William Black.

Adventures in Thule: three stories for boys online

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criticism of people ashore on his method of handling
a boat Rob, from his proud position at the bow,
darted an angry glance at his helmsman.

" Keep her full, will ye ?" he growled in an under-
tone. " Do ye call that steering, ye gomeril ? Run
her by Daft Sandy's boat I It is no better than a
cowherd you are at the steering."

This daft Sandy, who will turn up in our history
by and by, was a half-witted old man, who spent his

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life in fishing for flounders from a rotten old punt he
had become possessed of. He earned a sort of liv-
ing that way ; and seldom went near the shore during
the day except to beg for a herring or two for bait,
when the boats came in. He got the bait, but in an
ignominious way ; for the boys, stripping the nets,
generally saved up the " broken " herring in order to
pelt Daft Sandy with the fragments when he came
near. That is to say, they indulged in this amiable
sport except when Rob MacNicol happened to be
about. That youth had been heard to remark that
the first he caught at this game would pay a sudden
visit to the dead dog-fish lying beneath the clear
waters of the harbour ; and it was very well known
among the urchins of Erisaig that the eldest Mac-
Nicol had very little scruple about taking the law
into his own hand. When he found a bigger boy
thrashing a smaller one, he invariably thrashed the
bigger one, just to keep things even, as it were ; and
he had invented for the better guidance of his
brethren and associates a series of somewhat strin-
gent rules and punishments, to which, it must be
acknowledged, he cheerfully submitted himself. At
the same time, he was aware that even the most
moral and high-principled government has occasion-
ally to assert itself with rude physical force ; and
although his hand was not particularly red, as might
have been expected, it was uncommonly hard, and a
cuff from it was understood to produce the most
startling lightning effects in the region of the eye.

Well, as they were nearing lack hole, he looked rather nervously below him.
Of course he could see nothing. But there was a
vague tradition that this dungeon was haunted by


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82 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. ii.

ghosts, vampires, warlocks, and other unholy things ;
and there was a chill, strange, earthy odour arising
from it ; and the walls that he scraped against were
-slimy and damp. He uttered no word, however;
and those above kept slowly paying out the coil of

Rob became somewhat concerned.

"It'll be no easy job to pull him back," he said
in a whisper.

" It's as deep as the dungeon they put Donald
Gorm M6r into," said his cousin Neil.

" Maybe there's no bottom at all," said Duncan,
rather awe-stricken.

Suddenly a fearful thing happened. There was a
cry from below — a quick cry of alarm ; and at the
same moment they were startled by a wild whizzing
and whirring around them, as if a legend of fiends
had rushed out of the pit With a shriek of fright
Duncan sprang back from the edge of the dungeon ;
and that with such force that he knocked over his
two companions. Moreover, in falling, they let go
the rope ; when they rose again they looked round
in the twilight, but could find no trace of it. It had
slipped over the edge. And there was no sound
from below.

Rob was the first to regain his senses. He rushed
to the edge of the hole and stooped over.

" Nicol, are ye there ?"

His heart jumped within him when he heard his
brother's voice.

" Yes, I am ; and the rope too. How am I to
get up?"

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Rob turned quickly.

"Duncan, down to the boat with ye! Loosen
the lug-sail halyards, and bring them up — quick,

Duncan was off like a young roe. He slid down
the crags ; he dashed through the larch-wood ; he
jumped into the boat on the beach. Presently he
was making his way as quickly back again, the
halyards coiled round his arm so as not to prevent
his climbing.

"Nicol!" shouted Rob.


" I am lowering the halyards to ye. Fasten them
to the end of the rope."

" I canna see them."

" Grope all round till ye come to them."

And so, in process of time, the end of the rope
was hauled up, and thereafter — ^to the great relief of
every one — and to his own, no doubt, Nicol appeared
alive and well, though somewhat anxious to get
away from the neighbourhood of that dungeon. He
went immediately out into the warm summer air,
followed by the others.

"Man, what a fright I got!" he said at last,
having recovered his speech.

" Ay, and so did we," Neil admitted.

"What was*t?" said he, timidly; as if almost
afraid to put his own fears and suspicions into

" I dinna ken," Neil said, looking rather frightened.

