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Chapter XIV. Colonsay

Archie, having little else to do, spent much of his time in fishing. As a boy he had learned to be fond of the sport in the stream of Glen Cairn; but the sea was new to him, and whenever the weather permitting he used to go out with the natives in their boats. The Irish coast was but a few miles away, but there was little traffic between Rathlin and the mainland. The coast there is wild and forbidding, and extremely dangerous in case of a northerly gale blowing up suddenly. The natives were a wild and savage race, and many of those who had fought to the last against the English refused to submit when their chiefs laid down their arms, and took refuge in the many caves and hiding places afforded in the wild and broken country on the north coast.

Thus no profitable trade was to be carried on with the Irish mainland. The people of Rathlin were themselves primitive in their ways. Their wants were few and easily satisfied. The wool of their flocks furnished them with clothing, and they raised sufficient grain in sheltered spots to supply them with meal, while an abundance of food could be always obtained from the sea. In fine weather they took more than sufficient for their needs, and dried the overplus to serve them when the winter winds kept their boats from putting out. Once or twice in the year their largest craft, laden with dried fish, would make across to Ayr, and there disposing of its cargo would bring back such articles as were needed, and more precious still, the news of what was passing in the world, of which the simple islanders knew so little. Even more than fishing, Archie loved when the wind blew wildly to go down to the shore and watch the great waves rolling in and dashing themselves into foam on the rocky coast. This to him was an entirely new pleasure, and he enjoyed it intensely. Perched on some projecting rock out of reach of the waves, he would sit for hours watching the grand scene, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or two of his comrades. The influx of a hundred visitors had somewhat straitened the islanders, and the fishermen were forced to put to sea in weather when they would not ordinarily have launched their boats, for in the winter they seldom ventured out unless the previous season had been unusually bad, and the stores of food laid by insufficient for winter consumption. Archie generally went out with an old man, who with two grownup sons owned a boat. They were bold and skilful fishermen, and often put to sea when no other boat cared to go out.

One evening the old man, as usual before going to sea, came into the hut which Archie and Sir James Douglas inhabited, and told him that he was going out early the next morning. "Fish are scarce," he said, "and it would be a disgrace on us islanders if our guests were to run short of food."

"I shall be ready, Donald," Archie replied, "and I hope we shall have good sport."

"I can't see what pleasure you take, Sir Archie," the young Douglas said, when the fisherman had left, "in being tossed up and down on the sea in a dirty boat, especially when the wind is high and the sea rough."

"I like it best then," Archie replied; "when the men are rowing against the wind, and the waves dash against the boat and the spray comes over in blinding showers, I feel very much the same sort of excitement as I do in a battle. It is a strife with the elements instead of with men, but the feeling in both cases is akin, and I feel the blood dancing fast through my veins and my lips set tightly together, just as when I stand shoulder to shoulder with my retainers, and breast the wave of English horsemen."

"Well, each to his taste, I suppose," Douglas said, laughing; "I have not seen much of war yet, and I envy you with all my heart the fights which you have gone through; but I can see no amusement in getting drenched to the skin by the sea. I think I can understand your feeling, though, for it is near akin to my own when I sit on the back of a fiery young horse, who has not yet been broken, and feel him battle with his will against mine, and bound, and rear, and curvet in his endeavours to throw me, until at last he is conquered and obeys the slightest touch of the rein."

"No doubt it is the same feeling," Archie replied; "it is the joy of strife in another form. For myself, I own I would rather fight on foot than on horseback; I can trust myself better than I can trust my steed, can wheel thrice while he is turning once, can defend both sides equally well; whereas on horseback, not only have I to defend myself but my horse, which is far more difficult, and if he is wounded and falls I may be entangled under him and be helpless at the mercy of an opponent."

"But none acquitted them better on horseback at Methven than you did, Sir Archie," the young fellow said, admiringly. "Did you not save the king, and keep at bay his foes till your retainers came up with their pikes and carried him off from the centre of the English chivalry?"

"I did my best," Archie said, "as one should always do; but I felt even then that I would rather have been fighting on foot."

"That is because you have so much skill with your weapon, Sir Archie," Douglas said. "On horseback with mace or battleaxe it is mainly a question of sheer strength, and though you are very strong there are others who are as strong as you. Now, it is allowed that none of the king's knights and followers are as skilful as you with the sword, and even the king himself, who is regarded as the second best knight in Europe, owns that on foot and with a sword he has no chance against you. That we all saw when you practiced for the amusement of the queen and her ladies in the mountains of Lennox. None other could even touch you, while you dented all our helmets and armour finely with that sword of yours. Had we continued the sport there would not have been a whole piece of armour among us save your own harness."

