I now began to despair of being able to escape into the outer air before the night came on; the changing hues of the stream of light that entered the cave already indicated the setting of the sun. But by the welcome help of such light as remained I carefully surveyed the chamber in which I stood.
Just as I was giving a last look round, I observed a slight movement on the opposite edge of the stream. One hurried glance was enough, for there, not a dozen yards from me, was Thora, clinging with clasped hands to a large piece of rock, her long, fair hair touched by the fading crimson light and dangling in the stream, that rapidly passed her as though it would sweep her with it to some unknown destiny. She seemed totally unconscious of all that was going on around her, and I saw that her exhausted strength could not long sustain her in her perilous position. Even as I was thinking how best to reach her, I saw her hands suddenly relax their hold upon the rock, and her helpless form floated slowly with the current towards the dark abyss beyond.
Without hesitation I plunged into the stream. A few strong strokes brought me to her side, and with one hand I firmly grasped her by the arm. Another second and we both would have been carried over the cataract, but the sense of our imminent danger gave me courage, and with a great effort of strength I swam with my burden to the side of the stream from which I had plunged, and eagerly clung to the rock until my strength was renewed.
It was with considerable difficulty that I at last managed to raise myself and the girl from the water, and place her unconscious form upon a flat slab of rock. And now I endeavoured with such simple skill as I could command to restore her exhausted animation. This was a task I was little fitted for; but just as the last faint ray of light died away and left the cavern in darkness, I had the satisfaction of hearing her draw a deep breath and then utter my name.
I found it no easy thing to carry her in my arms to the mouth of the cave, and many halts did I make by the way, trying to discover the light that should tell me that our peril was over. Before we had gone very far, however, she was conscious enough to help me in some sort, and by our united efforts we at length got so far on our right way as to come in sight of the light of day, and thereafter our journey was easy. The evening breeze that met us revived my companion considerably, and she was able to stand up and thank me in her girlish way for delivering her from her dangerous plight.
When she was sufficiently recovered to speak, she told me how it was she had fallen into the water.
She had found a large tarpaulin spread out as though it covered some hidden boxes, and, calling to me, she had tried to raise the tarpaulin to look beneath it. But in standing up to do so she unfortunately missed her foothold on the slippery rock, and falling backward was plunged into the stream; and this was all that she knew, except that being swept along by the water and struggling to keep afloat she happened to touch a rock at the side, and had there held on until, as she had expected, I was able to help her.
Having thus far got out of the cave, there remained yet the difficulty of climbing up the cliff in the twilight. If I could get Thora as far as the rope, I felt that the rest would be comparatively easy. But she was very weak and cold, and I feared for the result.
Fortunately, the shelf of rock along which we had to pass was sufficiently wide for us to walk along by clinging to the cliff. This was done with great care, and when the rope was reached I bound it several times round her waist and secured it firmly under her arms. Being assured that she was then quite safe in her position, I took hold of the higher part of the climbing line and with its assistance scaled the crag.
When I reached the top I gave Thora the signal, and by hauling the rope up with all my strength I helped her to ascend. It was a long time ere I felt sure that she was safe, but at last I heard her call out that she was all right, and I stretched my hand down to her. She took hold of it, and I assisted her until she stepped once more upon the soft turf, and then, still holding her hand, I led her home, deeply thankful that our adventure had ended without fatality.
Chapter XXVII. A Family Misfortune.
I must now tell you what happened on that afternoon while I was away from my sheep, neglecting my work, and seeking useless adventure in the North Gaulton cave. But I must go back to record a conversation that took place at Lyndardy on that same morning, so that you may understand the gravity of the misfortune which was the result of my neglect.
We were sitting over our early breakfast, my mother, Jessie, and I, discussing the family resources for the coming winter—a subject that had given us much anxiety since the death of my father and uncle. Our concern was intensified by the fact that our harvest had not turned out so fruitful as had been anticipated; for the oats were light in the grain and the potatoes diseased; and the expenses incurred for repairs and improvements on the farm, had well-nigh exhausted the ready money that had been left by my father or procured by the sale of the small boat and various articles of furniture from the old home. To make matters worse—and this it was that suggested the discussion—Jessie had been down in Stromness on the previous evening, and there ascertained that the price paid for straw-plaiting, which was never very high, was to be greatly reduced.
"I'm sure we're ill enough off already without them cutting us down at such a rate," said my mother, as she took a sip of tea from her saucer. "If it had not been for what the dominie brought from Edinburgh for Hal's silver, we'd have been most hard pressed this while back. But what we're to do when the winter comes round, I dinna ken. It's certain we'll not have meal enough to serve us; and there's the rent to pay, and clothes to get, and nothing coming in at all."
"Well, mother," said Jessie, "dinna take on so ill about it. We're not more hard pressed than our neighbours. Look at Janet Ross with all her bairns, and her rent owing for three terms; and auld Betty Matthew, at the Croft, who hasna a penny forbye what she gets at the kelp burning. We have our two bonnie cows, and a score of good sheep, and all our hens."
"We have all that," replied my mother. "But I'm thinking the sheep must be sold at Martinmas, or we'll not have much of a living for winter."
"Then, if you sell the sheep, Halcro will need to go to the fishing," said Jessie.
"He'll need to get work somewhere. The lad canna aye be idle; and there's nothing but the fishing for him, I doubt, if he doesna gang to the piloting with Carver Kinlay."
"No, not that," I said. "I'd rather burn kelp than have anything to do with him."
So it was agreed that our sheep were to be sold, and that I must find work of some sort whereby to help the family.
Now, in the afternoon, when they found I did not come back to tea, they surmised that I had already gone to look for employment at Kirkwall, and they waited impatiently for my return. After tea my mother went to the byre to attend to the cows, and Jessie stood for a long time at the door looking out for me. Seeing no sign of me, nor of the sheep, she walked in the direction of the North Hill, there to get a wider prospect. She looked towards every likely quarter, but the last place she thought of looking at was Kinlay's clover field. There were some sheep grazing there, but Jessie never imagined that they were the sheep of Lyndardy; for what should take them into that forbidden pasture?
And yet their number was remarkable. Yes, there were our twenty sheep, with our big cheviot in their midst, coolly enjoying themselves in the fine clover grass that Carver was jealously reserving for the benefit of his own ewes. Without waiting to explain to herself the meaning of what she saw, or the reason of my being away from the sheep, Jessie hastened towards the clover field. As she approached, however, something occurred that made her run with all speed.
Suddenly there was a commotion among the sheep and a noisy barking, for in their midst was Tom Kinlay with his great retriever dog. He chased the sheep into a corner of the enclosure, and proceeded to belabour them with a heavy stick. The cheviot, however, bolder than Tom had supposed, turned at bay, made a heavy rush at him, and butting him aside bounded over the low wall, followed by all the flock.
Tom was soon on his feet, and with his dog he gave chase. One of the small Shetland ewes was overtaken, and disabled by a knock on the head. The other animals, led by the cheviot, were running madly towards the cliffs when Jessie, arriving on the scene, attempted to intercept them. But the dog was fleet of foot, and, encouraged by Tom's cries of "After them, good dog, after them!" continued the pursuit with high enjoyment.
The cheviot, with the stupidity of its kind, saw not the danger to which it was hastening. Panic stricken, it rushed towards a part of the cliffs known as the Lyre Geo, and no efforts of Jessie could divert its onward career.
When Kinlay became conscious of what he had done he called back his dog. But as he watched the sheep bounding and leaping on in their mad course his apprehensions gave place to merriment; and when the cheviot, with a high spring into the air, went headlong over the precipice, followed by the smaller sheep, he burst forth into a fit of laughter loud and uncontrolled.
"You great brute, Tom Kinlay!" exclaimed Jessie indignantly; "if Halcro had been here you would not have done this cruel thing."
"Well," said Tom, "what for did the sheep go into our field, eating up all the clover? Halcro should have been minding them. It serves you right that the sheep have gone over the bank."
This, and more that I know not of, was said between them. But Jessie wasted no time in dispute. Her concern for the poor sheep was too great for idle discussion.
"Come away," she demanded, "and help to get the poor beasts from the water."
"Get the sheep from the water yourself," returned Tom stubbornly; and whistling to his dog he went homeward as though nothing unusual had happened.
On looking over the brink of the cliff Jessie found that it would be useless to attempt without assistance to recover any of the sheep. Two of them she saw floating out to sea, several of them lay apparently dead far down on the rocks. One had fallen on a projecting part of the cliff, and others, instead of jumping over the edge, had run down a narrow pathway, and, though not injured, stood in danger from the fact that they could neither proceed nor turn back without falling.
Near as she was to Crua Breck, however, Jessie would not go thither to seek the help she needed. Hurrying towards the croft of Mouseland she saw two men at work in one of the fields, and they readily laid down their spades and, after procuring a long rope, went back with her to the Lyre Geo. Before sunset they were able to recover the bodies of the animals that had fallen among the rocks, as well as to rescue the sheep that were still alive.
This had all taken place before Thora and I had come up from the Gaulton Cave; and as we turned from the head of the cliff to go home a cart was passing along the moor conveying the dead and injured sheep to Lyndardy—the sheep which only a few hours before we had all so hopefully counted upon selling at Martinmas.
