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Tales Illustrative of the Apostles' Creed, by John Mason Neale

London: Masters, 1885.

III. The Birdcatchers of Steege
"And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord."

I WISH you could have seen, as I have seen, that beautiful little island of Moen. You can scarcely imagine the loveliness of those little blue Fiords, running up between beech and pine groves, reflecting those wonderful wooden belfries in which the Danes delight; tall, ladder-like erections on the summit of the Down, with its little, shapeless, barn-like church, lying in the valley beneath. If you had seen these things, you would have understood my story better than, I am afraid, I can make you comprehend it now.

Well, it was about four hundred years ago. A bright, sunny, rippling sea; so blue, that it maps itself out against the grey holms or green islands that rise from its bosom; so shallow that, mile after mile, you catch on the golden sand beneath it, the network of the sunbeams.

There is a boat that goes merrily forward, sometimes rounding the grassy holm on which a few cattle are lazily pasturing in the spring afternoon, sometimes passing a deep beech grove, sometimes running past the fishing village with its quaint old oaken gables, its few fishing boats lying at anchor, and the rude pier with its slippery steps; sometimes doubling the little cape where a few May bushes make even the briny air sweet with their fragrance, and from some clump of trees further inland you might hear the earliest notes of the cuckoo. So on, past stony Torjoe, and steep Birkholm, and green Halmoc, and round Egholm, and sunny Strynoekill, and so forward again over the more boundless waters of the Great Belt.

The boat had on board three or four of the boldest cragsmen in Denmark. For now was the season of taking the sea-birds that resort to the chalky cliffs of the eastern shores, the puffin, and many a kind of gull and diver, and the eider-duck, of which the story goes, as it does of the ermine in North America, that if its feathers are once polluted, it dies of grief. This boat was, therefore, bounding forward to Moen, the easternmost of the Danish islands; and this story I heard on a slope of green turf, near the very edge of the cliff where the rock, called the Queen's Seat, looks down upon the Baltic that foams a hundred yards below it.

Let us imagine the little bark to have reached her destination, and to have been safely moored in the harbour of Steege. Let us imagine it a bright May morning, and the three bird-hunters gaily ascending the Down, which broke away seaward into those cliffs which were the resort of their game. Each one carried over his shoulder a large net, fastened to the end of a pole, like those which our bat-fowlers use here in England; coils of rope they had, one or two strong iron bars, a heavy mallet, and grappling-irons, to hold on to the side of the cliffs, while the adventurers were dragging forth the birds from their long winding holes in its face. Many and many a bone of bird-hunters, just as bold, and just as gay, had been bleaching for a hundred years in the waves of the Baltic at the foot of the crags. Their life was one of extreme hardship and risk: hours together the fowlers had to hang over the boiling sea, sitting astride on the stakes which dangled from the extremity of the rope, and piloting themselves about with their long pole among the crannies and crevices of the cliffs, while their companions above raised or lowered them according to a given signal. So there were a thousand accidents which carried off the poor birdcatchers; the rope might grind against some projecting crag, and be worn in two before the danger was perceived; a sea eagle--for there were many in the cliffs--might make a dart at the adventurer, and cause him to lose his hold, or--most frequent, and most fatal of all dangers--that dizziness might come over the boldest man, from which no degree of practice and experience among precipices, is an entire safeguard. So that the proverb well said:--

"Hand of iron, and heart of flint,
Or woe to the fowler that tries Spiel Klint."

The names of our three fowlers were, Erick Olafsen, Knut Ribe, and Hans Holbcck: and now let us attend to what they did.

There is a certain peak, the highest of all the rest, which looks down upon the Baltic, while in its whole face the sea-birds have perforated their nests. To the very summit of this cliff our three adventurers came. It was a calm day: as far as the eye could reach the Baltic was covered with that which an ancient poet calls "the countless laughter of its waves:" there was just sufficient breeze from the north-east to stir the long grass on the summit of the Downs.

"Now then," said Knut, "this is the place, and a more favourable day we never can have. Shall I go down? or which of us is it to be?"

"It is my turn," said Erick.

"And as I was so unsuccessful in my last attempt," said Plans Holbeck, "I think I ought to have the chance; however, let us draw lots."

"Agreed," said Knut; and drawing three long straws from the dried grass, and marking them, he held them out to his companions.

