Early on a summer morning, about the beginning of the nineteenthcentury, 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 andwell-favoured. Both were square-built, powerful fellows, like most menof the class to which they belonged.
It was about that calm hour of the morning which precedes sunrise, whenmost living creatures are still asleep, and inanimate nature wears, morethan at other times, the semblance of repose. The sea was like a sheetof undulating glass. A breeze had been expected, but, in defiance ofexpectation, it had not come, so the boatmen were obliged to use theiroars. They used them well, however, insomuch that the land ere longappeared like a blue line on the horizon, then became tremulous andindistinct, and finally vanished in the mists of morning.
The men pulled "with a will,"--as seamen pithily express it,--and insilence. Only once during the first hour did the big, ill-favoured manventure a remark. Referring to the absence of wind, he said, that "itwould be a' the better for landin' on the rock."
This was said in the broadest vernacular dialect, as, indeed, waseverything that dropped from the fishermen's lips. We take the libertyof modifying it a little, believing that strict fidelity here wouldentail inevitable loss of sense to many of our readers.
The remark, such as it was, called forth a rejoinder from the shortcomrade, who stated his belief that "they would be likely to findsomethin' 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 wasgrey, and the foam at the cutwater leaden-coloured. By degrees theyrowed, 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--morefamiliarly known as the Bell Rock--which being at that time unmarked bylighthouse or beacon of any kind, was the terror of mariners who weremaking for the firths of Forth and Tay. The "something" that wasexpected to be found there may be guessed at when we say that one of thefiercest storms that ever swept our eastern shores had just exhausteditself after strewing the coast with wrecks. The breast of ocean,though calm on the surface, as has been said, was still heaving with amighty swell, from the effects of the recent elemental conflict.
"D'ye see the breakers noo, Davy?" enquired the ill-favoured man, whopulled the aft oar.
"Ay, and hear them, too," said Davy Spink, ceasing to row, and lookingover his shoulder towards the seaward horizon.
"Yer een and lugs are better than mine, then," returned the ill-favouredcomrade, who answered, when among his friends, to the name of BigSwankie, otherwise, and more correctly, Jock Swankie. "Od! I believeye're right," he added, shading his heavy red brows with his heavier andredder hand, "that _is_ the rock, but a man wad need the een o' an eagleto 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 boatin the direction of a thin line of snow-white foam that lay apparentlymany miles away, but which was in reality not very far distant.
By degrees the white line expanded in size and became massive, as thougha huge breaker were rolling towards them; ever and anon jets of foamflew high into the air from various parts of the mass, like smoke from acannon's mouth. Presently, a low continuous roar became audible abovethe noise of the oars; as the boat advanced, the swells from thesouth-east could be seen towering upwards as they neared the foamingspot, gradually changing their broad-backed form, and coming on inmajestic walls of green water, which fell with indescribable grandeurinto the seething caldron. No rocks were visible, there was no apparentcause for this wild confusion in the midst of the otherwise calm sea.But the fishermen knew that the Bell Rock was underneath the foam, andthat in less than an hour its jagged peaks would be left uncovered bythe falling tide.
As the swell of the sea came in from the eastward, there was a belt ofsmooth water on the west side of the rock. Here the fishermen castanchor, and, baiting their hand-lines, began to fish. At first theywere unsuccessful, but before half an hour had elapsed, the cod began tonibble, and Big Swankie ere long hauled up a fish of goodly size. DavySpink followed suit, and in a few minutes a dozen fish lay splutteringin 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 bigto--noo, lad, cleek him! that's it!--Oh-o-o-o!"
The prolonged groan with which Davy brought his speech to a suddentermination was in consequence of the line breaking and the fishescaping, just as Swankie was about to strike the iron hook into itsside.
"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. Therock's lookin' oot o' the sea, and time's precious."
The anchor was speedily pulled up, and they rowed towards the rock, theragged edges of which were now visible at intervals in the midst of thefoam which they created.
At low tide an irregular portion of the Bell Rock, less than a hundredyards in length, and fifty yards in breadth, is uncovered and leftexposed for two or three hours. It does not appear in the form of asingle mass or islet, but in a succession of serrated ledges of variousheights, between and amongst which the sea flows until the tide hasfallen pretty low. At full ebb the rock appears like a dark islet,covered with seaweed, and studded with deep pools of water, most ofwhich are connected with the sea by narrow channels running between theledges. The highest part of the rock does not rise more than seven feetabove the level of the sea at the lowest tide.
To enter one of the pools by means of the channels above referred to isgenerally a matter of difficulty, and often of extreme danger, as theswell of the sea, even in calm weather, bursts over these ledges withsuch violence as to render the channels at times impassable. The utmostcaution, therefore, is necessary.
