Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
OF A STAIRHEAD AND A SEA-CAPTAIN.
With the escapade that landed me in the Tolbooth there came an end to the nightmare years of my first youth. A week later I got word that my father was dead of an ague in the Low Countries, and I had to be off post-haste to Auchencairn to see to the ordering of our little estate. We were destined to be bitter poor, what with dues and regalities incident on the passing of the ownership, and I thought it best to leave my mother to farm it, with the help of Robin Gilfillan the grieve, and seek employment which would bring me an honest penny. Her one brother, Andrew Sempill, from whom I was named, was a merchant in Glasgow, the owner of three ships that traded to the Western Seas, and by repute a man of a shrewd and venturesome temper. He was single, too, and I might reasonably look to be his heir; so when a letter came from him offering me a hand in his business, my mother was instant for my going. I was little loath myself, for I saw nothing now to draw me to the profession of the law, which had been my first notion. "Hame's hame," runs the proverb, "as the devil said when he found himself in the Court of Session," and I had lost any desire for that sinister company. Besides, I liked the notion of having to do with ships and far lands; for I was at the age when youth burns fiercely in a lad, and his fancy is as riotous as a poet's.
Yet the events I have just related had worked a change in my life. They had driven the unthinking child out of me and forced me to reflect on my future. Two things rankled in my soul--a wench's mocking laughter and the treatment I had got from the dragoon. It was not that I was in love with the black-haired girl; indeed, I think I hated her; but I could not get her face out of my head or her voice out of my ears. She had mocked me, treated me as if I was no more than a foolish servant, and my vanity was raw. I longed to beat down her pride, to make her creep humbly to me, Andrew Garvald, as her only deliverer; and how that should be compassed was the subject of many hot fantasies in my brain. The dragoon, too, had tossed me about like a silly sheep, and my manhood cried out at the recollection. What sort of man was I if any lubberly soldier could venture on such liberties?
I went into the business with the monstrous solemnity of youth, and took stock of my equipment as if I were casting up an account. Many a time in those days I studied my appearance in the glass like a foolish maid. I was not well featured, having a freckled, square face, a biggish head, a blunt nose, grey, colourless eyes, and a sandy thatch of hair, I had great square shoulders, but my arms were too short for my stature, and--from an accident in my nursing days--of indifferent strength. All this stood on the debit side of my account. On the credit side I set down that I had unshaken good health and an uncommon power of endurance, especially in the legs. There was no runner in the Upper Ward of Lanark who was my match, and I had travelled the hills so constantly in all weathers that I had acquired a gipsy lore in the matter of beasts and birds and wild things, I had long, clear, unerring eyesight, which had often stood me in good stead in the time of my father's troubles. Of moral qualities, Heaven forgive me, I fear I thought less; but I believed, though I had been little proved, that I was as courageous as the common run of men.
All this looks babyish in the writing, but there was a method in this self-examination. I believed that I was fated to engage in strange ventures, and I wanted to equip myself for the future. The pressing business was that of self-defence, and I turned first to a gentleman's proper weapon, the sword. Here, alas! I was doomed to a bitter disappointment. My father had given me a lesson now and then, but never enough to test me, and when I came into the hands of a Glasgow master my unfitness was soon manifest. Neither with broadsword nor small sword could I acquire any skill. My short arm lacked reach and vigour, and there seemed to be some stiffness in wrist and elbow and shoulder which compelled me to yield to smaller men. Here was a pretty business, for though gentleman born I was as loutish with a gentleman's weapon as any country hind.
This discovery gave me some melancholy weeks, but I plucked up heart and set to reasoning. If my hand were to guard my head it must find some other way of it. My thoughts turned to powder and shot, to the musket and the pistol. Here was a weapon which needed only a stout nerve, a good eye, and a steady hand; one of these I possessed to the full, and the others were not beyond my attainment. There lived an armourer in the Gallowgate, one Weir, with whom I began to spend my leisure. There was an alley by the Molendinar Burn, close to the archery butts, where he would let me practise at a mark with guns from his store. Soon to my delight I found that here was a weapon with which I need fear few rivals. I had a natural genius for the thing, as some men have for sword-play, and Weir was a zealous teacher, for he loved his flint-locks.
