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Book of Scottish Story
The Fatal Prayer

The village of Gourock is situated on the shore of a fine bay, about two miles from the town of Greenock. I was taken with the pleasantness of its situation, when one day viewing it at a little distance on the Greenock road, and sat down on the dyke by the road-side to enjoy the prospect at my leisure.

Presently an elderly man, of a grave aspect and a maritime appearance, passing slowly along the road, came and sat down near the same place. I guessed him to be one of the better class of fishermen, who had purchased, with the toil of his youth and his manhood, a little breathing-time to look about him in the evening of his days, ere the coming of night. After the usual salutations, we fell into discourse together, and I found him to be a man who had looked well about him in his pilgrimage, and reasoned on things and feelings—not living as the brutes that perish. After a pause in the conversation, he remarked, to my thinking, in a disjointed manner—

“Is it not strange, sir, that the thoughts that sometimes come into the brain of a man sleeping or waking—like a wind that blows across his bosom, coming he knows not whence, and going he knows not whither—leave behind them an impression and a feeling, and become the springs of human action, and mingle in the thread of human destiny? ”

"Strange, indeed," said I. "What you say has more than once occurred to me ; but being unable to reason satisfactorily on the subject, I set down altogether such ideas as having no better foundation than the fears and superstitions of the ignorant. But it seems to me that your remark, though of a general nature, must have been made in mental reference to some particular thing; and I would fain crave to know what it is.”

"You are right,” said he; "I was thinking at the moment of something which has sat, for some days past, like a millstone on my mind: and I will tell it to you with pleasure.”

So I edged myself closer to him on the stones, that I might hear the better; and without more ado he began to discourse as follows :

"About six months ago, a wedding took place in the village, and a more comely and amiable couple never came together. Mr Douglas, though the son of a poor man, had been an ofhcer in the army,—an ensign, I believe,—and when his regiment was disbanded, he came to live here on his half-pay, and whatever little else he might have, Jeanie Stuart at the time was staying with an uncle, one of our own folk, her parents having both been taken away from her; and she made up, —as far as she could, for her board, by going in the summer season to sew in the families that come from the great towns for the sea-bathing. So gentle she was, and so calm in her deportment, and so fair to look on withal, that even these nobility of the loom and the sugar-hogshead thought it no dishonour to have her among them; and unconaciously, as it were, they treated her just as if she had been of the same human mould with themselves.

"Well, they soon got acquainted,—our Jeanie and Mr Douglas,—and drew kindly together ; and the end of it was they were married. They lived in a house there, just beyond the point that you may see forms the opposite angle of the bay, not far from a place called Kempock ; and Mr Douglas just employed himself, like any of us, in fishing and daundering about, and mending his nets, and such like. Jeanie was the happy woman now, for she had aye a mind above the commonality; and, I am bold to say, thought her stay long enough among these would-be gentry, where she sat many a wearisome day for no use, and would fain have retired from their foolishness into the strength and greenness of her own soul. But now she had a companion and an equal, and indeed a superior; for Mr Douglas had seen the world, and had read both books and men, and could wile away the time in discoursing of what he had seen and heard tell of in foreign lands, among strange people and unknown tongues. And Jeanie listened, and listened, and thought her husband the first of mankind. She clung to him as the honeysuckle clings to the tree: his pleasure was her pleasurc—his sorrow was her sorrow—his bare word was her law.

"One day, about two weeks ago, she appeared dull and dispirited, and complained of a slight headache; on which Mr Douglas advised her to go to bed and rest herself awhile; which she said she would do; and having some business in the village he went out. On coming back, however, in the forenoon, he found her just in the same spot, leaning her head on her hand ; but she told him she was better, and that it was nothing at all. He then began to get his nets ready, saying he was going out with some lads of the village to the deep-sea fishing, and would be back the next day. She looked at him, but said nothing; long and strangely she looked, as if wondering what he was doing, and not understanding anything that was going on. But finally when he came to kiss her and bid her good-bye, she threw her arms round him, and when he would have gone she held him fast, and her bosom heaved as if her heart would break; but still she said nothing.

"‘What can be the matter with you, Jeanie?` said Mr Douglas.

"‘Stay with me to-day,’ said she at last; ‘depart not this night, just this one night—it is not much to ask—to-morrow you may go where you please, and I will not be your hindrance a moment.’

"But Mr Douglas was vexed at such folly, and she could answer nothing to his questions, except that a thought had come into her head, and she could not help it. So he was resolved to go, and kissing her fondly, he threw his nets on his shoulders and went away.

"For some minutes after his departure Jeanie did not move from the spot, but stood looking at the door whence he had gone out, and then began to tremble all over like the leaf of a tree. At length, coming to herself with a start, she knelt down, and throwing back her hair from her forehead, turned her face up towards heaven, and prayed with a loud voice to the Almighty, that she ‘might have her husband in her arms that night.’ For some moments she remained motionless and silent in the same attitude, till at length a sort of brightness, resembling a calm smile, passed over her countenance like a gleam of sunshine on the smooth sea, and bending her head low and reverently, she rose up. She then went as usual about her household affairs, and appeared not anything discomposed, but as tranquil and happy as if nothing had happened.