"Ye dinna ken!" Rob MacNicol said, with a

scornful laugh. "Ye ought to ken, then. It was

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84 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. ii.

nothing but a lot of bats ; and Duncan yelled as if
he had seen twenty warlocks ; and knocked us over,
so that we lost the rope. Come ! boys, begin your
games now ; the steamer will be in early the day."

Well, it seemed easier to dismiss superstitious
fears out here in the sunlight Perhaps it had been
only bats after all. Warlocks did not whirr in the
air — at least, they were understood not to do so.
Witches were supposed to reserve their aerial per-
formances for the night-time. Perhaps it was only
bats, as Rob asserted. Indeed, it would be safer —
especially in Rob's presence — to accept his explana-
tion of the mystery. At the same time the younger
boys occasionally darted a stealthy glance backward
to that gloomy apartment that had so suddenly
become alive with unknown things.

Then the games began. Rob had come to the
conclusion that a wise chieftain should foster a love
for national sports and pastimes ; and to that end he
had invented a system of marks, the winning of a
large number of which entitled the holder to pecu-
niary or other reward. As for himself, his part was
that of spectator and arbiter ; he handicapped the
competitors ; he declared the prizes. On this occa-
sion he ensconced himself in a niche of the ruins,
where he was out of the glare of the sun, and grace-
fully surrounded by masses of ivy ; while his relatives
hauled out to the middle of the green plateau several
trunks of fir-trees, of various sizes, that had been
carefully lopped and pruned for the purpose of
" tossing the caber." Well, they " tossed the caber,"
they " put the stone," they had wrestling-matches and

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Other trials of strength, Rob the while surveying the
scene with a critical eye, and reckoning up the proper
number of marks. But now some milder diversions
followed. Three or four planks, rudely nailed to-
gether, and forming a piece of rough flooring about
two or three yards square, were hauled out from an
archway, placed on the grass, and a piece of tar-
paulin thrown over it Then two of the boys took
out their Jew's-harps — alas I alas ! that was the only
musical instrument within their reach, until the
coveted bagpipes should be purchased — and gaily
struck up with " Green grow the rashes, O !" as a
preliminary flourish. Wtiat was this now? What
but a performance of the famous sword-dance by
that renowned and valiant henchman, Nicol Mac-
Nicol of Erisaig, in the kingdom of Scotland!
Nicol, failing a couple of broadswords or four dirks,
had got two pieces of rusty old iron and placed
them cross -wise on the extemporised floor. With
what skill and nimbleness he proceeded to execute
this sword-dance, — ^which is no doubt the survival of
some ancient mystic rite, — ^with what elegance he
pointed his toes and held his arms akimbo ; with
what amazing dexterity, in all the evolutions of the
dance, he avoided touching the bits of iron ; nay,
with what intrepidity, at the most critical moment,
he held his arms aloft and victoriously snapped his
thumbs, it wants a Homeric chronicler to tell. It
needs only be said here that, after it, Neil's ** High-
land Fling " was a comparative failure, though he,
better than most, could give that outflung quiver of
the foot which few can properly acquire, and without

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86 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. ii.

which the dancer of the " Highland Fling " might just
as well go home and go to bed. The great chieftain,
having regarded these and other performances with
an observant eye, and having awarded so many
marks to this one and to that, declared the games
over, and invited the competitors one and all to a
royal banquet

It was a good deal more wholesome than most
banquets, for it consisted of a scone and a glass of
fresh milk apiece — ^butter being as yet beyond the
means of the MacNicols. And it was a good deal
more sensible than most banquets, for there was no
speech-making after it But there was some inter-
esting conversation.

"Nicol, what did ye find in the dungeon?"
Duncan said.

" Oh, man, it was a gruesome place," said Nicol,
who did not want to make too little of the perils he
had encountered.

"What did ye see?"

" How could I see anything ? But I felt plenty
on the way down ; and I*m sure it's fu* o* creeping
things and beasts. And then when I was near the
foot, I put my hand on something leevin', and it flew
up and hit me ; and in a meenit the whole place was
alive. Man, what a noise it was ! And then down
came the rope, and I fell ; and I got sich a clour on
the head !"

" Nothing but bats !" said Rob, contemptuously.

