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On the evening of Wednesday, September 5, the steamship Forfarshire left Hull for Dundee, carrying a cargo of iron, and having some forty passengers on board. The ship was only eight years old; the master, John Humble, was an experienced seaman; and the crew, including firemen and engineers, was complete. But even before the vessel left the dock one passenger at least had felt uneasily that something was wrong--that there was an unusual commotion among officials and sailors. Still, no alarm was given, and at dusk the vessel steamed prosperously down the Humber River.
The next day (Thursday, the 6th) the weather changed, the wind blowing N.N.W., and increasing toward midnight to a perfect gale. On the morning of Friday, the 7th, a sloop from Montrose, making for South Shields, saw a small boat labouring hard in the trough of the sea. The Montrose vessel bore down on it, and in spite of the state of the weather managed to get the boat's crew on board.
They were nine men in all, the sole survivors, as they believed themselves to be, of the crew and passengers of the Forfarshire, which was then lying a total wreck on Longstone, one of the outermost of the Farne Islands.
It was a wretched story they had to tell of lives thrown away through carelessness and negligence, unredeemed, as far as their story went, by any heroism or unselfish courage.
While still in the Humber, and not twenty miles from Hull, it was found that one of the boilers leaked, but the captain refused to put about. The pumps were set to work to fill the boiler, and the vessel kept on her way, though slowly, not passing between the Farne Islands and the mainland till Thursday evening. It was eight o'clock when they entered Berwick Bay; the wind freshened and was soon blowing hard from N.N.W. The motion of the vessel increased the leakage, and it was now found that there were holes in all the three boilers. Two men were set to work the pumps, one or two of the passengers also assisting, but as fast as the water was pumped into the boilers it poured out again. The bilge was so full of steam and boiling water that the firemen could not get to the fires. Still the steamer struggled on, laboring heavily, for the sea was running very high. At midnight they were off St. Abbs Head, when the engineers reported that the case was hopeless; the engines had entirely ceased to work. The ship rolled helplessly in the waves, and the rocky coast was at no great distance. They ran up the sails fore and aft to try and keep her off the rocks, and put her round so that she might run before the wind, and as the tide was setting southward she drifted fast with wind and tide. Torrents of rain were falling, and in spite of the wind there was a thick fog. Some of the passengers were below, others were on deck with crew and captain, knowing well their danger.
About three the noise of breakers was distinctly heard a little way ahead, and at the same time a light was seen away to the left, glimmering faintly through the darkness. It came home to the anxious crew with sickening certainty that they were being driven on the Farne Islands. These islands form a group of desolate rocks lying off the Northumbrian coast. They are twenty in number, some only uncovered at low tide, and all offering a rugged iron wall to any ill-fated boat that may be driven upon them.
Even in calm weather and by daylight seamen are glad to give them a wide berth.
The master of the Forfarshire in this desperate strait attempted to make for the channel which runs between the Islands and the mainland. It was at best a forlorn chance; it was hopeless here; the vessel refused to answer her helm! On she drove in the darkness, nearer and nearer came the sound of the breakers; the passengers and crew on board the boat became frantic. Women wailed and shrieked; the captain's wife clung to him, weeping; the crew lost all instinct of discipline, and thought of nothing but saving their skins.
Between three and four the shock came--a hideous grinding noise, a strain and shiver of the whole ship, and she struck violently against a great rock. In the awful moment which followed, five of the crew succeeded in lowering the larboard quarter-boat and pushed off in her. The mate swung himself over the side, and also reached her; and a passenger rushing at this moment up from the cabin and seeing the boat already three yards from the ship, cleared the space with a bound and landed safely in her, though nearly upsetting her by his weight. She righted, and the crew pulled off with the desperate energy of men rowing for their lives. The sight of agonized faces, the shrieks of the drowning, were lost in the darkness and in the howling winds, and the boat with the seven men on board was swept along by the rapidly-flowing tide.
Such was the story the exhausted boat's crew told next morning to their rescuers on board the Montrose sloop. And the rest of the ship's company--what of them? Had they all gone down by the island crag with never a hand stretched out to help them?