Archie laughed. "I suppose, Douglas, we all like best that in which we most excel. There are many knights in the English army who would assuredly overthrow me either in the tilting ring or in the field, for I had not the training on horseback when quite young which is needed to make a perfect knight, while I had every advantage in the learning of sword playing, and I stick to my own trade. The world is beginning to learn that a man on foot is a match for a horseman -- Wallace taught Europe that lesson. They are slow to believe it, for hitherto armed knights have deemed themselves invincible, and have held in contempt all foot soldiers. Stirling, and Falkirk, and Loudon Hill have taught them the difference, but it will be a long time before they fairly own a fact so mortifying to chivalry; but the time will come, be well assured, when battles will be fought almost with infantry alone. Upon them the brunt of the day will fall, and by them will victory be decided, while horsemen will be used principally for pursuing the foe when he is broken, for covering the retreat of infantry by desperate charges, or by charging into the midst of a fray when the infantry are broken."

"All the better for Scotland," James Douglas said, cheerfully. "We are not a nation of horsemen, and our mountains and hills, our forests and morasses, are better adapted for infantry than cavalry; so if ever the change you predict come to pass we shall be gainers by it."

At daybreak next morning Archie went down to the cove where his friend the fisherman kept his boat. The old man and his two sons were already there, but had not launched their craft.

"I like not the look of the weather," the fisherman said when Archie joined him. "The sky is dull and heavy, the sea is black and sullen, but there is a sound in the waves as they break against the rocks which seems to tell of a coming storm. I think, however, it will be some hours before it breaks, and if we have luck we may get a haul or two before it comes on."

"I am ready to go or stay," Archie said; "I have no experience in your weather here, and would not urge you against your own judgment, whatever it be; but if you put out I am ready to go with you."

"We will try it," the fisherman said, "for food is running short; but we will not go far from the shore, so that we can pull back if the weather gets worse."

The boat was soon launched, the nets and oars were already on board, and they quickly put out from the shore. The boat carried a small square sail, which was used when running before the wind. In those days the art of navigation was in its infancy, and the art of tacking against the wind had scarcely begun to be understood; indeed, so high were the ships out of water, with their lofty poops and forecastles, that it was scarce possible to sail them on a wind, so great was the leeway they made. Thus when contrary winds came mariners anchored and waited as patiently as they might for a change, and voyage to a port but two days' sail with a favouring wind was a matter of weeks when it was foul.

After rowing a mile from land the nets were put out, and for some time they drifted near these. From time to time the old fisherman cast an anxious eye at the sky.

"We must get in our nets," he said at last decidedly; "the wind is rising fast, and is backing from the west round to the south. Be quick, lads, for ere long the gale will be on us in its strength, and if `tis from the south we may well be blown out to sea."

Without a moment's delay the fishermen set to work to get in the nets, Archie lending a hand to assist them. The younger men thoroughly agreed in their father's opinion of the weather, but they knew too well the respect due to age to venture upon expressing an opinion until he had first spoken. The haul was a better one than they had expected, considering that the net had been down but two hours.

"`Tis not so bad," the fisherman said, "and the catch will be right welcome -- that is," he added, as he looked toward the land, "if we get it safely on shore."

The wind was now blowing strongly, but if it did not rise the boat would assuredly make the land. Archie took the helm, having learned somewhat of the steering on previous excursions, and the three fishermen tugged at the oars. It was a cross sea, for although the wind now blew nearly in their teeth, it had until the last half hour been from the west, and the waves were rolling in from the Atlantic. The boat, however, made fair progress, and Archie began to think that the doubts of the fishermen as to their making the shore were in no wise justified, when suddenly a gust, far stronger than those they had hitherto met, struck the boat. "Keep her head straight!" the fisherman shouted. "Don't let the wind take it one side or the other. Stick to it, boys; row your hardest; it is on us now and in earnest, I fear."

