The Light on the Big Dipper

“Don’t let Nellie run out of doors, Mary Margaret, and be careful of
the fire, Mary Margaret. I expect we’ll be back pretty soon after
dark, so don’t be lonesome, Mary Margaret.”

Mary Margaret laughed and switched her long, thick braid of black hair
from one shoulder to the other.

“No fear of my being lonesome, Mother Campbell. I’ll be just as
careful as can be and there are so many things to be done that I’ll be
as busy and happy as a bee all day long. Nellie and I will have just
the nicest kind of a time. I won’t get lonesome, but if I should feel
just tempted to, I’ll think, Father is on his way home. He will soon
be here.’ And that would drive the lonesomeness away before it dared
to show its face. Don’t you worry, Mother Campbell.”

Mother Campbell smiled. She knew she could trust Mary
Margaret–careful, steady, prudent little Mary Margaret. Little! Ah,
that was just the trouble. Careful and steady and prudent as Mary
Margaret might be, she was only twelve years old, after all, and there
would not be another soul besides her and Nellie on the Little Dipper
that whole day. Mrs. Campbell felt that she hardly dared to go away
under such circumstances. And yet she _must_ dare it. Oscar Bryan had
sailed over from the mainland the evening before with word that her
sister Nan–her only sister, who lived in Cartonville–was ill and
about to undergo a serious operation. She must go to see her, and
Uncle Martin was waiting with his boat to take her over to the
mainland to catch the morning train for Cartonville.

If five-year-old Nellie had been quite well Mrs. Campbell would have
taken both her and Mary Margaret and locked up the house. But Nellie
had a very bad cold and was quite unfit to go sailing across the
harbour on a raw, chilly November day. So there was nothing to do but
leave Mary Margaret in charge, and Mary Margaret was quite pleased at
the prospect.

“You know, Mother Campbell, I’m not afraid of anything except tramps.
And no tramps ever come to the Dippers. You see what an advantage it
is to live on an island! There, Uncle Martin is waving. Run along,
little mother.”

Mary Margaret watched the boat out of sight from the window and then
betook herself to the doing of her tasks, singing blithely all the
while. It was rather nice to be left in sole charge like this–it made
you feel so important and grown-up. She would do everything very
nicely and Mother would see when she came back what a good housekeeper
her daughter was.

Mary Margaret and Nellie and Mrs. Campbell had been living on the
Little Dipper ever since the preceding April. Before that they had
always lived in their own cosy home at the Harbour Head. But in April
Captain Campbell had sailed in the _Two Sisters_ for a long voyage
and, before he went, Mrs. Campbell’s brother, Martin Clowe, had come
to them with a proposition. He ran a lobster cannery on the Little
Dipper, and he wanted his sister to go and keep house for him while
her husband was away. After some discussion it was so arranged, and
Mrs. Campbell and her two girls moved to the Little Dipper. It was not
a lonesome place then, for the lobstermen and their families lived on
it, and boats were constantly sailing to and fro between it and the
mainland. Mary Margaret enjoyed her summer greatly; she bathed and
sailed and roamed over the rocks, and on fine days her Uncle George,
who kept the lighthouse on the Big Dipper, and lived there all alone,
often came over and took her across to the Big Dipper. Mary Margaret
thought the lighthouse was a wonderful place. Uncle George taught her
how to light the lamps and manage the light.

When the lobster season dosed, the men took up codfishing and carried
this on till October, when they all moved back to the mainland. But
Uncle Martin was building a house for himself at Harbour Head and did
not wish to move until the ice formed over the bay because it would
then be so much easier to transport his goods and chattels; so the
Campbells stayed with him until the Captain should return.

Mary Margaret found plenty to do that day and wasn’t a bit lonesome.
But when evening came she didn’t feel quite so cheerful. Nellie had
fallen asleep, and there wasn’t another living creature except the cat
on the Little Dipper. Besides, it looked like a storm. The harbour was
glassy calm, but the sky was very black and dour in the
northeast–like snow, thought weather-wise Mary Margaret. She hoped
her mother would get home before it began, and she wished the
lighthouse star would gleam out on the Big Dipper. It would seem like
the bright eye of a steady old friend. Mary Margaret always watched
for it every night; just as soon as the sun went down the big
lighthouse star would flash goldenly out in the northeastern sky.

“I’ll sit down by the window and watch for it,” said Mary Margaret to
herself. “Then, when it is lighted, I’ll get up a nice warm supper for
Mother and Uncle Martin.”

