The Merry Men, Part 1
Introductory Note: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Merry Men” is set on a fictional island, presumably in the Scottish Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. The remote, isolated marine setting provides an opportunity for Stevenson to explore themes that he would return to consistently in his work, including the mixed motives behind treasure-seeking, the nature of complicity, and a gothic fascination with human duplicity.
In the midst of composing the tale, Stevenson remarked, “It is a fantastic sonata about the sea and wrecks; and I like it much above all my other attempts at story-telling; I think it is strange; if ever I shall make a hit, I have the line now, as I believe.”1To Sidney Colvin, July 1881, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, vol. 1, Ed. Sidney Colvin, New York: C. Scribner’s & Sons, 1901: 245. He republished the story as the lead tale in an 1887 collection, The Merry Men and Other Tales.
This entry was published as the first of two parts:
It was a beautiful morning in the late July when I set forth on foot for the last time for Aros. A boat had put me ashore the night before at Grisapol; I had such breakfast as the little inn afforded, and, leaving all my baggage till I had an occasion to come round for it by sea, struck right across the promontory with a cheerful heart.
I was far from being a native of these parts, springing, as I did, from an unmixed lowland stock. But an uncle of mine, Gordon Darnaway, after a poor, rough youth, and some years at sea, had married a young wife in the Islands; Mary Maclean she was called, the last of her family; and when she died in giving birth to a daughter, Aros, the sea-girt farm, had remained in his possession. It brought him in nothing but the means of life, as I was well aware; but he was a man whom ill-fortune had pursued; he feared, cumbered as he was with the young child, to make a fresh adventure upon life; and remained in Aros, biting his nails at destiny. Years passed over his head in that isolation, and brought neither help nor contentment. Meantime our family was dying out in the lowlands; there is little luck for any of that race; and perhaps my father was the luckiest of all, for not only was he one of the last to die, but he left a son to his name and a little money to support it. I was a student of Edinburgh University, living well enough at my own charges, but without kith or kin; when some news of me found its way to Uncle Gordon on the Ross of Grisapol; and he, as he was a man who held blood thicker than water, wrote to me the day he heard of my existence, and taught me to count Aros as my home. Thus it was that I came to spend my vacations in that part of the country, so far from all society and comfort, between the codfish and the moorcocks, as I used to say; and thus it was that now, when I had done with my classes, I was returning thither with so light a heart that July day.
The Ross, as we call it, is a promontory neither wide nor high, but as rough as God made it to this day; the deep sea on either hand of it, full of rugged isles and reefs most perilous to seamen—all overlooked from the eastward by some very high cliffs and the great peak of Ben Kyaw, the Mountain of the Mist, they say the words signify in the Gaelic tongue; and it is well named. For that hill-top, which is more than three thousand feet in height, catches all the clouds that come blowing from the seaward; and, indeed, I used often to think that it must make them for itself; since when all heaven was clear to the sea level, there would ever be a streamer on Ben Kyaw. It brought water, too, and was mossy to the top in consequence. I have seen us sitting in broad sunshine on the Ross, and the rain falling black like crape upon the mountain. But the wetness of it made it often appear more beautiful to my eyes; for when the sun struck upon the hill sides, there were many wet rocks and watercourses that shone like jewels even as far as Aros, fifteen miles away.2Original ends with a comma.
The road that I followed was a cattle-track. It twisted so as nearly to double the length of my journey; it went over rough boulders so that a man had to leap from one to another, and through soft bottoms where the moss came nearly to the knee. There was no cultivation anywhere, and not one house in the ten miles from Grisapol to Aros. Houses of course there were—three at least; but they lay so far on the one side or the other that no stranger could have found them from the track. A large part of the Ross is covered with big granite rocks, some of them larger than a two-roomed house, one beside another, with fern and deep heather in between them where the vipers breed. Anyway the wind was, it was always sea air, as salt as on a ship; the gulls were as free as moorfowl over all the Ross; and whenever the way rose a little, your eye would kindle with the brightness of the sea. From the very midst of the land, on a day of wind and a high spring, I have heard the Roost roaring like a battle where it runs by Aros, and the great and fearful voices of the breakers that we call the Merry Men.
