"But the thing is of no use to me, sir, is it?" I asked.
"That's for you to find out, Halcro," said he. "You see it is a sort of charm, or amulet. The old Scandinavian vikings used to carry such things about with them, in the belief that by so doing they would be protected from all personal harm. Our Jarl Haffling, I suppose, wore this same amulet at his neck to ensure his safety through the perils of the battle and the storm. No doubt he believed that the possession of such a talisman gave him a charmed existence. The sea could not drown him, sword could not wound him, fortune favoured him, so long as he wore this little stone on his breast."
"And yet, sir, the Jarl Haffling came to his grave in the Bay of Skaill," I said incredulously.
"Ay, lad, so he did, so he did. But we must suppose that Odin, the god of the Norsemen, had thought it time to reward him by calling him off from his earthly battles to the Halls of Valhalla."
Captain Gordon here approached us, and whilst he and Mr. Drever were bidding each other goodnight, I stood looking into the fire, meditating upon the strange thing my schoolmaster had told me. I put the little stone securely into my breast pocket, feeling the new responsibility I bore in being guarded by such a mysterious influence; for I did not doubt that the protection given by my talisman to the dead viking would now be extended to myself.
Grace Drever had some instructions to give me regarding the taking away of her cat, and when I left her my sister Jessie and Captain Gordon were already walking together down the brae. I soon overtook them. Jessie was questioning the captain about his ship.
"Father was saying she's a very good ship," said she; "but I think mysel' that her masts are ower high; and if ye were taken in one o' the spring gales off the Orkneys you'd find that they are, Mr. Gordon."
"Did the pilot say that our masts are too high, Miss Ericson?" asked the captain.
"Nay, I was thinkin' it mysel'," said Jessie, "when I saw the barque lying near the Holms. High masts are good, I will allow, for carrying a heap o' sails, but our whaling ships never have masts so high as yours."
"Well, but you must understand," urged the sailor, "that we are not bound for Davis Straits as your whalers are that went out today. In the tropical seas, where there is often a calm lasting several days, we need high masts and widespread sails, Miss Ericson."
"Yes, I ken that well enough," argued Jessie. "But I have seen many a good ship wrecked on the Black Craigs in the spring time, and I can aye tell when a ship will come back safe to Stromness."
Captain Gordon seemed to treat my sister's criticism of his ship very lightly; but as events turned out, her warning was perhaps justifiable.
When we turned into the Anchor Close, we found my father standing at the house door, smoking his pipe and looking out for us.
"Where has the lad been?" he asked of Jessie before he greeted the captain.
"I found him up at the dominie's," she explained.
And then she held out her hand to Mr. Gordon.
"Fare ye well, Captain Gordon!" she said; "fare ye well, and a good voyage to you!"
And she glided past him into the house.
"Was the lass speakin' wi' you, skipper?" asked my father.
"Yes," said Gordon. "She was telling me that my barque's masts are too high."
"Ay! but it's no' sae often that she'll speak wi' a man. She's a blate lass wi' maist folk. But what kens she about a vessel's masts, I wonder?"
My father, with his hands deep in his trousers pockets, then stepped down to the jetty and looked through the darkness towards the Lydia.
"Ay, but I'm no that sure about it either, Skipper. The masts are higher than ordinary. But ye'll come ben the house and smoke a pipe, maybe?"
"Thank you, pilot, I don't mind—just for a half hour before I go out to the ship."
My father thereupon led the way within, and placed an easy chair for Mr. Gordon under the large hurricane lamp that hung from the low ceiling, and cast its yellow light about the room. The skipper glanced rapidly at the dark, old-fashioned furniture, at the high-backed chairs, cushioned with the skins of seals, the strong teak-wood sideboard, and the heavy round table, upon which stood a quaint Dutch spirit bottle and a couple of horn drinking cups. He looked at the several pictures of ships battling with terrible storms, and at the pensive porcupine in its dusty glass case, and then at the array of firearms and harpoons above the door of the press bed. My dog Selta lay sound asleep upon a large polar-bear skin before the fire. Had he approached her and looked up the wide chimney he might have seen there the remains of our winter stock of smoked geese and hams hanging in the midst of the "reek."
"I suppose you have been sailing foreign a good deal in your time, pilot?" said Mr. Gordon, when he was seated.
He had got this notion, no doubt, from having observed the many foreign ornaments and weapons about the room.
"No," said my father, "I hae never been abroad. All my life has been spent in the Mainland."
"You mean Scotland—the mainland of Scotland?" said the captain, not seeming to understand the meaning of the "Mainland," which I may here explain is our local name for Pomona island—the largest of the Orkneys.
"No, I didna mean Scotland, skipper—though, to be sure, I hae been over there many a time. We call this the Mainland, where we are just now. Many folks make the same mistake about that. I mind of a skipper named Jock Abernethy. Jock had a brig o' his ain, though he kent naething aboot navigation, whatever. Weel, a lang while past it is noo, he was takin' his brig frae Portree, in Skye, across to the West Indies. His crew was nae better nor himsel'. Weel, when they had been at sea twa or three months, Jock cam on deck ae mornin', and, 'Donald,' says he to his mate, 'd'ye not see land yonder to starboard?'
"'Ay, sir,' says Donald; 'I'm just thinkin' it will be the West Indies.'
"'You're right there, Donald, the West Indies it is,' says Jock. 'See, yonder's the black folk sittin' waitin' for us!' and he pointed to the cormorants perched on the rocks.
"So the brig was hauled round, and when she was near inshore a pilot boat cam oot to them. Jock hailed the pilot: 'What land is that?' he cried.
"'It's the Mainland!' sings out the pilot.
"'What! the mainland o' America?' asks Jock, thinkin' he had missed the Indies.
"'No, ye duffer, the Mainland o' Orkney, to be sure,' says the pilot. 'What other Mainland is there?'"
As I sat on my low stool by the fire, my mother and Jessie being in the inner room, I took the viking's charm from my pocket and examined it. Captain Gordon had lighted his pipe, and when my father's anecdote was finished he said:
"Now, Halcro, my lad, lay aft here and let us have another look at that magic stone of yours."
And then, as I handed it to him, he proceeded to tell my father of our discovery of the treasure.
The two men discussed the probable value of what we had found, and I felt some disappointment in their estimate of what the dominie might be able to sell the relics for.
"It is very good to find these things," said my father, blowing a mist of tobacco smoke from amidst his beard. "But what use are they, whatever? Nae use ava! The dominie might send them to the museum folk at Edinburgh, and he would get mebbe a pickle pounds for them—hardly enough for the lads to buy an auld boat wi'. I wouldna be bothered wi' the things."
"What was it the old woman was saying about this stone, though, Halcro?" asked the captain.
I repeated what Grace Drever told me—how the stone might protect me from accident and from the monsters of the sea; from the kraken and the kelpie, the warlocks and the wirracows; and how, having the charm at my neck, I need never fear climbing a cliff or entering upon the most dangerous adventure.
"And do you believe all this, my lad?" asked Captain Gordon, taking his pipe from his lips and addressing me.
"Well," I returned, with an earnestness that must have shown that I had not the smallest doubt upon the matter, "auld Grace Drever said it was 'as true as death,' and the dominie did not deny that it was 'just possible.' What for should I not believe it? and what for would the stone be bound with the gold ring and buried with the other gear if it were not of some value beyond ordinary?"
"Och! but I dinna doot there will be something in the stone," said my father, who, at the mention of the dominie's belief, cast away all questioning. "And it will not be the first time I have heard of such cantrips."
And he told us of a man named Willie Reoch, a fisherman, who was preserved from the great Bore of Papa Westray in some such way. Willie Reoch and three other fishers were away at the saith fishing, and when their boat was driven by the wind near to the Bore, they were drawn under by the whirling current and swamped. Reoch had round his neck a charm which Bessie Millie, the witch, had given to him, and so was the only one saved.
"Na, na," continued my father, "I dinna doot there will be something wondersome in the stone; and if any person would have such a thing, who would it be but the Norseman?"
Thus did I become convinced in my mind that, by the possession of that little gold-encircled stone, I bore a charmed life.
That night I lay with my precious talisman under my pillow. I thought of the events of the afternoon, and, remembering my fight with Tom Kinlay, attributed my victory over him to the influence which that talisman, then in my pocket, had already begun to work. I tried to imagine what kind of adventures had befallen the old viking whose bones we had disturbed, and wondered if I should ever encounter any similar perils. My opportunities of adventure were fewer than his could have been; but I determined to give my full trust to the mysterious aid in which Jarl Haffling had trusted in the ancient days. Then I heard my father unmooring the boat from the pier to take Captain Gordon out to his ship, and as the sound of the oars in the rowlocks died away in the night I fell asleep.
Chapter XII. A Tragedy And A Transportation.
I was up and about on the following morning when the town was yet asleep. A cool, dewy mist hung in the air, and the rising sun spread a rosy bloom on the eastern sky. When I arrived at Andrew Drever's house there was no one moving within, but the door was not locked, and quietly lifting the latch I went inside to find the cat Baudrons, that I might take him out to the Lydia according to my promise.