Sadly did we contemplate the poor remnant of the flock, and guilty did I feel for having left the sheep unattended. At first my mother blamed me sorely for what I had done; but when we talked the matter over it seemed not so much my own fault in leaving the sheep (for that had been done many a time before), but Kinlay's neglect in leaving open the gate of the clover field, and Tom's inhuman conduct in driving the sheep over the cliff.
I do not know how it fared with Thora when she reached Crua Breck, but I was not long in doubt as to the result of her immersion in the underground stream. The next morning I heard by accident that she was ill in bed. For many long weeks she lay weary and helpless, and it took all the skill of Dr. Linklater of Stromness to bring her round to health again. During this time I heard nothing of her, and much did I fear that her illness was very serious. One thing that consoled me, however, was the thought that she had the viking's talisman in her keeping, for in the excitement of seeing the cart passing with the dead sheep, I had entirely forgotten to ask her for the return of the stone, and she went into the house with it still suspended from her neck. I was confident that she would keep it in safety, and while she had it in her possession I felt that her recovery to health was assured.
Chapter XXVIII. Captain Flett Of The "Falcon."
The unfortunate occurrence which deprived us of our little flock of sheep brought an increase of sorrow and hardship to our family, whose resources had already been so greatly impoverished; and when the gloomy winter days came on, with their biting frosts and keen cold winds, the prospects at Lyndardy grew as dull as the leaden clouds that hung in the sky. Our mother's woeful sighs were painful to my ears, while I felt how helpless I was to soften her sorrows. Sometimes, when I saw the tears in her eyes, I would silently wish for her sake that I was older and could do more towards filling my father's place.
But work of the kind I was fitted for was scarce in Orkney. Had I been able to choose for myself I should have been, like my father, a pilot. But the chain of circumstances which had made this the vocation of my family for three generations was now broken. Carver Kinlay and his crew were having things all their own way, and in the meantime I was doing that most trying of all work—waiting and hoping for what seemed to become every day less probable.
But I did not pass my hours in idleness. Whenever an outward-bound ship came into the harbour I sought her captain, and asked for a berth aboard. Sometimes I would even walk as far as Kirkwall to see if in that port I could get what was so difficult to procure in Stromness.
One cold, wintry day, when the wind was blowing strong and cutting from the north, I found myself in Kirkwall. Walking along the wharf, looking down upon the decks of the vessels that lay against the old stone quay—brigs, barques, and schooners, some of them bound foreign, but most of them from Scotland—I came to a little coasting schooner that I had often seen in the harbour of Stromness. She was named the Falcon. I was looking down at the green copper plating near her cutwater, when I heard a gruff but cheery voice calling out:
"Hullo! there, young Ericson! Are ye not coming aboard, lad?"
"Hello, Davie!" I responded, jumping down upon the deck. "Here's a cold day for ye, eh?"
He was a little, thick-set man, with a rippled, weatherbeaten face. He wore a dirty, red, knitted cap, from which escaped a few curls of iron-gray hair. A short pea jacket was closely buttoned over his chest, and a pair of immense sea boots reached high above his knees.
This was David Flett, the same jovial old mariner who, it will be remembered, warned me against the Jew on Stromness quay. He removed a short black pipe from his lips as I joined him near the companionway.
"Have ye walked from Stromness the day?" he asked. "Ay, lad, but ye'll be tired, I doubt. Come away below to the fire and warm yersel'."
And he led the way down the ladder and into a close little cabin, where a rousing wood fire was burning under a good pot of potatoes.
Captain Flett had spent most of his early days at the Greenland whale fishing, but he had now settled down upon his own quarterdeck to make a comfortable living for himself by helping others; providing for the Orkney islanders, what they much needed, a market of exchange for their native commodities.
The Falcon was called a cargo packet; but David Flett was a man of singular enterprise, and styled himself a general merchant. He had, indeed, become quite an important trader in his own way by speculating in quantities of seemingly worthless goods, and reserving them until time gave him a chance of disposing of them at a profit.
If a farmer in Ronaldsay told him he was badly in want of a plough or a pony the skipper would speedily find a farmer in another island who had a plough or a pony to sell, and by thus bringing buyer and seller together he made himself a friend to both. Nothing was out of Flett's way. He had a genius for commerce. He would buy an old anchor or a piece of sailcloth from someone in want of ready money, and keep them in the hold of his schooner till he could find a customer in some skipper whose anchor had been slipped or whose sails were in need of repair. I believe he made it his business to find out exactly what every person in Orkney was most in need of, and straightway to set about getting it.
A Hoy crofter once said to his master (whether in jest or earnest I know not):
"Eh, sir, but Flett's a wonderfu' man. I thought I had met wi' a sore misfortune, twa months syne, when I lost both my cow and my wife over the cliffs; but I went to Davie, and he has gotten me a far better cow and a far bonnier wife."
David Flett's habits were well known to me, and on seeing the good man's genial face I at once thought of a way in which he could be of service to me. It is always well to have a friend in court. Why should he not be asked to get me a berth on one of the outgoing ships?
"Tak' a seat, now," said he, as he placed a stool for me in a warm corner of the cabin. "Tak' a seat and tell us a' that's passing in Stromness this while back, and then we'll get something to eat."
While he was asking questions and listening to my replies, I quietly observed the miscellaneous contents of the cabin. A curious place it was—half cabin and half shop. From the ceiling hung many hams and pieces of bacon, smoked geese, pots and pans, bundles of tallow candles, and strings of onions. On two shelves nailed athwart the compartment were rows of canisters containing coffee, tea, rice, and other luxuries and necessaries, besides bottles of drugs, bars of soap, squares of salt, and other articles of commerce, to be retailed to customers in the remote islands.
Presently a seaman, who was addressed as Jerry, came below and took the potatoes from the fire, while the skipper drew a small table to the middle of the floor and set it ready for dinner. The potatoes were placed in a large dish in the centre of the table where we could all reach them, and a joint of corned beef was added, with plenty of oatcakes, cheese, and salt butter.
When all was ready for the meal the mate appeared, from I know not where, and took his seat opposite the skipper, and I drew my stool between them, while the man Jerry sat nearer the fire on an upturned cask.
The mate, whose name was Peter Brown, was a red-faced little man with a nose that had a decided list to the starboard, very untidy in his dress, and given a bit to swearing, but a real good sort of fellow, as I afterwards found, and a capital seaman. He had served in English ships in the Baltic trade, but getting knocked about in a storm rounding Cape Wrath, breaking his arm and his nose, he had been put ashore at Kirkwall, where he had met with Captain Flett and joined the Falcon, thirteen years before this time.
"And now, my lad," said Flett, blowing a hot potato that he held in his horny hand, "what brings ye all the way to Kirkwall on a cold day like this? Ye didna tell us that."
"Well, captain," I said, looking down at my platter and wondering how I could eat its plentiful contents, hungry though I was, "I just sauntered along to see if I could get some work. My mother's sorely needin' help now, ye ken, since father was drowned, and I maun be doing something."
"Ay, ye're right there, lad; ye're right there. But what kind o' work were ye seekin'?"
"I carena what it be, if it's just work," I replied. "But I was thinkin' I'd go in one o' the Kirkwall ships if there was one wantin' a lad."
"Weel, that's just most amazing!" exclaimed Flett, dipping his hand into the dish and bringing forth another steaming potato. "For our lad, Jack, has taken a strange misliking to the Falcon, and run away to a bigger ship.
"Jerry," he asked, turning to the seaman, "did ye hear onything o' young Jack this mornin'?"
"Ay," said Jerry. "He sailed yestreen in the Foaming Wave, the lazy rascal."
"We'll need a lad in his place then," said Peter. "Could Ericson come aboard when we're round in Stromness?"
"Ye see, Ericson," said the skipper, looking kindly at me and casting another slice of meat on my platter, "Ye see the Falcon's but a wee slip o' a craft, considerin'. But maybe ye'd get along wi' us weel enough till a better offers. So, if ye like, Jerry here'll make up a bunk to ye, and I'll see that your mother, puir soul, doesna want for onything. Sandy Ericson was a good man, as everybody kens, and his widow maun be cared for."
Now this unexpected offer of employment was a thing that I had reason to be very grateful for, as I did not neglect to show. While wishing, with true Orcadian love of the sea, to sail for foreign countries in one of the large vessels I had so often seen in the haven of Stromness, I yet believed that there was no place in all the world like the Orkney Islands—no cliffs so high, no sea so blue, no homes so dear—and this new possibility of sailing with Davie Flett in the Falcon among our own islands was more agreeable to me, since it would not necessitate any very long absence from my home, three weeks or a month being the usual extent of the voyage.
Before I left the schooner that afternoon, therefore, the matter was fully arranged. The Falcon was to be round in Stromness Bay in a few days' time, and I was then to join her.
Passing through Finstown on my way home, I was overtaken by Oliver Gray's man in the inn gig. He gave me a lift as far as Stenness, and thence I hurried to Lyndardy to tell my mother the joyful news.
For the next few days, whilst my mother and Jessie were occupied with the business of providing some warm clothing for me, for use on the cold nights at sea, and in other ways preparing for my leaving, I sought to add to our stock of winter provisions by a free use of my gun. The eider ducks, or dunter geese, as we call them in Orkney, are always plentiful in the winter time, and valuable not only for their flesh, but also for their rich downy feathers, and I managed to procure a good number of these. Over at the fresh-water loch of Harray, too, several teals and sheldrakes were taken. And then, when my sport was over, I hung up my gun in its place in the warm byre, believing that I was now a man.