The three men bent to their oars, but Archie felt that they were no longer making headway. The boat was wide and high out of the water; a good sea boat, but very hard to row against the wind. Although the men strained at the oars, till Archie expected to see the tough staves crack under their efforts, the boat did not seem to move. Indeed it appeared to Archie that in the brief space when the oars were out of the water the wind drove her further back than the distance she had gained in the last stroke. He hoped, however, that the squall was merely temporary, and that when it subsided there would still be no difficulty in gaining the land. His hope was not realized. Instead of abating, the wind appeared each moment to increase in force. Clouds of spray were blown on the top of the waves, so that at times Archie could not see the shore before him. For nearly half an hour the fishermen struggled on, but Archie saw with dismay that the boat was receding from the shore, and that they had already lost the distance they had gained before the squall struck them. The old fisherman looked several times over his shoulder.

"It is of no use," he said at last; "we shall never make Rathlin, and must even run before the gale. Put up the helm, young sir, and take her round. Wait a moment till the next wave has passed under us -- now!" In another minute the boat's head was turned from land, and she was speeding before the gale.

"In with your oars, lads, and rig the mast, reef down the sail to the last point; we must show a little to keep her dead before the wind; we shall have a tremendous sea when we are once fairly away from the shelter of the island. This gale will soon knock up the sea, and with the cross swell from the Atlantic it will be as much as we can do to carry through it."

The mast was stepped and a mere rag of sail hoisted, but this was sufficient to drive the boat through the water at a great speed. The old fisherman was steering now, and when the sail was hoisted the four men all gathered in the stern of the boat.

"You will go between Islay and Jura, I suppose," one of the younger men said.

"Ay," his father said briefly; "the sea will be too high to windward of Islay."

"Could we not keep inside Jura?" Archie suggested; "and shelter in some of the harbours on the coast of Argyle?"

"Ay," the old man said; "could we be sure of doing that it would be right enough, but, strong as the wind is blowing her, it will be stronger still when we get in the narrow waters between the islands and the mainland, and it would be impossible to keep her even a point off the wind; then if we missed making a harbour we should be driven up through the Strait of Corrievrekan, and the biggest ship which sails from a Scottish port would not live in the sea which will be running there. No, it will be bad enough passing between Islay and Jura; if we get safely through that I shall try to run into the narrow strait between Colonsay and Oronsay; there we should have good and safe shelter. If we miss that, we must run inside Mull -- for there will be no getting without it -- and either shelter behind Lismore island far up the strait, or behind Kerara, or into the passage to Loch Etive."

"It will not be the last, I hope," Archie said, "for there stands Dunstaffnage Castle, and the lands all belong to the MacDougalls. It is but two months back I was a prisoner there, and though I then escaped, assuredly if I again get within its walls I shall never go out again. As well be drowned here."

"Then we will hope," the fisherman said, "that `tis into some other harbour that this evil wind may blow us; but as you see, young sir, the gale is the master and not we, and we must needs go where it chooses to take us."

Fiercer and fiercer blew the gale; a tremendous cross sea was now running, and the boat, stout and buoyant as she was, seemed every moment as if she would be engulfed in the chaos of water. Small as the sail had been it had been taken down and lashed with ropes to the yard, so that now only about three square feet of canvas was set.

"We can show a little more," the fisherman shouted in Archie's ear, "when we get abreast of Islay, for we shall then be sheltered from the sea from the west, and can run more boldly with only a following sea; but till we get out of this cross tumble we must not carry on, we only want steerage way to keep her head straight."

Never before had Archie Forbes seen a great gale in all its strength at sea, for those which had occurred while at Rathlin were as nothing to the present; and although on the hillside round Glen Cairn the wind sometimes blew with a force which there was no withstanding, there was nothing to impress the senses as did this wild confusion and turmoil of water. Buoyant as was the boat, heavy seas often broke on board her, and two hands were constantly employed in bailing; still Archie judged from the countenance of the men that they did not deem the position desperate, and that they believed the craft would weather the gale. Towards midday, although the wind blew as strongly as ever, there was a sensible change in the motion of the boat. She no longer was tossed up and down with jerky and sudden motion, as the waves seemed to rise directly under her, but rose and fell on the following waves with a steady and regular motion.

"We are well abreast of Islay," the old fisherman said when Archie remarked on the change to him. "There! do you not see that dark bank through the mist; that is Islay. We have no longer a cross sea, and can show a little more sail to keep her from being pooped. We will bear a little off toward the land -- we must keep it in sight, and not too far on our left, otherwise we may miss the straits and run on to Jura."

A little more sail was accordingly shown to the gale, and the boat scudded along at increased speed.

"How far is it to Colonsay?" Archie asked.