I made so little noise that even the jackdaw did not seem to notice my entrance, and I looked to his cage on the side table. To my surprise the cage door was standing wide open and Peter was not there. But presently, from the school room, I heard him chattering and croaking. Following the sound of his voice I discovered the bird perched high upon the dominie's desk looking down at Baudrons, who crouched below him on the floor in the very act of preparing to spring, his checks swelled out and his great tail lashing the dusty floor. The door creaked as I opened it, and before I could interfere the cat was upon the desk with Peter struggling in his claws. Peter left a few black feathers in Baudron's possession, and escaping, flew over to the table by the window, where he hopped about with the greatest coolness, muttering, "William the Conqueror, ten sixty-six"—words which he had gathered from our history lessons in the school. Baudrons was after him in a moment.
And now followed a terrible encounter. Instead of flying away the bird deliberately met the cat and stabbed at him valiantly with his long, heavy beak. They fell over on the floor together, and as they struggled, amid much noise of growling and chattering and flapping of wings, I flung my cap at them, trying to effect a separation. Alas! before I could help the dominie's pet, the cat had the uppermost of him, and ran off into the schoolmaster's private room with the jackdaw held firmly in his teeth.
I followed, and tried to make the animal loosen his grip of poor Peter. He growled and spat as I approached him, and, fearing for the jackdaw's life, I hammered with my fist upon the door of the schoolmaster's press bed and called out: "Mr. Drever! Mr. Drever!"
The dominie opened the bed door and sprang out to the rescue, his red woollen nightcap upon his head. But his help was of little use. We managed to get the cat away from his prey; but the bird was fatally injured, blood was dripping from his neck as the good man took him up in his hands caressingly.
"Poor Peter, poor Peter!" said he; "who has done this thing?"
"William the Conqueror," faintly uttered the bird.
Then giving a few feeble croaks, he died in the schoolmaster's hands.
Andrew Drever's tender emotion grew into anger as he thought of the murderer of his pet jackdaw, and he paced the room vowing vengeance against his mother's cat, which had now escaped into comparative security on the top of the kitchen cupboard.
"Come down here, ye wretch!" he exclaimed, taking up a knife from the table and holding it up threateningly. "Come down here, ye foul fiend. How dare ye touch a feather o' my Peter's wing?"
"Dinna kill the cat, sir," I interposed, reminding him that I was there to take the animal aboard the Lydia.
"Man, Halcro," said Andrew, sobering down, "I wish you had taken him away yestreen. But come, let us catch the brute and away with him, for he shall not bide in this house another hour."
While Mr. Drever got an empty meal bag and held it open, I took a long broom handle, and, standing on a chair, forced the cat to come down. We chased the animal about the room until we cornered him, when, putting the meal bag over his head, we made him a secure prisoner. Tying up the bag with a string, and cutting some breathing holes, I carried the captive cat away, leaving Andrew Drever to grieve over the death of Peter the jackdaw.
When I rowed out to the Lydia in my little boat, the mist had melted away in the warmth of the sun. The gray town, with its blue film of peat smoke slowly rising into the clear air, was reflected upon the smooth water that lapped and lisped against the stone piers. The bubbling track of my boat as she plunged and curtsied in obedience to the oar strokes alone disturbed the calm surface of the bay; but beyond the shelter of the harbour a brisk breeze fluttered the Blue Peter at the barque's foremast, and I did not fail to notice that it came from a favourable quarter.
Father was already aboard when my boat scraped gently along the ship's side, and he threw a rope end down to me to climb up by.
Captain Gordon shook hands with me when I reached the quarterdeck.
"Well, my lad," said he, "how d'ye think the Lydia looks for sea?"
"She looks well and trim," I said, untying the mouth of the meal bag; "but I notice she has a slight list to the port side."
"A list to port!" said he looking forward. "Ha! that's unlucky. I wish it had been to starboard; but as it's not much, the men may not notice it. I fancy they'll see more of ill luck in this cat."
When I opened the bag, Baudrons escaped with a good dusting of flour on his fur. The cat looked wildly uneasy; he showed no signs of that gentle docility which Grace Drever admired in him; but with his cheeks puffed out and the loose skin about his nose and head drawn up in uncanny wrinkles, he dashed across the deck once or twice, lashing his tail from side to side like a savage brute, and then, approaching the main hatchway, he made a great spring down the hold, there to enjoy himself amongst the mice.
Chapter XIII. In Which I Receive A Present.
While all was busy on deck, Captain Gordon took my father and me below to his cabin. It was a neatly fitted-up room with many books and pictures and maritime instruments that interested me. What most attracted my attention was the captain's private collection of fishing tackle and his armoury. There were some fine landing nets and rods with bright brass rings and reels, and the artificial flies were quite confusing in their number and variety. In the armoury were several six shooters of different patterns, and many double-barrelled guns and ornamented rifles. Captain Gordon allowed me to handle some of these, and he explained their mechanism to me.
One little fowling piece that I examined was so light and so beautifully made that I returned to it again and again while the captain and my father were talking together. It had a long steel barrel with delicate engraving upon it, and a carved stock. I was admiring the spring of the trigger work when Captain Gordon asked me if I was a good shot.
"I have never fired a gun in my life," I said.
To my surprise he said, "You may have that gun in your hand if you'll accept it."
"O, but I canna think of taking it from you, captain!" I replied.
"No, no, he'll shoot himself," objected my father; "and that will not be so good as if he fell ower the cliffs. What will the lad want wi' a gun?"
"But I'd like to give it him, pilot. He'll soon learn how to use it properly.
"Won't you, Halcro?
"And as for shooting himself, why, remember the magic stone, pilot."
Father muttered something to the effect that it was very good of the captain; and I, who was overwhelmed with gratitude for his kindness, feebly added my thanks. So Captain Gordon gave me the fowling piece, together with a canister of gunpowder, and sufficient swan shot, I thought, to kill all the wild fowl in Orkney.
As I was leaving the ship, joyous in the possession of these ample materials for a whole summer of sport, and was bidding farewell to Captain Gordon, the mate came towards us at the rail and touched his hat.
"Well, Marshall, d'you want anything sent ashore?" asked the skipper.
"Yes, sir," said Marshall, "I want to tell you that the men are grumbling about this cat being brought aboard. You know how superstitious they are. They want the lad to take it away with him again."
"Their objections are silly and childish, Marshall," said Mr. Gordon. "They know that the ship is overrun with mice."
"Yes, yes, sir; that's all very well. But they won't have the cat aboard; and I think you'd better have the beast sent off."
"The men are a pack of fools. What harm can the poor cat do them, I'd like to know? They think it's unlucky, I suppose. Well, if they will have it so, send a couple of them down the hold to capture the animal. We must just bear the mice if the cat cannot remain. Look smart, now, the boy's in a hurry to get to his school."
Two men were then sent below to search for Baudrons, and I waited for their return. In about a quarter of an hour one of them came to say that the cat could not be found.
"Very well, then, I can't keep the lad here any longer. We must send the cat ashore with the pilot."
Then the captain turned to me.
"Goodbye, Halcro, my lad!" he said; "perhaps we'll be back in Orkney on our homeward voyage. Maybe you'll be a pilot yourself by that time, and bring us into port. Goodbye!"
"Goodbye, Captain Gordon!" I murmured; and at that I slipped over the taffrail and was soon sitting in my boat again, rowing back to the town.
Chapter XIV. Thora.
On my way to the school that morning I chanced to meet Hercus and Rosson coming down one of the side alleys.
"I say, lads," I began, "d'ye ken what Dominie Drever says about the siller things we found at Skaill?"
"No! what is it, Hal?" asked Hercus.
"Why, he says that it was an old sea king's grave that we discovered—one of those viking lads that we read about in the history book."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Rosson.
"Yes, and he says that we must take all the siller to him at the school. There's some law about it all, and we canna keep the things. We maun give them up."
"Will ye give your share up, Hal?" asked Hercus.
"I hae done so already," I said. "I left it wi' the dominie yestreen."
The lads looked at each other, but neither offered any objection.
"Oh, very well!" said Rosson, "I'll bring mine down i' the mornin'."
"And I mine," echoed Hercus.
During the first lesson in school it was noticed that Tom Kinlay was absent.
"Where is your brother this morning, Thora?" asked Mr. Drever.
"Please, sir," said Thora, "I was to tell you that he's not to come to the school again. They're buildin' a new boat for father at Kirkwall, an' Tom's to be aboard of her."
I thought it curious that Carver Kinlay should have a boat built in Kirkwall, and not by our own local builder, Tammy Lang, of Stromness. And what could this new boat be intended for?
"Ay, Thora, but that's somewhat sudden!" said the dominie. "Why did he not wait till the end o' the week?"