Aros itself—Aros Jay, I have heard the natives call it, and they say it means the House of God—Aros itself was not properly a piece of the Ross, nor was it quite an islet. It formed the south-west corner of the land, fitted close to it, and was in one place only separated from the coast by a little gut of the sea, not forty feet across the narrowest. When the tide was full, this was clear and still, like a pool on a land river; only there was a difference in the weeds and fishes, and the water itself was green instead of brown; but when the tide went out, in the bottom of the ebb, there was a day or two in every month when you could pass dryshod from Aros to the mainland. There was some good pasture, where my uncle fed the sheep he lived on; perhaps the feed was better because the ground rose higher on the islet than the main level of the Ross, but this I am not skilled enough to settle. The house was a good one for that country, two stories high. It looked westward over a bay, with a pier hard by for a boat, and from the door you could watch the vapours blowing on Ben Kyaw.
On all this part of the coast, and especially near Aros, these great granite rocks that I have spoken of go down together in troops into the sea, like cattle on a summer’s day. There they stand, for all the world like their neighbours ashore; only the salt water sobbing between them instead of the quiet earth, and clots of sea-pink blooming on their sides instead of heather; and the great sea conger to wreathe about the base of them instead of the poisonous viper of the land. On calm days you can go wandering between them in a boat for hours, echoes following you about the labyrinth; but when the sea is up, Heaven help the man that hears that cauldron boiling.
Off the south-west end of Aros these blocks are very many, and much greater in size. Indeed, they must grow monstrously bigger out to sea, for there must be ten sea miles of open water sown with them as thick as a country place with houses, some standing thirty feet above the tides, some covered, but all perilous to ships; so that on a clear, westerly-blowing day, I have counted, from the top of Aros, the great rollers breaking white and heavy over as many as six-and-forty buried reefs. But it is nearer in shore that the danger is worst; for the tide, here running like a mill race, makes a long belt of broken water—a Roost, we call it—at the tail of the land. I have often been out there in a dead calm at the slack of the tide; and a strange place it is, with the sea swirling and combing up and boiling like the cauldrons of a linn and now and again a little dancing mutter of sound as though the Roost were talking to itself. But when the tide begins to run again, and above all in heavy weather, there is no man could take a boat within half a mile of it, nor a ship afloat that could either steer or live in such a place. You can hear the roaring of it six miles away. At the seaward end there comes the strongest of the bubble; and it’s here that these big breakers dance together—the dance of death, it may be called—that have got the name, in these parts, of the Merry Men. I have heard it said that they run fifty feet high; but that must be the green water only, for the spray runs twice as high as that. Whether they got the name from their movements, which are swift and antic, or from the shouting they make about the turn of the tide, so that all Aros shakes with it, is more than I can tell.
The truth is, that in a south-westerly wind, that part of our archipelago is no better than a trap. If a ship got through the reefs, and weathered the Merry Men, it would be to come ashore on the south coast of Aros, in Sandag Bay, where so many dismal things befel our family, as I propose to tell. The thought of all these dangers, in the place I knew so long, makes me particularly welcome the works now going forward to set lights upon the headlands and buoys along the channels of our iron-bound, inhospitable islands.
The country people had many a story about Aros, as I used to hear from my uncle’s man, Rorie, an old servant of the Macleans, who had transferred his services without afterthought on the occasion of the marriage. There was some tale of an unlucky creature, a sea-kelpie, that dwelt and did business in some fearful manner of his own among the boiling breakers of the Roost. A mermaid had once met a piper on Sandag beach, and there sung to him a long, bright midsummer’s night, so that in the morning he was found stricken crazy, and from thenceforward, till the day he died, said only one form of words; what they were in the original Gaelic I cannot tell, but they were thus translated: “Ah, the sweet singing out of the sea.” Seals that haunted on that coast have been known to speak to man in his own tongue, presaging great disasters. It was here that a certain saint first landed on his voyage out of Ireland to convert the Hebrideans. And, indeed, I think he had some claim to be called saint; for, with the boats of that past age, to make so rough a passage, and land on such a ticklish coast, was surely not far short of the miraculous. It was to him, or to some of his monkish underlings who had a cell there, that the islet owes its holy and beautiful name, the House of God.