"See, Andrew," he would cry, "this is the true leveller of mankind. It will make the man his master's equal, for though your gentleman may cock on a horse and wave his Andrew Ferrara, this will bring him off it. Brains, my lad, will tell in coming days, for it takes a head to shoot well, though any flesher may swing a sword."
The better marksman I grew the less I liked the common make of guns, and I cast about to work an improvement. I was especially fond of the short gun or pistol, not the bell-mouthed thing which shot a handful of slugs, and was as little precise in its aim as a hailstorm, but the light foreign pistol which, shot as true as a musket. Weir had learned his trade in Italy, and was a neat craftsman, so I employed him to make me a pistol after my own pattern. The butt was of light, tough wood, and brass-bound, for I did not care to waste money on ornament. The barrel was shorter than the usual, and of the best Spanish metal, and the pan and the lock were set after my own device. Nor was that all, for I became an epicure in the matter of bullets, and made my own with the care of a goldsmith. I would weigh out the powder charges as nicely as an apothecary weighs his drugs, for I had discovered that with the pistol the weight of bullet and charge meant much for good marksmanship. From Weir I got the notion of putting up ball and powder in cartouches, and I devised a method of priming much quicker and surer than the ordinary. In one way and another I believe I acquired more skill in the business than anybody then living in Scotland. I cherished my toy like a lover; I christened it "Elspeth "; it lay by my bed at night, and lived by day in a box of sweet-scented foreign wood given me by one of my uncle's skippers. I doubt I thought more of it than of my duty to my Maker.
All the time I was very busy at Uncle Andrew's counting-house in the Candleriggs, and down by the river-side among the sailors. It was the day when Glasgow was rising from a cluster of streets round the High Kirk and College to be the chief merchants' resort in Scotland. Standing near the Western Seas, she turned her eyes naturally to the Americas, and a great trade was beginning in tobacco and raw silk from Virginia, rich woods and dye stuffs from the Main, and rice and fruits from the Summer Islands. The river was too shallow for ships of heavy burthen, so it was the custom to unload in the neighbourhood of Greenock and bring the goods upstream in barges to the quay at the Broomielaw. There my uncle, in company with other merchants, had his warehouse, but his counting-house was up in the town, near by the College, and I spent my time equally between the two places. I became furiously interested in the work, for it has ever been my happy fortune to be intent on whatever I might be doing at the moment. I think I served my uncle well, for I had much of the merchant's aptitude, and the eye to discern far-away profits. He liked my boldness, for I was impatient of the rule-of-thumb ways of some of our fellow-traders. "We are dealing with new lands," I would say, "and there is need of new plans. It pays to think in trading as much as in statecraft," There were plenty that looked askance at us, and cursed us as troublers of the peace, and there were some who prophesied speedy ruin. But we discomforted our neighbours by prospering mightily, so that there was talk of Uncle Andrew for the Provost's chair at the next vacancy.
They were happy years, the four I spent in Glasgow, for I was young and ardent, and had not yet suffered the grave miscarriage of hope which is our human lot. My uncle was a busy merchant, but he was also something of a scholar, and was never happier than when disputing some learned point with a college professor over a bowl of punch. He was a great fisherman, too, and many a salmon I have seen him kill between the town and Rutherglen in the autumn afternoons. He treated me like a son, and by his aid I completed my education by much reading of books and a frequent attendance at college lectures. Such leisure as I had I spent by the river-side talking with the ship captains and getting news of far lands. In this way I learned something of the handling of a ship, and especially how to sail a sloop alone in rough weather, I have ventured, myself the only crew, far down the river to the beginning of the sealocks, and more than once escaped drowning by a miracle. Of a Saturday I would sometimes ride out to Auchencairn to see my mother and assist with my advice the work of Robin Gilfillan. Once I remember I rode to Carnwath, and looked again on the bleak house where the girl Elspeth had sung to me in the rain. I found it locked and deserted, and heard from a countrywoman that the folk had gone. "And a guid riddance," said the woman. "The Blairs was aye a cauld and oppressive race, and they were black Prelatists forbye. But I whiles miss yon hellicat lassie. She had a cheery word for a'body, and she keepit the place frae languor."