Thora raised her blue eyes in my direction as though she would appeal to me for an explanation. I did not then know, however, that the true and immediate cause of Tom's absence was that he was not in a fit condition to appear among his companions that morning on account of the blow I had given him during our fight on the previous evening.
After school time Thora came to me and told me of her brother's return from the sealing expedition; of how he rushed into the house with his nose bleeding. And she explained that, as they sat at their porridge in the morning, she had noticed the purple patches under his eyes and the swelling of the bridge of his nose.
I own that I felt extremely sorry for having inflicted these injuries upon Tom, nor could I wholly hide from Thora the actual cause of them. But when Mr. Drever asked about him Thora knew as little of that cause as I did of the effect of my blow upon Tom's nose.
Notwithstanding the many little quarrels between her brother and herself, Thora was too generous to be glad at his misfortune; but I fancied there was a glance of satisfaction in her eyes when I said to her:
"It was a fight that we had, Thora. Tom and I quarrelled over some old siller things we found across at Skaill when we were at the sealing."
"And which of ye beat the other, Halcro?" she asked, with almost a boy's interest in a stand-up fight. "But I needna ask that, surely; for I can see fine that Tom had the worst of it. If it werena for that wee scratch on your cheek I wouldn't hae kenned ye had been in a fight; but as for Tom, why, he's just a perfect sight to look upon!"
I need hardly say that my quarrel with Kinlay did in no wise alter the friendship that existed between Thora and me. I had for her a fondness which Tom's bullying and tyranny had no power to diminish. Thora, indeed, was a girl whom none except those who were influenced by envy could help admiring. She was the favourite of all the school, and amongst us, her only enemy was her brother. My own sympathy with her was all the greater because I knew that she was so much the subject of his rule. I knew how he had forced her to obey him, and to bend before all his humours and his whims, and I was sorry for, whilst I was still unable to help her. In this servitude we had been companions, in common with Rosson and Hercus; and many a time had she come to me, with tears in her eyes, to tell me of some new act of tyranny that she had suffered at her brother's hands.
On one such occasion I found her down at the shore side with little Hilda Paterson. She had been going out on the bay to paddle about in a small boat that Tom was in the habit of using. He saw the two girls taking the oars, and straightway he ordered them ashore, striking Thora on the cheek, himself taking possession of the boat.
The two girls were standing in their disappointment on the beach when I came up and heard their story.
"Never mind, Thora," I said. "Come along wi' me. I'll get my father's dinghy, and we three will go for a fine sail."
I rowed them out beyond the Holms, for it was a bright calm day; and when we got out into the breezy bay the mast was stepped, the little lug sail hoisted, and then we went speeding over to Graemsay island like a sheer water skimming the waves. Graemsay was our imagined El Dorado, and on the voyage we fancied ourselves encountering many surprising adventures. Shipwrecks and sea fights were by no means uncommon events. We threw spars of wood over the stern, and at the cry of "Man overboard!" the ship was put about to pick him up. But while we easily overcame these imagined disasters, there were some real dangers to encounter, and in the midst of our merry talk and laughter we had ever to keep a careful watch on the conduct of the boat, and to look out for the safest channels and the sunken rocks. Hilda, who regarded the approach of an imagined iceberg with complacency, became really timid when she noticed a heavy squall coming towards us from the outer sea; and until the sail had been lowered, and our bow hove round to meet the breeze and let it pass, I believe she was not quite confident that I was able to manage the boat in safety.
Thora had often referred to this pleasant sail, and the few primroses I had gathered for her on the banks of a rivulet running down one of the Graemsay glens she had worn at her neck for many days. Many a time when, from our place in the class, she had seen through the window the red-sailed fishing boats battling with the sudden gusts of wind in the rapid currents of the Sound, she would look as though she would remind me of the way we had managed the dinghy in the same dangerous flow. Thus did she begin to trust me, as mariners trusted my father.
If it had not been that during the lessons, in common with his pupils, Andrew Drever took a secret pleasure in looking through the little window across Stromness harbour, and, from his position at the desk, watching the movements of the shipping, it is probable he would have erected some curtain there. The window offered a distraction to us all, for it often took our attention from our tasks, and caused many interruptions in the course of the day. But, as I have indicated, Andrew was not a severe taskmaster, and that, perhaps, was one reason of our affection for him.
This morning his glances were divided between the empty bird cage at the door and the barque now making ready for sea. His poor jackdaw with its chattering—a sound once so monotonous and wearying, now most earnestly wished for—was gone, but the murderer of his pet, the brutal Baudrons, was now closely stowed away under the main hatches of the Lydia, and the dominie had his revenge.
There was at least one other pair of eyes watching the trim barque, as her unfurled canvas caught the breeze and she sped away like a graceful gull. To my sister Jessie, whom, after school, I found sitting by the little pier at the Anchor Close, the vessel seemed to be carrying away one who had suddenly awakened in her a new interest in life. Captain Gordon had spoken but little with her, he was still but a stranger, but so seldom did she have speech with any man, that this meeting with one so brave and handsome as the captain of the Lydia naturally made a deep impression upon her.
I should not, however, have remarked anything unusual in Jessie—except perhaps that she was less active with her fingers—had not my mother, who came out to wash some dishes in the sea, taken notice of my sister's vacant eyes.
"One would fancy, Jessie," said my mother—"one would fancy that there was no wind out yonder that you send so many sighs to fill the captain's sails. What like a man is he?"
"Dinna ask such questions, mother," said Jessie. "I saw him only in the gloaming. His voice was like the sighing of the waves and his eyes were like the seal's. Ah! he'll not come back again to Stromness, never again;" and as Jessie gave another sigh the ship disappeared behind the Ness.
For long afterwards Jessie would speak of Captain Gordon, and I noticed with what concern she heard each reference to him, made by either myself or my father. Even the gun which the captain had given me was some sort of a solace to her, for whenever I was cleaning the weapon she would take it in her hands and admire the elegant workmanship displayed in the ornamented stock and the bright steel barrel, and then lay it down with a gentle sigh, and I knew she was thinking of Mr. Gordon.
Chapter XV. In Which The Viking's Amulet Is Proved.
I availed myself of an early opportunity of trying my new gun. One afternoon I found Robbie Rosson down at the shore side. He was standing near to my boat, which was moored to the jetty, and looking as though he would give anything for a sail in her.
"Are ye going for a sail today, Hal?" he asked meekly.
"Ay, I'll go, if you'll come with me, Robbie," I agreed. "If ye like we'll take a run o'er to Hoy Head. I'll bring my gun, and we'll have a shot at the geese."
Robbie's face brightened up at the prospect, and I went indoors to fetch the gun and a supply of ammunition; also my climbing ropes, in case we needed them.
We were soon in the boat. Robbie took the oars and rowed out until we could hoist the little sail, and then we rounded the Ness and got out into Hoy Sound. The wind was westward, and the current in our favour, so that we had a grand sail across the sound to the Kame of Hoy—Robbie at the tiller, and I sitting near him on the windward gunwale. How our boat danced along and curtsied on the green curling waves! How her bows lifted and fell and sent a belt of foam alongside and away behind us in a bubbling track! O, it was glorious, that sail across to Hoy! Sitting there in the sunshine, the fresh breeze blowing in our faces, we had nothing to do but tend the helm and keep the boat well to the wind, and away we sped.
Our enjoyment of the sail was so full that we spoke but little. We talked of Tom Kinlay's work on his father's new boat, and made surmises as to the nature of the trade or traffic it was to be engaged in; but whether the boat was to be sent to the saith fishing, or to be used as a tender to the ships, we could not tell.
There was one thing that Robbie wanted to set his mind easy about, and that was the viking's amulet. In common with all the lads in the school, he had heard of the wonderful powers attributed to this little stone; and, like them, he was thoroughly credulous of its ability to preserve me from personal harm, vet anxious as I was myself to put it to the proof.
"I'd like fine if we could have a chance of adventure today," he said, taking the stone in his hand as it hung by a cord from my neck. "How can we be sure that the thing will be the saving of you, if ye dinna put it to the trial?"
"We'll see, we'll see," I said. "But there's no use seeking danger for the sake of trying the effects of the charm. Maybe we'll find the danger without seeking it, however, and then we'll have the proof."
As we sailed swiftly under the high cliffs of Hoy Head we watched the mad plunging of the landward-rushing waves, and saw them hurl themselves at the great rocks, leaping in clouds of spray. What a rattle and a roar each wave made on the pebbles of the beach as it drew back before returning to the charge! And in the midst of the foam the sea birds circled and screamed in their flight.
We had some difficulty in finding a safe landing place among the surge; but at last we steered the boat into the quiet Bay of the Stairs, and soon drove her nose into the stony beach and drew her well up out of the water, fastening her painter round a large rock.
