Read CHAPTER I - JAN'S WEDDING of Jan Vedder's Wife , free online book, by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr, on ReadCentral.com.

  “Eastward, afar, the coasts of men were seen
  Dim, shadowy, and spectral; like a still
  Broad land of spirits lay the vacant sea
  Beneath the silent heavens-here and there,
  Perchance, a vessel skimmed the watery waste,
  Like a white-winged sea-bird, but it moved
  Too pale and small beneath the vail of space. 
  There, too, went forth the sun
  Like a white angel, going down to visit
  The silent, ice-washed cloisters of the Pole.”

    -RICHTER’S “Titan.”

More than fifty years ago this thing happened:  Jan Vedder was betrothed to Margaret Fae.  It was at the beginning of the Shetland summer, that short interval of inexpressible beauty, when the amber sunshine lingers low in the violet skies from week to week; and the throstle and the lark sing at midnight, and the whole land has an air of enchantment, mystic, wonderful, and far off.

In the town of Lerwick all was still, though it was but nine o’clock; for the men were at the ling-fishing, and the narrow flagged street and small quays were quite deserted.  Only at the public fountain there was a little crowd of women and girls, and they sat around its broad margin, with their water pitchers and their knitting, laughing and chatting in the dreamlike light.

“Well, and so Margaret Fae marries at last; she, too, marries, like the rest of the world.”

“Yes, and why not?”

“As every one knows, it is easier to begin that coil than to end it; and no one has ever thought that Margaret would marry Jan-he that is so often at the dance, and so seldom at the kirk.”

“Yes, and it is said that he is not much of a man.  Magnus Yool can wag him here; and Nicol Sinclair send him there, and if Suneva Torr but cast her nixie-eyes on him, he leaves all to walk by her side.  It is little mind of his own he hath; besides that, he is hard to deal with, and obstinate.”

“That is what we all think, Gisla; thou alone hast uttered it.  But we will say no more of Jan, for oft ill comes of women’s talk.”

The speakers were middle-aged women who had husbands and sons in the fishing fleet, and they cast an anxious glance toward it, as they lifted their water pitchers to their heads, and walked slowly home together, knitting as they went.  Lerwick had then only one street of importance, but it was of considerable length, extending in the form of an amphitheater along the shore, and having numberless little lanes or closes, intersected by stairs, running backward to an eminence above the town.  The houses were generally large and comfortable, but they were built without the least regard to order.  Some faced the sea, and some the land, and the gable ends projected on every side, and at every conceivable angle.  Many of their foundations were drilled out of the rock upon the shore, and the smooth waters of the bay were six feet deep at the open doors or windows.

The utmost quiet reigned there.  Shetland possessed no carts or carriages, and only the clattering of a shelty’s gallop, or the song of a drunken sailor disturbed the echoes.  The whole place had a singular, old-world look, and the names over the doors carried one back to Norseland and the Vikings.  For in these houses their children dwelt, still as amphibious as their forefathers, spending most of their lives upon the sea, rarely sleeping under a roof, or warming themselves at a cottage fire; a rugged, pious, silent race, yet subject, as all Norsemen are, to fits of passionate and uncontrollable emotion.

Prominently among the Thorkels and Halcros, the Yools and Traills, stood out the name of Peter Fae.  Peter had the largest store in Lerwick, he had the largest fish-curing shed, he was the largest boat owner.  His house of white stone outside the town was two stories high, and handsomely furnished; and it was said that he would be able to leave his daughter Margaret L10,000; a very large fortune for a Shetland girl.  Peter was a Norseman of pronounced type, and had the massive face and loose-limbed strength of his race, its faculty for money-getting, and its deep religious sentiment.  Perhaps it would be truer to say, its deep Protestant sentiment, for Norsemen have always been Protestants; they hated the Romish church as soon as they heard of it.

If the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American wishes to see whence came the distinguishing traits of his race, let him spend a few weeks among the Shetland Norsemen, for they have pre-eminently those qualities we are accustomed to pride ourselves upon possessing-the open air freshness of look, the flesh and blood warmth of grip, the love of the sea, the resolute earnestness of being and doing, the large, clear sincerity of men accustomed to look stern realities in the face.

Peter’s wife, Thora, was also of pure Norse lineage, and in many an unrecognized way her ancestors influenced her daily life.  She had borne four sons, but, in the expressive form of Shetland speech, “the sea had got them;” and her daughter Margaret was the sole inheritor of their gathered gold.  Thora was a proud, silent woman, whose strongest affections were with her children in their lonely sea graves.  In her heart, deeper down than her faith could reach, lay a conviction that the Faes and Thorkels who had sailed those seas for centuries had “called” her boys to them.  And she was always nursing an accusation against herself for a rite which she had observed for their welfare, but which she was now sure had been punished by their death.  For often, when they had been tossing on the black North Sea, she had gone to the top of the hill, and looking seaward she had raised from the past the brown-sailed ships, and the big yellow-haired men tugging at their oars; and in her heart there had been a supplication to their memory, which Peter, had he known it, would have denounced, with the sternest wrath, as neither more nor less than a service to Satan.