But I cannot linger over the tale of those peaceful years when I have so much that is strange and stirring to set down. Presently came the Revolution, when King James fled overseas, and the Dutch King William reigned in his stead. The event was a godsend to our trade, for with Scotland in a bicker with Covenants and dragoonings, and new taxes threatened with each new Parliament, a merchant's credit was apt to be a brittle thing. The change brought a measure of security, and as we prospered I soon began to see that something must be done in our Virginian trade. Years before, my uncle had sent out a man, Lambie by name, who watched his interests in that country. But we had to face such fierce rivalry from the Bristol merchants that I had small confidence in Mr. Lambie, who from his letters was a sleepy soul. I broached the matter to my uncle, and offered to go myself and put things in order. At first he was unwilling to listen. I think he was sorry to part with me, for we had become close friends, and there was also the difficulty of my mother, to whom I was the natural protector. But his opposition died down when I won my mother to my side, and when I promised that I would duly return. I pointed out that Glasgow and Virginia were not so far apart. Planters from the colony would dwell with us for a season, and their sons often come to Glasgow for their schooling. You could see the proud fellows walking the streets in brave clothes, and marching into the kirk on Sabbath with a couple of servants carrying cushions and Bibles. In the better class of tavern one could always meet with a Virginian or two compounding their curious drinks, and swearing their outlandish oaths. Most of them had gone afield from Scotland, and it was a fine incentive to us young men to see how mightily they had prospered. My uncle yielded, and it was arranged that I should sail with the first convoy of the New Year. From the moment of the decision I walked the earth in a delirium of expectation. That February, I remember, was blue and mild, with soft airs blowing up the river. Down by the Broomielaw I found a new rapture in the smell of tar and cordage, and the queer foreign scents in my uncle's warehouse. Every skipper and greasy sailor became for me a figure of romance. I scanned every outland face, wondering if I should meet it again in the New World. A negro in cotton drawers, shivering in our northern dune, had more attraction for me than the fairest maid, and I was eager to speak with all and every one who had crossed the ocean. One bronzed mariner with silver earrings I entertained to three stoups of usquebaugh, hoping for strange tales, but the little I had from him before he grew drunk was that he had once voyaged to the Canaries. You may imagine that I kept my fancies to myself, and was outwardly only the sober merchant with a mind set on freights and hogsheads. But whoever remembers his youth will know that such terms to me were not the common parlance of trade. The very names of the tobaccos Negro's Head, Sweet-scented, Oronoke, Carolina Red, Gloucester Glory, Golden Rod sang in my head like a tune, that told of green forests and magic islands.
But an incident befell ere I left which was to have unforeseen effects on my future. One afternoon I was in the shooting alley I have spoken of, making trial of a new size of bullet I had moulded. The place was just behind Parlane's tavern, and some gentlemen, who had been drinking there, came out to cool their heads and see the sport. Most of them were cock-lairds from the Lennox, and, after the Highland fashion, had in their belts heavy pistols of the old kind which folk called "dags." They were cumbrous, ill-made things, gaudily ornamented with silver and Damascus work, fit ornaments for a savage Highland chief, but little good for serious business, unless a man were only a pace or two from his opponent. One of them, who had drunk less than the others, came up to me and very civilly proposed a match. I was nothing loath, so a course was fixed, and a mutchkin of French eau de vie named as the prize. I borrowed an old hat from the landlord which had stuck in its side a small red cockade. The thing was hung as a target in a leafless cherry tree at twenty paces, and the cockade was to be the centre mark. Each man was to fire three shots apiece.
Barshalloch--for so his companions called my opponent after his lairdship--made a great to-do about the loading, and would not be content till he had drawn the charge two--three times. The spin of a coin gave him first shot, and he missed the mark and cut the bole of the tree.
"See," I said, "I will put my ball within a finger's-breadth of his." Sure enough, when they looked, the two bullets were all but in the same hole.
His second shot took the hat low down on its right side, and clipped away a bit of the brim. I saw by this time that the man could shoot, though he had a poor weapon and understood little about it. So I told the company that I would trim the hat by slicing a bit from the other side. This I achieved, though by little, for my shot removed only half as much cloth as its predecessor. But the performance amazed the onlookers. "Ye've found a fair provost at the job, Barshalloch," one of them hiccupped. "Better quit and pay for the mutchkin."
My antagonist took every care with his last shot, and, just missing the cockade, hit the hat about the middle, cut the branch on which it rested, and brought it fluttering to the ground a pace or two farther on. It lay there, dimly seen through a low branch of the cherry tree, with the cockade on the side nearest me. It was a difficult mark, but the light was good and my hand steady. I walked forward and brought back the hat with a hole drilled clean through the cockade.