Safely landed, Robbie shouldered the climbing ropes and I took the gun, having a stock of dry powder and shot in my pockets. We climbed over some large boulders into the next creek, where, as we had expected, we found a multitude of noisy sea birds, some floating on the clear pools on the shore; others running about among the sea-worn stones or seeking food with busy beaks in the bright green and crimson weeds that lay in patches among the pebbles. The ledges of the cliffs were crowded with gulls, whose plumage was as snowy as the very foam that the high waves scattered over their ranks. In a little cove at the extremity of the bay were scores of kittiwakes, chattering over some dead fish thrown up by the sea.
Here was a rare hunting ground for two eager young sportsmen! Close to us a couple of turnstones, smart little birds in brown, with bright-red legs and beaks, were busy on a heap of kelp. I levelled my gun at them, and was about to fire, when Robbie stayed my hand and pointed to a large cormorant sheltered in a deep niche of the cliff and looking darker even than the dark rock over its head. I altered the direction of my aim, keeping well out of the bird's sight, with my back against a wall of granite.
It was well for me that I did so, for without this support in the rear I should surely have fallen. When I drew the trigger I received a fearful blow in the chest from the butt of the gun and a thump on the back from the rock. The report of the gun sounded loud through the chasms, and the echo was repeated along the line of the cliffs and far over among the glens, as though a whole volley of musketry had been fired. Birds flew about in all directions, uttering wild cries of warning to each other. The air was crowded with flying gulls.
When the smoke cleared away we looked for our cormorant, and there he was, perched on the same bald point of rock, coolly preening his black feathers. Then, as we ran up towards him, he stretched forth his long neck, raised his wings, and sped away across the sea. Either I had missed my shot, or the bird's tough skin had felt no sensible touch. And where now were all our birds? Far out over the gray sea they flew, secure from the range of our gun.
We waited long for their return, but only an occasional kittiwake soared high above us, and some, bolder than the rest, presently returned to their brooding places on the cliffs. We could not think of firing while the gulls were on the wing, they swept past us so quickly. We therefore scrambled over some abutting rocks into a further bay, and still onward along the rough beach as far as the stack of Hellia—a great steep rock standing out in the sea under the frowning height of St. John's Head—and here we found as large a number of birds as we had formerly seen.
We had arranged to take our shots turn about, and now it was Robbie's turn. Having charged the gun, we stood quiet for a time, patiently awaiting our chance. A carrion crow flew to a rock between us and the water's edge. Robbie was ready. He took a deliberate and steady aim and fired. A feather dropped from the bird as it took flight.
"Man, Hal, I think that hit him!" exclaimed Robbie, running up to secure the feather.
"Ay," said I. "But I'm thinking we both want some practice, Robbie. We'll have no birds today, I reckon. Let's put up some cock-shy on yon rock and fire at it. There's no use shooting at the birds. We'll hit them, maybe; but we'll not kill anything, I'm feared."
So we erected a tall stone on the top of a rock, and, standing some paces from it, practised firing at the object until we could hit it, perhaps, once out of half a dozen tries. But we soon got tired of this play, and I proposed climbing up to the top of the cliffs, for all the birds seemed to be flying high.
Walking along to a broken cleft of the headland, where a burn came down from the hills through a long gorge, we turned up the ravine and mounted the heights. No sooner were we up there, however, than we found that the birds were all below us on the beach.
We were making our way up the ravine, Robbie carrying the climbing lines and I the loaded gun, when a large sea bird with wide-sweeping wings flew just over our heads. Without thinking of hitting him, but simply wishing to empty the gun of its charge in case of accident, I took aim and fired. The great bird faltered in its flight, one of its wings seemed to lose all power, and then with a circling swoop he came down with a thud upon a grassy knoll beside the stream.
It was a fine solan goose. He was quite dead when we reached him, for I had shot him under the right wing.
My good fortune excited Robbie to such a degree that he would not be satisfied without again trying a shot. So we loaded the gun once more, and about half a mile further up the glen he had the luck to knock over a small rabbit. This was the extent of our sport.
To climb up this wild and desolate glen was no easy matter, for I must tell you that St. John's Head, the summit of which we had to cross before getting back to our boat (for the tide would not allow of our return by the beach), stood above the sea to a height considerably over a thousand feet. The goose and our climbing ropes were also tiring burdens, and we had many times to take rest beside the stream and quench our thirst in its cool water. Some distance above the sea the ground became smoother, and broken rocks gave place to short heather, which was softer for our bare feet.
When at last we reached the top of the Head, and our trouble was over, we sat down on the breezy front of the hill and looked far away across the restless water, where the sea line melted into the blue haze of the Scotch coast. Nearer to us the water itself was blue, then pale green with bands of purple above beds of weed, and over all the white waves curled into foaming crests, silent to us as snow. Southward, along the cliffs, a high steeple rock—the Old Man of Hoy—stood like a sentinel guarding the coast, his head on a level with the cliff behind him; and rounding Rora Head were the brown sails of a few fishing craft making for Stromness.
"Come, Robbie," I said, when we had feasted our eyes on this scene. "Come, we must be getting home. The tide has turned this long while past, and we'll be hungry before we're back to Stromness."
We were, indeed, already somewhat hungry, and regretted we had not brought food with us instead of the climbing ropes, which had not so far been required. To think of getting anything to eat where we were was needless, for we were on the most desolate part of the Hoy island, and not a house was there for miles away.
The walk back along the ridge of the cliffs was easy, the ground sloping downward in our favour. About a mile further on we came to the cliffs below which our boat was moored. But, alas! we had been sadly out in our reckoning. The boat was afloat, deep down there, tugging desperately at her rope and grinding her sides against a rock. To get down to her was now a problem. From our high position we could see how the tide had risen well above the rocks by which we had climbed from one bay to the other, and our only course was to descend by the steep precipice surrounding the creek wherein the boat was moored. There was no possible way down except by the use of the ropes, and this was an extremely difficult and dangerous undertaking, for the cliffs rose fully three hundred feet in height, and our lines, of which we had two, would scarcely, when joined together, measure more than half that length. For we used them for the cliffs of Pomona, which are not in any place so high as those of Hoy.
We had a long consultation first, as to which of us should make the descent. Robbie offered to go down, as he was the lighter weight and I the stronger for holding the upper end of the rope. Yet I was a little afraid of letting him undertake so difficult an adventure, being conscious that he had had less practice at cliff climbing than I.
"Robbie," I said, "let me go down. You can hold the line—" and then suddenly remembering my magic stone, I added, "and remember, Robbie, that I have this little stone to keep me from harm."
At once Robbie cast away all fear and became quite confident.
"What fools we were not to think of that!" he exclaimed. "Come away, let us tie the lines together, and you'll go down as safe as a bird, Hal. Hooray! we have a chance of testing the worth of the stone after all!"
Robbie's confidence gave me courage—or was it the remembrance of the viking's charm that made me bold? However it be, I now thought no more of going down this unfamiliar precipice than if it had been one of those that were so well known to me on the Mainland.
Having tied the two ropes securely together, we looked for a convenient point at which to make the descent. We went out to the furthest part of the embayed cliff, and looking over to the opposite precipice saw a suitable spot less steep than the rest, and where also, some distance below the brink, there was a projecting pinnacle of rock which might serve as a pillar round which to secure the rope.
We took the climbing line and cast one end of it over the cliff, letting it fall as far down as the pinnacle I have mentioned. Robbie then held the rope, with the help of a boulder of rock round which he secured it, and I proceeded to lower myself down the steep. It was easy work getting to the pinnacle; but this was only the beginning. I whistled up to Robbie when I had gained a sure footing, and he let down the rest of the rope. And now I had to manage everything else unaided, for Robbie could not, with what contrivances he had on the top of the cliff, have been of any further help. Before I had cast the rope over the point of rock, he was across at the far side of the embayment, where he could watch my progress and give me directions.
Having passed the line over the rock pillar and allowed the two ends to hang down in equal lengths, I climbed over, and with considerable difficulty caught hold of the double rope, by which I let myself slowly and cautiously down, now holding to the face of the rocks with hand and foot, now swarming down by the ropes alone, until a cry from Robbie warned me that I was coming to the end of the lines. Fortunately I was able to reach a ragged point where I could once more get a firm foothold.
Resting there, I reflected that I was not yet halfway down the precipice; and now I had to think of how I should manage to haul the rope down and secure it to another projecting rock. The only suitable point I could see was some yards away from me to the right side, and I had to climb upward again before I could find a shelf by which to approach it. After a tedious attempt—during which my magic stone came very near to proving its power—I at last reached the desired place. A gull fluttered away with a wild cry as with bleeding fingers I held on to the ledge of rock; and there I found, nestling upon their bed of moss and weeds, a pair of woolly little chicks which stared strangely at my intrusion.
My safety, perhaps even my life, depended upon my getting astride of that small rocky point where the young gulls sat. In my extremity I took hold of one of the chicks, intending to throw it down the cliffs; but the mother bird flew towards me with such piteous cries that even in my danger I could not be so cruel, so I removed the little ones to a crevice close at hand and seated myself upon their nest, thankful of the refuge it afforded. And now I heard a shrill whistle from Robbie Rosson, by which I understood that, seeing my comparative safety, he was going to find some place where he could get down to the beach, there to wait until I should bring the boat round for him.
