The Pirate, by Walter Scott

Chapter 8.

He was a lovely youth, I guess;

The panther in the wilderness

Was not so fair as he;

And when he chose to sport and play,

No dolphin ever was so gay,

Upon the tropic sea.


The light foot of Mordaunt Mertoun was not long of bearing him to Jarlshof. He entered the house hastily, for what he himself had observed that morning, corresponded in some degree with the ideas which Swertha’s tale was calculated to excite. He found his father, however, in the inner apartment, reposing himself after his fatigue; and his first question satisfied him that the good dame had practised a little imposition to get rid of them both.

“Where is this dying man, whom you have so wisely ventured your own neck to relieve?” said the elder Mertoun to the younger.

“Norna, sir,” replied Mordaunt, “has taken him under her charge; she understands such matters.”

“And is quack as well as witch?” said the elder Mertoun. “With all my heart — it is a trouble saved. But I hasted home, on Swertha’s hint, to look out for lint and bandages; for her speech was of broken bones.”

Mordaunt kept silence, well knowing his father would not persevere in his enquiries upon such a matter, and not willing either to prejudice the old governante, or to excite his father to one of those excesses of passion into which he was apt to burst, when, contrary to his wont, he thought proper to correct the conduct of his domestic.

It was late in the day ere old Swertha returned from her expedition, heartily fatigued, and bearing with her a bundle of some bulk, containing, it would seem, her share of the spoil. Mordaunt instantly sought her out, to charge her with the deceits she had practised on both his father and himself; but the accused matron lacked not her reply.

“By her troth;” she said, “she thought it was time to bid Mr. Mertoun gang hame and get bandages, when she had seen, with her ain twa een, Mordaunt ganging down the cliff like a wild-cat — it was to be thought broken bones would be the end, and lucky if bandages wad do any good; — and, by her troth, she might weel tell Mordaunt his father was puirly, and him looking sae white in the gills, (whilk, she wad die upon it, was the very word she used,) and it was a thing that couldna be denied by man at this very moment.”

“But, Swertha,” said Mordaunt, as soon as her clamorous defence gave him time to speak in reply, “how came you, that should have been busy with your housewifery and your spinning, to be out this morning at Erick’s Steps, in order to take all this unnecessary care of my father and me? — And what is in that bundle, Swertha? for I fear, Swertha, you have been transgressing the law, and have been out upon the wrecking system.”

“Fair fa’ your sonsy face, and the blessing of Saint Ronald upon you!” said Swertha, in a tone betwixt coaxing and jesting; “would you keep a puir body frae mending hersell, and sae muckle gear lying on the loose sand for the lifting? — Hout, Maister Mordaunt, a ship ashore is a sight to wile the minister out of his very pu’pit in the middle of his preaching, muckle mair a puir auld ignorant wife frae her rock and her tow. And little did I get for my day’s wark — just some rags o’ cambric things, and a bit or twa of coorse claith, and sic like — the strong and the hearty get a’ thing in this warld.”

“Yes, Swertha,” replied Mordaunt, “and that is rather hard, as you must have your share of punishment in this world and the next, for robbing the poor mariners.”

“Hout, callant, wha wad punish an auld wife like me for a wheen duds? — Folk speak muckle black ill of Earl Patrick; but he was a freend to the shore, and made wise laws against ony body helping vessels that were like to gang on the breakers.33— And the mariners, I have heard Bryce Jagger say, lose their right frae the time keel touches sand; and, moreover, they are dead and gane, poor souls — dead and gane, and care little about warld’s wealth now — Nay, nae mair than the great Jarls and Sea-kings, in the Norse days, did about the treasures that they buried in the tombs and sepulchres auld langsyne. Did I ever tell you the sang, Maister Mordaunt, how Olaf Tryguarson garr’d hide five gold crowns in the same grave with him?”

“No, Swertha,” said Mordaunt, who took pleasure in tormenting the cunning old plunderer —“you never told me that; but I tell you, that the stranger whom Norna has taken down to the town, will be well enough to-morrow, to ask where you have hidden the goods that you have stolen from the wreck.”

“But wha will tell him a word about it, hinnie?” said Swertha, looking slyly up in her young master’s face —“The mair by token, since I maun tell ye, that I have a bonny remnant of silk amang the lave, that will make a dainty waistcoat to yoursell, the first merry-making ye gang to.”