Among these old wives’ stories there was one which I was inclined to hear with more credulity. As I was told, in that tempest which scattered the ships of the Invincible Armada over all the north and west of Scotland, one great vessel came ashore on Aros, and before the eyes of some solitary people on a hill-top, went down in a moment with all hands, her colours flying even as she sank. There was some likelihood in this tale; for another of that fleet lay sunk on the north side, twenty miles from Grisapol. It was told, I thought, with more detail and gravity than its companion stories, and there was one particularity which went far to convince me of its truth: the name, that is, of the ship was still remembered, and sounded, in my ears, Spanishly. The Espirito Santo they called it, a great ship of many decks of guns, laden with treasure and grandees of Spain, and fierce soldadoes, that now lay fathom deep to all eternity, done with her wars and voyages, in Sandag bay, upon the west of Aros. No more salvos of ordnance for that tall ship, the “Holy Spirit,” no more fair winds or happy ventures; only to rot there deep in the sea-tangle and hear the shoutings of the Merry Men as the tide ran high about the island. It was a strange thought to me first and last, and only grew stranger as I learned the name of Spain, from which she had set sail with so proud a company, and King Philip, the wealthy king, that sent her on that voyage.
And now I must tell you, as I walked from Grisapol that day, the Espirito Santo was very much in my reflections. I had been favourably remarked by our then Principal in Edinburgh College, that famous writer, Dr. Robertson, and by him had been set to work on some papers of an ancient date to rearrange and sift of what was worthless; and in one of these, to my great wonder, I found a note of this very ship, the Espirito Santo, with her captain’s name, and how she carried a great part of the Spaniards’ treasure, and had been lost upon the Ross of Grisapol; but in what particular spot, the wild tribes of that place and period would give no information to the king’s inquiries. Putting one thing with another, and taking our island tradition together with this note of old King James’s perquisitions after wealth, it had come strongly on my mind that the spot for which he sought in vain could be no other than the small bay of Sandag on my uncle’s land; and being a fellow of a mechanical turn, I had ever since been plotting how to weigh that good ship up again with all her ingots, ounces, and doubloons, and bring back our house of Darnaway to its long-forgotten dignity and wealth.
This was a design of which I soon had reason to repent. My mind was sharply turned on different reflections; and since I became the witness of a strange judgment of God’s, the thought of dead men’s treasures has been intolerable to my conscience. But even at that time I must acquit myself of sordid greed; for if I desired riches, it was not for their own sake, but for the sake of a person who was dear to my heart—my uncle’s daughter, Mary Ellen. She had been educated well, and had been a time to school upon the mainland; which, poor girl, she would have been happier without. For Aros was no place for her, with old Rorie the servant, and her father, who was one of the unhappiest men in Scotland, plainly bred up in a country place among Cameronians, long a skipper sailing out of the Clyde about the islands, and now, with infinite discontent, managing his sheep and a little ‘long-shore fishing for the necessary bread. If it was sometimes weariful to me, who was there but a month or two, you may fancy what it was to her who dwelt in that same desert all the year round, with the sheep and flying sea-gulls, and the Merry Men singing and dancing in the Roost!
CHAPTER II. 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 aweful 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 nought; 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 Morvar, 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 new 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.
“Aye,” 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.3For “eyes,” the original reads “yees.” 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, this that we have gotten, are they no? Yon’s a bonny knock (clock), but it’ll no gang; and the napery’s by ordnar. Bonny, bairnly braws; it’s fur the like o’ them folk sells the peace of God that passeth understanding; it’s fur 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 girgie,” he interrupted himself to cry with some asperity, “what for ha’e ye no put out the twa candlesticks?”