" I think it was houlets,"^ said Duncan, confidently;
" for there was one in the wood when I was gaun

* Angikiy owls.

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through, and I nearly ran my head against him. He
was sitting in one of the larches — man, he made a
noise !"

"YeVe got your heads filled with nothing but
witches and warlocks the day!" said Rob, impatiently,
as he rose to his feet " Come, and get the things
into the basket We maun be back in Erisaig
before the Glenara comes in."

Very soon thereafter the small party made their
way down again to the shore, and entered the war-
galley of the chieftain, the halyards being restored to
their proper use. There were no more signs of any
squall ; but the light steady breeze was contrary ;
and as Robert of the Red Hand was rather anxious
to get back before the steamer should arrive, and as
he prided himself on his steering, he himself took the
tiller, his cousin Neil being posted as look-out forward.

It was a tedious business this beating up against
the contrary wind ; but there was nothing the
MacNicols delighted in so much as in sailing, and
they had grown to be expert in handling a boat.
And it needed all their skill to get anything out of
these repeated tacks with this old craft, that had a
sneaking sort of fashion of falling away to leeward.
However, they had the constant excitement of putting
about ; and the day was fine ; and they were greatly
refreshed after their arduous pastimes by that banquet
of scones and milk. Nor did they know that this
was to be the last day of their careless boyish
idleness ; that never again would the great chieftain,
heedless of what the morrow might bring forth, hold
these high frolics in the halls of Eilean-na-Rona.

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88 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. ii.

Patience and perseverance will beat even contrary
winds ; and at last, after one long tack stretching
almost to the other side of Loch Scrone, they put
about and managed to make the entrance to the
harbour, just weathering the rocks that had nearly
destroyed them on their setting out But here
another difficulty waited them. Under the shelter
of the low-lying hills, the harbour was in a dead
calm. No sooner had they passed the rocks* than
they found themselves on water as smooth as glass,
and there were no oars in the boat For this over-
sight Rob MacNicol was not responsible ; the fact
being that oars were valuable in Erisaig, and not
easily to be borrowed, whereas this old boat was at
anybody's disposal. There was nothing for it but to
sit and wait for a puff of wind.

Suddenly they heard a sound — the distant
throbbing of the Glenards paddles. Rob grew
anxious. This old boat was right in the fairway of
the steamer; and the question was whether, in
coming round the point, she would see them in time
to slow.

" I wish we were out of here," said he.

As a last resource, he threw the tiller into the
boat, took up the helm, and tried to use this as a
sort of paddle. But this was scarcely of any avail ;
and they could hear, though they could not see, that
the steamer was almost at the point

The next moment she appeared ; and it seemed
to them in their fright that she was almost upon
them — towering away over them with her gigantic
bulk. They heard the scream of the steam-whistle,

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and the sharp **ping ! ping !" of the indicator, as the
captain tried to have the engines reversed.

It was too late. The way on the steamer carried
her on, even when her paddles were stopped ; and
the next second her bows had gone clean into the
old tarred boat, cutting her almost in two and heeling
her over.

She sank at once. Then the passengers of the
steamer rushed to the side to see what should become
of the lads struggling in the water ; the mate threw
overboard to them a couple of life-buoys ; and the
captain shouted out to have a boat lowered. There
was a great confusion.

Meanwhile, all this had been witnessed by the
father of the MacNicols, who had stood for a second
or two as if paralysed. Then a sort of spasm of
action seized him, and, apparently not knowing what
he was about, he threw open the gangway abaft the
paddle-box and sprang into the sea.

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Even with this big steamer coming right down on
them, Rob MacNicol did not lose his head. He
knew that his two brothers and his cousin Neil could
swim like water-rats ; and as for himself, though he
would have given a good deal to get rid of his boots,
he did not fear being able to get ashore.

But there was no time to think.

"Jump clear of the boat!" he shouted to his

The next second came the dreadful crash. The
frail old boat seemed to be pressed onwards and
downwards, as if the steamer had run right over her.
Then Rob found himself in the water, and very deep
in the water too. The next thing he perceived was
a great greenish-white thing over his head ; and as
he knew that that was the hull of the steamer, he
struck away from it with all the strength at his
disposal. He remembered afterwards experiencing a
sort of hatred of that shining green thing, and think-
ing it looked hideous and dangerous, like a shark.