Our fishermen, however, were accustomed to land there occasionally insearch of the remains of wrecks, and knew their work well. Theyapproached the rock on the lee-side, which was, as has been said, to thewestward. To a spectator viewing them from any point but from the boatitself, it would have appeared that the reckless men were sailing intothe jaws of certain death, for the breakers burst around them soconfusedly in all directions that their instant destruction seemedinevitable. But Davy Spink, looking over his shoulder as he sat at thebow-oar, saw a narrow lead of comparatively still water in the midst ofthe foam, along which he guided the boat with consummate skill, givingonly a word or two of direction to Swankie, who instantly acted inaccordance therewith.
"Pull, pull, lad," said Davy.
Swankie pulled, and the boat swept round with its bow to the east justin time to meet a billow, which, towering high above its fellows, burstcompletely over the rocks, and appeared to be about to sweep away allbefore it. For a moment the boat was as if embedded in snow, then itsank once more into the lead among the floating tangle, and the menpulled with might and main in order to escape the next wave. They werejust in time. It burst over the same rocks with greater violence thanits predecessor, but the boat had gained the shelter of the next ledge,and lay floating securely in the deep, quiet pool within, while the menrested on their oars, and watched the chaos of the water rush harmlesslyby.
In another moment they had landed and secured the boat to a projectingrock.
Few words of conversation passed between these practical men. They hadgone there on particular business. Time and tide proverbially wait forno man, but at the Bell Rock they wait a much briefer period thanelsewhere. Between low water and the time when it would be impossibleto quit the rock without being capsized, there was only a space of twoor three hours--sometimes more, frequently less--so it behoved the mento economise time.
Rocks covered with wet seaweed and rugged in form are not easy to walkover; a fact which was soon proved by Swankie staggering violently onceor twice, and by Spink falling flat on his back. Neither paid attentionto his comrade's misfortunes in this way. Each scrambled aboutactively, searching with care among the crevices of the rocks, and fromtime to time picking up articles which they thrust into their pockets orlaid 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--theformer with a grappling iron on his shoulder, the latter staggeringunder the weight of a mass of metal.
"Not much," replied Swankie; "nothin' but heavy metal this mornin', onlya 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 therock this gale," said Davy, as he and his friend threw their burdensinto the boat, and hastened to resume the search.
At first Spink was the more successful of the two. He returned to theboat with various articles more than once, while his comrade continuedhis rambles unsuccessfully. At last, however, Big Swankie came to agully or inlet where a large mass of the _debris_ of a wreck was piledup in indescribable confusion, in the midst of which lay the dead bodyof 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 deadman.
Raising the corpse with some difficulty he placed it on the ledge ofrock. Observing a ring on the little finger of the right hand, heremoved it and put it hastily in his pocket. Then he drew a red moroccocase from an inner breast pocket in the dead man's coat. To hissurprise and delight he found that it contained a gold watch and severalgold rings and brooches, in some of which were beautiful stones.Swankie was no judge of jewellery, but he could not avoid the convictionthat these things must needs be valuable. He laid the case down on therock beside him, and eagerly searched the other pockets. In one hefound 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 firstglance he got of the contents, for they were sovereigns! Just as hemade this discovery, Davy Spink climbed over the ledge at his back, andSwankie hastily thrust the purse underneath the body of the dead man.
"Hallo! lad, what have ye there? Hey! watches and rings--come, we're inluck this mornin'."
"_We_!" exclaimed Swankie, somewhat sternly, "_you_ didn't find thatcase."
"Na, lad, but we've aye divided, an' I dinna see what for we shouldchange 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 tobe 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 amoment or two drew out the purse with an exclamation of surprise.
"See, I'm in luck, Davy! Virtue's aye rewarded, they say. This ismine, and I doot not there'll be some siller intilt."
"Goold!" cried Davy, with dilated eyes, as his comrade emptied thecontents 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 thebody.
"Like enough," said Swankie, with an air of indifference, as he put thegold into his pocket. "I think I've seed it mysel'. It looks like auldJamie Brand, but I didna ken him weel."
"It's just him," said Spink, with a touch of sadness. "Ay, ay, that'llfa' 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 wasdiscovered, wrapped up in oilskin, and carefully fastened with red tape,in the vest pocket of the dead man. It contained writing, and had beenso 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 hadbeen 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 hardan--an--'"
"`Fast,' maybe," suggested Spink.
"Ay, so 'tis. I canna make out the next word, but here's somethingabout the jewel-case."
The man paused and gazed earnestly at the paper for a few minutes, witha 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 atbeing unable to read it. He refolded the paper and thrust it into hisbosom, 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 thesiller; 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 hiscomrade, and received the jewel-case in exchange.
In another hour the sea began to encroach on the rock, and thefishermen, having collected as much as time would permit of the wreckedmaterials, 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, aship'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 themoney and jewels before mentioned. Placing the heavier of these thingsin 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 theboat close up to the rocks. They both relanded in silence, and, liftingthe 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 theledges in all directions, and it was with the utmost difficulty thatthey succeeded in getting clear out into deep water. A breeze which hadsprung up from the east, tended to raise the sea a little, but when theyfinally 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 ofArbroath.