“Why should we need them at high noon?” she asked.
But my uncle was not to be turned from his idea. “We’ll bruik 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.
“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 put 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 safe us a’! but it’s an unco life to be a sailor—a cauld, wan chancy life. Mony’s the gliff I got mysel’ in the great deep; and why the Lord should ha’e 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.4Reference is from Psalms 65:13 of the Metrical Psalter. 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 ha’e’t again—
Great waters trading be,
Within the deep these men God’s works
And His great wonders see.5Reference is from Psalms 107:23-24 of the Metrical Psalter.
Weel, it’s easy sayin’ sae. Maybe Dauvit wasnae very weel acquant wi’ the sea, though I'm no misdoobtin' inspiration. 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 spectacle o’ God riding on the tempest, to be shüre, 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 draggons 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.
“Oh, aye!” 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 dezened 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’ your saut wilderness e’ 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 bag, 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 ha’e louped 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 ha’e 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, ane 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 ha’e sailed wi’ a lad—thoy ca’d him Sandy Gobart; he saw ane, shüre eneuch, an’ shüre eneuch 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 tops 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 had 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—Ares 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? Aye? Weel, it’ll no be like a letter, wullit?”
“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: “Aye, 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 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 upon 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 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. All my days I have loved and honoured you; the love and the honour keep on growing with the years; I could not think to be happy or hearty in my life without you. Do you think you could take me for a husband?”
“I would not ask a better,” she replied.
“Well then,” said I, “shake hands upon it.”
She did so very heartily; and “That’s a bargain, lad,” said she, which was all that passed between us on the subject, for though I loved her, I stood in awe of her tranquility of character.
About her father she would tell me nothing, 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 lang 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; 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 speairing 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 Dannaways.
CHAPTER III. LAD AND LEO IN SANDAG BAY.
I was early afoot next morning; and as soon as I had a bite to eat, set forth upon a tour of exploration. Something in my heart distinctly told me that I should find the ship of the Armada; and although I did not give way entirely to such hopeful thoughts, I was still very light in spirits and walked upon air. Aros is a very rough islet, its surface strewn with great rocks and shaggy with fern and heather; my way lay almost north and south across the highest peak; and though the whole distance was inside of two miles, it took more time and exertion than four upon a level road. Upon the summit, I paused. Although not very high—not three hundred feet, as I think—it yet outtops all the neighbouring lowlands of the Ross, and commands a great view of sea and islands. The sun, which had been up some time, was already hot upon my neck; the air was listless and thundery, although purely clear; away over the north-west, where the isles lie thickliest congregated, some half-a-dozen small and ragged clouds hung together in a covey; and the head of Ben Kyaw wore, not merely a few streamers, but a solid hood of vapour. There was a threat in the weather. The sea, it is true, was smooth like glass: even the Roost was but a seam on that wide mirror, and the Merry Men no more than caps of foam; but to my eye and ear, so long familiar with these places, the sea also seemed to lie uneasily; a sound of it, like a long sigh, mounted to me where I stood; and, quiet as it was, the Roost itself appeared to be evolving mischief. For I ought to say that all we dwellers in these parts attributed, if not prescience, at least a quality of warning, to that strange and dangerous creature of the tides.
I hurried on, then, with the greater speed, and had soon descended the slope of Aros to the part that we call Sandag Bay. It is a pretty large piece of water compared with the size of the isle; well sheltered from all but the prevailing wind; sandy and shoal and bounded by low sand-hills to the west, but to the eastward lying several fathoms deep along a ledge of rocks. It is upon that side that, at a certain time each flood, the current mentioned by my uncle sets so strong into the bay; a little later, when the Roost begins to work higher, an undertow runs still more strongly in the reverse direction; and it is the action of this last, as I suppose, that has scoured that part so deep. Nothing is to be seen out of Sandag Bay, but one small segment of the horizon and, in heavy weather, the breakers flying high over a deep-sea reef.