Mary Margaret sat down by the kitchen window to watch. Minute after
minute passed, but no light flashed out on the Big Dipper. What was
the matter? Mary Margaret began to feel uneasy. It was too cloudy to
tell just when the sun had set, but she was sure it must be down, for
it was quite dark in the house. She lighted a lamp, got the almanac,
and hunted out the exact time of sunsetting. The sun had been down
fifteen minutes!

And there was no light on the Big Dipper!

Mary Margaret felt alarmed and anxious. What was wrong at the Big
Dipper? Was Uncle George away? Or had something happened to him? Mary
Margaret was sure he had never forgotten!

Fifteen minutes longer did Mary Margaret watch restlessly at the
window. Then she concluded that something was desperately wrong
somewhere. It was half an hour after sunset and the Big Dipper light,
the most important one along the whole coast, was not lighted. What
would she do? What _could_ she do?

The answer came swift and dear into Mary Margaret’s steady, sensible
little mind. She must go to the Big Dipper and light the lamps!

But could she? Difficulties came crowding thick and fast into her
thoughts. It was going to snow; the soft broad flakes were falling
already. Could she row the two miles to the Big Dipper in the darkness
and the snow? If she could, dare she leave Nellie all alone in the
house? Oh, she couldn’t! Somebody at the Harbour Head would surely
notice that the Big Dipper light was unlighted and would go over to
investigate the cause. But suppose they shouldn’t? If the snow came
thicker they might never notice the absence of the light. And suppose
there was a ship away out there, as there nearly always was, with the
dangerous rocks and shoals of the outer harbour to pass, with precious
lives on board and no guiding beacon on the Big Dipper.

Mary Margaret hesitated no longer. She must go.

Bravely, briskly and thoughtfully she made her preparations. First,
the fire was banked and the draughts dosed; then she wrote a little
note for her mother and laid it on the table. Finally she wakened
Nellie.

“Nellie,” said Mary Margaret, speaking very kindly and determinedly,
“there is no light on the Big Dipper and I’ve got to row over and see
about it. I’ll be back as quickly as I can, and Mother and Uncle
Martin will soon be here. You won’t be afraid to stay alone, will you,
dearie? You mustn’t be afraid, because I have to go. And, Nellie, I’m
going to tie you in your chair; it’s necessary, because I can’t lock
the door, so you mustn’t cry; nothing will hurt you, and I want you to
be a brave little girl and help sister all you can.”

Nellie, too sleepy and dazed to understand very clearly what Mary
Margaret was about, submitted to be wrapped up in quilts and bound
securely in her chair. Then Mary Margaret tied the chair fast to the
wall so that Nellie couldn’t upset it. That’s safe, she thought.
Nellie can’t run out now or fall on the stove or set herself afire.

Mary Margaret put on her jacket, hood and mittens, and took Uncle
Martin’s lantern. As she went out and closed the door, a little wail
from Nellie sounded on her ear. For a moment she hesitated, then the
blackness of the Big Dipper confirmed her resolution. She must go.
Nellie was really quite safe and comfortable. It would not hurt her to
cry a little, and it might hurt somebody a great deal if the Big
Dipper light failed. Setting her lips firmly, Mary Margaret ran down
to the shore.

Like all the Harbour girls, Mary Margaret could row a boat from the
time she was nine years old. Nevertheless, her heart almost failed her
as she got into the little dory and rowed out. The snow was getting
thick. Could she pull across those black two miles between the Dippers
before it got so much thicker that she would lose her way? Well, she
must risk it. She had set the light in the kitchen window; she must
keep it fair behind her and then she would land on the lighthouse
beach. With a murmured prayer for help and guidance she pulled
staunchly away.

It was a long, hard row for the little twelve-year-old arms.
Fortunately there was no wind. But thicker and thicker came the snow;
finally the kitchen light was hidden in it. For a moment Mary
Margaret’s heart sank in despair; the next it gave a joyful bound,
for, turning, she saw the dark tower of the lighthouse directly behind
her. By the aid of her lantern she rowed to the landing, sprang out
and made her boat fast. A minute later she was in the lighthouse
kitchen.

The door leading to the tower stairs was open and at the foot of the
stairs lay Uncle George, limp and white.

“Oh, Uncle George,” gasped Mary Margaret, “what is the matter? What
has happened?”

“Mary Margaret! Thank God! I was just praying to Him to send somebody
to ‘tend the light. Who’s with you?”

“Nobody…. I got frightened because there was no light and I rowed
over. Mother and Uncle Martin are away.”

