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Fourth Cousins by Gordon Stables, M.D., R.N.

 

In the early summer of 1860 I went upon a visit to a distant relative of mine, who lived in one of the Shetland Islands. It was early summer with myself then: I was a medical student with life all before me—life and hope, and joy and sorrow as well. I went north with the intention of working hard, and took quite a small library with me; there was nothing in the shape of study I did not mean to do, and to drive at: botany, the flora of the Ultima Thule, its fauna and geology, too, to say nothing of chemistry and therapeutics. So much for good intentions, but—I may as well confess it as not—I never once opened my huge box of books during the five months I lived at R——, and if I studied at all it was from the book of Nature, which is open to every one who cares to con its pages.

The steamboat landed me at Lerwick, and I completed my journey—with my boxes—next day in an open boat.

It was a very cold morning, with a grey, cold, choppy sea on, the spray from which dashed over the boat, wetting me thoroughly, and making me feel pinched, blear-eyed, and miserable. I even envied the seals I saw cosily asleep in dry, sandy caves, at the foot of the black and beetling rocks.

How very fantastic those rocks were, but cheerless—so cheerless! Even the sea birds that circled around them seemed screaming a dirge. An opening in a wall of rock took us at length into a long, winding fiord, or arm of the sea, with green bare fields on every side, and wild, weird-like sheep that gazed on us for a moment, then bleated and fled. Right at the end of this rock stood my friend's house, comfortable and solid-looking, but unsheltered by a single tree.

“I sha'n't stay long here,” I said to myself, as I landed.

An hour or two afterwards I had changed my mind entirely. I was seated in a charmingly and cosily-furnished drawing-room upstairs. The windows looked out to and away across the broad Atlantic. How strange it was; for the loch that had led me to the front of the house, and the waters of which rippled up to the very lawn, was part of the German Ocean, and here at the back, and not a stone's throw distant, was the Atlantic! Its great, green, dark billows rolled up and broke into foam against the black breastwork of cliffs beneath us; the immense depth of its waves could be judged of by keeping the eye fixed upon the tall, steeple-like rocks which shot up here and there through the water a little way out to sea: at one moment these would appear like lofty spires, and next they would be almost entirely swallowed up.

Beside the fire, in an easy chair, sat my grey-haired old relation and host, and, not far off, his wife. Hospitable, warm-hearted, and genial both of them were. If marriages really are made in heaven, I could not help thinking theirs must have been, so much did they seem each other's counterpart.

Presently Cousin Maggie entered, smiling to me as she did so; her left hand lingered fondly for a moment on her father's grey locks, then she sat down unbidden to the piano. My own face was partially shaded by the window curtain, so that I could study that of my fair cousin as she played without appearing rude. Was she beautiful? that was the question I asked myself, and was trying hard to answer. Every feature of her face was faultless, her mouth and ears were small, she had a wealth of rich, deep auburn hair, and eyes that seemed to have borrowed the noonday tints of a summer sea, so bright, so blue were they. But was she beautiful? I could not answer the question then.

On the strength of my blood relationship, distant though it was, for we were really only third or fourth cousins, I was made a member of this family from the first, and Maggie treated me as a brother. I was not entirely pleased with the latter arrangement, because many days had not passed ere I concluded it would be a pleasant pastime for me to make love to Cousin Maggie. But weeks went by, and my love-making was still postponed; it became a sine die kind of a probability. Maggie was constantly with me when out of doors—my companion in all my fishing and shooting trips. But she carried not only a rod but even a rifle herself, she could give me lessons in casting the fly—and did; she often shot dead the seals that I had merely wounded, and her prowess in rowing astonished me, and her daring in venturing so far to sea in our broad, open boat often made me tremble for our safety.

A frequent visitor for the first two months of my stay at R——was a young and well-to-do farmer and fisher, who came in his boat from a neighbouring island, always accompanied by his sister, and they usually stayed a day or two. I was not long in perceiving that this Mr. Thorforth was very fond of my cousin; the state of her feelings towards him it was some time before I could fathom, but the revelation came at last, and quite unexpectedly.

There was an old ruin some distance from the house, where, one lovely moonlight night, I happened to be seated alone. I was not long alone, however; from a window I could see my cousin and Thorforth coming towards the place, and, thinking to surprise them, I drew back under the shadow of a portion of the wall. But I was not to be an actor in that scene, though it was one I shall never forget. I could not see his face, but hers, on which the moonbeams fell, was pained, half-frightened, impatient. He was telling her he loved her and asking her to love him in return. She stopped him at last.

What she said need not be told. In a few moments he was gone, and she was standing where he left her, following him with pitying eyes as he walked hurriedly away.

Next day Magnus Thorforth said goodbye and left: even his sister looked sad. She must have known it all. I never saw them again.