"Between fifty and sixty miles from Rathlin," the fisherman said. "It was eight o'clock when we started, ten when the squall struck us, it will be dark by four, and fast as we are running we shall scarcely be in time to catch the last gleam of day. Come, boys," he said to his sons, "give her a little more canvas still, for it is life and death to reach Colonsay before nightfall, for if we miss it we shall be dashed on to the Mull long before morning."

A little more sail was accordingly shown, and the boat tore through the water at what seemed to Archie to be tremendous speed; but she was shipping but little water now, for though the great waves as they neared her stern seemed over and over again to Archie as if they would break upon her and send her instantly to the bottom, the stout boat always lifted lightly upon them until he at length felt free from apprehension on that score. Presently the fisherman pointed out a dark mass over their other bow.

"That is Jura," he said; "we are fair for the channel, lads, but you must take in the sail again to the smallest rag, for the wind will blow through the gap between the islands with a force fit to tear the mast out of her."

Through the rest of his life Archie Forbes regarded that passage between Islay and Jura as the most tremendous peril he had ever encountered. Strong as the wind had been before, it was as nothing to the force with which it swept down the strait -- the height of the waves was prodigious, and the boat, as it passed over the crest of a wave, seemed to plunge down a very abyss. The old fisherman crouched low in the boat, holding the helm, while the other three lay on the planks in the bottom. Speech was impossible, for the loudest shouts would have been drowned in the fury of the storm. In half an hour the worst was over. They were through the straits and out in the open sea again, but Islay now made a lee for them, and the sea, high as it was, was yet calm in comparison to the tremendous waves in the Strait of Jura. More sail was hoisted again, and in an hour the fisherman said, "Thank God, there are the islands." The day was already fading, and Archie could with difficulty make out the slightly dark mass to which the helm pointed.

"Is that Colonsay?" he asked.

"It is Oronsay," the fisherman said. "The islands are close together and seem as if they had once been one, but have been cleft asunder by the arm of a giant. The strait between them is very narrow, and once within it we shall be perfectly sheltered. We must make as close to the point of the island as we can well go, so as not to touch the rocks, and then turn and enter the strait. If we keep out any distance we shall be blown past the entrance, and then our only remaining chance is to try and run her on to Colonsay, and take the risk of being drowned as she is dashed upon the rocks."

The light had almost faded when they ran along at the end of Oronsay. Archie shuddered as he saw the waves break upon the rocks and fly high up into the air, and felt how small was the chance of their escape should they be driven on a coast like that. They were but fifty yards from the point when they came abreast of its extremity; then the fisherman put down the helm and turned her head towards the strait, which opened on their left.

"Down with the sail and mast, lads, and out with your oars; we must row her in."

Not a moment was lost, the sail was lowered, the mast unstepped, and the oars got out, with a speed which showed how urgent was the occasion. Archie, who did not feel confidence in his power to manager her now in such a sea, took his seat by the man on the stroke thwart, and double banked his oar. Five minutes desperate rowing and they were under shelter of Oronsay, and were rowing more quickly up the narrow strait and towards the shore of Colonsay, where they intended to land. A quarter of an hour more and they stepped ashore.

The old fisherman raised his hat reverently. "Let us thank God and all the saints," he said, "who have preserved us through such great danger. I have been nigh fifty years at sea, and never was out in so wild a gale."

For a few minutes all stood silent and bare headed, returning fervent thanks for their escape.

"It is well," the old man said, as they moved inland, "that I have been so far north before; there are but few in Rathlin who have even been north of Islay, but sometimes when fish have been very plentiful in the island, and the boat for Ayr had already gone, I have taken up a boatload of fish to the good monks of Colonsay, who, although fairly supplied by their own fishermen, were yet always ready to pay a good price for them. Had you been in a boat with one who knew not the waters, assuredly we must have perished, for neither skill nor courage could have availed us. There! do you see that light ahead? That is the priory, and you may be sure of a welcome there."

The priory door was opened at their ring, and the monk who unclosed it, greatly surprised at visitors on such a night, at once bade them enter when he heard that they were fishermen whom the storm had driven to shelter on the island. The fishermen had to lend their aid to the monk to reclose the door, so great was the power of the wind. The monk shot the bolts, saying, "We need expect no further visitors tonight;" and led them into the kitchen, where a huge fire was blazing.

"Quick, brother Austin," he said to the monk, who acted as cook, "warm up a hot drink for these poor souls, for they must assuredly be well nigh perished with cold, seeing that they have been wet for many hours and exposed to all the violence of this wintry gale."