However, the next moment he rose to the surface,
blew the water out of his mouth, and looked around.
There was a life-buoy within a yard of him, and the

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people on the steamer were calling to him to lay-
hold of it ; but he had never touched one of these
things, and he preferred to trust to himself, heavy as
he felt his boots to be. It was the others he was
looking after. Neil, he perceived, was already off for
the shore, swimming hand over hand, as if a sword-
fish were after him. Nicol was being hauled up the
side of the steamer at the end of a rope, just as he
had been hauled up from the Eilean-na-Rona dungeon ;
and his brother Duncan had seized hold of the helm
that had been cast loose when the boat went down.
Satisfied that every one was safe, Rob himself struck
out for the side of the steamer, and was speedily
hauled on board, presently finding himself on deck
with his two dripping companions.

The strange thing was that his father was nowhere
to be seen, and even the captain looked round and
asked where John MacNicol was. At the same
moment a woman, all trembling, came forward and
asked the mate if they had got the man out

"What man?" said he.

She said she had been standing by the paddle-
box, and that one of the sailors, the moment the
accident had occurred, had opened the gangway and
jumped into the water, no doubt with the intention
of rescuing the boys. She had not seen him come up
again, for just as he went down the steamer backed.

At this news there was some little consternation.
The mate called aloud for John MacNicol; there
was no answer. He ran to the other side of the
steamer ; nothing was visible on the smooth water.
They searched everywhere, and the boat that had

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92 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. hi.

been lowered was pulled about, but the search was
in vain. The woman's story was the only explana-
tion of this strange disappearance; but the sailors
suspected more than they dared to suggest to the
bewildered lads. They suspected that old MacNicol
had dropped into the water just before the paddles
had made their first backward revolution, and that
in coming to the surface he had been struck by one
of the floats. They said nothing of this, however ;
and as the search proved to be quite useless, the
Glenara steamed slowly onward to the quay.

It was not until the next afternoon that they
recovered the body of old MacNicol ; and from
certain appearances on the corpse, it was clear that
be had been struck down by the paddles in his effort
to reach and help his sons. That was a sad evening
for Rob MacNicol. It was his first introduction to
the cruel facts of life. And amid his sorrow for the
loss of one who, in a sort of rough and reticent way,
had been very kind and even affectionate to him,
Rob was vaguely aware that on himself now rested
the responsibility for the upbringing of his two
brothers and his cousin. He sat up late that night,
long after the others were asleep, thinking of what
he should do. In the midst of this silence the door
was quietly opened, and Daft Sandy came into the
small room.

"What do ye want at this time o' night?" said
Rob angrily, for he had been startled.

The old, bent, half-witted man looked cautiously
at the bed, in which Neil lay fast asleep.

" Whisht, Rob, my man," he said in a whisper ;

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" I waited till every one in Erisaig was asleep. Ay,
ay I it's a bad day this day for you. And what are
ye going to do now, Rob ? Ye'U be taking to the

" Oh, ay ; 111 be taking to the fishing I" said Rob
bitterly, for he had been having his dreams also, and
had turned from them with a sigh. *' Of course TU
be taking to the fishing ! And maybe yell tell me
where I am to get ;^40 to buy a boat, and where I
am to get £$0 to buy nets ? Maybe ye'U tell me
that, Sandy?"

** The bank "

"What does the bank ken about me? They
would as soon think of throwing the money into
Loch Scrone."

" But ye ken, Rob, Coll Macdougall would give
ye a share in his boat for ;fi^i2."

" Twelve pounds ! Man, ye're just daft, Sandy.
Where am I to get ;^I2 ?"

"Well, well, Rob," said the old man coming
nearer, and speaking still more mysteriously, " listen
to what I tell ye. Some day or other ye'U be taking
to the fishing ; and when that day comes I will put
something in your way. Ay, ay ; the fishermen
about Erisaig dinna know everything ; come to me,
Rob, my man, and I'll tell ye something about the
herring. Ye are a good lad, Rob ; many's the herring
I've got from ye when I wouldna go near the shore
for they mischievous bairns ; and when once ye have
a boat and nets o' your own I will tell ye something.
Daft Sandy is no so daft, maybe. Have ye ony
tobacco, Rob ?"