From half-way down the hill, I had perceived the wreck of February last, a brig of considerable tonnage, lying, with her back broken, high and dry on the west corner of the sands; and I was making directly towards it, and already almost on the margin of the turf, when my eyes were suddenly arrested by a spot, cleared of fern and heather, and marked by one of those long, low, and almost human-looking mounds that we see so commonly in graveyards. I stopped like a man shot. Nothing had been said to me of any dead man or interment on the island; Rorie, Mary, and my uncle had all equally held their peace; of her at least, I was certain that she must be ignorant; and yet here, before my eyes, was proof indubitable of the fact. Here was a grave; and I had to ask myself, with a chill, what manner of man lay there in his last sleep, awaiting the signal of the Lord in that solitary, sea-beat resting-place. My mind supplied no answer but what I feared to entertain. Shipwrecked, at least, he must have been; perhaps, like the old Armada mariners, from some far and rich land oversea; or perhaps one of my own race, perishing within eyesight of the smoke of home. I stood awhile uncovered by his side, and I could have desired that it had lain in our religion to put up some prayer for that unhappy stranger, or, in the old classic way, outwardly to honour his misfortune. But I knew, although his bones lay there, a part of Aros, till the trumpet sounded, his imperishable soul was forth and far away, among the raptures of the everlasting Sabbath or the pangs of hell; and yet my mind misgave me even with a fear that perhaps he was near me where I stood, guarding his sepulchre, and lingering on the scene of his unhappy fate.
Certainly it was with a spirit somewhat overshadowed that I turned away from the grave to the hardly less melancholy spectacle of the wreck. Her stem was above the last circle of the flood; she was broken in two a little abaft the foremast—though indeed she had none, both having broken short in her disaster; and as the pitch of the beach was very sharp and sudden, and the bows lay many feet below the stern, the fracture gaped widely open, and you could see right through her poor hull upon the further side. Her name was much defaced, and I could not make out clearly whether she was called Christiania, after the Swedish city, or Christiana, after the good woman, Christian’s wife, in that old book the Pilgrim’s Progress. By her build she was a foreign ship, but I was not certain of her nationality. She had been painted green, but the colour was faded and weathered, and the paint peeling off in strips. The wreck of the mainmast lay alongside, half buried in sand. She was a forlorn sight indeed, and I could scarce look without tears at the bits of rope that still hung about her, so often handled of yore by shouting seamen; or the little scuttle where they had passed up and down to their affairs; or that poor voiceless angel of a figure-head that had dipped into so many running billows.
I do not know whether it came most from the ship or from the grave, but I fell into some melancholy scruples, as I stood there, leaning with one hand against the battered timbers. The homelessness of men and even of inanimate vessels, cast away upon strange shores, came strongly in upon my mind. To make a profit of such pitiful misadventures seemed an unmanly and a sordid act; and I began to think of my then quest as of something sacrilegious in its nature. But when I remembered Mary, I took heart again. My uncle would never consent to an imprudent marriage, nor would she, as I was persuaded, wed without his full approval. It behoved me, then, to be up and doing for my wife; and I thought with a laugh how long it was since that great sea-castle, the Espirito Santo, had left her bones in Sandag Bay, and how weak it would be to consider rights so long extinguished and misfortunes so long forgotten in the process of time.