So passed the time pleasantly and profitably until, much to my satisfaction, the good ship Falcon arrived in the bay and dropped anchor off the jetty.
Chapter XXIX. In Which The "Falcon" Sets Sail.
It was on a gray, wintry Saturday morning that we set sail on my first Orcadian voyage. I had, you may be sure, been up at an early hour, helping to load the little vessel with its miscellaneous cargo, to be carried to the many indolent island ports at which our skipper proposed calling. We were ready by about eight o'clock, when I was sent ashore along with Jerry to get two or three letters from the postmaster that had been waiting two weeks for the Falcon, to be taken to some of the outlying islands; for the schooner, in addition to her regular work, also carried the Queen's mails. Then, aboard again, we weighed anchor, the harbour was cleared, and we dropped below the Lookout Hill into the Sound.
It was a bitter cold morning, but my excitement on being outward bound on my first trip was enough to keep me warm, and I paced the deck proudly as we passed slowly into the broken water. Over the brown slopes of Graemsay the late-rising sun struggled sleepily to penetrate a dreamy haze; but soon his warmth had strength to melt the white hoar frost from our rigging, and with a brisk breeze and an outflowing tide we slipped through the Sound, dipping and rising as we met the swelling waves of the outer sea. Then the great headland of Hoy loomed into sight, its yellow and red cliffs gleaming across the water as if sunshine always bathed them.
From the deck, as we sailed blithely along, I watched the billows rolling landward and dashing upon the hard rocks, resounding with thunderous noise among the hollow chasms. I was unwilling to go below before we had passed beyond the sight of Stromness, but when we were abreast of the Black Craigs I thought I would go down and have a drop of hot coffee. I had no sooner got into the cabin, however, when, what with the pitching of the schooner and the smell of the cheese and bacon and other things, I began to feel a sickening, so I went on deck again and busied myself as best I could, though the skipper had told me he would not expect me to do any work until I got my sea legs.
I soon fell into my simple duties, which were the more easy to me since my acquaintance with ships and sailors in Stromness had given me some slight knowledge of the routine work of a small craft. Whenever the schooner was brought round on a new tack I was ready to lend a hand with the ropes. I helped to keep trim the deck, and even had the proud task of taking my trick at the tiller. When I was well enough to venture below I had the duty of preparing the meals, with the help of Jerry, who was man-of-all-work. But this was not until we had been out some days.
On the first day I did little but hang about on deck, or sit on the weather gunwale with Captain Flett. The old man was very kind to me, and even put his pipe away lest the smell of the smoke should make me feel sick.
One time, when we were so sitting together, I noticed an eagle rise from a ravine in St. John's Head, and we watched the bird sailing backward and forward on steady outstretched wing and finally disappear amid the shadows of the Red Glen. This suggested a long talk about the eagles that inhabited the solitudes of Hoy Island, and the skipper told many a thrilling story of his own adventures in search of eagles' nests in the time when rich rewards were offered for every eagle killed.
At midday the Falcon was abreast of the Old Man of Hoy—a curious isolated pinnacle of rock some five hundred feet in height standing out in the sea—and before the time of sunset we rounded Rora Head and entered a beautiful sheltered bay with a fine stretch of sloping beach, beyond which, on the brown moor, about a dozen tiny houses could be seen snugly nestling together beside a flowing stream that had its source away up amongst the hills.
This was Rackwick, one of the chief hamlets of Hoy; and when the schooner was brought well inshore the anchor was dropped. The captain then ordered Jerry to blow the horn to announce our arrival to the inhabitants far and near. Jerry thereupon took the fog horn and blew it till the noise resounded and echoed for miles around. Then we all went below to a meal of good Orkney herrings and hot tea.
The meal was just finished, and the men were lighting their pipes, when a boat from the shore was brought alongside—a heavy, clumsy boat with great square oars pulled by two burly crofters.
When I went on deck with the skipper I found that our arrival at Rackwick had been expected for some time.
"Man, Davie," interrogated one of the crofters in a broad Orkney dialect, "where has thoo been wandering sae lang? They was expecting thee mair than a twa week syne. Was thoo thinking o' starving us all?"
"Starving you, Tam," returned Flett. "Nay, nay, lad, we'll see ye dinna starve. Come aboard, lad, and let's know what you're needing. We have everything you can want, from a needle to an anchor. So just name it and you'll get it."
"We're needing none o' your anchors," said the crofter in a matter-of-fact tone as he climbed up the schooner's side, "but I just mind now, Mary Seater lost her last needle a week syne, and we have but twa needles in all Rackwick, so thoo'd better gie us a penny's worth."
Captain Flett told me to get the slate and pencil from below, and as the crofter gave his orders for the articles required I wrote these down under the initial item, "Needles, 1d."
When all the necessaries were brought together, they formed a goodly pile of merchandise in the boat. Here were bags of potatoes and of meal, a few loaves of bread, some tin cans and crockery, pieces of cloth, and coils of rope and small parcels of groceries. I went ashore in the boat to help the two men to unload her, and when this was done there was the work of bringing back to the Falcon what things were to be exported or given in exchange for goods received.
When the last load was brought on board some ingenuity was required to strike a just balance in the accounts, for in this primitive community actual money, though well appreciated, was of less consequence than money's worth, and the system of barter which Captain Flett necessarily adopted was very difficult of adjustment. However, my schooling was of some service to him in striking a balance, and at nightfall the business was agreeably settled.
The next day was the Sabbath, and in the morning Captain Flett appeared on deck dressed in his finest clothes of blue cloth, and wearing a very respectable soft felt hat over his neatly-brushed hair. The mate, Jerry, and I were also apparelled in our Sunday best. After breakfast we went ashore in the dinghy, and the four of us made our way in a body up to the Manse.
The room in which service was held was barely large enough to admit so great an addition to its weekly congregation, but we were permitted to take front seats near the chair occupied by the minister, who thus was able not only to exchange occasional civilities with the captain, but also to help himself to a frequent pinch from the old man's snuffbox.
I remember I thought the service extremely wearisome, and I soon grew tired of listening to the doctrinal discourse that was given for our benefit. I found diversion in looking through a little window behind the minister, and in observing the curious contortions which were given to a cow browsing on the heath outside whenever the animal passed a certain round knot in the glass.
Captain Flett remained ashore with the minister for the rest of the day; and in the afternoon, when Peter was asleep in his bunk, Jerry and I left the schooner and went for a walk across the hills. The weather was not very inviting, for the wind blew in cold, cutting gusts from the northwest, and there was little of interest to be seen on the bleak, treeless waste. The coastline of Scotland was hidden in mist, and even the crown of the Ward hi?^ll was covered by the low-lying clouds. There would be little, indeed, to tell of this walk were it not for an adventure that we encountered.
We had got round into the Red Glen, and were resting on a great gray boulder. Everything was so quiet in the shelter of the hills that even the birds seemed to recognize that it was Sunday. Not a living thing was to be seen or a sound to be heard, except the soughing of the wind and the trickling of a burn down the hillside. Presently a loud screech rent the air, and a large eagle swooped swiftly above us, carrying in its talons a rabbit or other small animal. Flying in gradually narrowing circles, the bird at last alighted among some rocks on the opposite side of the valley.
We ran as speedily as we could to where the eagle had dropped. To our disappointment, however, the bird took wing and hovered high in the air, but without its victim.
Continuing our way in search of the rabbit we saw a very curious sight. In the midst of a number of loose stones someone had set a trap, but had evidently neglected it. This neglect would have been hard on any animals that might have been taken, as their probable fate would be death by starvation. But what was probable did not happen in this case. When we reached the trap we found in it a fine golden eagle, alive and in splendid condition. Around him lay the remains—the well-picked bones—of some twenty rabbits and as many grouse which his mate had brought, and so saved him from a lingering death.
The captive eagle, with its great beak dripping with the rabbit's blood, flashed its bright round eyes and ruffled its feathers as Jerry picked up a large stone and prepared to dash it at the bird's head. Quick as might be, I arrested his uplifted arm.
"O, Jerry!" I pleaded; "dinna kill him, man. We have not so many eagles as that. Give the bird his liberty."
Jerry dropped the stone, and looked at me with a kindly smile.
"Well, Ericson," he said, "you're maybe right. A dead eagle isna much good after all. We'll let the bird fly."
Whilst Jerry attracted the attention of the eagle forward I went behind, and, taking my knife from my pocket, I was proceeding to open the jaws of the trap, when Jerry exclaimed, "Look out! look out aft!" and before I understood his warning, I was thrown bodily forward by a tremendous blow on my back.
The first eagle had watched our proceedings while on the wing, and had flown to her mate's assistance, alighting on my back, at the same time burying her talons in my woollen muffler. In my fall, however, I liberated the captive eagle, which hopped about lamely for a while, and then giving a kind of guttural chuckle, flapped his wide wings, and rose gracefully into the air.
Jerry rushed forward to rescue me from the pecking beak of my assailant. Fortunately the female bird, in her eagerness to follow her mate, did not show fight when Jerry belaboured her with his stick, but disentangled her claws from my muffler; at the same time, giving me some severe scratches. Then she took to flight in pursuit of her companion, and soon the pair of birds were seen sailing side by side far up among the leaden clouds.
