Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
On a Cliff by Night
By Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr (18311919)
[Born in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, 1831. Died in New York, N. Y., 1919. Jan Vedders Wife. 1885.]
ONE night, after another useless effort to see his wife, Jan went to Torrs, and found Hol Skager there. Jan was in a reckless mood, and the thought of a quarrel was pleasant to him. Skager was inclined to humor him. They had many old grievances to go over, and neither of them picked their words. At length Jan struck Skager across the mouth, and Skager instantly drew his knife.
In a moment Torr and others had separated the men. Skager was persuaded to leave the house, and Jan, partly by force and partly by entreaty, detained. Skager was to sail at midnight, and Torr was determined that Jan should not leave the house until that hour was passed. Long before it, he appeared to have forgotten the quarrel, to be indeed too intoxicated to remember anything. Torr was satisfied, but his daughter Suneva was not.
About ten oclock, Snorro, sitting in the back door of the store, saw Suneva coming swiftly towards him. Ere he could speak she said: Skager and Jan have quarrelled and knives have been drawn. If thou knowest where Skager is at anchor, run there, for I tell thee there was more of murder than liquor in Jans eyes this night. My father thought to detain him, but he hath slipped away, and thou may be sure he has gone to find Skager.
Snorro only said: Thou art a good woman, Suneva. He thought he knew Skagers harbor; but when he got there, neither boat nor man was to be seen. Skagers other ground was two miles in an opposite direction under the Troll Rock, and not far from Peter Faes house. Snorro hastened there at his utmost speed. He was in time to see Skagers boat, half a mile out at sea, sailing southward. Snorros mental processes were slow. He stood still to consider, and as he mused, the solemn stillness of the lonely place was broken by a low cry of pain. It was Jans voice. Among a thousand voices Snorro would have known it. In a few moments he had found Jan, prone upon the cliff edge, bleeding from a wound in his side.
Most fishermen know something of the treatment of a knife-wound; Snorro staunched the blood-flow, as well as he was able, and then with gigantic strides went to Peter Faes. Margaret sat spinning beside her babys cradle, Peter had gone to bed, Thora dozed at the fireside.
Snorro fled to the town, almost in uttering the words, and Thora, who had at once risen to get the water and the brandy, put them into her daughters hands. There is no time now for talking. I will tell thy father and send him after thee. Shall we have blood on our souls? All of us?
Then, almost in a passion, Margaret went. The office of mercy had been forced upon her. She had not been permitted to consider her own or her childs interest. No one had thought of her feelings in the matter. When she reached Jans side she was still indignant at the peremptory way in which she had been treated.
His helplessness did not touch her. Her own wrongs and the wrongs of her child filled her heart. She was determined that at this hour he should at least understand their full enormity, and she spoke with all the rapid bitterness of a slow, cold nature, wrought up to an unnatural passion. In justifying herself she forgot quite that she had been sent to succor him until help arrived. She was turning away when Jan, in a voice full of misery, uttered one word:
Something womanly in her responded to the pitiful, helpless cry. She went back, and kneeling by his side, put the bottle to his mouth. The touch of his head upon her arm stirred her strangely; ere she let it slip from her hold, he had fainted.
But it was too late. There was no response. She looked in horror and terror at the white face at her feet. Then she fled back to the house for help. Whether her father liked it or not, Jan must now be brought there. In that last moment she had forgiven him everything. All the love of her betrothal had come like a great wave over her heart. Poor Jan! Poor Jan! she sobbed, as she fled like a deer across the moor.
Peter had been roused and had reluctantly dressed himself. In such an hour of extremity he would have to give the wounded man shelter if he were brought there. But he tarried as long as possible, hoping that Snorro would remove Jan and take him into the town. To be roused from sleep to confront such a problem of duty was a very unpleasant affair, and Peter was sulkily tying his shoe-strings when Margaret, breathless and sobbing, returned for him.
Her impetuosity and her emotion quite mastered him. She compelled him to go with her to Jan. But when they reached the Troll Rock Jan had disappeared. There was nothing there but the blue sailors cap which he had worn. No human being was in sight. Any party of relief brought by Snorro could be seen for a mile. Margaret picked up the cap, and gazed at it in a maze of anguish. Only one thing could have happened. During her absence consciousness had returned to Jan, and he, poor soul, remembering her cruel words, and seeing that she had left him there alone to die, had purposely edged himself over the cliff. The sea was twenty feet deep below it. She put her hands before her eyes, and shrieked until the welkin rang with her shrill, piercing cries. Peter could do nothing with her, she would not listen to him, and finally she became so frantically hysterical that he was alarmed for her life and reason, and had little opportunity that night to make any inquiries about his troublesome son-in-law.
