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The Lighthouse

The following is from The Lighthouse by R. M. Ballantyne:

Chapter One--The Rock

Early on a summer morning, about the beginning of the nineteenth century, two fishermen of Forfarshire wended their way to the shore, launched their boat, and put off to sea.

One of the men was tall and ill-favoured, the other, short and well-favoured. Both were square-built, powerful fellows, like most men of the class to which they belonged.

It was about that calm hour of the morning which precedes sunrise, when most living creatures are still asleep, and inanimate nature wears, more than at other times, the semblance of repose. The sea was like a sheet of undulating glass. A breeze had been expected, but, in defiance of expectation, it had not come, so the boatmen were obliged to use their oars. They used them well, however, insomuch that the land ere long appeared like a blue line on the horizon, then became tremulous and indistinct, and finally vanished in the mists of morning.

The men pulled "with a will,"--as seamen pithily express it,--and in silence. Only once during the first hour did the big, ill-favoured man venture a remark. Referring to the absence of wind, he said, that "it would be a' the better for landin' on the rock."

This was said in the broadest vernacular dialect, as, indeed, was everything that dropped from the fishermen's lips. We take the liberty of modifying it a little, believing that strict fidelity here would entail inevitable loss of sense to many of our readers.

The remark, such as it was, called forth a rejoinder from the short comrade, who stated his belief that "they would be likely to find somethin' there that day."

They then relapsed into silence.

Under the regular stroke of the oars the boat advanced steadily, straight out to sea. At first the mirror over which they skimmed was grey, and the foam at the cutwater leaden-coloured. By degrees they rowed, as it were, into a brighter region. The sea ahead lightened up, became pale yellow, then warmed into saffron, and, when the sun rose, blazed into liquid gold.

The words spoken by the boatmen, though few, were significant. The "rock" alluded to was the celebrated and much dreaded Inch Cape--more familiarly known as the Bell Rock--which being at that time unmarked by lighthouse or beacon of any kind, was the terror of mariners who were making for the firths of Forth and Tay. The "something" that was expected to be found there may be guessed at when we say that one of the fiercest storms that ever swept our eastern shores had just exhausted itself after strewing the coast with wrecks. The breast of ocean, though calm on the surface, as has been said, was still heaving with a mighty swell, from the effects of the recent elemental conflict.

"D'ye see the breakers noo, Davy?" enquired the ill-favoured man, who pulled the aft oar.

"Ay, and hear them, too," said Davy Spink, ceasing to row, and looking over his shoulder towards the seaward horizon.

"Yer een and lugs are better than mine, then," returned the ill-favoured comrade, who answered, when among his friends, to the name of Big Swankie, otherwise, and more correctly, Jock Swankie. "Od! I believe ye're right," he added, shading his heavy red brows with his heavier and redder hand, "that is the rock, but a man wad need the een o' an eagle to see onything in the face o' sik a bleezin' sun. Pull awa', Davy, we'll hae time to catch a bit cod or a haddy afore the rock's bare."

Influenced by these encouraging hopes, the stout pair urged their boat in the direction of a thin line of snow-white foam that lay apparently many miles away, but which was in reality not very far distant.

By degrees the white line expanded in size and became massive, as though a huge breaker were rolling towards them; ever and anon jets of foam flew high into the air from various parts of the mass, like smoke from a cannon's mouth. Presently, a low continuous roar became audible above the noise of the oars; as the boat advanced, the swells from the south-east could be seen towering upwards as they neared the foaming spot, gradually changing their broad-backed form, and coming on in majestic walls of green water, which fell with indescribable grandeur into the seething caldron. No rocks were visible, there was no apparent cause for this wild confusion in the midst of the otherwise calm sea. But the fishermen knew that the Bell Rock was underneath the foam, and that in less than an hour its jagged peaks would be left uncovered by the falling tide.

As the swell of the sea came in from the eastward, there was a belt of smooth water on the west side of the rock. Here the fishermen cast anchor, and, baiting their hand-lines, began to fish. At first they were unsuccessful, but before half an hour had elapsed, the cod began to nibble, and Big Swankie ere long hauled up a fish of goodly size. Davy Spink followed suit, and in a few minutes a dozen fish lay spluttering in the bottom of the boat.

"Time's up noo," said Swankie, coiling away his line.

"Stop, stop, here's a wallupper," cried Davy, who was an excitable man; "we better fish a while langer--bring the cleek, Swankie, he's ower big to--noo, lad, cleek him! that's it!--Oh-o-o-o!"