I had my theory of where to seek for her remains. The set of the current and the soundings both pointed to the east side of the bay under the ledge of rocks. If she had been lost in Sandag Bay, and if, after these centuries, any portion of her held together, it was there that I should find it. The water deepens, as I have said, with great rapidity, and even close alongside the rocks four or five fathoms may be found. As I walked upon the edge I could see far and wide over the sandy bottom of the bay; the sun shone clear and green and steady in the deeps; the bay seemed rather like a great transparent crystal, as one sees them in a lapidary’s shop; there was naught to show what it was, but an internal trembling, a hovering within of sun-glints and netted shadows, and a faint lap, and now and then a dying bubble round the edge. The shadows of the rocks lay out for some distance at their feet, so that my own shadow, moving, pausing, and stooping on the top of that, reached sometimes half across the bay. It was above all in this belt of shadows that I hunted for the Espirito Santo; since it was there the undertow ran strongest, whether in or out. Cool as the whole water seemed this broiling day, it looked, in that part, yet cooler, and had a mysterious invitation for the eyes. Peer as I pleased, however, I could see nothing but a few fishes or a bush of sea-tangle, and here and there a lump of rock that had fallen from above and now lay separate on the sandy floor. Twice did I pass from one end to the other of the rocks, and in the whole distance I could see nothing of the wreck, nor any place but one where it was possible for it to be. This was a large terrace in five fathoms of water, raised off the surface of the sand to a considerable height, and looking from above like a mere outgrowth of the rocks on which I walked. It was one mass of great sea-tangles like a grove, which prevented me judging of its nature, but in shape and size it bore some likeness to a vessel’s hull. At least it was my best chance. If the Espirito Santo lay not there under the tangles, it lay nowhere at all in Sandag Bay; and I prepared to put the question to the proof, once and for all, and either go back to Aros a rich man or cured for ever of my dreams of wealth.
I stripped to the skin, and stood on the extreme margin with my hands clasped, irresolute. The bay at that time was utterly quiet; there was no sound but from a school of porpoises somewhere out of sight behind the point; yet a certain fear withheld me on the threshold of my venture. Sad sea-feelings, scraps of my uncle’s superstitions, thoughts of the dead, of the grave, of the old broken ships drifted through my mind. But the strong sun upon my shoulders warmed me to the heart, and I stooped forward and plunged into the sea.
It was all that I could do to catch a trail of the sea-tangle that bloomed so thickly on the terrace; but once so far anchored I secured myself by grasping a whole armful of these thick and slimy stalks, and, planting my feet against the edge, I looked around me. On all sides the clear sand stretched forth unbroken; it came to the foot of the rocks, scoured like an alley in a garden by the action of the tides; and even behind me, for as far as I could see, nothing was visible but the same many-folded sand upon the sun-bright bottom of the bay. Yet the terrace to which I was then holding was as thick with strong sea-growths as a tuft of heather, and the cliff from which it bulged hung draped below the water-line with brown lianas. In this complexity of forms, all swaying together in the current, things were hard to be distinguished; and I was still uncertain whether my feet were pressed upon the natural rock or upon the timbers of the Armada treasure-ship, when the whole tuft of tangle came away in my hand, and in an instant I was on the surface, and the shores of the bay and the bright water swam before my eyes in a glory of crimson.
I clambered back upon the rocks, and threw the plant of tangle at my feet. Something at the same moment rang sharply, like a falling coin. I stooped, and there, sure enough, crusted with the red rust, there lay an iron shoe-buckle. The sight of this poor human relic thrilled me to the heart, but not with hope nor fear, only with a desolate melancholy. I held it in my hand, and the thought of its owner appeared before me like the presence of an actual man. His weather-beaten face, his sailor’s hands, his sea-voice hoarse with singing at the capstan, the very foot that had once worn that buckle and trod so much along the swerving decks—the whole human fact of him, as a creature like myself, with hair and blood and seeing eyes, haunted me in that sunny, solitary place, not like a spectre, but like some friend whom I had basely injured. Was the great treasure ship indeed below there, with her guns and chain and treasure, as she had sailed from Spain; her decks a garden for the seaweed, her cabin a breeding place for fish, soundless but for the dredging water, motionless but for the waving of the tangle upon her battlements—that old, populous, sea-riding castle, now a reef in Sandag Bay? Or, as I thought it likelier, was this a waif from the disaster of the foreign brig—was this shoe-buckle bought but the other day and worn by a man of my own period in the world’s history, hearing the same news from day to day, thinking the same thoughts, praying, perhaps, in the same temple with myself? However it was, I was assailed with dreary thoughts; my uncle’s words, “the dead are down there,” echoed in my ears; and though I determined to dive once more, it was with a strong repugnance that I stepped forward to the margin of the rocks.
