The Merry Men, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter 2

What the Wreck had Brought to Aros.

IT was half-flood when I got the length of Aros; and there was nothing for it but to stand on the far shore and whistle for Rorie with the boat. I had no need to repeat the signal. At the first sound, Mary was at the door flying a handkerchief by way of answer, and the old long-legged serving-man was shambling down the gravel to the pier. For all his hurry, it took him a long while to pull across the bay; and I observed him several times to pause, go into the stern, and look over curiously into the wake. As he came nearer, he seemed to me aged and haggard, and I thought he avoided my eye. The coble had been repaired, with two new thwarts and several patches of some rare and beautiful foreign wood, the name of it unknown to me.

‘Why, Rorie,’ said I, as we began the return voyage, ‘this is fine wood. How came you by that?’

‘It will be hard to cheesel,’ Rorie opined reluctantly; and just then, dropping the oars, he made another of those dives into the stern which I had remarked as he came across to fetch me, and, leaning his hand on my shoulder, stared with an awful look into the waters of the bay.

‘What is wrong?’ I asked, a good deal startled.

‘It will be a great feesh,’ said the old man, returning to his oars; and nothing more could I get out of him, but strange glances and an ominous nodding of the head. In spite of myself, I was infected with a measure of uneasiness; I turned also, and studied the wake. The water was still and transparent, but, out here in the middle of the bay, exceeding deep. For some time I could see naught; but at last it did seem to me as if something dark — a great fish, or perhaps only a shadow — followed studiously in the track of the moving coble. And then I remembered one of Rorie’s superstitions: how in a ferry in Morven, in some great, exterminating feud among the clans; a fish, the like of it unknown in all our waters, followed for some years the passage of the ferry-boat, until no man dared to make the crossing.

‘He will be waiting for the right man,’ said Rorie.

Mary met me on the beach, and led me up the brae and into the house of Aros. Outside and inside there were many changes. The garden was fenced with the same wood that I had noted in the boat; there were chairs in the kitchen covered with strange brocade; curtains of brocade hung from the window; a clock stood silent on the dresser; a lamp of brass was swinging from the roof; the table was set for dinner with the finest of linen and silver; and all these new riches were displayed in the plain old kitchen that I knew so well, with the high-backed settle, and the stools, and the closet bed for Rorie; with the wide chimney the sun shone into, and the clear-smouldering peats; with the pipes on the mantelshelf and the three-cornered spittoons, filled with sea-shells instead of sand, on the floor; with the bare stone walls and the bare wooden floor, and the three patchwork rugs that were of yore its sole adornment — poor man’s patchwork, the like of it unknown in cities, woven with homespun, and Sunday black, and sea-cloth polished on the bench of rowing. The room, like the house, had been a sort of wonder in that country-side, it was so neat and habitable; and to see it now, shamed by these incongruous additions, filled me with indignation and a kind of anger. In view of the errand I had come upon to Aros, the feeling was baseless and unjust; but it burned high, at the first moment, in my heart.

‘Mary, girl,’ said I, ‘this is the place I had learned to call my home, and I do not know it.’

‘It is my home by nature, not by the learning,’ she replied; ‘the place I was born and the place I’m like to die in; and I neither like these changes, nor the way they came, nor that which came with them. I would have liked better, under God’s pleasure, they had gone down into the sea, and the Merry Men were dancing on them now.’

Mary was always serious; it was perhaps the only trait that she shared with her father; but the tone with which she uttered these words was even graver than of custom.

‘Ay,’ said I, ‘I feared it came by wreck, and that’s by death; yet when my father died, I took his goods without remorse.’

‘Your father died a clean strae death, as the folk say,’ said Mary.

‘True,’ I returned; ‘and a wreck is like a judgment. What was she called?’

‘They ca’d her the CHRIST-ANNA,’ said a voice behind me; and, turning round, I saw my uncle standing in the doorway.

He was a sour, small, bilious man, with a long face and very dark eyes; fifty-six years old, sound and active in body, and with an air somewhat between that of a shepherd and that of a man following the sea. He never laughed, that I heard; read long at the Bible; prayed much, like the Cameronians he had been brought up among; and indeed, in many ways, used to remind me of one of the hill-preachers in the killing times before the Revolution. But he never got much comfort, nor even, as I used to think, much guidance, by his piety. He had his black fits when he was afraid of hell; but he had led a rough life, to which he would look back with envy, and was still a rough, cold, gloomy man.