Mordaunt could no longer forbear laughing at the cunning with which the old dame proposed to bribe off his evidence by imparting a portion of her plunder; and, desiring her to get ready what provision she had made for dinner, he returned to his father, whom he found still sitting in the same place, and nearly in the same posture, in which he had left him.

When their hasty and frugal meal was finished, Mordaunt announced to his father his purpose of going down to the town, or hamlet, to look after the shipwrecked sailor.

The elder Mertoun assented with a nod.

“He must be ill accommodated there, sir,” added his son — a hint which only produced another nod of assent. “He seemed, from his appearance,” pursued Mordaunt, “to be of very good rank — and admitting these poor people do their best to receive him, in his present weak state, yet”——

“I know what you would say,” said his father, interrupting him; “we, you think, ought to do something towards assisting him. Go to him, then — if he lacks money, let him name the sum, and he shall have it; but, for lodging the stranger here, and holding intercourse with him, I neither can, nor will do so. I have retired to this farthest extremity of the British isles, to avoid new friends, and new faces, and none such shall intrude on me either their happiness or their misery. When you have known the world half a score of years longer, your early friends will have given you reason to remember them, and to avoid new ones for the rest of your life. Go then — why do you stop? — rid the country of the man — let me see no one about me but those vulgar countenances, the extent and character of whose petty knavery I know, and can submit to, as to an evil too trifling to cause irritation.” He then threw his purse to his son, and signed to him to depart with all speed.

Mordaunt was not long before he reached the village. In the dark abode of Neil Ronaldson, the Ranzelman, he found the stranger seated by the peat-fire, upon the very chest which had excited the cupidity of the devout Bryce Snailsfoot, the pedlar. The Ranzelman himself was absent, dividing, with all due impartiality, the spoils of the wrecked vessel amongst the natives of the community; listening to and redressing their complaints of inequality; and (if the matter in hand had not been, from beginning to end, utterly unjust and indefensible) discharging the part of a wise and prudent magistrate, in all the details. For at this time, and probably until a much later period, the lower orders of the islanders entertained an opinion, common to barbarians also in the same situation, that whatever was cast on their shores, became their indisputable property.

Margery Bimbister, the worthy spouse of the Ranzelman, was in the charge of the house, and introduced Mordaunt to her guest, saying, with no great ceremony, “This is the young tacksman — You will maybe tell him your name, though you will not tell it to us. If it had not been for his four quarters, it’s but little you would have said to any body, sae lang as life lasted.”

The stranger arose, and shook Mordaunt by the hand; observing, he understood that he had been the means of saving his life and his chest. “The rest of the property,” he said, “is, I see, walking the plank; for they are as busy as the devil in a gale of wind.”

“And what was the use of your seamanship, then,” said Margery, “that you couldna keep off the Sumburgh-head? It would have been lang ere Sumburgh-head had come to you.”

“Leave us for a moment, good Margery Bimbister,” said Mordaunt; “I wish to have some private conversation with this gentleman.”

“Gentleman!” said Margery, with an emphasis; “not but the man is well enough to look at,” she added, again surveying him, “but I doubt if there is muckle of the gentleman about him.”

Mordaunt looked at the stranger, and was of a different opinion. He was rather above the middle size, and formed handsomely as well as strongly. Mordaunt’s intercourse with society was not extensive; but he thought his new acquaintance, to a bold sunburnt handsome countenance, which seemed to have faced various climates, added the frank and open manners of a sailor. He answered cheerfully the enquiries which Mordaunt made after his health; and maintained that one night’s rest would relieve him from all the effects of the disaster he had sustained. But he spoke with bitterness of the avarice and curiosity of the Ranzelman and his spouse.

“That chattering old woman,” said the stranger, “has persecuted me the whole day for the name of the ship. I think she might be contented with the share she has had of it. I was the principal owner of the vessel that was lost yonder, and they have left me nothing but my wearing apparel. Is there no magistrate, or justice of the peace, in this wild country, that would lend a hand to help one when he is among the breakers?”

Mordaunt mentioned Magnus Troil, the principal proprietor, as well as the Fowd, or provincial judge, of the district, as the person from whom he was most likely to obtain redress; and regretted that his own youth, and his father’s situation as a retired stranger, should put it out of their power to afford him the protection he required.