One day, about a month after this, Maggie and I were together in a cave close by the ocean—a favourite haunt of ours on hot forenoons. Our boat was drawn up close by, the day was bright, and the sea calm, its tiny wavelets making drowsy, dreamy music on the yellow sands.

She had been reading aloud, and I was gazing at her face.

“I begin to think you are beautiful,” I said.

She looked down at me where I lay with those innocent eyes of hers, that always looked into mine as frankly as a child's would.

“I'm not sure,” I continued, “that I sha'n't commence making love to you, and perhaps I might marry you. What would you think of that?”

“Love!” she laughed, as musically as a sea-nymph—“love? Love betwixt a cousin and a cousin? Preposterous!”

“I daresay,” I said, pretending to pout, “you wouldn't marry me because I'm poor.”

“Poor!” she repeated, looking very firm and earnest now; “if the man I loved were poor, I'd carry a creel for him—I'd gather shells for his sake; but I don't love anybody and don't mean to. Come.”

So that was the beginning and end of my love-making for Cousin Maggie.

And Maggie had said she never meant to love any one. Well, we never can tell what may be in our immediate future.

Hardly had we left the cave that day, and put off from the shore, ere cat's-paws began to ruffle the water. They came in from the west, and before we had got half-way to the distant headland a steady breeze was blowing. We had hoisted our sail, and were running before it with the speed of a gull on the wing.

Once round the point, we had a beam wind till we entered the fiord, then we had to beat to windward all the way home, by which time it was blowing quite a gale.

It went round more to the north about sunset, and then, for the first time, we noticed a yacht of small dimensions on the distant horizon. Her intention appeared to be that of rounding the island, and probably anchoring on the lee side of it. She was in an ugly position, however, and we all watched her anxiously till nightfall hid her from our view.

I retired early, but sleep was out of the question, for the wind raged and howled around the house like wild wolves. About twelve o'clock the sound of a gun fell on my ears. I could not be mistaken, for the window rattled in sharp response.

I sprang from my couch and began to dress, and immediately after my aged relative entered the room. He looked younger and taller than I had seen him, but very serious.

“The yacht is on the Ba,”[2] he said, solemnly.

[Footnote 2: Ba means a sunken rock.]

They were words to me of fearful significance. The yacht, I knew, must soon break up, and nothing could save the crew.

I quickly followed my relative into the back drawing-room, where Maggie was with her mother. We gazed out into the night, out and across the sea. At the same moment, out there on the terrible Ba, a blue light sprang up, revealing the yacht and even its people on board. She was leaning well over to one side, her masts gone, and the spray dashing over her.

“Come!” cried Maggie, “there is no time to lose. We can guide their boat to the cave. Come, cousin!”

I felt dazed, thunderstruck. Was I to take active part in a forlorn hope? Was Maggie—how beautiful and daring she looked now!—to assume the rôle of a modern Grace Darling? So it appeared.

The events of that night come back to my memory now as if they had happened but yesterday. It is a page in my past life that can never be obliterated.

We pulled out of the fiord, Maggie and I, and up under lee of the island; then, on rounding the point, we encountered the whole force of the sea and wind. There was a glimmering light on the wrecked yacht, and for that we rowed, or rather were borne along on the gale. No boat, save a Shetland skiff, could have been trusted in such a sea.

As we neared the Ba, steadying herself by leaning on my shoulder, Maggie stood half up and waved the lantern, and it was answered from the wreck. Next moment it seemed to me we were on the lee side, and Maggie herself hailed the shipwrecked people.

“We cannot come nearer!” she cried; “lower your boat and follow our light closely.”

“Take the tiller now,” she continued, addressing me, “and steer for the light you see on the cliff. Keep her well up, though, or all will be lost.”

We waited—and that with difficulty—for a few minutes, till we saw by the starlight that the yacht's boat was lowered, then away we went.

The light on the cliff-top moved slowly down the wind. I kept the boat's head a point or two above it, and on she dashed. The rocks loomed black and high as we neared them, the waves breaking in terrible turmoil beneath.

Suddenly the light was lowered over the cliff down to the very water's edge.

“Steady, now!” cried my brave cousin, and next moment we were round a point and into smooth water, with the yacht's boat close beside us. The place was partly cave, partly “noss.” We beached our boats, and here we remained all night, and were all rescued next morning by a fisherman's yawl.

The yacht's people were the captain, his wife, and one boy—the whole crew Norwegians, Brinster by name.

My story is nearly done. What need to tell of the gratitude of those Maggie's heroism had saved from a watery grave!

But it came to pass that when, a few months afterwards, a beautiful new yacht came round to the fiord to take those shipwrecked mariners away, Cousin Maggie went with them on a visit.

It came to pass also that when I paid my very next visit to R——in the following summer, I found living at my relative's house a Major Brinster and a Mrs. Brinster.

And Mrs. Brinster was my Cousin Maggie, and Major Brinster was my Cousin Maggie's fate.

 
 
 

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