But I must say that I thought my chances of ever getting round to him were very small. I was not by any means so safe as he seemed to think, for being once seated on that shelf of the cliff I found that my next difficulty would be to turn round with my face to the rock in order to continue the perilous descent.
I had now to get my rope down from the height above me. First then I tied one end of the line round my body so that the rope might not fall, and, allowing the other end to hang slack, began to haul away. Things went well for a few moments, and the rope answered to every pull I gave. But, alas! there came a check. I had let loose the wrong end, and the knot by which we had connected the two lines had caught in some crevice. Try as I might I could not loosen it; yet I was not certain that its hold was firm enough for me to venture climbing up again by the portion of the rope that I held in my grasp.
My thoughts were fearful. Here was I, stranded on this ledge of rock, midway up the face of a steep precipice, the sea roaring far beneath me, and with no obvious means of escape either above or below.
My boat looked small away deep down there as she tugged at her mooring line and tossed wildly about in the rising tide. O, how I wished that I was seated at her helm, and in sight of my beloved Stromness!
Instinctively I felt for my magic stone. It hung safely under my knitted shirt. I trusted in the security it gave me, and my courage was renewed. The way out of my predicament was so hopeless, my danger so great, that I solemnly resolved, should I ever reach home again, to attribute my escape from this peril to the intervention of the viking's talisman.
Long and wearily I waited, contemplating the difficulties of my situation, and in the end I almost determined to hazard the further descent without the help of the rope, trusting merely to the skill of my hands and feet.
My first endeavour was to get back along the shelf of rock until the rope should hang perpendicularly. Accordingly I restored the young seagulls to their nest, turned myself round with my face to the cliff, and, with much difficulty, retraced my way for some distance. I was in a half-creeping position, holding by the right hand to niches of the cliff, when, a sharp corner of stone digging into my knee, I stumbled, and would surely have fallen far down upon the rocks of the beach, had I not still held firmly to the rope.
The sudden jerking, however, did one good thing; it loosened the knot from the place where it had been held in the rock above, and the rope itself came down by its own weight until it hung from my waist where I had tied it.
The further descent was now performed with comparative ease, and in the manner I had at first intended. I hung the rope at half its length over a point of rock, seeing now that it had a free run, and allowing the two ends to fall. Then I swarmed down the double line until I found another suitable place for hanging the rope by. Thus making the descent by repeated stages, I stepped at last upon the level rocks of the beach, sincerely thankful for my escape from so great peril.
When I scrambled over the rocks towards the boat I found she was floating in full three fathoms of water, so that my only course was to swim out to her. This, however, was a small matter after what I had gone through. I stripped myself on one of the outlying rocks, and plunging into the water soon reached the boat and clambered over the stern. I was obliged to "slip the anchor," for the painter was tied deep below the water and had to be sacrificed. But I did not take long to recover my clothes and dress myself, and then I took to the oars with a will and rowed along the shore in search of Robbie.
Steep and frowning looked the great cliff that I had come down. I regarded it with a new interest, and felt some sense of pride and satisfaction in my narrow escape from so serious a danger. Again I took my viking's stone in my fingers, and my faith in it was complete.
Robbie was patiently waiting for me seated on one of the outer rocks in a further bay. His face brightened as he saw me rounding the point.
"Man, Ericson," he exclaimed joyfully, "I'm real glad to see ye again! I e'en thought ye'd met wi' some mischance. I was terribly feared!"
"Feared, were you? Well, so was I; but I managed all right, you see, thanks to the viking's charm."
Robbie brought on board the gun, with his rabbit and the dead gannet. And then we rowed back to Stromness. It was long past sundown when we rounded the Ness point, and the beacon lights were streaming over the bay, but we reached the little quay at the end of the Anchor Close without any mishap. Both of us were very hungry after our sport.
On that evening, I remember, I spent a very happy time at the home fireside. My uncle Mansie was there, with my father, and my mother, and Jessie. It was almost the first occasion on which I was permitted to join in the conversation with my elders. But the evening has ever since had a pathetic interest in my memory; for, as it turned out, it was the very last time that our family sat together in an unbroken circle.
"Ye're gettin' to be quite a good boatman, Hal, to gang all that way under sail," said Mansie; and then he turned to my father, saying, "When are we to hae the lad aboard the Curlew, Sandy?"
"Weel," replied my father, putting his great brown hand with affection upon my shoulder, "I hae been thinkin' it was about time he joined us. The lad has been at the school lang enough, mebbe.
"Are ye at the head o' the class yet, Halcro?"
"Nay, father, he's no that yet," interposed Jessie, "for Thora is aye before him."
"Thora can read better than I can," I said, "and she kens mair geography. She's better at the Latin, too; but the dominie says I'm the best at history, and writin', and accounts."
"Ye'll no need very muckle Latin to be a pilot, however," said my father. "But it's a pity ye're not better at the geography. How many islands have we in Orkney? Can you tell me that?"
"Seventy-two—twenty-eight islands and forty-four holms."
"And can ye name them all, the twenty-eight islands?"
"Yes, the dominie taught us them last Martinmas;" and I proceeded to name them, from the North Ronaldsay down to the Muckle Skerry of Pentland.
"Very good!" said my father; "and d'ye ken ony thing about the sounds? Where's the Sound o' Rapness?"
"There's a puzzle for ye, Hal," said my mother.
"Ah! I warrant the laddie kens it," said Mansie.
"Is it not between Westray and Fara?" I ventured doubtfully.
"Right again!" exclaimed Mansie, slapping his knee. "Oh! we'll mak' a pilot o' the lad yet."
"Ay," said my father, "we maun hae him aboard the first fine day."
"Dear me, father," objected my mother, "d'ye really think it wise to tak' the laddie frae the school, an' him gettin' on sae weel wi' the dominie?"
"Tut, goodwife," said he, "the laddie maun begin to learn the piloting some time; an' the sooner the better, say I.
"Hand me over the tobacco jar, Jessie."
Chapter XVI. Wherein I Go A-Fishing.
A few days after the sailing of the Lydia the weather broke. The morning mist lay heavy on the islands, and the lofty Ward Hill of Hoy hid his crown in the lowering clouds; the Bay of Stromness was glassy calm. High above the rain goose shrieked its melancholy cry, and the sea mews and sheldrakes, even the shear waters and bonxies, flew landward to the shelter of the cliffs. On the upland meadows the cows sniffed the moist air and refused to eat, and the young lambs sought the protection of their parents' side.
My sister Jessie, with evident thought of Captain Gordon, noticed these signs of approaching storms.
But if to her they portended ill, to me they meant good sport; for what could be more favourable to a day's fishing than a sprinkle of rain and a good westerly wind?
Telling my mother one Saturday morning that I would stay over Sunday at my uncle Mansie's farm at Lyndardy, I started off with my fishing tackle and my dog, with the intention of catching a few trout in the stream I had so strongly recommended to the schoolmaster.
The dog was certainly no necessary companion for a fishing excursion; but Selta had learned to follow me on such occasions without interfering with my sport, and I got into the way of talking with her, and found comfort in her dumb companionship.
Passing through the hamlet of Howe, I reached the Bush at a point where that wide stream runs into Scapa Flow by the Bay of Ireland. This, I had found, was a favourite resting place for sea trout before running into the lochs, and here I enjoyed good sport for the whole morning.
I fished upstream—as I think a true angler should do—for though, as Andrew Drever held, fishing downward was the easier method of the two, especially with the wind at his back, yet I preferred my own way, just as I preferred fishing with artificial fly to fishing with bait, merely because it was more difficult and more surely exercised my skill.
The third cast I made filled me with an enthusiasm I long had known. A sudden jerk at the line and a fish was hooked. I paid out more line as the trout darted off, then drew in as it slackened again. Once more, as the fish felt the strain, he plunged off. I saw him jump, and his scales flashed in the gray light like a bright blade of steel, a loop of line gathering round him. At length the prize was taken, and a fine sea trout was brought exhausted to the bank.
Thus I fished, now wading to the knees in the rapid stream, now sitting on a large stone readjusting my flies. Before noon the rain fell heavily, but by the time that I reached the Bridge of Waithe my basket was full, and I walked along the road as far as Clouston, the dog following in the wet with drooping, draggling tail, and ears dripping with the rain.
My clothes were wet through and I was cold, and, wishing for shelter and a bite of food, I turned across the heath to Jack Paterson's croft. I opened the door of the little cottage without knocking, and found Jack and his wife Jean at home, with their family of six waiting for their midday meal. Hilda, the eldest girl, was arranging some wooden dishes on the table ready for the potatoes.
Poor as the place was, I received a true and simple welcome, and I was glad of the shelter and the warmth, for the wind was whistling round the eaves and the heavy rain pelting against the little window.