I was not seriously injured, and, so far from regretting that we had not been victorious in the encounter, we were pleased at being the means of restoring the captive bird to its noble mate.
Chapter XXX. An Orcadian Voyage.
Shortly after midnight, when I lay comfortably in my bunk, I was awakened by hearing the anchor scraping and thumping against the schooner's bow; then there was a hauling of ropes on deck and a creaking of timbers as the sails were run up, and I fell to sleep again before we had got out beyond the shelter of the coast.
When I got up in the morning and went on deck, the island of Hoy lay far to windward like a bank of mist upon the sea. We were far out on the broad Pentland Firth, plunging about on the rough water, with our mainsail double-reefed, and the flying jib pulling away like to split itself in the wind. I enjoyed it all for a time; but when I went below to help Jerry to get ready some breakfast for the skipper, the smell of the coffee and the frying bacon overcame me, and I was forced to go back to my bunk, where I remained for the rest of the day helplessly seasick.
The next morning, feeling better, I went up to get a breath of fresh air, and found that we were hemmed in by a thick white mist that crept round us, and rendered it difficult for Jerry, who was on the lookout at the bow, to determine our course. We were making for South Ronaldsay, and had been beating about all night, making very little headway; and when the mist lifted before noon, it was discovered that we had been driven down by the current, and had come nigh to running into the black rocks of Stroma Island.
Here, where two strong streams met with terrific force, the turbulent water whirled about with wild irregular motion, and we were swept now one way, now another, until it seemed useless to fight against the current that controlled us. We were, in fact, in the midst of that dangerous vortex locally known as the Swelkie. Those who know the secrets of the ocean currents of the northern seas have their own scientific explanations to give; but our native boatmen and sailors, who were not so well acquainted with the eccentricities of the Gulf stream as with the popular legends of Orkney, accounted for the Swelkie in this way:
A certain King Frodi had a magical quern, or hand mill, called Grotti; the largest quern ever known in Denmark. Now Grotti, which ground either gold or peace for King Frodi as he willed, was stolen by a sea king named Mysing, who set the mill to grind white salt for his ships. But it happened that Mysing had only learned the spell to set the mill going, and knew not how to stop it. His ships, therefore, became so full of salt that they sank, and Grotti with them, before they could reach the islands of Orkney; hence the Swelkie. This took place to the northwest of Stroma Island, and ever since the sea there has not rested, for as the water falls through the eye of the quern, it roars and rushes about, and the quern goes on grinding and grinding salt, and giving its saltness to the whole ocean.
The mist having lifted, Captain Flett had a reef or two let out, and himself took the helm until he got us into calmer water, when we luffed to the windward and headed for South Ronaldsay, with a stiff breeze springing up that gave us a clear seaway to get past the Lother Reef, when we sailed steadily through a lesser rush of tide across a quiet, landlocked sea, into the little haven of Burwick, where in the gathering darkness the chain went rattling down, and we came to a restful anchorage.
But our stay at Burwick was not for long, as we had lost much time in the outer sea, and the skipper wanted to get round to St. Margaret's Hope. No sooner had we put a boatload of goods ashore than we set sail again. And now that we were in smoother water, I was not allowed to shirk my watch, but had to spend the better part of the night on deck.
A little after midnight we were sailing under easy sail through the dark Sound of Hoxa. I was at the helm, the mate walking the deck in front of me. The night was extremely cold, and some light flakes of snow were falling. I had difficulty in making out the points of land as we passed, but Jerry was at the bow, and I depended upon him and Peter for my steering. Just as we were abreast of Stanger Head, on the little island of Flotta, I thought I saw a small vessel creeping along, well inshore. I drew the mate's attention to it, and he was denying me, when a bright flash of light was seen, followed by a loud report, as of a small piece of ordnance. Peering through the darkness, we could distinguish the sails of a large cutter, which was now bearing down upon us.
"It's the Clasper," said Jerry, coming aft.
"Confound him!" said the mate. "Does she take us for a smuggler?"
From these words I at once understood the meaning of the shot that had been fired; the revenue cutter had evidently mistaken the Falcon for one of the famous smuggling craft of Scapa Flow.
We were at once hauled round, and a boat from the Clasper came alongside. A sprightly young lieutenant climbed over our starboard bulwarks, followed by a sailor who carried a large lantern. This the officer took from him, and coming aft to where we all three stood, he held the light aloft peering into our faces.
By this time our skipper came up from the cabin, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
"What's all the row, Peter?" said he.
"Ah! Flett, it's you, eh?" said the lieutenant politely. "I'm sorry to trouble you on such a cold night; I did not recognize your schooner in the dark. But we have strict orders, you know. There's a lot of it going on, and we must search you. A mere matter of form, of course. You won't object?"
"Nay, I don't object, Mr. Fox. Search away," said David, turning to go below.
A hurried search was made accordingly, but nothing suggesting contraband traffic being discovered, the revenue men went away perfectly satisfied, the lieutenant wishing us a goodnight, and requesting us to keep the affair a secret when we arrived in Stromness.
Early on the next day we touched at St. Margaret's Hope—one of the chief fishing stations of Orkney—and our course thereafter lay along the eastern shores of the Mainland.
Long and dreary was the passage northward from Ronaldsay to Stronsay. The cold, frosty winds and weary, dark nights, made the long watches on deck difficult to endure; but when my turn was over, and I could get below to the fire, I generally forgot about the hardships, and began to think that life at sea was really not unpleasant.
Captain Flett tried to make my position comfortable and my work agreeable, and sometimes when I was on deck with him at night, he would remain by me smoking, and make the time pass lightly by telling me of his early experiences in the Dundee whaling ships; or more often he would instruct me in seamanship, and teach me regarding the tides and channels of Orkney.
Thus during this voyage among the islands was the weariness of many a night watch relieved. There was something to be told of almost every place at which the Falcon touched. Often the talk would turn upon the subject of wrecks, and of the wreckers who inhabited the storm-swept islands, and were not above welcoming a shipwreck for the sake of the valuable spoil they might procure.
Anchored off a little port in Sanday, David told me of a minister who, while professing to deplore the frequency of shipwrecks on the coast, ended a prayer by saying:
"Nevertheless, if it please Thee to cause helpless ships to be cast on the shore, oh, dinna forget the poor island of Sanday."
We pursued our tortuous course as far north as a place called Pierowall, in the island of Westray; when we found that there was need to continue the voyage still further to Fair Isle, a little island that lies about midway between Orkney and Shetland, for the people in that place, we heard, had got short of winter provisions, and our skipper would not hear of returning until he had supplied the deficiency.
The weather became boisterous as we entered the open sea again, and I had my first experience of really rough sailing. For two days the schooner tossed upon the great white-crested waves which dashed against her bows, broke in snowy foam upon the deck, and glistened on oilskin and sou'wester. The wind whistled with piteous noise among the ropes, and frequent showers of hail and sleet added to our discomfort.
On the third day after leaving the Orkneys we sighted Fair Isle, looming faintly through a mist of snow, far to starboard. With difficulty we tacked to windward, for the northeast wind had driven us considerably out of our course. Darkness came on at about three o'clock in the afternoon in these latitudes, and we wanted to make the harbour in daylight. But though the wind fell, the snow and mist came on so thickly that we quite lost sight of the island, and in our difficulty a terrible thing happened.
We were all hands on deck, and sailing close-hauled with a good stretch of canvas set. I was at the helm, and the skipper standing near me. Jerry and the mate were nailing some boards on the companion hatch to keep out the snow from the cabin. Suddenly the schooner gave a great lurch and fell off the wind. The mainsail flapped wildly for a moment, and as we luffed again we went over with a list that swung the boom back with such force that the ropes that held it were slipped, and the spar struck the skipper a blow upon the shoulder that sent him headlong overboard into the sea.
Jerry and the mate saw the accident, and while I still held the tiller hard a-port, they at once got out the boat. Jerry and Peter each took an oar and rowed quickly astern to where Captain Flett was swimming.
It will be easily understood that, left to myself, I could not manage the schooner with much skill; for, in the first place, I could not without help bring the sails over on the other tack, and in the second I could not well leave the helm. Indeed, I had the greatest difficulty in hauling the vessel round, and before I succeeded in doing anything beyond simply putting the helm a-port, the driving snow had surrounded me in its mist, and I lost sight of the boat.
I could see it nowhere. I called aloud, but the wind whistling in the ropes overpowered my voice. I left the tiller and got the fog horn. But, alas! I had never practised blowing that instrument, and try as I would, I could get no more than a feeble grunt out of it.
Thicker and thicker grew the mist, and the snow fell in numerous and heavy flakes. Darkness came on, and still never a boat could I see, never a sound could I hear but the ceaseless swish of the snow and the soughing of the wind. The schooner pitched and rolled helplessly on the waves, and I was in terror lest the sails should split in their mad flapping.
I tried to secure the heavy boom that had been the cause of this mischief, and after a long struggle with it I succeeded. Then I went below and lighted the lamps, and having fixed them in their places so that they might be seen from the boat I made another attempt to bring the vessel round on the starboard tack and keep her to the windward.
All through that long dark night I beat about on the rough sea with the snow driving cold and sharp upon me, and the waves breaking on the deck. I was tired and sleepy after a hard day's work, yet I could not think of this, nor of my hunger and my cold hands and feet. My only object now was to recover my messmates, and as the night wore on without my seeing any sign of them, I grew utterly hopeless, for they were without food and far from land, and God alone knew what had become of them.