But what do we know of the heart nearest to our own?  What do we know of our own heart?  Some ancestor who sailed with Offa, or who fought with the Ironsides, or protested with the Covenanters, or legislated with the Puritans, may, at this very hour, be influencing us, in a way of which we never speak, and in which no other soul intermeddles.

Thora had one comfort.  Her daughter was of a spirit akin to her own.  Peter had sent her to Edinburgh, hoping that she would bring back to his northern home some of those lowland refinements of which he had a shadowy and perhaps exaggerated idea.  But Margaret Fae’s character was not of that semi-fluid nature which can easily be run into new molds.  She had looked with distrust and dislike upon a life which seemed to her artificial and extravagant, and had come back to Shetland with every Norse element in her character strengthened and confirmed.

What then made her betroth herself to Jan Vedder?  A weak, wasteful man, who had little but his good-natured, pleasant ways and his great beauty to recommend him.  And yet the wise and careful Margaret Fae loved him; loved him spontaneously, as the brook loves to run, and the bird loves to sing.

“But bear in mind, husband,” said Thora, on the night of the betrothal, “that this thing is of thy own doing.  Thou hired Jan Vedder, when thou couldst well have hired a better man.  Thou brought him to thy house.  Well, then, was there any wonder that ill-luck should follow the foolish deed?”

“Wife, the lad is a pleasant lad.  If he had money to even Margaret’s tocher, and if he were more punctual at the ordinances, there would be no fault to him.”

“So I think, too.  But when a man has not religion, and has beside empty pockets, then he is poor for both worlds.  It seems, then, that our Margaret must marry with a poor man.  And let me tell thee, it was a little thing moved thee, for because Jan had a handsome face, and a bright smile, thou liked him.”

“Many a sore heart folks get who set liking before judgment.  But if there is good in the lad, then to get married will bring it out.”

“That is as it may be.  Often I have seen it bring out ill.  Can any one tell if a man be good or ill, unless they dwell under the same roof with him?  Abroad, who is so pleasant as Ragon Torr?  But at home, every body there has to look to his wishes.”

At this point in the conversation, Margaret entered.  She was a tall, straight girl, with a finely-featured, tranquil face, admirably framed in heavy coils of hair that were yellow as dawn.  Her complexion was exquisite, and her eyes blue, and cool, and calm.  She was still and passionless in manner, but far from being cold at heart; nevertheless, her soul, with the purity of crystal, had something also of its sharp angles; something which might perhaps become hard and cutting.  She carried herself loftily, and walked with an air of decision.  Peter looked at her steadily and said: 

“Now, thou hast done ill, Margaret.  When a young girl marries, she must face life for herself; and many are the shoulders that ask for burdens they can not bear.”

“Yes, indeed!  And it is all little to my mind,” added the mother.  “I had spoken to thee for thy cousin Magnus Hay; and then here comes this Jan Vedder!”

“Yes, he comes!” and Margaret stood listening, the pink color on her cheeks spreading to the tips of her ears, and down her white throat.  “Yes, he comes!” and with the words, Jan stood in the open door.  A bright, handsome fellow he was!  There was no one in all the Islands that was half so beautiful.

“Peter,” he cried joyfully, “here has happened great news!  The ‘Sure-Giver’ is in the harbor with all her cargo safe.  She came in with the tide.  All her planks and nails are lucky.”

“That is great news, surely, Jan.  But it is ill luck to talk of good luck.  Supper is ready sit down with us.”

But Thora spoke no word, and Jan looked at Margaret with the question in his eyes.

“It means this, and no more, Jan.  I have told my father and mother that thou would make me thy wife.”

“That is what I desire, most of all things.”

“Then there is little need of long talk.  I betroth myself to thee here for life or death, Jan Vedder; and my father and my mother they are the witnesses;” and as she spoke, she went to Jan, and put her hands in his, and Jan drew her proudly to his breast and kissed her.

Thora left the room without a glance at the lovers.  Peter stood up, and said angrily:  “Enough, and more than enough has been said this night.  No, Jan; I will not put my palm against thine till we have spoken together.  There is more to a marriage than a girl’s ‘Yes’, and a wedding ring.”

That was the manner of Jan’s betrothal; and as he walked rapidly back into the town, there came a feeling into his heart of not being quite pleased with it.  In spite of Margaret’s affection and straightforward decision, he felt humiliated.

“It is what a man gets who wooes a rich wife,” he muttered; “but I will go and tell Michael Snorro about it.”  And he smiled at the prospect, and hurried onward to Peter’s store.

For Michael Snorro lived there.  The opening to the street was closed; but the one facing the sea was wide open; and just within it, among the bags of feathers and swans’ down, the piles of seal skins, the barrels of whale oil, and of sea-birds’ eggs, and the casks of smoked geese, Michael was sitting.  The sea washed the warehouse walls, and gurgled under the little pier, that extended from the door, but it was the only sound there was.  Michael, with his head in his hands, sat gazing into the offing where many ships lay at anchor.  At the sound of Jan’s voice his soul sprang into his face for a moment, and he rose, trembling with pleasure, to meet him.

