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Grace Darling

( Originally Published 1908 )

GRACE DARLING was born on the 24th of November, 1815, at a small town upon the northeastern coast of England. She was the seventh child of her parents. Her grandfather, Robert Darling, had been keeper of the coal-light on the outmost of the Farne Islands, and her father, William, succeeded him in that post. In 1826, however, when Grace was eleven years old, William Darling took his family to Longstone, another island of the same group.

These Farne Islands are about twenty-five in number at low tide, and, as a visitor has pointed out, are desolate to an uncommon degree, although they are at no great distance from the Northumberland coast. The sea rushes with great force through the channels between the islands. Longstone, upon which Grace dwelt was, says another visitor, of dark whinstone, cracked in every direction and worn with the action of winds, waves and tempests, since the world began. Over the greater part of it was not a blade of grass nor a grain of earth; it was hard and iron-like stone, crusted round all the coast as far as high water-mark with limpet and still smaller shells. We ascended wrinkled hills of black stone, and descended into worn and dismal dells of the same, into some of which, where the tide got entrance, it came pouring and roaring in raging whiteness, and churning the loose fragments of whinstone into round pebbles, and piling them up in deep crevices, with seaweed. Over our heads screamed hundreds of hovering birds, the gull mingling its hideous laughter most wildly.

Fancy a lone lighthouse standing upon this pile of stone, dropped seemingly, in the midst of the water, five miles from the mainland. The sea tosses, and swells, and beats the rocks unceasingly. In fine weather it is blue and more kindly; in storms the waters are black and furious and fearful. It was known as a most desolate and dangerous lighthouse, and its service could be only a man and family of courage, endurance, large human feeling and strong sense of duty.

In such an abode grew the little girl, almost alone so far as school friends go. Her father taught her to read and write together with the seven of her brothers and sisters, and their schoolroom was the lantern of the lighthouse. Her instructors were in other ways the sky and the breaking surf; her comrades the sea birds and the simple shell fish and floating grasses of the salt water and all the strange and curious growths the sea brings wherever it is free.

Like her brothers and sisters, Grace was schooled after the simpler fashion. But when such days were passed she kept to her home rather than go out into the world or marry. The lighthouse sheltered a united and happy family. Grace loved the seclusion of that life and assisted her mother with the work of the household. Others of the daughters had gone to homes of their own upon the mainland.

If our surroundings help to form our characters, here in this lighthouse Grace must have grown into a strong self-control and a spirit of helpfulness toward hapless people and those wrecks upon the Farne Islands, of which many a legend has been told.

About thirty years before she was born a fine merchantman from America had struck the ledges near the lighthouse, and it is said that to the recital of this ship-wreck, of how the brave sailors fought for life and how one by one they fell or were swept into the fierce waters, the little girl would listen weeping, and then go pitifully to her bed. This tale, and the story of other sea mishaps, had a special attraction for the child, and the strength of her interest and compassion for the shipwrecked were noticed by her family as they sat round the family table of an evening, knitting, talking of the sea and watching the bright beacon above.

So it was that Grace Darling grew to womanhood. She was twenty-two years old when the disaster came that made evident what sort of a girl had come to woman's years upon the solitary island. -

In the fall of the year,1838, one fifth of September a steamer, called the Forfarshire, a vessel of small size, but laden with a considerable cargo, sailed for Dundee, Scotland, from the port of Hull, England. There were forty-one passengers and twenty-two of the crew - sixty-three in all. The ship was but two years old, but her boilers were in bad order, although they had had some overhauling before she cleared her port.

She sailed in the early evening and for a part of her way seemed to be steaming safely. But as the vessel neared Flamborough Head the captain and crew became disturbed by many anxieties. Word passed from mouth to mouth among the passengers that the leak of the boiler was growing rapidly and the firemen could with difficulty keep up the fires. So much did this delay the passage of the steamer that toward the evening of the following day she had only made the channel between the coast and the Farne Islands. The wind was blowing from the north. It is reported that the engines became utterly useless. There being great danger of drifting ashore, the sails were hoisted fore and aft, and the vessel got about in order to get her before the wind and keep her off the land. It rained heavily during the entire time, and the fog was so dense that it became impossible to tell the situation of the vessel. At length breakers were discovered close to leeward, and the Farne Light, which about the same period became visible, left no doubt as to the peril of all on board.

Passengers crowded the deck and as rain beat upon them and the fog shut out all but the sad scene on board, friends and strangers pressed hands for support and sought hopeful words from one another's lips. The sails hoisted fora defence became useless for the purpose, the wind was rising to tempest strength, and all control over the vessel seemed gone. The sea was master and was tossing the helpless steamer in its waves, and, as the summer wind drives thistledown in its course, was driving her toward the light. The billows beat upon the frail timbers and every lurch and swell took the vessel nearer the island where the wild waters were breaking in foam.