From my despair at the probable fate of the boat, however, I gradually realized the fact that my own condition was not without peril. Here was I, a slip of a lad, alone and helpless, out in the open sea, in a schooner that three men could only with difficulty manage. I had but small skill in seamanship. I knew almost nothing of my whereabouts, and, added to these disadvantages, I had the physical discomforts to endure of fatigue, hunger, and cold.
At about nine o'clock I went below to get something to eat. The fire was out, so I could not make any coffee; but there was a bottle of spirits in the locker, and fancying this might do me good I, for the first time in my life, drank some. I at once felt much warmer, and I took half a glassful with some water and drank it with the oatcake and cold bacon that I ate.
Going on deck again, I felt much more comfortable; but the spirits that had warmed my vitals soon had an effect upon me that I had not counted upon. My eyesight became hazy, and I felt terribly sleepy—so sleepy that I could not remain at the helm for fear of falling into a slumber at my post. So I tied up the tiller, and, for the rest of the night, walked the deck, only altering the schooner's course when I thought that she was being driven too far from the spot where the boat had put off.
All the night through I peered over the dark sea, and at intervals raised my voice, in the faint hope of coming across the boat. But for all the lookout that I kept, never a boat could I see; and for all my shouting, never a response to my cries could I hear. Whatever had become of the skipper—whether he had been picked up or was drowned—the mate and Jerry were gone, and I, the youngest of the crew, was left alone on the Falcon to bring her back to port, if haply I was not taken by her across the dreary waste of ocean to some terrible and unknown destiny.
Chapter XXXI. An Arctic Waif.
When the dim light of dawn fell upon the sea I looked over the gray waters through the telescope. The mist had faded away, and the snow had ceased to fall. A fresh breeze from the low east brought a faint glimmer of sunshine with it. But though I searched the horizon, and the wide intervening space of sea, yet could I discover nothing of the boat, and Fair Isle was nowhere to be seen.
Looking for that island—which I knew to be the nearest land—I remembered the islanders and thought how little chance there now remained of the Falcon rendering them assistance in their need of provisions. I saw no possibility of reaching Fair Isle; for, as I had seen it on the previous day, it appeared but a small rock; and being out of all my reckoning, and, as I supposed, a considerable distance to leeward, I did not think it wise to waste much time in the vain effort to reach the island, the exact position of which I was ignorant of. I might have beat about for two or three days, perhaps, without sighting it, and yet I knew not what other land to make for.
The wind, which was now blowing east-southeast, was unfavourable in an attempt to make for the Orkneys. The only alternative that I could see, therefore, was to head the schooner round on the port tack and bear northward to the Shetlands.
I went below to look at the chart to determine my position and the course I should take; and, to prepare myself for difficulties I foresaw, I lighted a fire and made myself some coffee and cooked some bacon for breakfast. When I had eaten a good meal and warmed myself, a drowsiness came over me again, and I threw myself on the skipper's bed to rest for a little while.
I must have slept very soundly; for when I awoke the fire was out, and I saw by the chronometer that it was nearly eleven o'clock. But my sleep had done me great good, and I hurried on deck and looked round.
The schooner was labouring aimlessly for the want of the helm to guide her and keep her on her course; but soon I brought her to again and she went scudding along bravely. I made no doubt that at the rate she was sailing I should sight Sumburgh Head early the next morning.
What troubled me most was that she appeared to be making a good deal of leeway. This was my one danger, for if I should be taken so much to leeward as to miss the southern point of the Shetland Mainland, then I should lose my chance of making Lerwick. Thus I might possibly be driven northward beyond the islands, and so find myself in a worse plight than if I had tried to regain the Orkneys.
The sight of a few fishing smacks on the far east inspired me with renewed hope. They were making north, but they were too far away for me to signal them. As a precaution, however, I hoisted a signal of distress in case any passing ship should see the Falcon whilst I was below or asleep at any time. But this was of no avail as it happened, for all the rest of that day I saw not another sail.
The next night was spent in weariness on deck, with a cold rain falling. I managed to keep awake without much difficulty, for I did not take any more spirits, but had a can of hot coffee beside me at the tiller, and went below several times to keep the fire alight and the kettle on the boil. At about midnight I saw a ship's light to windward, but it soon dropped below the horizon. It showed me that I was still on the sea track between Orkney and Shetland, and I kept a sharp lookout towards morning for the Sumburgh light.
Day broke with a haze over the water and a cloudy sky. The wind shifted to the northeast, bringing snow. At midday the wind was due north, and several inches of snow lay on the schooner's deck. I boiled some potatoes for my dinner, and thought that I had something to be thankful for in having a good store of provisions on board. I was beginning to think that I should need them, for I had not yet sighted the land.
Again the night came, and still I had seen no more sails. I had seen no land. The rays of the Sumburgh light never reached the poor Falcon. I felt that I was drifting to westward, being carried away in the grip of one of those mysterious ocean currents that are the terror of the northern latitudes.
On the fourth day of my lonely voyage I was oppressed by a deep sense of the danger of my situation. I realized that I had missed the Shetlands; that I could now do no more than abandon myself to the will of the wind, and trust to falling in with some vessel that might be making for the Faroe Islands or for Iceland. If I had had a companion to take watch about with me I might have got along fairly well; but with my hard work of trimming the sails, and battling with the fitful winds, I could not do without sleep, and during my hours of sleep the schooner always fell off her course, and I could make no reckoning.
Day followed day, and my situation underwent no visible change, excepting only that the temperature became ever colder and colder, that the snow fell more constantly, and that the mist hemmed me in more closely. Sometimes at midday the mist would lift and I saw around me the great wide stretch of desolate sea, with an ice floe floating here and there. On one such occasion I fancied I saw land on the windward bow, a white mountainous peak rose high in air, and, not knowing where I might be, I took it to be one of the joekulls of Iceland. But, alas! it proved to be but an immense iceberg.
In my solitude I naturally thought much of my home, now so far away, and of my dear mother and sister, and their prayers for my safety. For their sakes I dreaded to think that I might never return to them again.
I thought, too, of Thora, and wondered many times if she was better, or if her illness had taken her away.
I had before found comfort in the thought that she was protected by the viking's stone. But, probably, I now needed its mystic help even more than she.
One afternoon—I think it must have been about the twentieth day of my loneliness—I had been asleep for some three hours, and in a kind of waking dream I saw a strange vague vision. A number of persons, whose faces I could not rightly discern, were in a large room. Amongst them was Thora, looking more beautiful than I had ever seen her in my life, and she stood pointing with an accusing finger at her brother Tom, at whose feet there crouched a lean dog, snarling at him.
I was awakened from my half sleep by the noise of a crackling and scraping of ice upon the schooner's sides. I had seen many floating pieces of ice during the past few days, but this, from the noise it made, seemed to be an unusually large piece. I feared it might even be an iceberg, and I hastened up on deck.
I shall never forget the sight that greeted me.
The whole sky was aglow with the light of the aurora borealis—or the Merry Dancers, as we call the phenomenon in Orkney. A beautiful crimson curtain, fringed with flickering streamers, spanned the northern sky. From east to west there passed a succession of trembling waves of light, many coloured, from faint rose to palest yellow and delicate green. A heavy cloud of inky blackness hung high above, and from its upper margin rays of fiery light flashed far across the sky, casting their reflections upon the sea.
Two ghostly icebergs, floating about a mile apart, reared their snowy peaks on high, and in the channel between them—most welcome sight of all—there sailed a ship.
The vessel's sails were hanging stiff about the spars and her timbers were coated with ice and snow. I steered the schooner towards her, and we slowly approached. When I was near enough I hailed her and waited, listening for an answer to my call. No answer came.
A feeling of awe crept over me. There was something strangely desolate about her. No hand seemed to be guiding her helm. Not a man was to be seen on her snow-covered decks. She sailed aimlessly along, as though all on board had ceased to care when or how she reached her destination.
I brought the schooner close in to the stranger's side until we touched, and then I got the large boat hook out and fixed it in her chains. None of the ship's crew appeared to have remarked my approach. What could they be doing? Perhaps, I thought, they were all below decks.
I climbed upon the Falcon's gunwale and looked through an open porthole into the vessel's after cabin. I saw there a man seated at a table, with his back towards me, apparently writing.
"Hello in there! D'ye keep no watch aboard?" I cried.
He appeared not to hear me, but held the pen in his hand as though in deep meditation.
I clambered up the vessel's side and got over the quarter rail, taking with me the end of a stout rope with which to secure the two ships together. The snow was deep on the stranger's decks, and bore no trace of footsteps. All was quiet. .
I crossed over to the companion ladder, and found my way down to the door of the cabin. I knocked with my knuckles, but no voice answered, and I went within. The man still sat at the table, without turning at my entrance. The atmosphere was cold and musty; there was no fire in the stove, although yet another man sat crouched before it. I went behind the man at the table and touched him on the shoulder.
"D'ye not hear me, sir?" I said. "Are ye deaf? or what has gone wrong?"
He did not move.
I looked down into his face.
"Heavens!" I exclaimed, drawing back in horror at the grim sight.
What did it mean? I made bold to look again, though I felt myself trembling. A green damp mould covered his cheek and forehead, and hung in a ghastly fringe over his open eyes. The man was a frozen corpse!
