Northern Lights – Episode 38

“The war goes badly, with the loss of ships at times, Cathy Mary, and if the Navy terminates our contract the Nunnery will close. Then I will join my cousin’s establishment in Edinburgh and we will need to employ staff. Would you be willing to come to the city and work with us?”

A stunned silence greeted the proposal.

Mistress Gray smiled.

“Keep the offer in mind. If the opportunity comes and you can bear to leave Arbroath, then you can decide.”

Pondering the amazing offer in bed that night, Cathy Mary saw that the final decision might well rest with Fionah Creagh.

If the homeless girl stayed on to help care for their ageing grandmother, it would release Cathy Mary from an obligation of duty.

Leaving home and loved ones in Arbroath would be heartbreaking, but the thought of working in Edinburgh made her clutch the bedclothes closer to her chin, shivering with excitement.

*  *  *  *

Early September found Alec Cargill working on the Bell Rock. He was a different lad from the timid youngster who’d refused a tot of rum in mid August for fear of his grandmother’s disapproval. Alec had grown tall and hard-muscled, a valued member of a working team.

Six days out from Arbroath, the blacksmith’s forge was built close by the site selected for the wooden beacon-house that would house builders of the stone lighthouse.

Alec’s job was tending James Dove the blacksmith’s fire, pumping bellows for white-hot metal beaten into shape on the anvil. Not a pleasant task, with water swirling around his boots and wind blowing scorching sparks on to his face and bare arms.

Yet, despite the limited few hours available between tides, 12 bore holes were drilled for the hold-fasts fixing the first massive wooden beams.

Then a new moon formed a silver crescent in the night sky, heralding the onset of neap tides. As the first quarter of the moon progressed, the neap tides rose and stabilised so that the Bell Rock remained constantly awash and landing was impossible.

For five wearisome, seasick days Robert Stevenson’s workforce, Alec included, suffered aboard the Floating Light as it heaved, rolled and yawed at anchor, one mile distant from the rock.

Small wonder sailors called this phenomenon the dead o’ the neap, Alec thought.

But on this second day of September tides had returned to normal. The rocky, indented face of the shoal swarmed with workmen eager to make up for lost time.

The Smeaton sailed in earlier that morning from Arbroath, bringing extra timbers for the beacon-house and a large team of carpenters and joiners intent upon its construction.

Alec and his workmates rowed a mile across from their quarters on the Floating Light in two boats, as usual. A mist upon the calm sea promised a fine day and Alec wished the noisy, whistling strangers had not arrived to disturb the peace. His ears rang with the alien sound of hammers on wood.

It would be wrong to say he had grown to love the rock, but it held its own strange appeal for the lad. He had gathered dulse from its pools, a seaweed that was a sure cure for seasickness.

He had marvelled at sea anemones and starfish caught in its crevices, picked up small pretty stones polished like jewels as presents for his sisters.

Best not think of home. That brought an ache to the breast.

Today Alec gathered seaweed and took it back to the forge. Dulse wound around a hot poker made a tasty treat. He was busy rousing the fire when he realised the blacksmith’s attention was elsewhere.

James Dove was staring fixedly through the mist. Alec paused.

“What do ye see?”

“The Smeaton drifting where she shouldna, nearly three mile to leeward,” the smith answered grimly.

“You mean she’s dragged her anchor?”

“Or they were careless wi’ the mooring.” He nodded.

Alec laid down the poker. The first small wave of the rising tide washed around the forge. He stared around at workmen busy and unaware, absorbed in their tasks. His mouth grew dry and he swallowed.

“The Smeaton brought sixteen men from Arbroath and sixteen of us rowed over from the Floating Light, Mr Dove. That means thirty-two men ashore, the tide rising fast and the Smeaton miles away.”

“Aye,” the blacksmith said quietly. “Thirty-two men with two small boats that can carry only eight men apiece. Some will be saved, but I fear many will drown in a panic.”

The seaweed had burned to a blackened crisp. Acrid smoke filled Alec’s nostrils as a white-crested wave washed over the top of his boots.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!