The Birthday

by Mrs. Follen

Near the coast of Northumberland, at a little distance from the land, you can just see rising up a group of little islands, rocks scattered without order, that grow in number at low water; you may count as many as twenty of them, whose sharp, menacing crests seem to defy the returning waves.

Nothing can be more desolate than the appearance of the little Farne Islands; formed of rocks barely covered with a thin vegetation, surrounded by precipices, they seem accessible only to sea birds, who take refuge there in the tempests.

The Island of Longstone is at the head of the group, and serves as a sort of vanguard, and is, perhaps, the most dangerous of all. A gloomy collection of black rocks, full of crevices worn by the action of the winds, the waters, and the tempests, it does not nourish a single plant; not an atom of soil adheres to its surface; it is naked and barren; its steep sides bristle with cockle shells which encrust the rock.

The interior is still more desolate than the exterior; it is a succession of black hillocks cut by narrow ravines into which the sea rushes, roaring and furious, at high tide, detaching from the rocks fragments which it grinds, rounds into pebbles, and deposits pell-mell with the mud and sea weed in some deep crevice, where it again will come to seek them in the storm, roll them over once more in its foam, and drag them off to its profound caverns.

While our feet were wounded by the rocks, above our heads hundreds of sea birds hovered screaming, and among them we discovered the sea-gull by its shrill and harsh scream.

Notwithstanding these horrors, this island is not a desert. At the summit of the rock, there rises a round tower where every evening a light is kindled, so contrived as, at intervals of some seconds, to throw a brilliant light upon the points where the fretted waves rage and boil round a hidden rock, and to light the dangerous channel which separates the island from its sister isles, and to warn the pilot to avoid by every means the perilous labyrinth.

The keeper of the lighthouse did not live alone in this wild place; his wife followed him there; his family increased, and the cradle has rocked again and again.

Grace Darling, the eldest of the seven children, has just reached her twenty-second year, and all the family are rejoicing at the festival, for every anniversary is religiously kept by the little company that animates the solitude of Longstone.

Every one is gone out to seek something by which he may take his part in the festivity, and prepare a surprise for the well-beloved sister. The mother remains at home kneading a nice cake to gratify the appetite of the little marauders.

"Mother, Mother!" cried John, who returned the first; "see what a superb lobster the rising sea has brought up and left in the crevice of a rock, which I call my fish-trap. Might not one say that the sea knew that it was Grace's feast day?"

"I have only some shrimps," said William; "but they are very fine ones, I hope. I took them, with a net at the end of the little creek."

"Imprudent boy!" said their mother; "your father has told you a hundred times not to venture to fish on that side of the island; the rock is too steep, and the water is more than a hundred fathoms deep."

"Yes, but, in a turning, there is a little platform which I have shown to my father, and he has consented to my going there at low water. Then I know the rock, and the sea knows me; neither of them wish to hurt me. You have more reason for scolding Jenny; she is not afraid of any thing; she climbs like a cat all along the crevices to collect sea weed, which she burns in order to enrich the hole which she calls her garden, and to cultivate—what? nothing that one can eat—some good-for-nothing flowers, which grow only in consequence of shelter and great care."

"And you count it for nothing to be able to present to Grace a rose like that?" said Jenny, who just then came in bringing a rose of a dull white, surrounded by vigorous leaves of a dark green. "What a pleasure to have been able to keep it till now, even here, and to see it blossom so exactly at the right time. I do not regret the pains I have taken with it, I assure you."

"And you are right," replied her mother; "for Grace will know well how to appreciate the pains you must have taken to give her such a pleasure; and I, too, approve of the forethought you have discovered, which will make you one day a good housewife. Let your brothers fish and hunt; let it be your care to plant and ornament our solitude with your little smiling, blooming nook of earth."

"But where is Grace?" asked John; "why is she not assisting you as usual, Mother?"

"Because I refused to let her do so. She knows well that this day will be her festival, and I have sent her up stairs to her father, whilst we are here together preparing for her."

"James and the two little ones are missing," said William.

"Only James," replied his mother. "The two little ones are with Grace, who is giving them a lesson in reading. I do not see why James stays away so long; it is nightfall, and his father has always desired him to take care not to be overtaken by a fog far from the house."

"Suppose I go after him," said William.

"There he comes, there he comes!" cried John and Jenny.