Jack Paterson was a poor crofter, who added to his scanty means by going to the deep-sea fishing, or, out of the fishing season, by burning kelp. These occupations, combined with the produce of his croft, made up, I am afraid, a very poor living. The cottage was small, so small that I always wondered how so large a family could live in its one little room with any comfort. In the middle of the clay floor, on a stone slab, was a large peat fire, the smoke of which escaped by a hole in the roof, where the rain came through. By the side of the fire were two large high-backed chairs entirely wisped round with straw, so that none of the framework could be seen. In a great three-legged pot, which hung over the flaming peats by a chain from the bare rafters, some potatoes were boiling, and whilst they were cooking Jean Paterson cleaned and fried some of my fish, which came, I think, as a welcome addition to the family's meal.
Jack Paterson was a very tall, muscular man, with a long red beard and soft brown eyes. His hands were the largest I have ever seen; but the right one wanted a finger. This, I believe, was the only exception that one could make in saying that Jack was absolutely perfect in his great manhood. He would have made a splendid man-o'-war's man, and the press gang had more than once tried to secure him.
Not till long afterwards, when, as pilots, we were out at sea together one clear starlight night, did he tell me how his finger was lost. It happened at a time when the press gang were more than usually busy in Orkney pressing men for a frigate that lay in Stromness harbour. The blue jackets had had their eyes upon Jack Paterson, but Jack, who was just about to be married to Jean Nicol, did not intend being caught; and he said to Jean one day that rather than enter the navy, he would cut one of his fingers off, and so make himself unfit for service.
One dark night he was walking along one of the country lanes with his sweetheart when a body of tars fell upon him, and, after a sharp fight, carried him off to an old stable in the town that served as a temporary lockup. Very early the next morning Jean Nicol knocked gently at the stable door.
"Are ye there, Jack?" said she.
"Yes," replied Jack; and his warders, who were two foretop men, allowed him to speak with her through the keyhole.
"I've brought your release," said Jean. "Put your hand under the door and I'll give it to you."
Jack put his right hand through under the door, and felt something cold placed across his forefinger. Then there was a knock as of a mallet upon a chisel, and with a cry of anguish he drew in his hand streaming with blood. Jean had cut off his finger. Now, a man with a lame hand is of small account in the service, and so when the lieutenant came and saw Jack's condition he released him, with a round curse at having lost so fine a man, and the frigate sailed away.
Jean got her punishment, however, and so did Paterson. Soon after their marriage, and when Jack's hand was healed, he one day met a man-o'-war's man who belonged to Stromness, and had been among the pressed men. Jack heard from him of the cruise of the frigate, and of a fight with the enemy, and a great store of prize money that every man had shared. That prize money was a sore lump in Jack's throat ever afterwards.
While I was talking with Paterson in his cottage, my dog sat comfortably before the warm fire, the steam rising from her wet hair. She did not appear to like leaving the cosy place; but when we had finished the meal, and I was once more dry and warm, I started off again in the pouring rain and the rising wind.
I did not wish to continue my fishing in such boisterous weather, but contemplated a hasty walk over to my uncle's farm. Our way lay westward in the face of the wind. The walk over the wet peat moss was difficult and tiring, and when I reached the Ring of Brogar I was glad to avail myself of the shelter afforded by the giant Druid stones that stand and wait by the loch of Stenness.
All was desolation around: not a house was to be seen, nor any living thing but my dog and a few wild birds that flew quickly past. The only sounds were the beating of the rain and the distant roar of the Atlantic waves upon the coast.
A slight lull in the tempest urged me on, and soon I had left far behind me those mysterious old stones, that seemed through the misty rain to waken into life. Like a procession of priests they appeared to pass with bent heads and slow and stately pace along the margin of the great stretch of water.
Crossing the swollen burn which connects the lochs of Cluny and Stenness, and thinking only of my destination, I was called back by a sharp bark from my dog. I turned, and found her encountering a large otter that had been slipping down to the stream. Now, I had the angler's hatred of otters, which abounded in these waters. Many a time had I seen a prime fish lying dead on the banks with a single bite taken out of the shoulder, and I looked upon the otter as the common poacher of the neighbourhood. I went to the help of Selta, for the dog was crouched down ready to spring upon the otter when it should run out from behind the large stone where it had retreated.
I cautiously removed the stone, and the animal slipped downward towards the water.
"Now, now, Selta!" I exclaimed; and the dog made a rush at its prey.
The otter, thus intercepted, showed fight. Selta made a snap at its back, and raised her forepaw to hold her enemy down. The otter caught the foot in its mouth, and I heard the bones crunch in the vicious bite. Selta lost hold and fell over the otter's back; her foot was released; but the otter, bringing up its head between the dog's front legs, grasped Selta's throat with its sharp teeth. With a piteous whine the dog tried to spring away, but her leg was too much broken to support her, and the two animals rolled over on the flat stone, the otter uppermost, still with its teeth in the dog's throat.
And now I saw my first chance of interfering. I grasped the otter by the back, and tried to drag it away. I had no boots on my feet, or I might have used them. All I could do was to plant my foot on the animal's back, and stand with all my weight upon it. The otter thereat turned savagely upon me, and, unfortunately for myself, not even the possession of the viking's charm could save me from those sharp teeth.
With a fierce snarl the otter took hold of the back of my ankle, its teeth penetrating the skin and tearing it over. I had sense to bend down and grasp the animal with my hands and rapidly snap its backbone, finishing my work by dashing a heavy stone upon its head. Forgetting my own hurt, I then turned to look after my dog.
Selta was lying upon the wet stone, the blood trickling from her throbbing neck. I knelt down beside my faithful companion, and took the injured foot in my hand. The dog had strength only to raise her head in recognition, with a mournful look in her pleading eyes.
"My poor doggie!" I moaned, utterly cast down; and my falling tears were mingled with Selta's blood. The dog was dead.
Chapter XVII. How The Golden Rule Was Kept.
My first thought on leaving the scene of this combat was to let the dead otter lie where it had fallen; but I remembered that young Thora Kinlay had once in my hearing expressed a wish to have an otter's skin, of which to make a pair of gloves, and I determined to make use of the animal I had killed. But I could not carry both the otter and my poor Selta, whom I had already determined to lay to rest in the sea, and my only course was to strip the otter of its skin then and there. This I did with help of my pocketknife, and in spite of the heavy rain that poured in streams down my back.
You will imagine the physical discomforts of my further journey. The ground was marshy and sodden, and I sank deep into it at every step I took. My clothing was wet through and through, and my dog, which I carried over my shoulder, was a burden so heavy and inconvenient that only my love for my late companion and respect for her lifeless body gave me sufficient strength to bear it for so great a distance. And then the rain fell incessantly, and the wind was full in my face.
Carver Kinlay's farm of Crua Breck was on my way to my uncle's, and I thought I would stay there a few moments as I passed, to leave the otter skin for Thora, and maybe get shelter and a drink of warm milk. But not till I was almost at the door did I remember about my recent fight with Tom.
In its exposed position on the bleak hillside the farmstead felt the full force of the gale as it beat in fury against the front of the house. The rain and the salt spray from the sea pelted upon the windows, and laid low all Thora's flowers in the little garden. The large fuchsia bush, which in summertime dangled its drooping blossoms in rich profusion, seemed the only plant capable of withstanding the rough blast; and the great gaunt jaws of the Greenland whale, that formed an archway at the gate, trembled in the tempest.
I went up to the door, and opening it stood within the shelter of the porch for a while, and heard someone reading aloud. Soon I gathered courage enough to approach the inner door, and look through its little window into the room. A rousing fire of peats and dried heather was blazing on the hearth, around which the family were gathered in a half circle. In an armchair, with a open book on his knee, sat Carver himself. By his side sat his wife knitting a stocking, the firelight glinting on her fair hair. Near to her were a ploughman and a herd boy, also a young woman who did the light field work on the farm and milked the cows, made butter, and helped in the house. Tom sat by the fire opposite his father, and I could see that he was polishing with a piece of leather one of his silver coins. Thora, whose silken hair and beautiful face I regarded with greater satisfaction than any other feature of this group, sat apart from the others, as though she did not care, or had not been invited, to draw her stool nearer to the warmth.
Carver Kinlay, black bearded and hoarse of voice, was reading aloud to his family, and seemed to be expecting from them an attention to the Holy Word which he certainly did not sincerely give to it himself. When he came to the end of a passage which he considered required expounding, he would take off his reading spectacles and wipe them with a corner of his wife's white apron.
"Now, I have explained many times before about this, bairns," he was saying as he looked towards Thora and Tom. "It is a rule, a golden rule, that the merest child might understand. Nothing can be more beautiful or more important, and it just contains these few words: 'Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you.' Now keep this precept in mind, all of you, for ye canna misunderstand it. But, just to make the thing clear—
"Never mind the cat, Thora; just pay attention to the lesson—
"Just to make the thing clear, let us suppose an example. Now, then, supposin', for instance, that Thora here saw a basin full o' milk with thick cream on the top o' it, and that her teeth were watering for just one lick. She ought to say to herself: 'Now, here's a basin full o' good cream; I'd like fine to take one lick of it. But it's the cream for making the butter of. Now, supposin' I was your mother, how would I like my daughter Thora to come and—'"
"Oh! Look, look!" cried Thora, "pussy's tail's burnin'!"