The prolonged groan with which Davy brought his speech to a sudden termination was in consequence of the line breaking and the fish escaping, just as Swankie was about to strike the iron hook into its side.

"Hech! lad, that was a guid ane," said the disappointed man with a sigh; "but he's awa'."

"Ay," observed Swankie, "and we must awa' too, so up anchor, lad. The rock's lookin' oot o' the sea, and time's precious."

The anchor was speedily pulled up, and they rowed towards the rock, the ragged edges of which were now visible at intervals in the midst of the foam which they created.

At low tide an irregular portion of the Bell Rock, less than a hundred yards in length, and fifty yards in breadth, is uncovered and left exposed for two or three hours. It does not appear in the form of a single mass or islet, but in a succession of serrated ledges of various heights, between and amongst which the sea flows until the tide has fallen pretty low. At full ebb the rock appears like a dark islet, covered with seaweed, and studded with deep pools of water, most of which are connected with the sea by narrow channels running between the ledges. The highest part of the rock does not rise more than seven feet above the level of the sea at the lowest tide.

To enter one of the pools by means of the channels above referred to is generally a matter of difficulty, and often of extreme danger, as the swell of the sea, even in calm weather, bursts over these ledges with such violence as to render the channels at times impassable. The utmost caution, therefore, is necessary.

Our fishermen, however, were accustomed to land there occasionally in search of the remains of wrecks, and knew their work well. They approached the rock on the lee-side, which was, as has been said, to the westward. To a spectator viewing them from any point but from the boat itself, it would have appeared that the reckless men were sailing into the jaws of certain death, for the breakers burst around them so confusedly in all directions that their instant destruction seemed inevitable. But Davy Spink, looking over his shoulder as he sat at the bow-oar, saw a narrow lead of comparatively still water in the midst of the foam, along which he guided the boat with consummate skill, giving only a word or two of direction to Swankie, who instantly acted in accordance therewith.

"Pull, pull, lad," said Davy.

Swankie pulled, and the boat swept round with its bow to the east just in time to meet a billow, which, towering high above its fellows, burst completely over the rocks, and appeared to be about to sweep away all before it. For a moment the boat was as if embedded in snow, then it sank once more into the lead among the floating tangle, and the men pulled with might and main in order to escape the next wave. They were just in time. It burst over the same rocks with greater violence than its predecessor, but the boat had gained the shelter of the next ledge, and lay floating securely in the deep, quiet pool within, while the men rested on their oars, and watched the chaos of the water rush harmlessly by.

In another moment they had landed and secured the boat to a projecting rock.

Few words of conversation passed between these practical men. They had gone there on particular business. Time and tide proverbially wait for no man, but at the Bell Rock they wait a much briefer period than elsewhere. Between low water and the time when it would be impossible to quit the rock without being capsized, there was only a space of two or three hours--sometimes more, frequently less--so it behoved the men to economise time.

Rocks covered with wet seaweed and rugged in form are not easy to walk over; a fact which was soon proved by Swankie staggering violently once or twice, and by Spink falling flat on his back. Neither paid attention to his comrade's misfortunes in this way. Each scrambled about actively, searching with care among the crevices of the rocks, and from time to time picking up articles which they thrust into their pockets or laid on their shoulders, according as weight and dimensions required.

In a short time they returned to their boat pretty well laden.

"Weel, lad, what luck?" enquired Spink, as Swankie and he met--the former with a grappling iron on his shoulder, the latter staggering under the weight of a mass of metal.

"Not much," replied Swankie; "nothin' but heavy metal this mornin', only a bit of a cookin' stove an' a cannon shot--that's all."

"Never mind, try again. There must ha' bin two or three wrecks on the rock this gale," said Davy, as he and his friend threw their burdens into the boat, and hastened to resume the search.

At first Spink was the more successful of the two. He returned to the boat with various articles more than once, while his comrade continued his rambles unsuccessfully. At last, however, Big Swankie came to a gully or inlet where a large mass of the debris of a wreck was piled up in indescribable confusion, in the midst of which lay the dead body of an old man. Swankie's first impulse was to shout to his companion, but he checked himself, and proceeded to examine the pockets of the dead man.