In all his desolate life, no one had loved Michael Snorro.  A suspicion that “he was not all there,” and therefore “one of God’s bairns,” had insured him, during his long orphanage, the food, and clothes, and shelter, necessary for life; but no one had given him love.  And Michael humbly acknowledged that he could not expect it, for nature had been cruelly unkind to him.  He was, indeed, of almost gigantic size, but awkward and ill-proportioned.  His face, large and flat, had the whiteness of clay, except at those rare intervals when his soul shone through it; and no mortal, but Jan Vedder, had ever seen that illumination.

It would be as hard to tell why Michael loved Jan as to say why Jonathan’s soul clave to David as soon as he saw him.  Perhaps it was an unreasonable affection, but it was one passing the love of woman, and, after all, can we guess how the two men may have been spiritually related?  There was some tie of which flesh and blood knew not between them.

“Michael, I am going to be married.”

“Well, Jan-and what then?”

“It will be with me as others; I shall have children, and grow rich, and old, and die.”

“Who is it, Jan?”

“Margaret Fae.”

“I thought that.  Well, thou art sunshine, Jan, and she is like a pool of clear water.  If the sun shines not, then the water will freeze, and grow cold and hard.”

“Thou dost not like women, Michael.”

“Nay, but I trust them not.  Where the devil can not go, he sends a woman.  Well, then, he will find no such messenger for me.  He must come himself.  That is well; the fight will be easier.”

“When I am married I shall sail my own boat, and thou shalt be always with me, Michael.  We will feel the fresh wind blowing in the canvas, and the salt spindrift in our faces, and the boat going as if she were a solan flying for the rock.”

“Is that thy thought, then?  Let me tell thee that thou art counting thy fish while they are swimming.  Until Peter Fae’s hands are full of earth, he will not part with one gold piece.  Make up thy mind to that.”

“Margaret will have her tocher.”

“That will be seen; but if thou wants money, Jan, there it is in my chest, and what greater joy can I have than to see it in thy hand-all of it?  It would be thy grace to me.”

Then Jan rose up and laid his arm across Michael’s shoulder; and Michael’s lifted face caught the glow of Jan’s bending one and the men’s souls spoke to each other, though their lips never parted.

The next day proved Michael right.  Peter did not name Margaret’s tocher.  He said he would give Margaret a house with all needful plenishing; and he promised also to pay all the wedding expenses.  But there was no word of any sum of ready money; and Jan was too proud in his poverty to ask for his right.  He did, indeed, suggest that when he was a house-holder he should have more wages.  But Peter would not see the justice of any such addition.  “I give thee all thou art worth, and I will not give thee a Scotch merk more,” he answered roughly.  “When it comes to a question of wage, Jan, the son and the stranger are the same to me.”  And when Jan told his friend what had been promised, Michael said only:  “Well, then, thou wilt have the woman also.”

The twelfth of August is “the fisherman’s foy” in Shetland, and the great feast of the Islands.  It was agreed, therefore, that the marriage should take place at that time.  For there would be at least two hundred fishing vessels in Brassy Sound at that time, and with most of the fishermen Peter either had had business, or might have in the future.

“For three days we will keep the feast for all who choose to come,” he said; and so, when the procession formed for the church, nearly six hundred men and women were waiting to follow Jan and his bride.  Then Jan led her to the front of it, and there was a murmur of wonder and delight.  Her dress was of the richest white satin, and her heavy golden ornaments-the heirlooms of centuries-gave a kind of barbaric splendor to it.  The bright sunlight fell all over her, and added to the effect; and Jan, with a bridegroom’s pardonable pride, thought she looked more than mortal.

Going to the church, the procession preserved the gravity of a religious rite; but on the return, some one touched lightly the strings of a violin, and, in a moment, hundreds of voices were chanting: 

“It is often that I have said it:  In the night thou art my dream, and my waking thought in the morning.

“I loved thee always; not for three months, not for a year, but I loved thee from the first, and my love shall not wither, until death part us.

“Oh, my beloved!  My wife!  Dearer to me than the light of the day!  Closer to me than my hands and feet!  Nothing but death shall part thee and me, forever!”

The singing opened their hearts; then came the feast and the dance, that endless active dance which is the kind of riot in which grave races give vent to the suppressed excitement of their lives.  It did not please Margaret; she was soon weary of the noise and commotion, and heartily glad when, on the eve of the third day, she was called upon to give the parting toast: 

“Here’s to the men who cast the net, and the long line,” she cried, lifting the silver cup above her head.  “And may He hold His hand about them all, and open the mouth of the gray fish!”

“And here’s to the bride,” answered the oldest fisher present, “and may God give her a blessing in both hands!”

Then they separated, and some went to their homes in Lerwick and Scalloway, and others sailed to Ireland and Scotland, and even Holland; but Peter knew that however much the feast had cost him, it was money put out at good interest, and that he would be very likely to find it again at the next fishing season.