The boy came in, in truth, all out of breath.

"I have just succeeded," said he, "in making up the dozen." As he said this, he put upon the table a dozen of wild eggs. "The last came near costing me very dear," said he; "it was laid half way down to the Black Man's; you know, William, the great rock which looks like a giant sitting down; I had climbed, on my knees, and I had only one more step to take, when a great big wave—a coward!—behind struck me, and would have carried me away if I had not clung with all my might to the great Black Man."

"Foolish child," said the mother, "could you not foresee the return of the tide?"

"Not at all, not at all. It came before the hour. There are enormous waves in the channel, and the sea growls as when it is going to be angry."

"That will not prevent us from passing a merry evening," replied William; "come, let us go quickly to work."

He hastened to set the table, and assist his sister in putting on the plates, while his mother broke the eggs, beat up the omelet, and drew out the cake from the oven.

All was ready, and William rang the bell to call the father and Grace to supper, who usually remained in the upper part of the tower of the lighthouse.

Grace loved to contemplate the indented coast of Northumberland, and to see with her naked eyes, of a clear day, the little hamlet where she was born; it was not that she regretted the fertile soil, the verdure, the wood she had seen when she was little. No! the Isle of Longstone, did it not contain in its rocky bosom what was dearest to Grace? Her sympathy extended, however, far beyond. She trembled with joy when she distinguished on board of a passing vessel boys and girls, young people and women. She waved her handkerchief to them, sent to them affectionate words which the wind blew away, but which eased her full heart. She had another more intimate tie to her fellow-beings, and to her native land, and this was the reading some good books, that inexhaustible source of elevated thought and profitable example.

When she at last appeared in the low hall where they waited for her, there was a general hurrah; the question was, who should first get his arms round her neck, who should embrace her, and who should congratulate her on her birthday. She showed herself as much surprised, as much delighted, as the young providers of the festival could desire. She praised the beauty of the lobster, the size of the shrimps, the wild taste of the omelet; but the rose touched her the most tenderly, and Jenny clapped her hands as she said,—

"I was very sure that you would love my poor little flower, which William despised because it was not good to eat."

"He is a little gourmand," said Grace, laughing, "whom I condemn for his punishment to eat my part of the cake."

"To the health of Grace," said the father. "We have just opened for her one of the bottles of old Bourdeaux, which the brave French captain gave us, who came near perishing down below at the end of the great reef of rocks, sixteen years ago."

"And whom you saved at the risk of your life," added his wife.

"I remember it all," said Grace, with a very serious look; "I was very small, yet I well remember that terrible night. I hear now the howling of the waves as they broke against the rocks, and made the lighthouse tremble."

"It was just such a night as this," said the father; "a Friday, the sixth of September. The sun set, just as it set to-night, in a cloud red as blood, which is never a sign of any thing good."

"It is a sign of a great wind," said James; "so much the better; the wild birds will come to the island for shelter."

"A great storm," said John, "always brings fish into my trap; besides, I love the storm."

"Let us play hit-hand," said Jenny. "Come, James, you begin; put your head in my lap, and hold your hand out. There! tell me who struck."

"That is not difficult; it was you."

"O! you looked!"

"No. Now it is your turn."

After this game came blind man's buff. The eldest sister gave herself up to all their wishes. She let them bandage her eyes, and sought fearfully the little fugitives; but notwithstanding her efforts, and the efforts of all to be amused, a cloud hung over the little assembly. Without, a thick fog enveloped the island, and veiled the friendly light.

"If I am not greatly deceived, this will be a very bad night," said the father. "There is, fortunately, no vessel in sight, if it is not, perhaps, the Hull packet, which will have had time, I think, to reach the Bay of Berwick, and which will have the discretion, I trust, to remain there; for the heavens speak in a loud voice this evening; the wind comes from below, and the waves run before it like a flock of frightened sheep."

"I should like to see a flock of sheep," said the little girl of five, whom Grace held in her lap, and whom she was getting to sleep.

"Hush! did I not hear something?" said the mother.

"It is the wind that sings us to sleep in the tower," said the little child.

Grace, who was just going up stairs, stopped and listened. "I only hear the sea which strikes and rages against the rocks," said she.

"Let it beat as it will, it will not wake me," said John. "I am too weary."