As he came in at the door out of the sunlight, with his bonnet on his head and a pipe hanging in his button-hole, he seemed, like Rorie, to have grown older and paler, the lines were deeplier ploughed upon his face, and the whites of his eyes were yellow, like old stained ivory, or the bones of the dead.

‘Ay’ he repeated, dwelling upon the first part of the word, ‘the CHRIST-ANNA. It’s an awfu’ name.’

I made him my salutations, and complimented him upon his look of health; for I feared he had perhaps been ill.

‘I’m in the body,’ he replied, ungraciously enough; ‘aye in the body and the sins of the body, like yoursel’. Denner,’ he said abruptly to Mary, and then ran on to me: ‘They’re grand braws, thir that we hae gotten, are they no? Yon’s a bonny knock 2, but it’ll no gang; and the napery’s by ordnar. Bonny, bairnly braws; it’s for the like o’ them folk sells the peace of God that passeth understanding; it’s for the like o’ them, an’ maybe no even sae muckle worth, folk daunton God to His face and burn in muckle hell; and it’s for that reason the Scripture ca’s them, as I read the passage, the accursed thing. Mary, ye girzie,’ he interrupted himself to cry with some asperity, ‘what for hae ye no put out the twa candlesticks?’

2 Clock

‘Why should we need them at high noon?’ she asked.

But my uncle was not to be turned from his idea. ‘We’ll bruik 3 them while we may,’ he said; and so two massive candlesticks of wrought silver were added to the table equipage, already so unsuited to that rough sea-side farm.

3 Enjoy.

‘She cam’ ashore Februar’ 10, about ten at nicht,’ he went on to me. ‘There was nae wind, and a sair run o’ sea; and she was in the sook o’ the Roost, as I jaloose. We had seen her a’ day, Rorie and me, beating to the wind. She wasnae a handy craft, I’m thinking, that CHRIST-ANNA; for she would neither steer nor stey wi’ them. A sair day they had of it; their hands was never aff the sheets, and it perishin’ cauld — ower cauld to snaw; and aye they would get a bit nip o’ wind, and awa’ again, to pit the emp’y hope into them. Eh, man! but they had a sair day for the last o’t! He would have had a prood, prood heart that won ashore upon the back o’ that.’

‘And were all lost?’ I cried. ‘God held them!’

‘Wheesht!’ he said sternly. ‘Nane shall pray for the deid on my hearth-stane.’

I disclaimed a Popish sense for my ejaculation; and he seemed to accept my disclaimer with unusual facility, and ran on once more upon what had evidently become a favourite subject.

‘We fand her in Sandag Bay, Rorie an’ me, and a’ thae braws in the inside of her. There’s a kittle bit, ye see, about Sandag; whiles the sook rins strong for the Merry Men; an’ whiles again, when the tide’s makin’ hard an’ ye can hear the Roost blawin’ at the far-end of Aros, there comes a back-spang of current straucht into Sandag Bay. Weel, there’s the thing that got the grip on the CHRIST-ANNA. She but to have come in ram-stam an’ stern forrit; for the bows of her are aften under, and the back-side of her is clear at hie-water o’ neaps. But, man! the dunt that she cam doon wi’ when she struck! Lord save us a’! but it’s an unco life to be a sailor — a cauld, wanchancy life. Mony’s the gliff I got mysel’ in the great deep; and why the Lord should hae made yon unco water is mair than ever I could win to understand. He made the vales and the pastures, the bonny green yaird, the halesome, canty land —

And now they shout and sing to Thee, For Thou hast made them glad,

as the Psalms say in the metrical version. No that I would preen my faith to that clink neither; but it’s bonny, and easier to mind. “Who go to sea in ships,” they hae’t again —

And in Great waters trading be, Within the deep these men God’s works And His great wonders see.

Weel, it’s easy sayin’ sae. Maybe Dauvit wasnae very weel acquant wi’ the sea. But, troth, if it wasnae prentit in the Bible, I wad whiles be temp’it to think it wasnae the Lord, but the muckle, black deil that made the sea. There’s naething good comes oot o’t but the fish; an’ the spentacle o’ God riding on the tempest, to be shure, whilk would be what Dauvit was likely ettling at. But, man, they were sair wonders that God showed to the CHRIST-ANNA— wonders, do I ca’ them? Judgments, rather: judgments in the mirk nicht among the draygons o’ the deep. And their souls — to think o’ that — their souls, man, maybe no prepared! The sea — a muckle yett to hell!’