“Nay, for your part, you have done enough,” said the sailor; “but if I had five out of the forty brave fellows that are fishes’ food by this time, the devil a man would I ask to do me the right that I could do for myself!”

“Forty hands!” said Mordaunt; “you were well manned for the size of the ship.”

“Not so well as we needed to be. We mounted ten guns, besides chasers; but our cruise on the main had thinned us of men, and lumbered us up with goods. Six of our guns were in ballast — Hands! if I had had enough of hands, we would never have miscarried so infernally. The people were knocked up with working the pumps, and so took to their boats, and left me with the vessel, to sink or swim. But the dogs had their pay, and I can afford to pardon them — The boat swamped in the current — all were lost — and here am I.”

“You had come north about then, from the West Indies?” said Mordaunt.

“Ay, ay; the vessel was the Good Hope of Bristol, a letter of marque. She had fine luck down on the Spanish main, both with commerce and privateering, but the luck’s ended with her now. My name is Clement Cleveland, captain, and part owner, as I said before — I am a Bristol man born — my father was well known on the Tollsell — old Clem Cleveland of the College-green.”

Mordaunt had no right to enquire farther, and yet it seemed to him as if his own mind was but half satisfied. There was an affectation of bluntness, a sort of defiance, in the manner of the stranger, for which circumstances afforded no occasion. Captain Cleveland had suffered injustice from the islanders, but from Mordaunt he had only received kindness and protection; yet he seemed as if he involved all the neighbourhood in the wrongs he complained of. Mordaunt looked down and was silent, doubting whether it would be better to take his leave, or to proceed farther in his offers of assistance. Cleveland seemed to guess at his thoughts, for he immediately added, in a conciliating manner — “I am a plain man, Master Mertoun, for that I understand is your name; and I am a ruined man to boot, and that does not mend one’s good manners. But you have done a kind and friendly part by me, and it may be I think as much of it as if I thanked you more. And so before I leave this place, I’ll give you my fowlingpiece; she will put a hundred swan-shot through a Dutchman’s cap at eighty paces — she will carry ball too — I have hit a wild bull within a hundred-and-fifty yards — but I have two pieces that are as good, or better, so you may keep this for my sake.”

“That would be to take my share of the wreck,” answered Mordaunt, laughing.

“No such matter,” said Cleveland, undoing a case which contained several guns and pistols — “you see I have saved my private arm-chest, as well as my clothes —that the tall old woman in the dark rigging managed for me. And, between ourselves, it is worth all I have lost; for,” he added, lowering his voice, and looking round, “when I speak of being ruined in the hearing of these landsharks, I do not mean ruined stock and block. No, here is something will do more than shoot sea-fowl.” So saying, he pulled out a great ammunition-pouch marked swan-shot, and showed Mordaunt, hastily, that it was full of Spanish pistoles and Portagues (as the broad Portugal pieces were then called.) “No, no,” he added, with a smile, “I have ballast enough to trim the vessel again; and now, will you take the piece?”

“Since you are willing to give it me,” said Mordaunt, laughing, “with all my heart. I was just going to ask you in my father’s name,” he added, showing his purse, “whether you wanted any of that same ballast.”

“Thanks, but you see I am provided — take my old acquaintance, and may she serve you as well as she has served me; but you will never make so good a voyage with her. You can shoot, I suppose?”

“Tolerably well,” said Mordaunt, admiring the piece, which was a beautiful Spanish-barrelled gun, inlaid with gold, small in the bore, and of unusual length, such as is chiefly used for shooting sea-fowl, and for ball-practice.

“With slugs,” continued the donor, “never gun shot closer; and with single ball, you may kill a seal two hundred yards at sea from the top of the highest peak of this iron-bound coast of yours. But I tell you again, that the old rattler will never do you the service she has done me.”

“I shall not use her so dexterously, perhaps,” said Mordaunt.

“Umph! — perhaps not,” replied Cleveland; “but that is not the question. What say you to shooting the man at the wheel, just as we run aboard of a Spaniard? So the Don was taken aback, and we laid him athwart the hawse, and carried her cutlass in hand; and worth the while she was — stout brigantine — El Santo Francisco — bound for Porto Bello, with gold and negroes. That little bit of lead was worth twenty thousand pistoles.”