Archie and his companions were, indeed, stiff with cold and exposure, and could scarce answer the questions which the monks asked them.

"Have patience, brother! have patience!" brother Austin said. "When their tongues are unfrozen doubtless they will tell you all that you want to know. Only wait, I pray you, till they have drunk this posset which I am preparing."

The monk's curiosity was not, however, destined to be so speedily satisfied, for just as the voyagers were finishing their hot drinks a monk entered with a message that the prior, having heard that some strangers had arrived, would fain welcome and speak with them in his apartment. They rose at once.

"When the prior has done questioning you," brother Austin said, "return hither at once. I will set about preparing supper for you, for I warrant me you must need food as well as drink. Fear not but, however great your appetite may be, I will have enough to satisfy it ready by the time you return."

"Welcome to Colonsay!" the prior said, as the four men entered his apartment; "but stay -- I see you are drenched to the skin; and it were poor hospitality, indeed, to keep you standing thus even to assure you of your welcome. Take them," he said to the monk, "to the guest chamber at once, and furnish them with changes of attire. When they are warm and comfortable return with them hither."

In ten minutes Archie and his companions re-entered the prior's room. The prior looked with some astonishment at Archie; for in the previous short interview he had not noticed the difference in their attire, and had supposed them to be four fishermen. The monk, however, had marked the difference; and on inquiry, finding that Archie was a knight, had furnished him with appropriate attire. The good monks kept a wardrobe to suit guests of all ranks, seeing that many visitors came to the holy priory, and that sometimes the wind and waves brought them to shore in such sorry plight that a change of garments was necessary.

"Ah!" the prior said, in surprise; "I crave your pardon sir knight, that I noticed not your rank when you first entered. The light is somewhat dim, and as you stood there together at the door way I noticed not that you were of superior condition to the others."

"That might well be, holy prior," Archie said, "seeing that we were more like drowned beasts than Christian men. We have had a marvellous escape from the tempest -- thanks to God and his saints! -- seeing that we were blown off Rathlin, and have run before the gale down past Islay and through the Straits of Jura. Next to the protection of God and His saints, our escape is due to the skill and courage of my brave companions here, who were as cool and calm in the tempest as if they had been sitting by the ingle fires at home."

"From Rathlin!" the prior said in surprise, "and through the strait `twixt Islay and Jura! Truly that was a marvellous voyage in such a gale - and as I suppose, in an open boat. But how comes it, sir knight -- if I may ask the question without prying into your private affairs -- that you, a knight, were at Rathlin? In so wild and lonely an island men of your rank are seldom to be found."

"There are many there now, holy prior, far higher in rank than myself," Archie replied, "seeing that Robert the Bruce, crowned King of Scotland, James Douglas, and others of his nobles and knights, are sheltering there with him from the English bloodhounds."

"The Bruce at Rathlin!" the prior exclaimed, in surprise. "The last ship which came hither from the mainland told us that he was a hunted fugitive in Lennox; and we deemed that seeing the MacDougalls of Lorne and all the surrounding chiefs were hostile to him, and the English scattered thickly over all the low country, he must long ere this have fallen into the hands of his enemies."

"Thanks to Heaven's protection," Archie said devoutly, "the king with a few followers escaped and safely reached Rathlin!"

"Thou shouldst not speak of Heaven's protection," the prior said, sternly, "seeing that Bruce has violated the sanctuary of the church, has slain his enemy within her walls, has drawn down upon himself the anathema of the pope, and has been declared excommunicated and accursed."

"The pope, holy father," Archie replied, "although supreme in all holy things, is but little qualified to judge of the matter, seeing that he draws his information from King Edward, under whose protection he lives. The good Bishops of St. Andrews and Glasgow, with the Abbot of Scone, and many other dignitaries of the Scottish church, have condoned his offense, seeing that it was committed in hot blood and without prior intent. The king himself bitterly regrets the deed, which preys sorely upon his mind; but I can answer for it that Bruce had no thought of meeting Comyn at Dumfries."

"You speak boldly, young sir," the prior said, sternly, "for one over whose head scarce two-and-twenty years can have rolled; but enough now. You are storm staid and wearied; you are the guests of the convent. I will not keep you further now, for you have need of food and sleep. Tomorrow I will speak with you again."

So saying, the prior sharply touched a bell which stood on a table near him. The monk re-entered. The prior waved his hand: "Take these guests to the refectory and see that they have all they stand in need of, and that the bed chambers are prepared. In the morning I would speak to them again.

G. A. Henty