I observed, as my uncle spoke, that his voice was unnaturally moved and his manner unwontedly demonstrative. He leaned forward at these last words, for example, and touched me on the knee with his spread fingers, looking up into my face with a certain pallor, and I could see that his eyes shone with a deep-seated fire, and that the lines about his mouth were drawn and tremulous.

Even the entrance of Rorie, and the beginning of our meal, did not detach him from his train of thought beyond a moment. He condescended, indeed, to ask me some questions as to my success at college, but I thought it was with half his mind; and even in his extempore grace, which was, as usual, long and wandering, I could find the trace of his preoccupation, praying, as he did, that God would ‘remember in mercy fower puir, feckless, fiddling, sinful creatures here by their lee-lane beside the great and dowie waters.’

Soon there came an interchange of speeches between him and Rorie.

‘Was it there?’ asked my uncle.

‘Ou, ay!’ said Rorie.

I observed that they both spoke in a manner of aside, and with some show of embarrassment, and that Mary herself appeared to colour, and looked down on her plate. Partly to show my knowledge, and so relieve the party from an awkward strain, partly because I was curious, I pursued the subject.

‘You mean the fish?’ I asked.

‘Whatten fish?’ cried my uncle. ‘Fish, quo’ he! Fish! Your een are fu’ o’ fatness, man; your heid dozened wi’ carnal leir. Fish! it’s a bogle!’

He spoke with great vehemence, as though angry; and perhaps I was not very willing to be put down so shortly, for young men are disputatious. At least I remember I retorted hotly, crying out upon childish superstitions.

‘And ye come frae the College!’ sneered Uncle Gordon. ‘Gude kens what they learn folk there; it’s no muckle service onyway. Do ye think, man, that there’s naething in a’ yon saut wilderness o’ a world oot wast there, wi’ the sea grasses growin’, an’ the sea beasts fechtin’, an’ the sun glintin’ down into it, day by day? Na; the sea’s like the land, but fearsomer. If there’s folk ashore, there’s folk in the sea — deid they may be, but they’re folk whatever; and as for deils, there’s nane that’s like the sea deils. There’s no sae muckle harm in the land deils, when a’s said and done. Lang syne, when I was a callant in the south country, I mind there was an auld, bald bogle in the Peewie Moss. I got a glisk o’ him mysel’, sittin’ on his hunkers in a hag, as gray’s a tombstane. An’, troth, he was a fearsome-like taed. But he steered naebody. Nae doobt, if ane that was a reprobate, ane the Lord hated, had gane by there wi’ his sin still upon his stamach, nae doobt the creature would hae lowped upo’ the likes o’ him. But there’s deils in the deep sea would yoke on a communicant! Eh, sirs, if ye had gane doon wi’ the puir lads in the CHRIST-ANNA, ye would ken by now the mercy o’ the seas. If ye had sailed it for as lang as me, ye would hate the thocht of it as I do. If ye had but used the een God gave ye, ye would hae learned the wickedness o’ that fause, saut, cauld, bullering creature, and of a’ that’s in it by the Lord’s permission: labsters an’ partans, an’ sic like, howking in the deid; muckle, gutsy, blawing whales; an’ fish — the hale clan o’ them — cauld-wamed, blind-eed uncanny ferlies. O, sirs,’ he cried, ‘the horror — the horror o’ the sea!’

We were all somewhat staggered by this outburst; and the speaker himself, after that last hoarse apostrophe, appeared to sink gloomily into his own thoughts. But Rorie, who was greedy of superstitious lore, recalled him to the subject by a question.

‘You will not ever have seen a teevil of the sea?’ he asked.