Good nights were exchanged, and they all betook themselves to bed; and, in a quarter of an hour after, every one slept, rocked by the storm which roared around the tower, beat against the lighthouse, shook its thick glass, and sought in vain to reach the flame. The tempest increased from hour to hour. It rose in mountainous waves, and broke against the rocks with a tremendous noise.

These sounds were heard in Grace's dreams; she thought she saw men and women struggling with the waves; they called her to their rescue; she held out her hand, and felt herself drawn into the gulf with them. Presently she heard a cry. She sat up in her bed; the day began to dawn; it might be four o'clock in the morning. The wind brought to her ear a cry shriller than the first. This time she was not mistaken; it was a human voice.

Her whole heart was agitated. Quickly as possible she climbed to the steps that led to the outer platform of the lighthouse. Her father was there before her. Clinging to the balustrade, he looked all around; but his eyes were unable to see through the fog and the rain; he saw nothing.

"Grace," said he, "you have good eyes; see if you can discover any thing."

The young girl took the spy glass, but the fog obscured the glasses. She calmly wiped them, and looked again.

"I perceive the top of a mast," said she.

"Where is it?"

"At the head of the long reef. O God, if the fog would only lift." And the young girl raised an earnest prayer to Heaven.

"Why, Father," she called suddenly, "I see something move. There are many of them; they are waiting for us; let us go."

"You do not think, my child," said her father; "stay here; I will go alone."

"Alone to meet those frightful waves, and no one to guide the helm? That would be to go to a certain death. I am stronger than you. Think of no such thing, Father. I shall go with you, and we will save them."

Her father looked in her face, and his eyes filled with tears.

"So be it," he said; "we will die together."

"We will live, and we will save them. Let us to the work."

She hurried on her father. In the twinkling of an eye, the boat, moored in a creek, was unfastened, and launched upon the boiling waves, when a voice cried from the shore,—

"And will you leave me behind? I have a right to run the same risks with you; I wish to take my part." The mother threw herself into the bark, which rose for a moment on the menacing crest of an enormous wave, then disappeared, swallowed up in the furrow left between two mountains of water.

In the mean while, the fog lifted, and a group of shipwrecked people were seen clinging to the sharp points of a ledge of rocks upon which beat the hull of a ship, split in two.

"They come nearer," cried one of them. "O, that terrible wave has carried them farther off."

"Let us thank God for that," said the captain; "it might have dashed them against the reef."

"They will arrive too late," said a poor mother who pressed to her heart an infant already stiff and motionless with cold.

"They are making superhuman efforts," said the captain. "Courage, brave hearts!" And he raised a white handkerchief.

The mother uttered a loud cry. She had just discovered that the child that she was trying to warm was dead.

At this moment, the bark made a desperate effort to land; but a furious wave carried it off for a third time. It whirled round and round, as if taken into one of those bottomless gulfs which the currents form around the rocks, and disappeared.

The group of shipwrecked sufferers, six men and five women, fell upon their knees at this awful moment. Suddenly they perceived the boat nearer to them than ever. It had rounded the reef, and gained a quieter sea. It was coming along the edge of the rock, which on that side sunk precipitately into the sea.

"Bless me," said the captain, "they are women."

"Angels come down from heaven to save us," cried a sailor.

Grace had already seized hold of the poor mother. She had gently taken the dead baby out of her arms, under the pretence of carrying it for her. She led her over the rough parts of the rock into the boat.

There was not a minute to lose; the tide was rising; a delay of a few moments might render a return impossible. The heroic young girl insisted only that she would remain on the reef till the skiff, which could only take half of the company, returned for the remainder.

God rewarded her faith and courage. All those who had been wrecked on the frightful reefs of Longstone were saved, and brought in safety into the small dwelling of the lighthouse.

The remains of the feast, the old wine opened in honor of Grace, helped to reanimate the poor shipwrecked sufferers who owed their lives to the young girl.

"Never was a birthday," as the good mother often said, "so full of terrible and joyful emotions; never was one more blessed."

"That is a right good story, Mother," said Harry. "Was Grace Darling a real person?"

"Yes," said his mother, "and many more beautiful stories are told of her, and all true. She was a noble creature."

"One more story, dear Mother," said the boys. "We have a good deal of time, yet."

"Many years ago," said the mother, "I was making a visit in a family where what I am going to relate to you took place. I wrote it all down, and I will now read it to you from my manuscript book."