Now, when God will help a man, He hath his own messenger. That night, Doctor Balloch sat in the open door of his house. This door was at the end of a little jetty to which his skiff was tied; and the whole expanse of the beautiful bay was before him. It was covered with boats, idly drifting about under the exquisite sky. Light ripples of laughter, and sweet echoes of song upon the waters, drifted toward him. He had read his evening portion, and he sat watching the flickering lights of the changing aurora. The portion had been the Nineteenth Psalm, and he was wishing that the Sweet Singer of Israel, who thought the Judean heavens declared the glory of God, could have seen the Shetland skies.
Suddenly, and peremptorily, a voice encompassed hima soft, penetrating voice, that came like the wind, he knew not how or whence: Take thy boat and go to the Troll Rock. He rose at once and went to the end of the jetty. The sea, darkly blue, was smooth as glass, the air clear, the majestic headlands imparting to the scene a solemn cathedral grandeur. He strove to shake off the strange impression, but it grew stronger and more imperative, and he said softly, as if answering some one: I will go.
This rock projected over the sea, which flowed into a large cave under it; a cave which had long been a favorite hiding-place for smuggled cargoes. But when the minister reached it, all was silence. Hamish looked at his master curiously. What could he mean by resting on his oars and watching so desolate and dangerous a place? Very soon both were aware of a human voicethe confused, passionate echoes of Margarets above them; and these had not long ceased when Jan Vedder fell from the rock into the water.
This man is to be saved, Hamish; it is what we have come for. Hamish quietly slipped into the water, and when Jan, speechless and insensible, rose to the surface, he caught him with one arm and swam with him to the boat. In another moment he was in the bottom of it, and when he came to himself, his wound had been dressed, and he was in the ministers own bed.
Of course the minister thought Jan had committed some crime. It was natural for every one to suspect Jan of doing wrong. But the fact that he had been sent so obviously to save him was, in the doctors mind, an evidence of the divine interest in the youth which he was glad to share. He had been appointed his preserver, and already he loved him. He fully trusted Hamish, but he thought it well to say to him:
For four days the doctor stayed near Jan, and never left his house. I will be quiet and let the news find me, he thought. It came into the manse kitchen in various forms. Hamish received every version of the story with that grave shake of the head which fits so admirably every requirement of sympathy. It was all a great pity, was his most lengthy comment; but then Hamish never exceeded half a dozen words on any subject.
On the fourth evening, which was Saturday, Peter Fae sent this message to the minister: Wilt thou come down to my store for the good of a wretched soul? It was then getting late, and Peter stood in his shop-door alone. He pointed to Michael Snorro, who sat in a corner on some seal-skins in a stupor of grief.
It is also my Lord Christ. He hath deceived me. He said to me, Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do. I asked him always, every hour, to take care of Jan. If I was packing the eggs, or loading the boats, or eating my dinner, my heart was always praying. When Jan was at sea, I asked, take care of him; when he was at Torrs, I prayed then the more, dear Lord Christ, take care of him. I was praying for him that night, at the very hour he perished. I can pray no more now. What shall I do?
He said, whatsoever. Well, then, I took him at his word. Oh yes, I believed every word He said. At the last, I thought, He will surely save Jan. I will pray till his time comes. He will not deceive a poor soul like me, for He knows right well that Snorro loves him.
Nay, nay, Snorro. He never forgets. Behold He has graven thy name upon his hands. Not on the mountains, for they shall depart; not on the sun, for it shall grow dark; not on the skies, for they shall melt with fervent heat; but on his own hand, Snorro. Now come with me, and I will show thee whether Lord Christ heard thee praying or not, and I will tell thee how He sent me, his servant always, to answer thy prayer. I tell thee at the end of all this thou shalt surely say: There hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which He promised.
Then he lifted Michaels cap and gave it to him, and they locked the store-door, and in silence they walked together to the manse. For a few minutes he left Snorro alone in the study. There was a large picture in it of Christ upon the cross. Michael had never dreamed of such a picture. When the minister came back he found him standing before it, with clasped hands and streaming eyes.
Wondering and somewhat awestruck Michael followed the doctor into the room where Jan lay. One swift look from the bed to the smiling face of Jans saviour was all Michael needed. He clasped his hands above his head, and fell upon his knees, and when the doctor saw the rapture in his face, he understood the transfiguration, and how this mortal might put on immortality.