Raising the corpse with some difficulty he placed it on the ledge of rock. Observing a ring on the little finger of the right hand, he removed it and put it hastily in his pocket. Then he drew a red morocco case from an inner breast pocket in the dead man's coat. To his surprise and delight he found that it contained a gold watch and several gold rings and brooches, in some of which were beautiful stones. Swankie was no judge of jewellery, but he could not avoid the conviction that these things must needs be valuable. He laid the case down on the rock beside him, and eagerly searched the other pockets. In one he found a large clasp-knife and a pencil-case; in another a leather purse, which felt heavy as he drew it out. His eyes sparkled at the first glance he got of the contents, for they were sovereigns! Just as he made this discovery, Davy Spink climbed over the ledge at his back, and Swankie hastily thrust the purse underneath the body of the dead man.

"Hallo! lad, what have ye there? Hey! watches and rings--come, we're in luck this mornin'."

"We!" exclaimed Swankie, somewhat sternly, "you didn't find that case."

"Na, lad, but we've aye divided, an' I dinna see what for we should change our plan noo."

"We've nae paction to that effec'--the case o' kickshaws is mine," retorted Swankie.

"Half o't," suggested Spink.

"Weel, weel," cried the other with affected carelessness, "I'd scorn to be sae graspin'. For the matter o' that ye may hae it all to yersel', but I'll hae the next thing we git that's worth muckle a' to mysel'."

So saying Swankie stooped to continue his search of the body, and in a moment or two drew out the purse with an exclamation of surprise.

"See, I'm in luck, Davy! Virtue's aye rewarded, they say. This is mine, and I doot not there'll be some siller intilt."

"Goold!" cried Davy, with dilated eyes, as his comrade emptied the contents into his large hand, and counted over thirty sovereigns.

"Ay, lad, ye can keep the what-d'ye-ca'-ums, and I'll keep the siller."

"I've seen that face before," observed Spink, looking intently at the body.

"Like enough," said Swankie, with an air of indifference, as he put the gold into his pocket. "I think I've seed it mysel'. It looks like auld Jamie Brand, but I didna ken him weel."

"It's just him," said Spink, with a touch of sadness. "Ay, ay, that'll fa' heavy on the auld woman. But, come, it'll no' do to stand haverin' this way. Let's see what else is on him."

They found nothing more of any value; but a piece of paper was discovered, wrapped up in oilskin, and carefully fastened with red tape, in the vest pocket of the dead man. It contained writing, and had been so securely wrapped up, that it was only a little damped. Davy Spink, who found it, tried in vain to read the writing; Davy's education had been neglected, so he was fain to confess that he could not make it out.

"Let me see't," said Swankie. "What hae we here? `The sloop is hard an--an--'"

"`Fast,' maybe," suggested Spink.

"Ay, so 'tis. I canna make out the next word, but here's something about the jewel-case."

The man paused and gazed earnestly at the paper for a few minutes, with a look of perplexity on his rugged visage.

"Weel, man, what is't?" enquired Davy.

"Hoot! I canna mak' it oot," said the other, testily, as if annoyed at being unable to read it. He refolded the paper and thrust it into his bosom, saying, "Come, we're wastin' time. Let's get on wi' our wark."

"Toss for the jewels and the siller," said Spink, suggestively.

"Very weel," replied the other, producing a copper. "Heeds, you win the siller; tails, I win the box;--heeds it is, so the kickshaws is mine. Weel, I'm content," he added, as he handed the bag of gold to his comrade, and received the jewel-case in exchange.

In another hour the sea began to encroach on the rock, and the fishermen, having collected as much as time would permit of the wrecked materials, returned to their boat.

They had secured altogether above two hundredweight of old metal,--namely, a large piece of a ship's caboose, a hinge, a lock of a door, a ship's marking-iron, a soldier's bayonet, a cannon ball, a shoebuckle, and a small anchor, besides part of the cordage of the wreck, and the money and jewels before mentioned. Placing the heavier of these things in the bottom of the boat, they pushed off.

"We better take the corp ashore," said Spink, suddenly.

"What for? They may ask what was in the pockets," objected Swankie.

"Let them ask," rejoined the other, with a grin.

Swankie made no reply, but gave a stroke with his oar which sent the boat close up to the rocks. They both relanded in silence, and, lifting the dead body of the old man, laid it in the stern-sheets of the boat. Once more they pushed off.

Too much delay had been already made. The surf was breaking over the ledges in all directions, and it was with the utmost difficulty that they succeeded in getting clear out into deep water. A breeze which had sprung up from the east, tended to raise the sea a little, but when they finally got away from the dangerous reef, the breeze befriended them. Hoisting the foresail, they quickly left the Bell Rock far behind them, and, in the course of a couple of hours, sailed into the harbour of Arbroath.

Chapter Two--The Lovers and the Press-Gang


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