At length appeared in an opening of the fog a great rock, frightfully rugged, deadly to a ship weakened and in the power of the sea. Passengers and crew alike knew the spot, and they knew that unless some miracle prevailed the ship must go to pieces. There was a moment's delay, the sea seemed putting off its final victory, and then it brought the vessel with her bow fore-most upon the rocks.

A panic followed. All who had been below rushed to the deck and sought in the companionship of wretchedness an escape from threatening destruction. Some of the crew, determined to save themselves, lowered the larboard quarter boat, and left the ship. The boiling sea now swept over the decks.

Very soon after the first shock a powerful wave struck the vessel on the quarter, and raising her off the rocks allowed her immediately after to fall violently upon it, the sharp edge striking her amidships. She was by this fairty broken in two pieces, and the after part, containing the cabin with many passengers was instantly carried off through a tremendous current, called the Piper Gut. The captain and his wife were among those who perished.

The forepart still remained crushed upon the rocks. Upon its deck were eight unfortunate creatures — five sailors and three of the passengers. In the cabin below lay a woman huddling two children in her arms, a girl of eleven and a boy of eight. The waves washed through the cabin tearing off the clothing of the children and half freezing them with cold. The hideous noise of the tempest drowned their melancholy cries and at last they lay quiet and dead.

At the Longstone Lighthouse the morning of the seventh of September broke mistily. The dwellers there were but three—the keeper and his wife and daughter. They were used to raging seas and driving winds, but this night had been one of anxiety. Grace, it is said, had been unable to sleep, and as she dozed toward morning had started up with a wail for help echoing in her ears. She roused her father and taking his field-glass sought the wreck which she felt must be near. The remains of the shattered vessel lying about a mile off met her eye, and dim figures clinging to the broken timbers. As the waters lashed the wreck it seemed as if each wave must sweep the forms into the sea.

The hearts of all three of the lighthouse family sank. What could three do and the billows running mountains? William Darling shrank from attempting any rescue. He had been on other humane enterprises. But this seemed futile. At Grace's earnest plea the boat was launched, her father yielding to her entreaties, which his heart said were right. Grace sprang in she knew how to handle an oar — and her father followed. She had never assisted in the boat before this wreck of the Forfarshire, but other members of the family had been present.

Her mother, Mrs. Darling, had assisted in making the boat ready, but as her husband and daughter pushed off, and the waves washed the rock on which she stood, she cried with tears in her eyes:

"Oh, Grace, if your father is lost, I'll blame you for this morning's work."

Says one who told the story:

"In estimating the dangers which heroic adventurers encounter, one circumstance ought not to be forgotten. Had it been at ebb tide the boat could not have passed between the islands; and Darling and his daughter knew that the tide would be flowing on their return, when their united strength would have been utterly insufficient to pull the boat back to the lighthouse island. Had they not got aid of the surviviors in rowing back again, they themselves would have been compelled to remain on the rock beside the wreck until the tide ebbed again."

The frail boat passed over the stormy waters and neared the rock.

It could only have been by the exertion of muscular power as well as determined courage that the father and daughter carried the boat to the rock. And when there a danger, greater even than that which they had encountered in approaching it, arose from the difficulty of steadying the boat and preventing its being destroyed on those sharp ridges by the ever-restless chafing and heaving of the billows.

The father and daughter could see the eager faces turned toward them, and the sight redoubled their efforts in reaching the rock, and in the task of disembarking and drawing the boat up the rock and out of reach of the waves. It was a perilous landing-place. But when the craft was secured the father and Grace approached the half-dead group.

All were safe except the two children. Their mother was seemingly dead, also, and lay clasping the bodies in her arms. But care and attention revived her. A fireman who had lain for three hours on the rock where he had been tossed, had clung to a strong nail spiked in the rock, and though lashed and beaten by the waves, and tortured by bleeding hands, he had not let go.

The rescuers placed the survivors one by one in the boat. But the return journey was even more perilous than that which took them to the wreck, although the sailors aided at the oars. Longstone, however, was at last reached and the sufferers housed in the lighthouse.

They were in safety, but the violence of the sea for-bade any attempt to reach the mainland. There were good accommodations at the light. The tower was ingeniously built, and besides a well-furnished sitting-room, in which was a capital collection of books, had three or four comfortable bedrooms. In addition there was an abundance of wholesome, homely fare.

The poor woman who had lost her children was suffering intensely, and to her Grace gave up her bed, sleeping upon a table. A boat's crew from Northumberland, which after some hours came in search of the Forfarshire, also had to claim the hospitality of the lighthouse, and for three days were held by the raging seas. Finally, the passage to the mainland was undertaken in safety, and the news reached the keeper's family that the boat first launched had been picked up and its nine passengers rescued. Of the sixty-three who had sailed from Hull five days before, nineteen were alive.