“You don’t mean to say you rowed yourself over here alone in the dark
and snow! Well, you are the pluckiest little girl about this harbour!
It’s a mercy I’ve showed you how to manage the light. Run up and start
it at once. Don’t mind about me. I tumbled down those pesky stairs
like the awkward old fool I am and I’ve broke my leg and hurt my back
so bad I can’t crawl an inch. I’ve been lying here for three mortal
hours and they’ve seemed like three years. Hurry with the light, Mary
Margaret.”

Mary Margaret hurried. Soon the Big Dipper light was once more
gleaming cheerfully athwart the stormy harbour. Then she ran back to
her uncle. There was not much she could do for him beyond covering him
warmly with quilts, placing a pillow under his head, and brewing him a
hot drink of tea.

“I left a note for Mother telling her where I’d gone, Uncle George, so
I’m sure Uncle Martin will come right over as soon as they get home.”

“He’ll have to hurry. It’s blowing up now … hear it … and snowing
thick. If your mother and Martin haven’t left the Harbour Head before
this, they won’t leave it tonight. But, anyhow, the light is lit. I
don’t mind my getting smashed up compared to that. I thought I’d go
crazy lying here picturing to myself a vessel out on the reefs.”

That night was a very long and anxious one. The storm grew rapidly
worse, and snow and wind howled around the lighthouse. Uncle George
soon grew feverish and delirious, and Mary Margaret, between her
anxiety for him and her dismal thoughts of poor Nellie tied in her
chair over at the Little Dipper, and the dark possibility of her
mother and Uncle Martin being out in the storm, felt almost
distracted. But the morning came at last, as mornings blessedly will,
be the nights never so long and anxious, and it dawned fine and clear
over a white world. Mary Margaret ran to the shore and gazed eagerly
across at the Little Dipper. No smoke was visible from Uncle Martin’s
house!

She could not leave Uncle George, who was raving wildly, and yet it
was necessary to obtain assistance somehow. Suddenly she remembered
the distress signal. She must hoist it. How fortunate that Uncle
George had once shown her how!




Ten minutes later there was a commotion over at Harbour Head where the
signal was promptly observed, and very soon–although it seemed long
enough to Mary Margaret–a boat came sailing over to the Big Dipper.
When the men landed they were met by a very white-faced little girl
who gasped out a rather disjointed story of a light that hadn’t been
lighted and an uncle with a broken leg and a sister tied in her chair,
and would they please see to Uncle George at once, for she must go
straight over to the other Dipper?

One of the men rowed her over, but before they were halfway there
another boat went sailing across the harbour, and Mary Margaret saw a
woman and two men land from it and hurry up to the house.

That is Mother and Uncle Martin, but who can the other man be?
wondered Mary Margaret.

When she reached the cottage her mother and Uncle Martin were reading
her note, and Nellie, just untied from the chair where she had been
found fast asleep, was in the arms of a great, big, brown, bewhiskered
man. Mary Margaret just gave one look at the man. Then she flew across
the room with a cry of delight.

“Father!”

For ten minutes not one intelligible word was said, what with
laughing and crying and kissing. Mary Margaret was the first to
recover herself and say briskly, “Now, _do_ explain, somebody. Tell me
how it all happened.”

“Martin and I got back to Harbour Head too late last night to cross
over,” said her mother. “It would have been madness to try to cross in
the storm, although I was nearly wild thinking of you two children.
It’s well I didn’t know the whole truth or I’d have been simply
frantic. We stayed at the Head all night, and first thing this morning
came your father.”

“We came in last night,” said Captain Campbell, “and it was pitch
dark, not a light to be seen and beginning to snow. We didn’t know
where we were and I was terribly worried, when all at once the Big
Dipper light I’d been looking for so vainly flashed out, and
everything was all right in a moment. But, Mary Margaret, if that
light hadn’t appeared, we’d never have got in past the reefs. You’ve
saved your father’s ship and all the lives in her, my brave little
girl.”

“Oh!” Mary Margaret drew a long breath and her eyes were starry with
tears of happiness. “Oh, I’m so thankful I went over. And I _had_ to
tie Nellie in her chair, Mother, there was no other way. Uncle George
broke his leg and is very sick this morning, and there’s no breakfast
ready for anyone and the fire black out … but that doesn’t matter
when Father is safe … and oh, I’m so tired!”

And then Mary Margaret sat down just for a moment, intending to get
right up and help her mother light the fire, laid her head on her
father’s shoulder, and fell sound asleep before she ever suspected
it.