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94 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. hi.

Rob said he had no tobacco ; and making sure
that Daft Sandy had come to him with a pack of
nonsense merely as an excuse to borrow money for
tobacco, he bundled him out of the house and went
to bed.

Rob was anxious that his brothers and cousin, and
himself, should present a respectable appearance at
the funeral ; and in these humble preparations nearly
all their small savings were swallowed up. The
funeral expenses were paid by the Steamboat
Company. Then after the funeral, the few people
who were present departed to their own homes,
no doubt imagining that the MacNicol boys would
be able to live as hitherto they had lived — that is,

But there was a kindly man called Jamieson, who
kept the grocery shop, and he called Rob in as the
boys passed home.

" Rob," said he, " ye maun be doing something
now. There's a cousin of mine has a whiskey shop in
the Saltmarket in Glasgow, and I could get ye a place

Rob's very gorge rose at the notion of his having
to serve in a whiskey shop in Glasgow. That would
be to abandon all the proud ambitions of his life.
Nevertheless, he had been thinking seriously about
the duty he owed to these lads, his companions, who
were now dependent on him. So he swallowed his
pride and said, —

" How much would he give me ?"

" I think I could get him to give ye four shillings
a week. That would keep ye very well."

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" Keep me ?" said Rob. " Ay, but what's to be-
come o' Duncan and Neil and Nicol ?"

"They must shift for themselves," the grocer

**^That winna do," said Rob, and he left the shop.

He overtook his companions and asked them to
go along to some rocks overlooking the harbour.
They sat down there — the harbour below them with
all its picturesque boats, and masses of drying nets,
and what not

"Neil," said Rob to his cousin, "we'll have to
think about things now. There will be no more
Eilean-na-Rona for us. We have just about as much
left as will pay the lodgings this week, and Nicol
must go three nights a week to the night school.
What we get for stripping the nets '11 no do now."

" It will not," said Neil.

" Mr. Jamieson was offering me a place in Glas-
gow, but it is not very good, and I think we will do
better if we keep together. Neil," said he, "if we
had only a net, do ye not think we could trawl for
cuddies ?" ^

And again he said, " Neil, do ye not think we
could make a net for ourselves out of the old rags
lying at the shed ? "

And again he said, " Do ye think that Peter, the
tailor, would lend us his old boat for a shilling a

It was clear that Rob had been carefully consider-
ing the details of this scheme of co-operation. And

1 '* Cuddies" is the familiar name in those parts for young saithe.
** Trawling,** again, means there the use of an ordinary seine.

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96 THE FOUR MACNICOLS. [chap. hi.

it was eagerly welcomed, not only by Neil, but also
by the brothers Duncan and Nicol, who had been
frightened by the thought of Rob going away to
Glasgow. The youngest of all, Nicol, boldly declared
that he could mend nets as well as any man in

No sooner was the scheme thoroughly discussed,
than it was determined, under Rob's direction, to set
to work at once. The woman who kept the lodgings
and cooked their food for them had intimated to
them that they need be in no hurry to pay her for a
week or two until they should find some employ-
ment ; but they had need of money, or the equivalent
of money, in other directions. Might not old Peter,
who was a grumbling and ill-tempered person, insist
on being paid in advance ? Then, before they could
begin to make a net out of the torn and rejected
pieces lying about the shed, they must needs have a
ball of twine. So Rob bade his brothers and cousin
go away and get their rude fishing-rods and betake
themselves to the rocks at the mouth of the harbour,
and see what fish they could get for him during the

Meanwhile he himself went along to the shed
which was used as a sort of storage-house by some of
the fishermen ; and here he found lying about plenty
of pieces of net that had been cast aside in the pro-
cess of mending. This business of mending the nets
is the last straw on the back of the tired-out fisher-
man. When he has met with an accident to his nets
during the night, when he has fouled on some rocks
in dragging them in, for example, it is a desperately

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fatiguing affair to set to work to mend them when he
gets ashore, dead beat with the labours of the morn-
ing. The fishermen, for what reason I do not know,
will not entrust this work to their wives ; they will

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Online LibraryWilliam BlackAdventures in Thule: three stories for boys → online text (page 5 of 13)