At that there was a great laughter, and much jocosity from the cock-lairds at their friend's expense. Barshalloch very handsomely complimented me, and sent for the mutchkin. His words made me warm towards him, and I told him that half the business was not my skill of shooting but the weapon I carried.
He begged for a look at it, and examined it long and carefully.
"Will ye sell, friend?" he asked. "I'll give ye ten golden guineas and the best filly that ever came out o' Strathendrick for that pistol."
But I told him that the offer of Strathendrick itself would not buy it.
"No?" said he. "Well, I won't say ye're wrong. A man should cherish his weapon like his wife, for it carries his honour."
Presently, having drunk the wager, they went indoors again, all but a tall fellow who had been a looker-on, but had not been of the Lennox company. I had remarked him during the contest, a long, lean man with a bright, humorous blue eye and a fiery red head. He was maybe ten years older than me, and though he was finely dressed in town clothes, there was about his whole appearance a smack of the sea. He came forward, and, in a very Highland voice, asked my name.
"Why should I tell you?" I said, a little nettled.
"Just that I might carry it in my head. I have seen some pretty shooting in my day, but none like yours, young one. What's your trade that ye've learned the pistol game so cleverly?"
Now I was flushed with pride, and in no mood for a stranger's patronage. So I told him roundly that it was none of his business, and pushed by him to Parlane's back-door. But my brusqueness gave no offence to this odd being. He only laughed and cried after me that, if my manners were the equal of my marksmanship, I would be the best lad he had seen since his home-coming.
I had dinner with my uncle in the Candleriggs, and sat with him late afterwards casting up accounts, so it was not till nine o'clock that I set out on my way to my lodgings. These were in the Saltmarket, close on the river front, and to reach them I went by the short road through the Friar's Vennel. It was an ill-reputed quarter of the town, and not long before had been noted as a haunt of coiners; but I had gone through it often, and met with no hindrance.
In the vennel stood a tall dark bit of masonry called Gilmour's Lordship, which was pierced by long closes from which twisting stairways led to the upper landings. I was noting its gloomy aspect under the dim February moon, when a man came towards me and turned into one of the closes. He swung along with a free, careless gait that marked him as no townsman, and ere he plunged into the darkness I had a glimpse of fiery hair. It was the stranger who had accosted me in Parlane's alley, and he was either drunk or in wild spirits, for he was singing:--
"We're a' dry wi' the drinkin' o't, We're a' dry wi' the drinkin' o't. The minister kissed the fiddler's wife, And he couldna preach for thinkin' o't."
The ribald chorus echoed from the close mouth.
Then I saw that he was followed by three others, bent, slinking fellows, who slipped across the patches of moonlight, and eagerly scanned the empty vennel. They could not see me, for I was in shadow, and presently they too entered the close.
The thing looked ugly, and, while I had no love for the red-haired man, I did not wish to see murder or robbery committed and stand idly by. The match of the afternoon had given me a fine notion of my prowess, though. Had I reflected, my pistol was in its case at home, and I had no weapon but a hazel staff. Happily in youth the blood is quicker than the brain, and without a thought I ran into the close and up the long stairway.
The chorus was still being sung ahead of me, and then it suddenly ceased. In dead silence and in pitchy darkness I struggled up the stone steps, wondering what I should find at the next turning. The place was black as night, the steps were uneven, and the stairs corkscrewed most wonderfully. I wished with all my heart that I had not come, as I groped upwards hugging the wall.
Then a cry came and a noise of hard breathing. At the same moment a door opened somewhere above my head, and a faint glow came down the stairs. Presently with a great rumble a heavy man came rolling past me, butting with his head at the stair-side. He came to anchor on a landing below me, and finding his feet plunged downwards as if the devil were at his heels. He left behind him a short Highland knife, which I picked up and put in my pocket.
On his heels came another with his hand clapped to his side, and he moaned as he slithered past me. Something dripped from him on the stone steps.
The light grew stronger, and as I rounded the last turning a third came bounding down, stumbling from wall to wall like a drunk man. I saw his face clearly, and if ever mortal eyes held baffled murder it was that fellow's. There was a dark mark on his shoulder.
Above me as I blinked stood my red-haired friend on the top landing. He had his sword drawn, and was whistling softly through his teeth, while on the right hand was an open door and an old man holding a lamp.