‘No clearly,’ replied the other. ‘I misdoobt if a mere man could see ane clearly and conteenue in the body. I hae sailed wi’ a lad — they ca’d him Sandy Gabart; he saw ane, shure eneueh, an’ shure eneueh it was the end of him. We were seeven days oot frae the Clyde — a sair wark we had had — gaun north wi’ seeds an’ braws an’ things for the Macleod. We had got in ower near under the Cutchull’ns, an’ had just gane about by soa, an’ were off on a lang tack, we thocht would maybe hauld as far’s Copnahow. I mind the nicht weel; a mune smoored wi’ mist; a fine gaun breeze upon the water, but no steedy; an’ — what nane o’ us likit to hear — anither wund gurlin’ owerheid, amang thae fearsome, auld stane craigs o’ the Cutchull’ns. Weel, Sandy was forrit wi’ the jib sheet; we couldnae see him for the mains’l, that had just begude to draw, when a’ at ance he gied a skirl. I luffed for my life, for I thocht we were ower near Soa; but na, it wasnae that, it was puir Sandy Gabart’s deid skreigh, or near hand, for he was deid in half an hour. A’t he could tell was that a sea deil, or sea bogle, or sea spenster, or sic-like, had clum up by the bowsprit, an’ gi’en him ae cauld, uncanny look. An’, or the life was oot o’ Sandy’s body, we kent weel what the thing betokened, and why the wund gurled in the taps o’ the Cutchull’ns; for doon it cam’ — a wund do I ca’ it! it was the wund o’ the Lord’s anger — an’ a’ that nicht we foucht like men dementit, and the niest that we kenned we were ashore in Loch Uskevagh, an’ the cocks were crawin’ in Benbecula.’

‘It will have been a merman,’ Rorie said.

‘A merman!’ screamed my uncle with immeasurable scorn. ‘Auld wives’ clavers! There’s nae sic things as mermen.’

‘But what was the creature like?’ I asked.

‘What like was it? Gude forbid that we suld ken what like it was! It had a kind of a heid upon it — man could say nae mair.’

Then Rorie, smarting under the affront, told several tales of mermen, mermaids, and sea-horses that had come ashore upon the islands and attacked the crews of boats upon the sea; and my uncle, in spite of his incredulity, listened with uneasy interest.

‘Aweel, aweel,’ he said, ‘it may be sae; I may be wrang; but I find nae word o’ mermen in the Scriptures.’

‘And you will find nae word of Aros Roost, maybe,’ objected Rorie, and his argument appeared to carry weight.

When dinner was over, my uncle carried me forth with him to a bank behind the house. It was a very hot and quiet afternoon; scarce a ripple anywhere upon the sea, nor any voice but the familiar voice of sheep and gulls; and perhaps in consequence of this repose in nature, my kinsman showed himself more rational and tranquil than before. He spoke evenly and almost cheerfully of my career, with every now and then a reference to the lost ship or the treasures it had brought to Aros. For my part, I listened to him in a sort of trance, gazing with all my heart on that remembered scene, and drinking gladly the sea-air and the smoke of peats that had been lit by Mary.

Perhaps an hour had passed when my uncle, who had all the while been covertly gazing on the surface of the little bay, rose to his feet and bade me follow his example. Now I should say that the great run of tide at the south-west end of Aros exercises a perturbing influence round all the coast. In Sandag Bay, to the south, a strong current runs at certain periods of the flood and ebb respectively; but in this northern bay — Aros Bay, as it is called — where the house stands and on which my uncle was now gazing, the only sign of disturbance is towards the end of the ebb, and even then it is too slight to be remarkable. When there is any swell, nothing can be seen at all; but when it is calm, as it often is, there appear certain strange, undecipherable marks — sea-runes, as we may name them — on the glassy surface of the bay. The like is common in a thousand places on the coast; and many a boy must have amused himself as I did, seeking to read in them some reference to himself or those he loved. It was to these marks that my uncle now directed my attention, struggling, as he did so, with an evident reluctance.

‘Do ye see yon scart upo’ the water?’ he inquired; ‘yon ane wast the gray stane? Ay? Weel, it’ll no be like a letter, wull it?’

‘Certainly it is,’ I replied. ‘I have often remarked it. It is like a C.’

He heaved a sigh as if heavily disappointed with my answer, and then added below his breath: ‘Ay, for the CHRIST-ANNA.’

‘I used to suppose, sir, it was for myself,’ said I; ‘for my name is Charles.’

‘And so ye saw’t afore?’, he ran on, not heeding my remark. ‘Weel, weel, but that’s unco strange. Maybe, it’s been there waitin’, as a man wad say, through a’ the weary ages. Man, but that’s awfu’.’ And then, breaking off: ‘Ye’ll no see anither, will ye?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ said I. ‘I see another very plainly, near the Ross side, where the road comes down — an M.’

‘An M,’ he repeated very low; and then, again after another pause: ‘An’ what wad ye make o’ that?’ he inquired.