Terrified at the sight, I fled up the stairs with my heart wildly beating. Regaining the deck I looked about me, but there was no sign of life anywhere on the ship. Afraid to make any further search, I clambered down into the Falcon and rushed below. I cast myself before the fire, trembling and unable to realize anything for the mortal fear that was upon me. I tried to forget the sight of that face of death, with its horribly grim and mouldy features, but it haunted me with terrible clearness.
I roused up my fire and made some strong tea, and, drinking it, I wondered why I had not thought of pushing off the schooner from this death ship. It was now growing dark, and the thought of spending a whole night alone in the near presence of dead men, whose ghosts, for all I knew, might visit me, filled my mind with strange and awful fancies. Even the sound of the wind whispering in the ropes struck me with nervous fear. But the drink of tea and what little I ate helped to revive my spirits, and gradually my sense of awe was overcome by a curiosity that came upon me—a curiosity to go aboard the vessel again and discover something more of her singular condition.
It was now wearing on towards night and I trimmed my lamps. Lighting a small lantern, I carried it with me on deck. I made the two vessels still more secure by means of a hawser rope, and then went aboard the barque. As I began to climb up her side I was conscious that she seemed to be deeper in the water than she had been when I came alongside of her, but the discovery did not at the moment trouble me.
I carried my lantern across her quarterdeck, and with timid steps again descended into the after cabin. The lantern shed a ghostly light upon the figure of the man at the table. I walked round to the opposite side from that at which he sat and turned the light upon his face. His long beard was overgrown with the same green mould that hung over his glassy blue eyes, and yet there was a look of life about his features.
I chanced to look at the ink pot in front of him. A little black dust was all that it contained. Then I had a wish to see what he had been writing in his log book. I drew the volume towards me and turned it that I might read. The words were in English; they seemed to have been written by a cold and trembling hand. The last lines on the open page were in themselves a revelation. They were as follows:
"It is now seventeen days since we were shut up in the ice. The fire went out yesterday, and our captain has since tried to light it again. His wife died this morning. There is no more hope."
I pondered over these words for some time, trying to realize their sad meaning.
"There is no more hope!"
How long since had that sentence been written? How long had the ice imprisoned this vessel in its cold, hard grip?
I turned back a few pages in search of some recorded date, and found this entry:
"New Year's Day, 1831:—The ice still closing in on us. Opened last bag of biscuits. Murray died this morning."
So long ago! the year 1831! and now it was the year 1844! The ship, then, had been lost for thirteen years!
I turned the light upon the man crouching over the stove. His features, like those of his companion, were covered with green mould, and his beard was fringed with the same grim mildew.
Taking my lantern I went through into the stateroom, and there I found the body of a woman laid upon a bed. Her features were still fresh and lifelike, but her black hair was powdered with the damp green growth. Before her a young man was seated on the floor, holding a flint in one hand and a steel in the other. A few sticks of hard wood were piled up in front of him. I could but surmise that these were the captain and his wife.
From the stateroom I turned into the pantry. Not a sign of provisions of any sort could I discover, either here or in any other part of the ship. The galley fireplace was empty of fuel, a few pieces of charred wood were the only remains of a fire.
Before leaving the ship I went forward into the fore cabin. A dog was stretched out as though asleep at the foot of the ladder, and several sailors lay in their hammocks. They also were reposing in the sleep of death. They all appeared to have died very peacefully; but whether from the want of food alone or, as I have since thought possible, from want of air, being shut up in the heart of an iceberg, I had no means of knowing.
I did not further continue my search of the vessel that night, but went on board the Falcon, feeling sick and nervous. I could eat nothing; but having taken a drink of hot coffee, I sat before a good fire, thinking over what I had just seen, and planning what I should do.
If any one of those poor men could, in his dire need, have had a drink of my coffee, or a spoonful of the good porridge I had made but could not myself eat, heavens! how he would have relished it! Here was I, with a schooner well loaded with provisions. Some strange fate had brought me to this ship. But all that I could have supplied was useless to the sufferers now. They had perished of starvation and cold, and my food and fire were of no avail, for I had come thirteen years too late!
Chapter XXXII. The Last Of The "Pilgrim."
I could sleep but little during that long and wearying night. Terrible thoughts haunted me—thoughts of my own peril and loneliness, thoughts of the dead men that I had seen. Before daybreak I was on deck, and in the dim light I noticed that the ice which had been so scattered over the sea for the past few days had almost disappeared.
At daylight, looking overboard at the hull of the dread ship alongside, I observed two things. The first was that we were drifting perceptibly southward; this was satisfactory. The second was that the larger vessel had sunk at least a couple of inches deeper in the water; this was alarming.
Now that it was daylight I was able to read the ship's name at her stern, though I had first to knock away a quantity of ice and snow from above the letters. I found that she was the Pilgrim of Bristol. I had before perceived that she was not a whaler, nor did she appear to have been fitted out for an Arctic voyage. I marvelled much what had brought her to these seas, and whither she had been bound, and what her cargo was.
More than all did I wonder what I was to do with her. Here was I, placed by strange circumstances in command of two vessels, a schooner and a barque, and without the power or skill to take either of them into port—not knowing, indeed, where a port could be found. Had Davie Flett, Peter, and Jerry still been with me on the Falcon, we might have taken the Pilgrim to Stromness; we might also have given to her crew, or what remained of them, the decent burial for which they had waited so long. But, as things stood, I should have been thankful if I could have simply foreseen the possibility of getting out of my position of difficulty, regardless of either vessel. The sight of those dead bodies on the Pilgrim had made me utterly downcast. Their terrible fate had suggested to me the uncertainty of my own.
When I had taken some breakfast, I again went aboard the Pilgrim. I discovered that her cargo consisted for the most part of sulphur. Now, sulphur I knew to be a product of Iceland, and I judged from this that the ship had touched at that northern island.
I went into the chart room. A couple of charts were spread out on a couch. One of them was a chart of the north of Scotland, including the Orkney and Shetland Islands; the second was a continuation of the first, and gave the whole coast of Iceland and the sea beyond as high as the seventy-seventh degree of north latitude. The ship's course was clearly traced upon the charts in lines of red ink, and, following it, I could see that the Pilgrim (sailing, I suppose, from Bristol or some other English port) had rounded Cape Wrath and gone in at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys; thence the course was continued in a regular zigzag northward to a port on the north of Iceland, and then due east, as though she had been making for Scandinavia. But here the line became broken and irregular, and swept round suddenly to the far northwest, as though the vessel had been carried away by some adverse current or contrary wind away into the Arctic seas.
Here, then, I had a rough sort of explanation of the Pilgrim's voyage.
I was leaving the captain's room, taking the charts with me, when, on giving a last look round, I noticed a sleeping berth curtained off by a plaid shawl. I drew the curtain aside, and saw something sparkling. It was a beautiful diamond ring that encircled one of the fingers of a man's thin white hand. The hand was clasped over some small object that I did not see. Turning down a heavy fur rug that covered the man's dead body I noticed that his clothing, his appearance generally, were not those of a seaman. He had a long, silky, brown beard, and a very handsome face, which, however, was marred by an ugly scar on the brow. I judged him to be about thirty-five years old. Lying on his breast was a thick notebook, which, on opening the pages, I found to be filled with writing in a foreign language.
Turning from the bed place I was again attracted by the man's sparkling ring. I gently opened the hand and drew the ring from the thin finger, and as I did so a small gold locket dropped from the hand. It contained the painted portrait of a very beautiful girl with fair hair and fine blue eyes. I looked in strange admiration at the face. It had probably been the last object the dead man had seen. With a feeling of reverence I put the locket back into his hand. But with feelings that were less reverent I placed the diamond ring on my own finger, and took possession of the notebook. These, with the charts and the log book of the man in the after cabin, I carried on board the Falcon.
That afternoon I chanced to look overboard at the Pilgrim's waterline. She had sunk at least three more inches. I felt that, whatever happened to myself and the schooner, the Pilgrim at least would never again reach port, and I determined to save from the vessel what articles might be of use to me in case I should be able to return to land. I therefore went on board again and took possession of the ship's papers, some firearms and cabin furniture, a number of English books, and a small chest that I found in the captain's room.
The wind had fallen almost to a dead calm very soon after I had come alongside the Pilgrim, and I had thus been able to keep the two vessels together without any difficulty. But that afternoon as I sat before my fire reading a book on navigation—that part of it relating to the art of taking an observation on the sun, moon, and stars—the schooner listed over to larboard, as though the wind had caught her sails. I rushed up on deck and found that a strong breeze was blowing from the northwest, and was filling the sails of both vessels. The Pilgrim, indeed, was sailing with considerable speed, dragging the schooner along with her.
I ran forward and cast off the rope that held us together. Not too soon, for the barque was leaning over on her port side and visibly settling down.
As speedily as I could I trimmed the schooner's sails and got her free. She took the wind bravely, and I left the Pilgrim to leeward. I watched her struggling on the gradually rising waves as she tossed about aimlessly for the space of about half an hour. Then I saw her bows dip deep into the water and her stern rise high, while, with a heavy plunge and a surging sound that came to me like a melancholy groan, she disappeared, carrying her lifeless crew with her to that tomb for which they had waited so long.
Chapter XXXIII. The Light In The Gaulton Cave.