"Ho!" he cried. "Here comes a fourth. God's help, it's my friend the marksman!"
I did not like that naked bit of steel, but there was nothing for it but to see the thing through. When he saw that I was unarmed he returned his weapon to its sheath, and smiled broadly down on me.
"What brings my proud gentleman up these long stairs?" he asked.
"I saw you entering the close and three men following you. It looked bad, so I came up to see fair play."
"Did ye so? And a very pretty intention, Mr. What's-your-name. But ye needna have fashed yourself. Did ye see any of our friends on the stairs?"
"I met a big man rolling down like a football," I said.
"Ay, that would be Angus. He's a clumsy stot, and never had much sense."
"And I met another with his hand on his side," I said.
"That would be little James. He's a fine lad with a skean-dhu on a dark night, but there was maybe too much light here for his trade."
"And I met a third who reeled like a drunk man," I said.
"Ay," said he meditatively, "that was Long Colin. He's the flower o' the flock, and I had to pink him. At another time and in a better place I would have liked a bout with him, for he has some notion of sword-play."
"Who were the men?" I asked, in much confusion, for this laughing warrior perplexed me.
"Who but just my cousins from Glengyle. There has long been a sort of bicker between us, and they thought they had got a fine chance of ending it."
"And who, in Heaven's name, are you," I said, "that treats murder so lightly?"
"Me?" he repeated. "Well, I might give ye the answer you gave me this very day when I speired the same question. But I am frank by nature, and I see you wish me well. Come in bye, and we'll discuss the matter."
He led me into a room where a cheerful fire crackled, and got out from a press a bottle and glasses. He produced tobacco from a brass box and filled a long pipe.
"Now," said he, "we'll understand each other better. Ye see before you a poor gentleman of fortune, whom poverty and a roving spirit have driven to outland bits o' the earth to ply his lawful trade of sea-captain. They call me by different names. I have passed for a Dutch skipper, and a Maryland planter, and a French trader, and, in spite of my colour, I have been a Spanish don in the Main. At Tortuga you will hear one name, and another at Port o' Spain, and a third at Cartagena. But, seeing we are in the city o' Glasgow in the kindly kingdom o' Scotland, I'll be honest with you. My father called me Ninian Campbell, and there's no better blood in Breadalbane."
What could I do after that but make him a present of the trivial facts about myself and my doings? There was a look of friendly humour about this dare-devil which captured my fancy. I saw in him the stuff of which adventurers are made, and though I was a sober merchant, I was also young. For days I had been dreaming of foreign parts and an Odyssey of strange fortunes, and here on a Glasgow stairhead I had found Ulysses himself.
"Is it not the pity," he cried, "that such talents as yours should rust in a dark room in the Candleriggs? Believe me, Mr. Garvald, I have seen some pretty shots, but I have never seen your better."
Then I told him that I was sailing within a month for Virginia, and he suddenly grew solemn.
"It looks like Providence," he said, "that we two should come together. I, too, will soon be back in the Western Seas, and belike we'll meet. I'm something of a rover, and I never bide long in the same place, but I whiles pay a visit to James Town, and they ken me well on the Eastern Shore and the Accomac beaches."
He fell to giving me such advice as a traveller gives to a novice. It was strange hearing for an honest merchant, for much of it was concerned with divers ways of outwitting the law. By and by he was determined to convoy me to my lodgings, for he pointed out that I was unarmed; and I think, too, he had still hopes of another meeting with Long Colin, his cousin.
"I leave Glasgow the morrow's morn," he said, "and it's no likely we'll meet again in Scotland. Out in Virginia, no doubt, you'll soon be a great man, and sit in Council, and hob-nob with the Governor. But a midge can help an elephant, and I would gladly help you, for you had the goodwill to help me. If ye need aid you will go to Mercer's Tavern at James Town down on the water front, and you will ask news of Ninian Campbell. The man will say that he never heard tell of the name, and then you will speak these words to him. You will say 'The lymphads are on the loch, and the horn of Diarmaid has sounded.' Keep them well in mind, for some way or other they will bring you and me together."
Without another word he was off, and as I committed the gibberish to memory I could hear his song going up the Saltmarket:--
"The minister kissed the fiddler's wife, And he couldna preach for thinkin' o't."
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.