"Draw," he said, "and the longest grass is the winner."

They draw, and, beyond all manner of doubt, success rested with Erick.

And so the preparations began: they drove in their stakes: they fastened the cross-bar which held the pulley: they adjusted the rope to its groove: and looked well that the fastenings of their rope, and the seat which the adventurer was to bestride, should be firm and good. Erick, from his pack, put on the leathern jacket and felt cap, which the birdcatchers assume; and the cross-bar being pushed just over the edge of the cliff, and the windlass being held tight on both sides by the two friends, Erick grasped the rope with both hands, and sat himself down on the piece of wood on which his life depended.

Ah! it is all very well reading of these things while one is sitting in a comfortable room, and by a winter fire; but I have once tried the adventure myself--only once--and it is not easy to describe the feeling one has when they begin to lower the windlass, and without any support whatever you hang between the sky and the sea, trusting to the strength of your arms to save you from being dashed in pieces. However down Erick went; fathom after fathom of the cord ran out: and at last a hundred feet below the summit of the cliff, and twice that distance from its boiling waves beneath, he came opposite to the birds'-nests of which he was in search.

Now I should have told you before, that, in conjunction with the other arrangements, there was a line prepared by which he that was let down might give notice to those above, either to raise him, or to lower him, or to let him remain stationary. Erick, therefore, gave the necessary signal, and was presently motionless on the face of the cliffs, and opposite to the holes where the birds were. Thrusting his arm into their perforations, many and many a seagull did he pluck forth, keeping them fast, as the custom is, under his girdle, and belting himself in, as it were, with a circle of birds. But while he was thus engaged, from a deeper recess in the cliff, an eagle flew out with a wild scream, and a louder reverberation of the air. She attacked Erick with her whole strength; she pounced upon him, now right, and now left; he meanwhile warding off her assaults with his hands, till both the bird and himself were covered with blood.

"I shall be torn in pieces," said he to himself, "if this lasts." And drawing the sword, which the birdcatchers always wear at their sides, he struck at his assailant. He struck at her once, clinging on to the rope meanwhile by his left hand, and missed her altogether; he struck at her the second time, and cut some few feathers from her left wing; he struck at her the third time, and cut through the rope, from which he was suspended, all but about a quarter of its thickness. And had that been all it might still have been well, and his light weight might have been supported as he made the signal of recall; but the strands being thus cut asunder, the whole rope began to untwist, and though he pulled lustily at the string which was the sign that he desired to be wound up, it was a race between the untwisting of the rope, and the activity of his friends above.

And what did he rest upon then? On something stronger than the strongest rope, or the strongest chain that the wit of man ever devised; on something that can reach, not only from the face of the cliff to its summit, but from this sinful earth to heaven itself; on something that can bring--not two friends with their material means of assistance, to the aid of the sufferer--but twelve legions of angels, if need were, to his aid. There Erick hangs, the sea two hundred feet below him, the summit of the cliff a hundred feet above him; the rope by which he is suspended twisting off, and reducing itself every moment by another strand the less. But while he has that better support, which is called prayer, the King of Denmark, then sitting down to his breakfast in Copenhagen, is not so safe as he.

The prayer he made was only a pattern to us of all prayer; and depend upon it, it was only made through that Blessed Name which is above every name--that Name which forms the Article in the Apostles' Creed, of which we are speaking. Still he prayed, and still he fixed his eyes on the point where the rope was untwisting from its severed strands, and still he watched the lessening distance between himself and the edges of the chalky cliff. And just as to his sight the last strand was twisting off, he felt himself grasping the withered grass at the summit--he felt himself seized in no easy sort by the arms of his friends--and dragged forward on the solid ground--while the rope on which his life had, five seconds before, hung, was reduced to a mere thread, which a child's arm would have easily snapped asunder.

And Erick's hair which, when he descended the cliff, was as black as a raven, was, they say (and physicians tell us it may be so,) as white as snow when he was again in safety.

But the lesson for us to learn is this, and if you alter a word or two you may take it in the words of the Bible itself: AND HIS NAME, THROUGH FAITH IN HIS NAME, HATH MADE THIS MAN STRONG, WHOM YE SEE AND KNOW; YEA, THE FAITH, WHICH IS BY HIM, HATH GIVEN HIM THIS PERFECT SOUNDNESS IN THE PRESENCE OF YOU ALL.

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