The favourable breeze from the northwest continued with little variation for several days after the foundering of the Pilgrim, and I kept the schooner on the one tack, sailing before the wind, with the tiller often tied up for many hours together without my needing to touch it. I contrived, after many failures, to take an observation on the second day, for the sky was then clear, and I had all the necessary appliances excepting only the skill to use the quadrant with a seaman's confidence. I made out that I was to the northwest of the Faroe Islands, and I made no doubt that I should sight one of that group in the course of that same day or the day after.
But such was not to be my good luck. For eight full days and nights I kept on the same course, with a dull, leaden sky above and a mist creeping over the sea, and never a bit of land could I discover, nor any light, whether of beacon or of ship.
On the twelfth day after the sinking of the Pilgrim, however, I saw, to my great joy, a strip of land on the southeastern horizon. I had not the slightest notion whether it belonged to the Faroe or to the Shetland islands, but I fancied it might be the latter. It was a small island with a high rocky coast, and a vast number of sea fowl flying about and above it.
I was some six miles from the island when I noticed a brown-sailed fishing smack bearing out towards me. As the boat came near enough I hailed it. Two men were aboard, and they answered me in good Orkney dialect. They dropped alongside of the Falcon, and I threw them a rope's end.
My first question was to ask them the name of this island. What joy it was to me to hear once more a human voice, to see a fresh and rosy face!
"It's the Fair Isle," said one of them. "We thought you was lost. Where have you been, my lad, all this while past since Davie Flett fell owerboard?"
"What!" I asked, "did Davie come ashore?"
"Ay, did he," said the fisherman; "he was picked up by his own boat, and they brought him ashore here the next morning. We sent three luggers out to seek you yourself, when we heard that you were aboard the Falcon alone, but they could find you nowhere."
The men brought their boat astern and came aboard. I asked them further about Captain Flett, and learned that he, with the mate and Jerry, had only the evening before gone back to Orkney in a Kirkwall fishing sloop.
The two Fair Islanders then helped me to take the Falcon into their small landlocked haven, where, having supplied the good people with an abundance of provisions, I engaged the services of three fishermen to help me with the schooner back to Stromness, and on the morning following we set sail.
It was well that I got this timely assistance, and that I was not suffered to remain any longer alone on the Falcon, for on leaving Fair Isle we encountered boisterous weather. For two days we were tossed about on the great, white-crested waves of the open sea, and frequent showers of hail and sleet added to our discomfort. The storm abated somewhat as the rocky shores of Pomona hove in sight, and soon the familiar bay of Skaill and the cliffs of my native parish seaboard showed me that the voyage was approaching a welcome end.
It was evening when the schooner passed abreast of the rocks of Yeskenaby, and now I watched eagerly for the light in the windows of Lyndardy farm. As I looked landward, however, I observed something through the growing darkness that excited considerable wonder in my mind. Low down in the North Gaulton cliffs I noticed a peculiar hazy light. Presently it grew brighter and developed into a flickering flame and then disappeared. The light was not seen by any of my crew; but from its position I judged that it proceeded from a torch which someone was using in that cave in the cliff wherein Thora and I had met with our adventure some weeks before.
Chapter XXXIV. Colin Lothian Makes An Accusation.
When I went ashore at Stromness I found that Captain Flett, who had landed in Orkney three or four days before me, had not yet come over from Kirkwall; so next morning I paid off my three Fair Islanders, who went over by land to Kirkwall, intending to return to their home by the sloop that had brought my skipper and shipmates.
I saw the schooner safely moored in the bay, with her cabin door locked and her hatchway closed, and then went up home to Lyndardy. My mother and Jessie had already heard that the Falcon had come into the harbour; they gave me a very warm welcome from this my first voyage, and listened with interest and surprise to the things I had to tell them.
On my way through the town the following morning I chanced to meet my old schoolmaster, who walked along with me as far as the quay. He had two things that he wished to tell me: the one being that his written account of Jarl Haffling's remains had been read before the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh, and was to be printed in the Society's Transactions; the other matter being that proceedings were, he believed, very soon to be taken against Tom Kinlay for having appropriated a part of the viking's treasure.
When we had spoken of these matters, there was much for me to tell the dominie; but as it was too cold for us to stand on the quay, I took him with me aboard the schooner, where I had some advice to ask him regarding my course in reporting the loss of the Pilgrim to the underwriters. Seated in the cabin I told him my adventure, and showed him all the books and papers I had taken from the barque before she went down. He gave me what simple instruction I required, and offered to help me in preparing my report for Lloyd's agent. With this purpose in view I permitted Mr. Drever to take the log book ashore with him, as well as the little chest that I had taken from the captain's room on board the Pilgrim.
I was pushing off from the pier, having put the dominie ashore, when I heard myself called, and there, at the head of the piers stood my skipper, Davie Flett, newly arrived from Kirkwall. How thankful I was to see his familiar stumpy figure again I need not say.
He was coming down towards me when Carver Kinlay accosted him, and kept him in conversation. But I approached the two men, taking Flett by the hand.
He gave little notice to me beyond a very ordinary greeting; but I saw by his eyes that he was glad enough to see me, only that he probably had some business to talk over with the pilot. I stood by them, wishing they would be done.
"And how's business in the islands, Davie?" said Kinlay in an offhand tone.
"Fairly weel! fairly weel!" said the captain. "Nothing to complain o', ye ken."
"Ay, I see!" said Carver; "no sae weel but ye might do better, eh? I'm thinkin', Davie, ye need to open up a new line o' business among the crofters."
"Ah! and what business is that, pilot?" asked Flett.
"Oh, I dinna just ken that, but ye canna aye sail on the same tack. Now, supposin', for instance, ye were to start something in the liquor line. Ye have grand facilities for that, have ye not?"
"I'll not deny that I have the facilities," observed Flett, with a curious twinkle in his eye. "But ye see, pilot, there's no demand for liquor in the islands. What for would I tak' spirits to the crofters when the poor folk canna more than pay for their bannocks?"
"Why, man alive, ye can surely make a demand? Just carry a good supply of spirits in yer schooner, and I warrant ye'll do a grand trade."
"Ye're maybe no far wrang there," said Davie thoughtfully. "But then, there's another difficulty, pilot; where will the spirits come from?"
"Why, man," said Kinlay, lowering his voice, "that's just the simplest part o' the whole business. Think ye that no whisky comes into Stromness forbye what gangs to Oliver Gray's? Why, man, if it came to that, I could undertake to supply ye mysel' on the most easy terms."
"Ay, like enough," returned Flett, with a look in his face that Carver did not observe. "Like enough—excise paid, of course?"
"Oh! we needna say anything about the excise, Davie," said the pilot, looking uneasy. "What does't matter about the excise?"
Davie Flett quietly stroked his bristly chin, saying:
"Weel, Carver Kinlay, it's the first time I have heard of a pilot having a hand in that business. But, no doubt, a pilot has grand facilities. However that may be, I'm not sure that the Orkney crofters would welcome such a new line of business. Anyway, I have more respect for the crofters and for their poor families than to think of starting such a damnable traffic; nor am I in the least disposed to turn a schooner of mine into a floating grog shop. Good morning, pilot!"
Kinlay winced visibly under this taunting speech of the trading captain. Evidently he had mistaken his man in supposing that Flett would descend to his own level, and aid in promoting the nefarious traffic he suggested. Davie Flett's intimate knowledge of the Orcadians, and the nature of his commerce with them, would certainly have made it easy for him to do a considerable retail trade. But, as I well knew, the skipper of the Falcon had systematically avoided including spirits in his stock of marketable commodities. Though himself no enemy to an occasional dram on a cold night, he knew too well the evil effects that would probably follow the introduction of strong drink among the innocent islanders, who, for the most part, had the greatest difficulty in gaining a simple livelihood. Even apart from his moral scruples, Davie Flett had excellent reasons for rejecting Kinlay's singular proposal.
One thing that I gathered from this conversation was the suspicion that Carver, who had often posed as a very innocent man, was, either directly or indirectly, in league with the smugglers of Scapa Flow. That could be the only way in which he could obtain spirits or other illicit goods at a lower rate than through the ordinary channels of commerce; and the pilot's evasion of the question regarding excise almost confirmed my suspicions.
Kinlay walked slowly away, and when he had disappeared, Davie Flett turned round to me with open arms as though he would embrace me.
"Halcro, my lad," said he, "I am real glad to see you. Thank the Lord ye're safe!"
"I might say the same to you, captain," said I. "How were ye rescued, and where are Peter and Jerry?"
"Peter and Jerry are at Oliver Gray's," he answered. "Come, let us join them. As for mysel', why, there's nothing much to tell. I was picked up by the boat ten minutes after I dropped owerboard. We searched about for you all night. But ye mind what a mist was ower the sea. It was no wonder we lost sight of the schooner. But ye're safe, and that's a blessing."
The skipper then began to ask me a multitude of questions concerning the behaviour of the schooner. But we were now passing through the narrow street and I was interrupted; for we overtook old Colin Lothian, the wandering beggar, who was trudging along over the frost-covered stones with his dog at his heels.
"Weel, Colin, auld crony," exclaimed the skipper as we came alongside the old man, "you're aye travelling. Think you we're to have some more snow?"
"Nay, captain, I dinna think it; the wind's ower high for that," the wanderer replied, looking up at the dull sky above Gray's signboard.