‘I had always thought it to mean Mary, sir,’ I answered, growing somewhat red, convinced as I was in my own mind that I was on the threshold of a decisive explanation.

But we were each following his own train of thought to the exclusion of the other’s. My uncle once more paid no attention to my words; only hung his head and held his peace; and I might have been led to fancy that he had not heard me, if his next speech had not contained a kind of echo from my own.

‘I would say naething o’ thae clavers to Mary,’ he observed, and began to walk forward.

There is a belt of turf along the side of Aros Bay, where walking is easy; and it was along this that I silently followed my silent kinsman. I was perhaps a little disappointed at having lost so good an opportunity to declare my love; but I was at the same time far more deeply exercised at the change that had befallen my uncle. He was never an ordinary, never, in the strict sense, an amiable, man; but there was nothing in even the worst that I had known of him before, to prepare me for so strange a transformation. It was impossible to close the eyes against one fact; that he had, as the saying goes, something on his mind; and as I mentally ran over the different words which might be represented by the letter M— misery, mercy, marriage, money, and the like — I was arrested with a sort of start by the word murder. I was still considering the ugly sound and fatal meaning of the word, when the direction of our walk brought us to a point from which a view was to be had to either side, back towards Aros Bay and homestead, and forward on the ocean, dotted to the north with isles, and lying to the southward blue and open to the sky. There my guide came to a halt, and stood staring for awhile on that expanse. Then he turned to me and laid a hand on my arm.

‘Ye think there’s naething there?’ he said, pointing with his pipe; and then cried out aloud, with a kind of exultation: ‘I’ll tell ye, man! The deid are down there — thick like rattons!’

He turned at once, and, without another word, we retraced our steps to the house of Aros.

I was eager to be alone with Mary; yet it was not till after supper, and then but for a short while, that I could have a word with her. I lost no time beating about the bush, but spoke out plainly what was on my mind.

‘Mary,’ I said, ‘I have not come to Aros without a hope. If that should prove well founded, we may all leave and go somewhere else, secure of daily bread and comfort; secure, perhaps, of something far beyond that, which it would seem extravagant in me to promise. But there’s a hope that lies nearer to my heart than money.’ And at that I paused. ‘You can guess fine what that is, Mary,’ I said. She looked away from me in silence, and that was small encouragement, but I was not to be put off. ‘All my days I have thought the world of you,’ I continued; ‘the time goes on and I think always the more of you; I could not think to be happy or hearty in my life without you: you are the apple of my eye.’ Still she looked away, and said never a word; but I thought I saw that her hands shook. ‘Mary,’ I cried in fear, ‘do ye no like me?’

‘O, Charlie man,’ she said, ‘is this a time to speak of it? Let me be, a while; let me be the way I am; it’ll not be you that loses by the waiting!’

I made out by her voice that she was nearly weeping, and this put me out of any thought but to compose her. ‘Mary Ellen,’ I said, ‘say no more; I did not come to trouble you: your way shall be mine, and your time too; and you have told me all I wanted. Only just this one thing more: what ails you?’

She owned it was her father, but would enter into no particulars, only shook her head, and said he was not well and not like himself, and it was a great pity. She knew nothing of the wreck. ‘I havenae been near it,’ said she. ‘What for would I go near it, Charlie lad? The poor souls are gone to their account long syne; and I would just have wished they had ta’en their gear with them — poor souls!’

This was scarcely any great encouragement for me to tell her of the ESPIRITO SANTO; yet I did so, and at the very first word she cried out in surprise. ‘There was a man at Grisapol,’ she said, ‘in the month of May — a little, yellow, black-avised body, they tell me, with gold rings upon his fingers, and a beard; and he was speiring high and low for that same ship.’

It was towards the end of April that I had been given these papers to sort out by Dr. Robertson: and it came suddenly back upon my mind that they were thus prepared for a Spanish historian, or a man calling himself such, who had come with high recommendations to the Principal, on a mission of inquiry as to the dispersion of the great Armada. Putting one thing with another, I fancied that the visitor ‘with the gold rings upon his fingers’ might be the same with Dr. Robertson’s historian from Madrid. If that were so, he would be more likely after treasure for himself than information for a learned society. I made up my mind, I should lose no time over my undertaking; and if the ship lay sunk in Sandag Bay, as perhaps both he and I supposed, it should not be for the advantage of this ringed adventurer, but for Mary and myself, and for the good, old, honest, kindly family of the Darnaways.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848mm/chapter2.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30