Within a few days search was made for the missing bodies, but almost in vain. The cargo of the steamer, which was of unusual value was wholly lost. The wreck, consisting of the engine, paddle-wheels, anchor, foremast and rigging, remained upon the rock and was visited by thousands.

Report of Grace Darling's heroic deed was soon spread throughout England. It was a simple, humane action and such actions are doing among us all the time. But the courage in facing the elemental rage of the sea, and the helpful sympathy with the unfortunate which it made evident, appealed to the popular heart, and Grace became a people's heroine. Public subscriptions were at once set on foot to express by a splendid gift the universal sense of her deserts. Many smaller tokens also came to her. Among them was a silver medal which read :

Presented by the Glasgow Humane Society to Miss Grace Horsley Darling, in admiration of her dauntless and heroic con-duct in saving (along with her father) the lives of nine persons from the wreck of the Forfarshire steamer, 7th September, 1838.

So great was popular report and admiration for the heroine that the manager of a theatre broached to her the plan of representing the rescue, in part at least, upon his stage, and offered her a considerable sum for sitting in the boat for the audience to view. Her portrait was taken and sold everywhere. She was generally flattered and caressed.

It was now that we find the true balance and strength in Grace's character. The testimonials she received with quiet pleasure. But she preferred to remain upon the solitary island under the light, and aid her mother in her simple household work.

She was glad to have saved lives at the risk of her own, she said, and would most willingly do it again if opportunity should occur. But she could not feel that she had done anything great, and certainly she did not wish for the praise that had been bestowed upon her. As for going to the theatre to receive the plaudits of a curious crowd, that was the last thing she desired.

Of Grace at this time the pleasing English writer, William Howitt, gives this account. He paid a visit to Longstone and met the heroine:

"When I went she was not visible, and I was afraid I should not see her, as her father said she very much disliked meeting strangers that she thought came to stare at her; but when the old man and I had had a little conversation he went up to her room, and soon came down with a smile, saying that she would be with us soon. So when we had been up to the top lighthouse, and had seen its machinery, and taken a good look-out at the distant shore, and Darling had pointed out the spot of the wreck, and the way they took the people off, we went down and found Grace sitting at her sewing, very neatly but very simply dressed in a plain sort of striped print gown, with her watch-seal just seen at her side and het hair neatly braided—just, in fact, as such girls are dressed, only not quite so smart as they often are. She rose, very modestly, and with a pleasant smile said` ` How do you do, sir ? '

"Her figure is by no means striking—quite the contrary; but her face it full of sense, modesty and genuine goodness; and that is just the character she bears. Het prudence delights one. We are charmed that she should so well have supported the brilliancy of her humane deeds. It is confirmative of the notion that such actions must spring from genuine heart and mind."

She had the sweetest smile, continued Mr. Howitt, that he had ever seen in a person of her station and appearance. "You see that she is a thoroughly good creature, and that under her modest exterior lies a spirit capable of the most exalted devotion, a devotion so entire that daring is not so much a quality of her nature, as that the most perfect sympathy with suffering or endangered humanity swallows up and annihilates everything like fear or self-consideration, puts out, in fact, every sentiment but itself."

As we read above Grace was slight of frame, and not markedly robust. Barely three years after the wreck at which her pity and heroism had won her world-wide fame, she showed evidences of decline. Toward the close of 1841 she was taken from Longstone and placed under the care of a doctor in Bamborough. Not gaining in strength she begged to be moved to Wooler, a small market town on the border of Northumberland, where the scenery is of the Cheviot Hills - of sunny heights and wooded glens. But even here the clear bracing air had little help for her illness, and after meeting her father and considering her failing strength, with his advice she returned to Bamborough. Her eldest sister nursed her with devotion, but it was evident her life was fading.

Throughout her illness she never murmured and never complained, we are are told, and shortly before her death she expressed a wish to see as many of her relations as the peculiar nature of their employment would admit, and with surprising fortitude and self-command she delivered to each one of them some token of remembrance. This done she calmly awaited the approach of death; and finally, on October 20, 1842, resigned her spirit without a murmur.

Two stones have been raised to her memory, one in the Bamborough churchyard, her figure lying at length; and another in the chapel of St. Cuthbert, on one of the Farne Islands, and bearing this memorial:

TO THE MEMORY OF GRACE HORSLEY DARLING A NATIVE OF BAMBOROUGH AND AN INHABITANT OF THESE ISLANDS WHO DIED OCTOBER 20TH, 1842, AGED 26 YEARS.

But the best memorial of a heroine is the inspiration her example offers to her own generation and those that succeed her, the love her deeds engender in other hearts, the enlarging and uplifting of our kind through her endeavour. And so it is that the heroine of Farne Islands has become a lovely memory to us, and to those who shall come after us.

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