A great change passed at that moment over the appearance of the bay. It was no more that clear, visible interior, like a house roofed with glass, where the green, submarine sunshine slept so stilly. A breeze, I suppose, had flamed the surface, and a sort of trouble and blackness filled its bosom, where flashes of light and clouds of shadow tossed confusedly together. Even the terrace below obscurely rocked and quivered. It seemed a graver thing to venture on this place of ambushes; and when I leaped into the sea the second time it was with a quaking in my soul.
I secured myself as at first, and groped among the waving tangle. All that met my touch was cold and soft and gluey. The thicket was alive with crabs and lobsters, trundling to and fro lopsidedly, and I had to harden my heart against the horror of their curious neighbourhood. On all sides I could feel the clefts and roots of hard, living stone; no planks, no iron, not a sign of any wreck; the Espirito Santo was not there. I remember I had almost a sense of relief in my disappointment, and I was about ready to leave go when something happened that sent me to the surface with my heart in my mouth. I had already stayed somewhat late over my explorations; the current was freshening with the change of the tide, and Sandag Bay was no longer a safe place for a single swimmer. Well, just at the last moment there came a sudden flush of current, dredging through the tangles like a wave. I lost one hold, was flung sprawling on my side, and, instinctively grasping for a fresh support, my fingers closed on something hard and cold. I think I knew at that moment what it was. At least I instantly let go, leaped for the surface, and clambered out next moment on the friendly rocks with the bone of a man’s leg in my grasp.6For “let,” the original reads “left.”
Mankind is a material creature, slow to think and dull to perceive connections. The grave, the wreck of the brig, and the rusty shoe-buckle were surely plain advertisements. A child might have read this dismal story, and yet it was not until I touched that actual piece of mankind that the full horror of the charnel brean burst upon my spirit. I laid the bone beside the buckle, picked up my clothes, and ran as I was along the rocks towards the human shore. I could not be far enough from the spot; no fortune was vast enough to tempt me back again. The bones of the drowned dead should henceforth roll undisturbed by me, whether on tangle or minted gold. But as soon as I trod the good earth again, and had covered my nakedness against the sun, I knelt down over against the ruins of the brig, and out of the fulness of my heart prayed long and passionately for all poor souls upon the sea. A generous prayer is never presented in vain; the petition may be refused, but the petitioner is always, I believe, rewarded by some gracious visitation. The horror, at least, was lifted from my mind; I could look with calm of spirit on that great bright creature, God’s ocean; and as I set off homeward up the rough sides of Aros, nothing remained of my concern beyond a deep determination to meddle no more with the spoils of wrecked vessels or the treasures of the dead.
I was already some way up the hill before I paused to breathe and look behind me. The sight that met my eyes was doubly strange.
For, first, the storm that I had foreseen was now advancing with almost tropical rapidity. The whole surface of the sea had been dulled from its conspicuous brightness to an ugly hue of corrugated lead; already in the distance the white waves, the “skipper’s daughters,” had begun to flee before a breeze that was still insensible on Aros; and already along the curve on Sandag Bay there was a splashing run of sea that I could hear from where I stood. The change upon the sky was even more remarkable. There had begun to arise out of the south-west a huge and solid continent of scowling cloud; here and there, through rents in its contexture, the sun still poured a sheaf of spreading rays; and here and there, from all its edges, vast inky streamers lay forth along the yet unclouded sky. The menace was express and imminent. Even as I gazed, the sun was blotted out. At any moment the tempest might fall upon Aros in its might.