"Now the weather was fine and calm in the morning, but towards the afternoon it came on to blow; and indeed the air had been so sultry all day, that the seafarers might easily tell there would be a racket of the elements before long. As the wind, however, had been rather contrary, it was supposed that the boats could not have got far enough out to be in the mischief, but would put back when they saw the signs in the sky. But in the meantime the wind increased, till towards night it blew as hard a gale as we have seen in these parts for a long time. The ships out there, at the Tail of the Bank, were driven from their moorings, and two of them stranded on their beam ends on the other side; every stick and stitch on the sea made for any port they could find ; and as the night came on in darkness and thunder, it was a scene that might cow even hearts that had been brought up on the water as if it was their proper element, and been familiar with the voice of the tempest from their young days. There was a sad lamenting and murmuring then, among the women folk especially—them that were kith or kin to the lads on the sea ; and they went to one another’s houses in the midst of the storm and the rain, and put in their pale faces through the darkness, as if searching for hope and comfort, and drawing close to one another like a flock of frightened sheep in their fellowship of grief and fear. But there was one who stirred not from her house, and who felt no terror at the shrieking of the night-storm, and sought for no comfort in the countenance of man—and that was the wife of Mr Douglas. She sometimes, indeed, listened to the howling of the sea that came by fits on her ear like the voice of the water-kelpie, and starting would lay down her work for a moment; but then she remembered the prayer she had prayed to Him who holds the reins of the tempest in His hands, and who says to the roaring waters, ‘Be still,’ and they are still—and the glorious balm she had felt to sink into her heart at that moment of high and holy communion, even like the dew of heaven on a parched land. So her soul was comforted, and she said to herself, ‘God is not a man that He can lie;’ and she rested on His assurance as on a rock, and laughed to scorn the tremblings of her woman’s bosom. For why? The anchor of her hope was in heaven, and what earthly storm was so mighty as to remove it? Then she got up, and put the room in order,and placed her husband’s slippers to air at the fireside; and stirred up the fuel, and drew in the armchair for her weary and storm-beaten mariner. Then would she listen at the door, and look out into the night for his coming; but she could hear no sound save the voice of the waters, and the roar of the tempest, as it rushed along the deep. She re-entered the house, and walked to and fro in the room with a restless step, but an unblenched cheek.

"At last the neighbours came to her house, knowing that her husband was one of those who had gone out that day, and told her that they were going to walk down towards the Clough, even in the mirk hour, to try if they could not hear some news of the boats. So she went with them, and we all walked together along the road—women and men, it might be, some twenty or thirty of us. But it was remarked, that though she came not hurriedly nor in fear, yet she had not even thrown her cloak on her shoulders, to defend her from the night air, but came forth with her head uncovered, and in her usual raiment of white, like a bride to the altar. As we passed along, it must have been a strange sight to see so many pale faces by the red glare of the torches they carried, and to hear so many human wailings filling up the pauses of the storm; but at the head of our melancholy procession there was a calm heart and a firm step, and they were Jeanie’s. Sometimes, indeed, she would look back, as some cry of womanish foreboding from behind would smite on her ear, and strange thoughts would crowd into her mind ; and once she was heard to mutter—if her prayer had but saved her husband to bind some other innocent victim to the mysterious altar of wrath I And she stopped for a moment, as if in anguish at the wild imagination.

"But now as we drew nearer the rocks where the lighthouse is built, sounds were heard distinctly on the shore, and we waved the torches in the air, and gave a great shout, which was answered by known voices—for they were some of our own people—and our journey was at an end. A number of us then went on before, and groped our way among the rocks as well as we could in the darkness; but a woeful tale met our ear; for one of the boats had been shattered to pieces while endeavouring to land there, and when he went down they were just dragging the body of a comrade, stiff and stark, from the sea. When the women behind heard of this, there was a terrible cry of dismay, for no one knew but it might be her own husband, son, or brother; and some who carried lights dropped them from fear, and others held them trembling to have the terrors of their hearts confirmed.

"There was one, however, who stood calm and unmoved by the side of the dead body. She spoke some words of holy comfort to the women, and they were silent at her voice. She then stepped lightly forward, and took a torch from the trembling hand that held it, and bent down with it beside the corpse. As the light fell one moment on her own fair face, it showed no signs of womanish feeling at the sight and touch of mortality; a bright and lovely bloom glowed on her cheek, and a heavenly lustre beamed in her eye; and as she knelt there, her white garments and long dark hair floating far on the storm, there was that in her look which drew the gaze even of that terrified group from the object of their doubt and dread. The next moment the light fell on the face of the dead—the torch dropped from her hand, and she fell upon the body of her husband ! Her prayer was granted. She held her husband in her arms that night, and although no struggles of parting life were heard or seen, she died on his breast.”

When the fisherman had concluded his story—and after some observations were made by us both, touching the mysterious warning, joined with a grateful acknowledgment that the stroke of death might be as often dealt in mercy as in wrath—we shook hands; and asking one another’s names, as it might so fortune that we should once more, in the course of our earthly pilgrimage, be within call of one another, the old man and I parted, going each his several way.—Literary Melange.

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