Hardly had the boat escaped from the stranded vessel when a great wave struck her on the quarter, lifted her up bodily, and dashed her back on the rock. She struck midships on the sharp edge and broke at once into two pieces. The after part was washed clean away with about twenty passengers clinging to it, the captain and his wife being among them. A group of people, about nine in number, were huddled together near the bow; they, with the whole forepart of the ship, were lifted right on to the rock. In the fore cabin was a poor woman, Mrs. Dawson, with a child on each arm. When the vessel was stranded on the rock the waves rushed into the exposed cabin, but she managed to keep her position, cowering in a corner. First one and then the other child died from cold and exhaustion, and falling from the fainting mother were swept from her sight by the waves, but the poor soul herself survived all the horrors of the night.
It was now four o'clock; the storm was raging with unabated violence, and it was still two hours to daybreak. About a mile from Longstone, the island on which the vessel struck, lies Brownsman, the outermost of the Farne Islands, on which stands the lighthouse. At this time the keeper of the lighthouse was a man of the name of William Darling. He was an elderly, almost an old man, and the only other inmates of the lighthouse were his wife and daughter Grace, a girl of twenty-two. On this Friday night she was awake, and through the raging of the storm heard shrieks more persistent and despairing than those of the wildest sea-birds. In great trouble she rose and awakened her father. The cries continued, but in the darkness they could do nothing. Even after day broke it was difficult to make out distant objects, for a mist was still hanging over the sea. At length, with a glass they could discern the wreck on Longstone, and figures moving about on it. Between the two islands lay a mile of yeasty sea, and the tide was running hard between them. The only boat on the lighthouse was a clumsily built jolly-boat, heavy enough to tax the strength of two strong men in ordinary weather, and here there was but an old man and a young girl to face a raging sea and a tide running dead against them. Darling hesitated to undertake anything so dangerous, but his daughter would hear of no delay. On the other side of that rough mile of sea men were perishing, and she could not stay where she was and see them die.
So off they set in the heavy coble, the old man with one oar, the girl with the other, rowing with straining breath and beating hearts. Any moment they might be whelmed in the sea or dashed against the rocks. Even if they got the crew off, it would be doubtful if they could row them to the lighthouse; the tide was about to turn, and would be against them on their homeward journey; death seemed to face them on every side.
When close to the rock there was imminent danger of their being dashed to pieces against it. Steadying the boat an instant, Darling managed to jump on to the rock, while Grace rapidly rowed out a little and kept the boat from going on the rocks by rowing continually. It is difficult to imagine how the nine shipwrecked people, exhausted and wearied as they were, were got into the boat in such a sea, especially as the poor woman, Mrs. Dawson, was in an almost fainting condition; but finally they were all gotten on board. Fortunately, one or two of the rescued crew were able to assist in the heavy task of rowing the boat back to Brownsman.
The storm continued to rage for several days after, and the whole party had to remain in the lighthouse. Moreover, a boatload which had come to their rescue from North Shields was also storm-stayed.
It is told of this admirable girl that she was the tenderest and gentlest of nurses and hostesses, as she was certainly one of the most singularly courageous of women.
She could never be brought to look upon her exploit as in any way remarkable, and when by-and-by honors and distinctions were showered upon her, and people came from long distances to see her, she kept through it all the dignity of perfect simplicity and modesty.
Close to Bamborough, on a windy hill, lie a little gray church and a quiet churchyard. At all seasons high winds from the North Sea blow over the graves and fret and eat away the soft gray sandstone of which the plain headstones are made. So great is the wear and tear of these winds that comparatively recent monuments look like those which have stood for centuries. On one of these stones lies a recumbent figure, with what looks not unlike a lance clasped in the hand and laid across the breast. Involuntarily one thinks of the stone crusaders, who lie in their armor, clasping their half-drawn swords, awaiting the Resurrection morning. It is the monument of Grace Darling, who here lies at rest with her oar still clasped in her strong right hand.