the footsteps; it was those that troubled me most – would he lift the trap, descend those iron stairs and do me in? But he never did come down, he remained steadfastly at his duties and kept the watch from that storm-lashed room of glass. It was a night of terrible peril for anyone to be abroad, but especially so for mariners and I did own that, notwithstanding whatever terrible act he had committed upon his comrade, he was watchful for the safety of anyone unfortunate enough to be at sea anywhere along that treacherous coast that night.
At length my resolve to stay alert and be ready to flee outside into the dangers of the storm gave way and fall asleep I did, and when I awoke, it was to the astonishing sound of quiet. The dissimilitude between that and the raging tumult of the night just gone startled me and fleetingly I wondered if, after all, my travails had been no more than a disturbing dream. I opened my eyes to bright sunlight in the unfamiliar surroundings and remembered clearly where I was. I leapt from the bunk and looked out: the elevation gave a commanding view and I was gratified to see that the sea was calm, the breeze light and the sky clear to the horizon. Heartened, I went aloft to the Keeper’s glassy vantage point and found him there looking out with a telescope and even then I felt uneasy in his company. He pointed a thin finger to sea and I saw the sails of a ship not far off. He said quietly. “Relief tender there. I will soon be free to leave this place,” and I resolved to go at once to my boat, check its condition, and then I too, would leave the island as soon as I could. I murmured my gratitude to him and made quickly down through the tower and out into the warming sunshine.
Reaching the place where the sloop rested between the jagged escarpments of the now quiet little cove my stomach knotted; she had been swept high onto the shore and even from the distance of a hundred yards the gaping hole in her hull was plainly visible. I turned back to the lighthouse, saddened by the loss but comforted to know that there was help on the way and the approaching relief vessel would presently return me to land and civilization. As I drew near I glanced upward, and in the lantern room I saw, against the pale sky, the silhouetted figure of the Keeper with the telescope still to his eye. Even now he watched the ship as it dropped anchor in the inlet below the lighthouse and as men on deck lowered a small boat to be rowed ashore.
I happened to peer down to the landing stage almost directly below the tower. In a rock pool by the jetty I saw a man sprawled and face downward. The terrain was difficult but I scrambled down as quickly as I could though certain that he must be dead. As I descended I recognized the uniform of marine blue serge and heavy boots. Closer still, I perceived the bone handle of a knife protrude his jacket and knew that my blackest suspicion had been right – a bloody murder had been committed and here was the victim! It was but a few moments later when I knelt by the body and reached down and turned it over just as the relief party came ashore. The men shouted out to me, but, only dimly aware of their call, it was utterly beyond me to answer it for I was frozen in shock and stricken speechless. There, lying beneath me in that rocky pool of blood-tainted water, was the rigid corpse of the man who had given me shelter from the storm and who had kept a last watch to sea – far beyond any ordinary duty.
Credit : Laurence MacDonald
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