Year after year, one calamity after another left him struggling just to keep from starving. Many of his neighbours seemed to be prospering, although their farms were no better than his own. His wife bore children, but every one perished of sickness during the harsh winters.
Finally he set aside his pride and sought advice from an older farmer.
"Ah, well," the man winked at him, "they do say 'tis an ill wind that blows no good."
Magnus had heard dark rumours of such things, of course, but still needed a minute to understand the hint. When he realised what the man must mean, he thanked him stiffly and went home. He worked even harder, until exhaustion nearly sent him to join his children in the little row of graves at the rear of the churchyard.
Magnus stuck to his principles through one more lean, tragic year, then began to wonder. Those strangers in their ships were going to die anyway, weren't they? What harm would it do if goods they no longer needed eased his burdens just a bit? If they helped even one of his children to live, wasn't that a good thing?
So he began slipping out whenever fog or a storm rolled in, descending to the beach to see if there'd been any wrecks that night. The first time he witnessed a ship driven upon the jagged rocks and torn apart by the relentless surf was hard for him. He watched figures struggling in the water, and wanted to rush to their aid.
But it was dangerous. The surf was strong, and the footing treacherous. Besides, as one of the others pointed out, any survivor was all too likely to lay a claim against anything he might salvage. He wouldn't be out here at all if it weren't for the salvage, so it seemed folly to risk its loss.
The next time, it was easier, and soon the cries of the drowning affected him no more than the calls of the gulls. His wife's concerns were not so readily allayed, though. The first time he dragged home soggy chests, barrels, and bales of valuables, she accepted it as no more than a windfall.
Each time thereafter, she grew more and more troubled. Magnus knew if she ever learned how he worked alongside the men who, more often than not, lured the ships off course with deceitful lights, she would be much more than merely troubled. Somehow, he managed to soothe her concerns for nearly a year.
Then one night as he left she ran down the path towards the shore after him. Before he could block her view, she caught a glimpse of lights bobbing atop the cliffs. Silently he cursed the fools who should have waited until they were below the cliffs, where they could only be seen from the water.
She blocked his way, hands on hips, her temper rising. "Magnus, what are those lights? Plainly, you're not surprised to see them there! Can it be you have become one of those who ensnare shipping for their own profit?" She spat the last words at him.
He hesitated, trying to think of the words to deny her accusation. That was his undoing.
"As you have no answer ready to your tongue, that can only mean that you are one of them!"
"See here, Rebecca, you don't understand. I can't stop them! I can join them, or I can sit at home, shivering, and watch another of our children perish needlessly."
She was quiet a moment, and when she spoke, there were tears in her eyes. "Oh, Magnus, I know you've had horrible luck, and I suppose it must have seemed like a reasonable answer. Come home with me now. Give this up! I know at heart you are still a decent man."
He stood undecided, his heart pounding. He wasn't sure they'd allow him to stop now. Even if they did, that meant facing the horrible things he'd seen and done. He wavered, then stepped around her and walked on, not turning his head to where she stood, weeping, behind him.
When he returned with his share of the salvage, she was gone. He had no idea where she went, for he never heard so much as a rumour of her. If he was to be denied the comforts of a wife and children, he vowed to himself he would live as well as he was able.
Whenever doubts struck him, he reminded himself this was just his method of collecting the debt owed him by a world which had taken so much from him. Years passed, and the men he helped grew old and died. The younger men looked up to Magnus, who had done this far longer than they, and was always ready with a word of encouragement when they faltered.
One day, whispers reached Magnus of a heavily laden ship due in at Porthleven early the next morning. The men he now led gathered on the beaches, lit their lanterns, and soon spotted a ship riding closer and closer to the rocks. The lookout must have given some warning, for she turned broadside in an effort to escape, but it was too late.
The proud hull was soon battered to splinters, bales scattering but most carried onshore by the waves. The usual survivors struggled to reach dry land. One woman, clutching a section of plank, reached the shallow water just beyond Magnus, and began crawling towards him, begging feebly for help.
The moon, riding low above the cliffs behind him, shone full on her face. Without thinking, he stepped back. She looked so much like his Rebecca had on the day they wed. He almost spared her, but he remembered Rebecca, if she lived, would be grey now as he was. He would not risk all he had for a chance resemblance to a woman who had abandoned him.
He strode out to where she struggled, breakers tugging at her as she crawled towards the dry shingle. He stood over her a moment, as she reached one hand to him, then lifted his foot, set it on her back, and thrust her face first into the surf. She thrashed for a minute or two, then stilled.
He stood there, unmoving, until he was sure she was dead, then strode back to the beach to collect his portion of the spoils. Later that morning, a coach drew up outside his door, and the coachman alighted, knocked, and presented a letter addressed to him.
Magnus handed the man a silver shilling, starting when he recognised Rebecca's handwriting on the outside. He strode back inside as the coach rumbled away, then stood for a while before the fire, tossing the letter from hand to hand. Once or twice, he almost tossed it into the flames.
Finally, he sighed, sank into a chair, and broke the plain seal holding the folded paper closed. He unfolded it slowly, then bent his head to read.
I have never ceased loving you, and have ever hoped word would reach me you had forsaken the course you chose so I might return to your side. It has been difficult, living without you, but I have managed, somehow. I know if I were to return my presence would only encourage you to continue an activity repulsive to the man I married.
What neither of us knew on the day I departed was that I was already carrying your child, our daughter. All these years she has begged me to speak of her father, and at last I relented and explained everything I knew about you. She decided she must journey to see you herself, to hear your own explanation of our separation.
She has told me just this morning that she has arranged to sail on the brig St. George which is due to put her ashore at Porthleven in a few days' time. I believe this was her way of showing her trust in you, and I could not convince her it was best to take a public coach instead.
I pray this letter may reach you in time, and that the sweet face of your own daughter will influence you as I was not able to do, to turn from the life you lead and live as an honest man once more.
Your loving wife, Rebecca
By the time his neighbours spotted the flames leaping into the air, it was too late to quench them. There was no sign of Magnus, and everyone assumed he died in the fire. Then his friends began glimpsing him during the night, pacing the beach, waving his arms and trying with no success to warn ships away from the rocks there.
Magnus always disappeared before they could catch up to him, and one by one they grew afraid. Now, the only ships that come to grief on that coast are those with poor navigators, men sleeping on watch, or bad luck in wind or fog.