The suddenness of this change of weather so fixed my eyes on heaven that it was some seconds before they alighted on the bay, mapped out below my feet, and robbed a moment later of the sun. The knoll which I had just surmounted overflanked a little amphitheatre of lower hillocks sloping towards the sea, and beyond that the yellow arc of beach and the whole extent of Sandag Bay. It was a scene on which I had often looked down, but where I had never before beheld a human figure. I had but just turned my back upon it and left it empty, and my wonder may be fancied when I saw a boat and several men in that deserted spot. The boat was lying by the rocks. A pair of fellows, bareheaded, with their sleeves rolled up, and one with a boathook, kept her with difficulty to her moorings, for the current was growing brisker every moment. A little way off upon the ledge two men in black clothes, whom I judged to be superior in rank, laid their heads together over some task which at first I did not understand, but a second after I had made it out—they were taking bearings with the compass; and just then I saw one of them unroll a sheet of paper and lay his finger down, as though identifying features in a map. Meanwhile a third was walking to and fro, poking among the rocks and peering over the edge into the water. While I was still watching them with the stupefaction of surprise, my mind hardly yet able to work on what my eyes reported, this third person suddenly stooped and summoned his companions with a cry so loud that it reached my ears upon the hill. The others ran to him, even dropping the compass in their hurry, and I could see the bone and the shoe-buckle going from hand to hand, causing the most unusual gesticulations of surprise and interest. Just then I could hear the seamen crying from the boat, and saw them point westward to that cloud continent which was ever the more rapidly unfurling its blackness over heaven. The others seemed to consult; but the danger was too pressing to be braved, and they bundled into the boat carrying my relics with them, and set forth out of the bay with all speed of oars.
I made no more ado about the matter, but turned and ran for the house. Whoever these men were, it was fit my uncle should be instantly informed. It was not then altogether too late in the day for a descent of the Jacobites; and may be Prince Charlie, whom I knew my uncle to detest, was one of the three superiors whom I had seen upon the rock. Yet as I ran, leaping from rock to rock, and turned the matter loosely in my mind, this theory grew ever the larger the less welcome to my reason. The compass, the map, the interest awakened by the buckle, and the conduct of that one among the strangers who had looked so often below him in the water, all seemed to point to a different explanation of their presence on that outlying, obscure islet of the western sea. The Madrid historian, the search instituted by Dr. Robertson, the bearded stranger with the rings, my own fruitless search that very morning in the deep water of Sandag Bay, ran together, piece by piece, in my memory, and I made sure that these strangers must be Spaniards in quest of ancient treasure and the lost ship of the Armada. But the people living in outlying islands, such as Aros, are answerable for their own security; there is none near by to protect or even to help them; and the presence in such a spot of a crew of foreign adventurers, poor, greedy, and most likely lawless, filled me with apprehensions for my uncle’s money, and even for the safety of his daughter. I was still wondering how we were to get rid of them when I came, all breathless, to the top of Aros. The whole world was shadowed over; only in the extreme east, on a few hills of the mainland, one last gleam of sunshine lingered like a jewel; rain had begun to fall, not heavily, but in great drops; the sea was rising with each moment, and already a band of white encircled Aros and the nearer coasts of Grisapol. The boat was still pulling seaward, but I now became aware of what had been hidden from me lower down—a large, heavily-sparred, handsome schooner, lying to at the south end of Aros. Since I had not seen her in the morning when I had looked around so closely at the signs of the weather, and upon these lone waters where a sail was rarely visible, it was clear she must have lain last night behind the uninhabited Eilean Gour, and this proved conclusively that she was manned by strangers to our coast for that anchorage, though good enough to look at, is little better than a trap for ships. With such ignorant sailors upon so wild a coast, the coming gale was not unlikely to bring death upon its wings.
This story is continued in The Merry Men, Part 2.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
Stevenson, Robert Louis. "The Merry Men, Part 1." The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 45, no. 6, 1882, pp. 676-95. Edited by Leo Koopmans. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 22 April 2021, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/the-merry-men/.
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Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||To Sidney Colvin, July 1881, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, vol. 1, Ed. Sidney Colvin, New York: C. Scribner’s & Sons, 1901: 245.|
|2.||↑||Original ends with a comma.|
|3.||↑||For “eyes,” the original reads “yees.”|
|4.||↑||Reference is from Psalms 65:13 of the Metrical Psalter.|
|5.||↑||Reference is from Psalms 107:23-24 of the Metrical Psalter.|
|6.||↑||For “let,” the original reads “left.”|