"Confound you, Thora!" exclaimed her father, angered at this interruption. "Can you not pay attention, and let pussy mind her own tail? I say, if you were your mother, how would you like your daughter Thora to lick the cream?"
"Tut, goodman!" interposed Mrs. Kinlay, "what does the lass ken about being a mother? Go on with the reading."
"Odd, goodwife, I'm but supposin' the thing; and the plainer it is the better, and the easier to understand. However, what verse was it, Thora?"
"It was the fourteenth you left off at," said Thora.
"Aweel, then, the fifteenth: 'Now, when he'—Odd, but I think we read that before."
"Nay, you didna read it before, father, for it was the fourteenth verse you left off at."
"Nay, I'm sure it couldn't be that, for I remember readin' 'Now, when he,' before."
"But I'm sure, father, ye're wrong," persisted Thora. "Look you if the fourteenth doesn't end with 'people,' and 'people' was the last word you read."
"'People, people!'" said Carver, searching for the place. "Odd, lassie, I see no 'people.' There's one verse that ends with 'people,' but it's not the fourteenth. It had been that, ye silly lass, instead o' the fourteenth."
"Well, well, goodman, what dos't matter what verse you left off at," said his wife. "A good tale's none the worse of being told twice."
"Nay, but," said Thora, "just look for fun and see what the fourteenth verse ends with."
"Fun, lassie! fun!" exclaimed Carver, as though he was seriously shocked. "Would you speak o' fun and the Holy Scripture lying open before you?"
"O, but, father, I had no mind. A body canna aye be minding. Look and see not for fun, then."
"Tut, tut!" said the mother, becoming impatient, "can you not begin at the fifteenth verse? What dos't matter if ye read it before?"
"Aweel, then, the fifteenth verse, 'Now, when he'"—
"Listen, father!" cried Thora, again interrupting, "did you not hear something?"
"Well did I hear something, and I hear it yet—the rain pelting on the window. I'm sure you've heard it this two hours and more."
"Nay, but it was like something twirling at the handle of the door."
"You hear things nobody else hears, Thora. Who could be at the door on a day like this? You just think you hear things. I was sure 'people' was not the last word."
Carver listened, however, for a time. The rain beat harder than ever on the windows, and from the neighbouring cliffs came the sound of the waves like a rumbling of distant thunder. But as he looked up from his book I knocked gently on the door.
"Who's there?" he asked in a gruff tone that had in it no echo of charity.
Thora rose from her seat and came towards the door, where I stood in a stream of water that ran from my wet clothes.
"Oh, Halcro!" she exclaimed as she looked down at my cold, bare feet and saw the blood issuing from the wound in my ankle. "Oh, Halcro, what has happened?" and she opened wide the door to admit me.
"What does the lad want here?" asked Carver.
I had never been asked such a question before. I had been accustomed to go about the island all my boyhood, and to walk in at any door I came to with the assurance that no person would question me as to what I wanted. At length, without going further than the threshold, I said:
"I was thinking you would give me shelter for a short time on a day like this."
"On a day like this," replied he, "none but a fool would think of travelling; and if it's shelter you're seeking here, young Ericson, I say no!" and the unfeeling "No" was echoed by all the others in the room, with one exception. That exception was Thora.
I saw the girl's hands quickly clench when she heard this unkind dismissal, and in her blue eyes the tears welled up and stole gently down her fair cheeks.
I felt that the "No" could be easily withstood, but the tears in Thora's eyes overcame me. I gave her a look of thanks, closed the door behind me, and again faced the storm, first going round to the back of the house to take up in my arms the body of my poor dog. I hung up the otter's skin on a hook in the byre, where I believed Thora would discover it, and so make what use of it she might.
I carried the dog still further, however. Taking it down to a small creek that gave entrance to the seashore, I came to a rock that was washed by the deep waters, and here I tied a large stone around Selta's neck and silently lowered the body into the sea, where the great waves of the Atlantic murmured a solemn requiem.
Then, regaining the top of the cliff, I stood for a time looking seaward, where the curling waves swept in from the west and dashed with terrible strength against the hard rocks of granite. There was no sail to be seen as far as my sight could penetrate through the driving rain mists; but I knew that the storm would be fatal to many a brave fisherman and sailor, and many a strong-built ship.
My sad thoughts and the noise of the breakers so much absorbed me that I felt conscious of nothing so much as my utter loneliness. But as I stood there in my wretchedness, suddenly a hand was laid gently on my shoulder, and I looked round, to see Thora at my side, with a great cloak thrown about her, and her hair streaming in the wind.
"Halcro," she said, "it is not this way I can see you turned from my father's door in the rain and the wind, and with that wound in your foot. Pm sorry he spoke to you like that, for I'm sure you'll be tired and weary.
"I have brought you some oatcake—see. Eat it, while I mend your foot."
Then she knelt down before me on the wet, mossy rock, took a piece of clean linen from under the cloak that covered her, and wiped clean my wound. With her fingers she gently drew over the torn skin, and taking another piece of white cloth bandaged it neatly round my ankle.
While she was so employed I informed her of my fight with the otter and the loss of my dog, and her gentle sympathy was sweet to my troubled spirit. And then I told her where she might find the otter's skin, and how she should make use of it.
"There, now," she said, putting a pin through the bandage and rising to her feet, "that will serve till you get home."
"It's real kind of you to do this for me, Thora," I said, touched by the girl's tenderness, "and I will not forget this. No, not as long as I live;" and I think there was a tremor in my voice—at least I felt what I said.
"But," I continued, "what will they say to you at Crua Breck, if they hear you have done this thing?"
"Halcro, I have done nothing but what I have been told to do. Before you knocked at the door, my father was saying we should aye 'do as we'd be done by.' In that I have obeyed him. But I must run back now, or they will miss me. See you give care to the foot. Fare ye well!"
And with that she hastened back to the farm, leaving me to ponder over her manner of applying that golden rule which her father had, while teaching it, so grievously failed to practise.
I made my way onward to Lyndardy—sadly, it is true, but with a strange new feeling in my heart for this blue-eyed maiden who, in defiance of her family, had helped me in my weariness and distress.
A short distance from the place where Thora left me, I came to the ruined cottage of Inganess. As I approached I heard a click-clicking noise, by which I surmised there was some person within the ruined walls. A dog came out to meet me at the door, wagging its tail in welcome. It was the very counterpart of my own dead Selta, and I knew well whom to expect in the cottage even before I entered.
Seated on the floor under shelter of a part of the roof that had not fallen in, was an old man, with locks of silver hair appearing under his blue bonnet, and hanging with a curl about his neck. The clicking sound I had heard proceeded from a flint and the back of a knife, with which the old man was endeavouring to strike a light to kindle the little pile of faded heather that lay in a corner. When I looked in he raised his eyes and said with surprise:
"Ah! Halcro, lad. Travelling on a day like this? Why, ye're as wet as myself. But come in, come in here. It's a poor house; but ye're real welcome. And where's your dog?"
I was downcast at this question, for it was this same old man before me—this Colin Lothian, the wandering beggar—who had given Selta to me, and the dog that was with him was Selta's brother.
"Colin," I asked, when I had told him of my dog's death, "why is it you come to this poor place for shelter when every house in the Mainland is open to you? Why do you not go to my uncle's at Lyndardy?"
"Weel, ye see, lad, I dinna mind where I gang. One place is as good as another, and this is very well in a shower of rain. I was west at Crua Breck when the rain came on sae heavy; and I hae been here these twa hours tryin' to strike a light, but ye see the tinder's wet—
"Try you if ye can do it, lad;" and the old man handed me the flint.
"Aweel, then," he continued, "I opened the door at Crua Breck, just as I would open any door in Orkney, be it rich or poor. But wad they let me in, think ye? Na, na. Carver was sittin' yonder, as he aye does on the rainy days, when there's nae gettin' aboot the farm, preachin' away before a bonnie fire. But the auld hypocrite wouldna let me in. What cares he for the Holy Word? If it werena for his goodwife, he'd never open the Scriptures. Ay, but it's a lang while he'll be preachin' any good into yon blackguard son o' his. There's not a house of harder hearts in all the Mainland than Crua Breck. They all take after Carver; ilka body o' them, except peerie Thora."
"Yes," I said feelingly, "Thora's kinder than all the rest."
"Kinder! Ay is she. She's no' like ane o' the same family. I mind ae stormy night in the last winter, when Carver had shut the door in my face, Thora cam' after me and, 'Colin,' says she, 'come away here, and I'll gie ye a bed in the byre;' and with that she took me in among the kine and gied me some oaten bannocks and a flagon o' warm milk. And then she made up a bed upon the hay, wi' a good warm plaid to wrap mysel' in. 'See there, now, Colin,' says she. 'Rest ye here, and I'll let ye out before my father rises i' the mornin'.' Now wasna that kindness for ye, Halcro?"