“I have shot at no such game as yet,” said Mordaunt.

“Well, all in good time; we cannot weigh till the tide makes. But you are a tight, handsome, active young man. What is to ail you to take a trip after some of this stuff?” laying his hand on the bag of gold.

“My father talks of my travelling soon,” replied Mordaunt, who, born to hold men-of-wars-men in great respect, felt flattered by this invitation from one who appeared a thorough-bred seaman.

“I respect him for the thought,” said the Captain; “and I will visit him before I weigh anchor. I have a consort off these islands, and be cursed to her. She’ll find me out somewhere, though she parted company in the bit of a squall, unless she is gone to Davy Jones too. — Well, she was better found than we, and not so deep loaded — she must have weathered it. We’ll have a hammock slung for you aboard, and make a sailor and a man of you in the same trip.”

“I should like it well enough,” said Mordaunt, who eagerly longed to see more of the world than his lonely situation had hitherto permitted; “but then my father must decide.”

“Your father? pooh!” said Captain Cleveland; —“but you are very right,” he added, checking himself; “Gad, I have lived so long at sea, that I cannot imagine any body has a right to think except the captain and the master. But you are very right. I will go up to the old gentleman this instant, and speak to him myself. He lives in that handsome, modern-looking building, I suppose, that I see a quarter of a mile off?”

“In that old half-ruined house,” said Mordaunt, “he does indeed live; but he will see no visitors.”

“Then you must drive the point yourself, for I can’t stay in this latitude. Since your father is no magistrate, I must go to see this same Magnus — how call you him? — who is not justice of peace, but something else that will do the turn as well. These fellows have got two or three things that I must and will have back — let them keep the rest and be d — d to them. Will you give me a letter to him, just by way of commission?”

“It is scarce needful,” said Mordaunt. “It is enough that you are shipwrecked, and need his help; — but yet I may as well furnish you with a letter of introduction.”

“There,” said the sailor, producing a writing-case from his chest, “are your writing-tools. — Meantime, since bulk has been broken, I will nail down the hatches, and make sure of the cargo.”

While Mordaunt, accordingly, was engaged in writing to Magnus Troil a letter, setting forth the circumstances in which Captain Cleveland had been thrown upon their coast, the Captain, having first selected and laid aside some wearing apparel and necessaries enough to fill a knapsack, took in hand hammer and nails, employed himself in securing the lid of his sea-chest, by fastening it down in a workmanlike manner, and then added the corroborating security of a cord, twisted and knotted with nautical dexterity. “I leave this in your charge,” he said, “all except this,” showing the bag of gold, “and these,” pointing to a cutlass and pistols, “which may prevent all further risk of my parting company with my Portagues.”

“You will find no occasion for weapons in this country, Captain Cleveland,” replied Mordaunt; “a child might travel with a purse of gold from Sumburgh-head to the Scaw of Unst, and no soul would injure him.”

“And that’s pretty boldly said, young gentleman, considering what is going on without doors at this moment.”

“O,” replied Mordaunt, a little confused, “what comes on land with the tide, they reckon their lawful property. One would think they had studied under Sir Arthegal, who pronounces —

‘For equal right in equal things doth stand,

And what the mighty sea hath once possess’d,

And plucked quite from all possessors’ hands,

Or else by wrecks that wretches have distress’d,

He may dispose, by his resistless might,

As things at random left, to whom he list.’”

“I shall think the better of plays and ballads as long as I live, for these very words,” said Captain Cleveland; “and yet I have loved them well enough in my day. But this is good doctrine, and more men than one may trim their sails to such a breeze. What the sea sends is ours, that’s sure enough. However, in case that your good folks should think the land as well as the sea may present them with waiffs and strays, I will make bold to take my cutlass and pistols. — Will you cause my chest to be secured in your own house till you hear from me, and use your influence to procure me a guide to show me the way, and to carry my kit?”

“Will you go by sea or land?” said Mordaunt, in reply.

“By sea!” exclaimed Cleveland. “What — in one of these cockleshells, and a cracked cockleshell, to boot? No, no — land, land, unless I knew my crew, my vessel, and my voyage.”

They parted accordingly, Captain Cleveland being supplied with a guide to conduct him to Burgh-Westra, and his chest being carefully removed to the mansion-house at Jarlshof.

33 This was literally true.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00