"Then if it isna snow it'll be a night o' hard frost," said the skipper. "Will ye come in and take something to warm ye, Colin?"
And Colin silently complied.
Entering the inn we found a goodly number of men gathered round the cosy stove with steaming glasses before them. Most of them were men of Pomona; but I noticed also a young man who sat somewhat apart from the rest, and in him, despite the absence of naval uniform, I had little difficulty in recognizing Lieutenant Fox of the Clasper, who had boarded the Falcon some weeks before in the Sound of Hoxa.
Then, too, there were Peter and Jerry, both of whom welcomed me with many words of kindness, and made room for me beside them.
Captain Flett ordered Oliver to bring in a glass of hot rum for himself, and two mugs of coffee for Lothian and me; and we had not been seated long before Peter Brown inquired of me the particulars of my solitary voyage in the Falcon. At first very few of the men paid much attention to my narrative, but when I came to the discovery of the ship that had been imprisoned in the ice, and told about the man I saw through the porthole, they all drew their chairs nearer to me and listened with rapt attention. When I spoke about the dead captain's wife, and said that her features were still lifelike, there was a murmur of incredulity; none of the men would believe that I was not romancing. But the young lieutenant here interposed.
"Let the lad go on with his yarn," he said. "Believe me it's quite possible that the woman's face should show no signs of death. I have known frost and ice preserve a dead body for many months."
With that they were quieted. But again, when I spoke of the log book and said that the ship had been enclosed in the ice for thirteen years, even the lieutenant seemed to disbelieve me.
"Thirteen years!" he exclaimed. "Come now, come, draw it mild, my lad, that won't do at all, you've mistaken the writing somehow. Show us the log book and then we'll believe it."
"I'm sure I did not mistake, sir," I protested, "for the writing was as plain as plain could be,
"'New Year's Day, 1831. The ice still closing in on us. Opened last bag of biscuits. Murray died this morning.'
"These were the very words, and I'll show you them if—"
Here I felt a trembling hand clasped on my knee, and Peter asked excitedly, "What name did you say? Was it Murray?"
"Murray! yes, that was the man who died on New Year's Day."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Peter. "Tell me, what was the name of the ship? Did you not find that out?"
"Why, yes, Peter, I saw her name. She was called the Pilgrim—of Bristol."
Peter became excited, and a strange pallor came over his face.
"Why, what's come ower you, Peter?" asked Captain Flett. "D'ye know the craft?"
"Know her!" said Peter; "I should think I did. She was my own ship. I sailed in the Pilgrim as second mate for three years, and I started with her on that same last voyage."
It was now my turn to show surprise.
"Your ship, Peter!" I said.
"Yes," he continued. "We sailed out of Bristol in the month of February, 1830, bound for Copenhagen, calling at Iceland. But off the Lewis—or was it Cape Wrath?—I had some o' my bones broken, and they put me ashore at Kirkwall."
"Yes, she called at Kirkwall," I said. "I saw that on the chart."
"That was just before I joined the Falcon, captain," continued Peter, turning to Flett. "I mind them all, those dead folk, even to the dog that Ericson has told us about—a retriever named Bounce. Our skipper was a Dane named Thomassen, and his wife sailed with us that voyage. She was as fine a woman as ever I see in Denmark. Murray was the first mate, and the man Ericson saw through the porthole can have been none other than Jenkins, the supercargo; he belonged to Bristol. The only thing that puzzles me is the man that Ericson saw lying in the captain's room."
"Maybe he went aboard in Iceland, Peter—a passenger," suggested Flett. "Ye canna tell."
"Ay, that'll just be it," mused Peter, "a passenger, no doubt. Ay, I well believe that will just be what he was."
Lieutenant Fox at this point moved away from the circle to get a light for his pipe at the stove. He stood behind us listening to a conversation between Colin Lothian and Jack Paterson; and as Peter Brown lapsed into silent meditation I diverted my own attention to what Colin and Jack were saying.
"Ay, Colin, but that's news," said Paterson. "And so Harry Ewan has fallen into their hands at last, eh!"
"Ay, just that," said Lothian. "I was over at Clestron yestreen, and they were telling me that just as Harry was slipping round into the Bay of Houton, thinking, no doubt, that everything was clear for the landin' o' his cargo, the revenue boat came out from behind the Holm, like a hawk on a ferret. Ye may be sure, Jack, that Harry and his crew didna give in without a fight for it; but the navy lads had the upper hand at last, and, what was more to their purpose, they found in Ewan's lugger five gallant casks o' whisky, not to speak o' half a dozen rolls o' tobacco, and I dinna ken how muckle salt and candles."
Lothian had raised his voice, and several of the men had moved closer to him to hear the particulars of this raid upon one of the known smugglers of Scapa Flow. So much, indeed, was the general attention occupied that none of the men seemed to regard the entrance of yet another person into the inn parlour. This was none other than Tom Kinlay, who, with his great boots and pea jacket on and his sou'wester hat, looked as big a man as any of them.
For a moment he hesitated, on seeing the young naval officer, but, emboldened by Mr. Fox's disguised appearance, he took up a position where he could hear all that was being said.
"I canna think what had put the revenue men on the track o' the smugglers," a fisherman was saying. "Surely if any man carried the game on secretly it was Harry Ewan."
"What's to hinder them finding out?" said Jack Paterson. "Why, I ken'd it lang syne, though it isna ony business o' mine to ken."
"Ah!" put in Lothian, with the air of one who was well acquainted with the subject, "it's not the most cautious that are least suspected o' breakin' the law. Now, I ken a man that not one here would suspect, an' he has been carryin' on the business underhand this many a day. But tak' my word for it, the fox has his eye on him for all that, and it isna long before he'll be dropped on the same as Harry Ewan."
Lieutenant Fox stepped a little nearer to the speakers.
"Oho!" exclaimed Jack Paterson; "and who may that be now, Colin?"
"Weel," replied the wanderer, "it isna for me just to say, though I wouldna lift a hand to save ony smuggling rogue. But I ken o' a fine hole in the face o' the clifts o' Gaulton, that would suit a smuggler grandly for stowing away a few casks o' whisky in. Sandy Ericson was another that ken'd it. But Sandy was an honest man."
"What!" said Paterson; "d'ye mean the cave that Sandy found Carver Kinlay in, after the wreck o' the Undine?"
"Ay," said Colin.
"Then Kinlay kens o' the cave?" continued Jack.
"Doubtless," said Colin.
David Flett raised his eyebrows at this, and I thought of his conversation with the pilot.
"It's no' possible that Carver has ony hand in the smuggling, is it, Colin?" he observed.
"Weel, captain, I wonldna like to assert publicly that Carver is a smuggler himself," said Colin; "but I shouldna be surprised though it turn out as I suspect."
"It's a lie ye tell!" furiously exclaimed Tom Kinlay, suddenly revealing himself, and shaking his fist in Lothian's face. "It's a lie ye tell, ye drivelling auld idiot! And if ye canna prove what ye say, maybe ye'll deny it?"
Colin Lothian stood up and said coolly:
"Now just hold yer tongue, Kinlay. I ken mair then I hae said. And as to denyin' it, that I willna do. Nay, threaten as ye will, I carena. What I say is perfectly true. Carver Kinlay's a smuggler!"
Tom Kinlay bit the stem of his clay pipe so hard that it broke in his mouth, so great was his rage. Then, as though words of denial were of no use, he took to the more cowardly argument of violence, and, hissing the words, "Ye auld liar, take that," raised his hand, and struck a blow at Colin Lothian's face.
But Jack Paterson knocked up the lad's arm, and caught Tom round the waist, dragging him forcibly away.
"What! ye young scamp, would ye strike an auld man?" he said.
And he raised Tom Kinlay in his strong arms high in air, and almost threw him out at the open door.
"That was smartly done, my man," said Lieutenant Fox. "I wish we had a few such fellows as you aboard the Clasper."
And thus revealing himself, the officer finished his drink and leisurely left us.
"Who's that chap just gone out?" asked Paterson.
"It's Lieutenant Fox of the Clasper," I said.
"If that be so, then," said Colin, "it seems to me he has gone away wiser than he came."
"Ay," said Paterson; "it's no use wonderin' how the revenue lads get to ken about the smugglers, if that be the way they set about it."
Shortly afterwards we went aboard the Falcon, and the rest of the day was spent in cleaning up after the voyage, and in balancing our accounts. In this latter occupation I think my assistance was not without value to Davie Flett, whose system of bookkeeping was original and peculiar, involving a large use of hieroglyphics, which were not always clear even to the skipper himself.
That evening when I tramped over the moor to Lyndardy the snow fell heavily—a driving, drifting snow that penetrated into every cranny it had access to, and collected in deep wreaths on meadow and moor. The cold wind blew hard from the north, carrying the fine snow past me in great clouds that curled and swept along the hard ground, forming in some places high barriers that were almost impassable, in other places leaving the ground perfectly bare.
Chapter XXXV. A Search And A Discovery.
All through that night the snow fell unceasingly, and the drifts grew deeper and deeper in the hollows.
At bedtime, after our chapter from the Bible had been read, my mother barred the door, and said:
"Let us be thankful, bairns, that we are all at home this night. I couldna sleep in my bed if I thought there was kith or kin o' mine outside on such a night o' blind drift. It's just terrible."