"Ay, Colin, that was just like wee Thora."
Whilst Colin was telling me these things I was busy trying to kindle the fire; but try as I would, it could not be done.
"Oh, never mind the fire, Colin!" I said. "Just come along wi' me to my uncle's farm at Lyndardy. Ye'll get good shelter and food there. That's far better than staying in this ruined place."
So the old man got up on his feet, and we walked together to the farm.
My sister Jessie, who frequently came up to Lyndardy to stay over the Sabbath, was in the kitchen when we arrived, and while we were drying our clothes before the fire she got some good warm broth ready for us, and some new-made scones.
Over our meal I told Jessie of my adventure with the otter, and the death of my dog. She wanted to dress my ankle again, but Thora had bound it up so skilfully that there was nothing more to be done.
"I wonder that the otter should bite you like that, Halcro," Jessie said. "Why, I thought the old viking's stone was to save ye frae the like o' that!"
I had myself wondered at the same circumstance.
"Ah! but, Jessie," I said, suddenly comforting myself with an excuse for the apparent failure of the charm, "Mr. Drever didna tell me that the stone would be o' any use against such a beast as an otter."
"No, I ken that. But did he not say it would protect ye from all harm? Surely an otter shouldna be left out o' the reckoning."
But here Colin Lothian, to whom the virtues of the viking's talisman had been explained, suggested that I perhaps needed to have some secret communication with the stone in my own mind—that I perhaps needed to think of the charm at the very moment of danger, and to call upon it for aid. He had heard of such things, he said.
This explanation appeared to me very reasonable, and with the suggestion in my mind I determined, should I ever have another opportunity, to put it in practice.
Such an opportunity presented itself sooner than I could have expected.
Chapter XVIII. The Wreck Of The "Undine."
Colin Lothian remained at Lyndardy until the following Monday morning. He slept out in the byre, where such wayfarers as he were always welcome to a supper and a bed, and in the evenings he would come in to the kitchen to sit with my uncle and talk over the affairs of the island, or to read us a chapter out of the well-worn Testament that he carried with him on his wanderings. For Colin was a religious man and loved his Bible. He knew most of the Psalms by heart, and often gathered groups of islanders about him to hear him repeat them. Idlers sometimes scoffed at his fondness for the epistle on Charity; but no one who heard him repeat it could fail to be impressed by its teaching or to recognize the poor wanderer's sincerity.
Colin was the recognized newsmonger of the Mainland, and it was his habit to travel from parish to parish retailing the gossip of the countryside. At farm towns which were situated in remote places he was always a welcome guest. He was well acquainted with the condition of the markets and the state of the fishing and the crops. He knew the price of butter and of oatmeal, of cattle and of sheep, and his information was often of great value to the farmers in adjusting the values of farm produce. With the old men he would laugh over the jokes of days that had been; tell them how laird had gone to law with laird, or how poor crofters had been evicted from their holdings for failing to pay their taxes or their rents. The young women were always ready to hear from him who was to be married at Martinmas, or how Nell So-and-so had been jilted; and he often entertained the young people with strange tales of the brownies, the trows, the kelpies, or other supernatural beings. In this way he supplied the place of newspapers and books, which were scarce commodities in those old days; and he further made himself useful by doing odd work about the steadings and cottages—such as building the peats into stacks for the winter, mending a thatch, or even doctoring a cow.
On the Sunday evening at Lyndardy, while the storm still beat upon the land, Colin sat with us round the fireside and smoked with my uncle Mansie. The talk drifted round to the subject of Carver Kinlay, whose new boat was to be brought from Kirkwall that week. My uncle did not know for what purpose that new boat was built.
Kinlay was a man who had no settled occupation outside his farm. Sometimes, it is true, he went out to the herring fishing when the fish were plentiful, and he thought he could make some money by it, and he often made secret passages over to Scotland for no one knew what trade. But it was for none of these purposes that the new boat was required, for it had been built with a deep keel and a lugger rig, with a view to being a quick sailer.
Now if anyone should know of Carver's purpose, it would be Colin Lothian, and my uncle questioned him on the subject.
"Colin," said he, "they tell me that Carver is gettin' a new boat frae Kirkwall. D'ye ken what he means to do wi' it?"
"That's piper's news," said Colin. "I heard that three or four weeks syne; and I hae seen the boat mysel', on the stocks at Allan Dewar's boatyard. Ay, and a bonnie boat she is! As to what Carver means to do wi' it—Weel, I dinna ken if it be true; but I hae heard that he intends to start as a Stromness pilot in opposition to Sandy Ericson."
"A pilot!" exclaimed Mansie. "Carver Kinlay a pilot! Man, Colin, ye astonish me. Why, the man hasna gotten a certificate!"
"Maybe ay and maybe no; but I assure ye, Mansie, that a pilot he means to be."
Mansie dismissed this notion incredulously; for though Kinlay knew the coast very well, yet the idea of his starting with his limited experience as an Orkney pilot was droll to one who, like my uncle, had been all his life at the work, and knew every fathom of the waters.
But the character of Carver Kinlay—"Crafty Carver" he was called by those who knew him well—was a problem which had not yet been solved. I had myself gathered many incoherent hints relating to him, and, bit by bit, I heard fragments of fact as to his first appearance in Pomona; but on this Sunday evening, as I sat with Lothian and Mansie, I added to these hints some certain knowledge which enabled me afterwards to better understand this man.
The noise of the storm raging outside—the wind and rain beating on the windows, and the sound of the waves breaking against the cliffs—brought the two men to talk about the ships that had from time to time been wrecked on our neighbouring coast. Said Mansie:
"'Twas on a night like this—d'ye mind, Colin?—that the Undine went to pieces on the Gaulton Craigs."
"Ay," said Colin, "weel do I mind it, and weel, I reckon, does Carver Kinlay mind it."
The conversation regarding the incident was disjointed. Let me, therefore, tell the story in my own words.
My father had with his gallant crew gone out to sea one stormy night in the pilot boat. A stiff westerly wind was blowing, and the headland of Hoy was hidden in mist and spray. The Curlew was steered out into the open sea in the hope of falling in with any ship that required piloting into the safe haven of Stromness. Beaten about on the heavy sea, the boat was brought along the outer coast of Pomona until she stood off abreast of the Head of Marwick. Along the coastline of Sandwick, as she sailed back towards Stromness, the waves rose in angry foam against the rugged cliffs. None but men thoroughly accustomed to the terrors of the storm-swept Orkneys could have taken that little craft through such a surging sea, and it was only by the help of the light that was always kept aglow in the windows of Lyndardy farmhouse that they were able to guide the boat in safety.
When the Curlew was abreast of Inganess, Willie Slater, the lookout man at the bow, reported a ship in sight; and as my uncle Mansie lighted a rude torch, made of old rope steeped in the oil of sea birds, my father peered into the darkness and saw a large barque heading towards the land. The blazing light of the torch was presently waved as a warning signal to those on the ship.
The meaning of this was understood too late, for before the vessel could turn she was driven swiftly upon the North Gaulton rocks, and there smashed like a bottle of glass.
Then the sail of the Curlew was lowered, and the boat taken as close as possible to the wrecked ship. The cries of the people on board were heard in the tempest, but there was little hope of saving life. Yet the pilot crew were undaunted by any risks. Four of the men were at the oars; Mansie was at the bow with his flaming torch, and my father at the tiller. They got within hail of the ship, and after an infinite amount of trouble succeeded in saving four precious lives. These four persons were a seaman, a gentleman passenger—who was picked up suffering from a wound he had received in the head when the vessel struck—Mrs. Kinlay, and my schoolfellow, Tom Kinlay.
When they were brought into the boat, Mrs. Kinlay entreated my father not to leave the wreck until he had saved her husband and her infant girl. But after much searching of the water the chance of saving any more lives was so small, and the danger to the Curlew so great, that the boat was brought to the beach at Inganess Geo, where its suffering passengers were landed and carried up to the neighbouring farm of Crua Breck.
The Curlew was then taken back to the wrecked barque. One of the ship's boats had been launched by the skipper and some of the crew, who had endeavoured to save all they could; but the little craft was too frail to stand against the heavy sea; it was dashed against the sunken rocks and all were drowned. My father and his men remained by the vessel until daylight. Among the jagged rocks, when the tide went down, they found the body of a very beautiful woman with the shattered body of a child still clasped in her arms. The infant seemed to have been hurriedly taken from its bed. This fair lady was afterwards recognised as the wife of the owner of the ill-fated vessel—the gentleman my father had rescued—who had been returning with her and their infant daughter to Denmark. The lady's name was Thora Quendale, and it was her tomb that I had seen in the old graveyard of Bigging on that evening when we shared the viking's treasures.