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Chapter 14

THE BASS


I had no thought where they were taking me; only looked here and there
for the appearance of a ship; and there ran the while in my head a word
of Ransome's--the _twenty-pounders_. If I were to be exposed a second
time to that same former danger of the plantations, I judged it must
turn ill with me; there was no second Alan, and no second shipwreck and
spare yard to be expected now; and I saw myself hoe tobacco under the
whip's lash. The thought chilled me; the air was sharp upon the water,
the stretchers of the boat drenched with a cold dew; and I shivered in
my place beside the steersman. This was the dark man whom I have called
hitherto the Lowlander; his name was Dale, ordinarily called Black
Andie. Feeling the thrill of my shiver, he very kindly handed me a rough
jacket full of fish-scales, with which I was glad to cover myself.

"I thank you for this kindness," said I, "and will make so free as to
repay it with a warning. You take a high responsibility in this affair.
You are not like these ignorant, barbarous Highlanders, but know what
the law is and the risks of those that break it."

"I am no just exactly what ye would ca' an extremist for the law," says
he, "at the best of times; but in this business I act with a good
warranty."

"What are you going to do with me?" I asked.

"Nae harm," said he, "nae harm ava'. Ye'll hae strong freens, I'm
thinking. Ye'll be richt eneuch yet."

There began to fall a greyness on the face of the sea; little dabs of
pink and like coals of slow fire came in the east; and at the same time
the geese awakened, and began crying about the top of the Bass. It is
just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve
a city from. The sea was extremely little, but there went a hollow
plowter round the base of it. With the growing of the dawn I could see
it clearer and clearer; the straight crags painted with sea-birds'
droppings like a morning frost, the sloping top of it green with grass,
the clan of white geese that cried about the sides, and the black,
broken buildings of the prison sitting close on the sea's edge.

At the sight the truth came in upon me in a clap.

"It's there you're taking me!" I cried.

"Just to the Bass, mannie," said he: "whaur the auld sants were afore
ye, and I misdoubt if ye have come so fairly by your preeson."

"But none dwells there now," I cried; "the place is long a ruin."

"It'll be the mair pleisand a change for the solan geese, then," quoth
Andie dryly.

The day coming slowly brighter I observed on the bilge, among the big
stones with which fisherfolk ballast their boats, several kegs and
baskets, and a provision of fuel. All these were discharged upon the
crag. Andie, myself, and my three Highlanders (I call them mine,
although it was the other way about), landed along with them. The sun
was not yet up when the boat moved away again, the noise of the oars on
the thole-pins echoing from the cliffs, and left us in our singular
reclusion.

Andie Dale was the Prefect (as I would jocularly call him) of the Bass,
being at once the shepherd and the gamekeeper of that small and rich
estate. He had to mind the dozen or so of sheep that fed and fattened on
the grass of the sloping part of it, like beasts grazing the roof of a
cathedral. He had charge besides of the solan geese that roosted in the
crags; and from these an extraordinary income is derived. The young are
dainty eating, as much as two shillings a-piece being a common price,
and paid willingly by epicures; even the grown birds are valuable for
their oil and feathers; and a part of the minister's stipend of North
Berwick is paid to this day in solan geese, which makes it (in some
folks' eyes) a parish to be coveted. To perform these several
businesses, as well as to protect the geese from poachers, Andie had
frequent occasion to sleep and pass days together on the crag; and we
found the man at home there like a farmer in his steading. Bidding us
all shoulder some of the packages, a matter in which I made haste to
bear a hand, he led us in by a locked gate, which was the only admission
to the island, and through the ruins of the fortress, to the governor's
house. There we saw, by the ashes in the chimney and a standing
bed-place in one corner, that he made his usual occupation.

This bed he now offered me to use, saying he supposed I would set up to
be gentry.

"My gentrice has nothing to do with where I lie," said I. "I bless God I
have lain hard ere now, and can do the same again with thankfulness.
While I am here, Mr. Andie, if that be your name, I will do my part and
take my place beside the rest of you; and I ask you on the other hand to
spare me your mockery, which I own I like ill."

He grumbled a little at this speech, but seemed upon reflection to
approve it. Indeed, he was a long-headed, sensible man, and a good Whig
and Presbyterian; read daily in a pocket Bible, and was both able and
eager to converse seriously on religion, leaning more than a little
towards the Cameronian extremes. His morals were of a more doubtful
colour. I found he was deep in the free trade, and used the ruins of
Tantallon for a magazine of smuggled merchandise. As for a gauger, I do
not believe he valued the life of one at half-a-farthing. But that part
of the coast of Lothian is to this day as wild a place, and the commons
there as rough a crew as any in Scotland.

One incident of my imprisonment is made memorable by a consequence it
had long after. There was a warship at this time stationed in the Firth,
the _Seahorse_, Captain Palliser. It chanced she was cruising in the
month of September, plying between Fife and Lothian, and sounding for
sunk dangers. Early one fine morning she was seen about two miles to
east of us, where she lowered a boat, and seemed to examine the Wildfire
Rocks and Satan's Bush, famous dangers of that coast. And presently,
after having got her boat again, she came before the wind and was headed
directly for the Bass. This was very troublesome to Andie and the
Highlanders; the whole business of my sequestration was designed for
privacy, and here, with a navy captain perhaps blundering ashore, it
looked to become public enough, if it were nothing worse. I was in a
minority of one, I am no Alan to fall upon so many, and I was far from
sure that a warship was the least likely to improve my condition. All
which considered, I gave Andie my parole of good behaviour and
obedience, and was had briskly to the summit of the rock, where we all
lay down, at the cliff's edge, in different places of observation and
concealment. The _Seahorse_ came straight on till I thought she would
have struck, and we (looking giddily down) could see the ship's company
at their quarters and hear the leadsman singing at the lead. Then she
suddenly wore and let fly a volley of I know not how many great guns.
The rock was shaken with the thunder of the sound, the smoke flowed over
our heads, and the geese rose in number beyond computation or belief. To
hear their screaming and to see the twinkling of their wings, made a
most inimitable curiosity: and I suppose it was after this somewhat
childish pleasure that Captain Palliser had come so near the Bass. He
was to pay dear for it in time. During his approach I had the
opportunity to make a remark upon the rigging of that ship by which I
ever after knew it miles away; and this was a means (under Providence)
of my averting from a friend a great calamity, and inflicting on Captain
Palliser himself a sensible disappointment.

All the time of my stay on the rock we lived well. We had small ale and
brandy, and oatmeal of which we made our porridge night and morning. At
times a boat came from the Castleton and brought us a quarter of mutton,
for the sheep upon the rock we must not touch, these being specially fed
to market. The geese were unfortunately out of season, and we let them
be. We fished ourselves, and yet more often made the geese to fish for
us: observing one when he had made a capture and scaring him from his
prey ere he had swallowed it.

The strange nature of this place, and the curiosities with which it
abounded, held me busy and amused. Escape being impossible, I was
allowed my entire liberty, and continually explored the surface of the
isle wherever it might support the foot of man. The old garden of the
prison was still to be observed, with flowers and pot-herbs running
wild, and some ripe cherries on a bush. A little lower stood a chapel or
a hermit's cell; who built or dwelt in it, none may know, and the
thought of its age made a ground of many meditations. The prison too,
where I now bivouacked with Highland cattle thieves, was a place full of
history, both human and divine. I thought it strange so many saints and
martyrs should have gone by there so recently, and left not so much as a
leaf out of their Bibles, or a name carved upon the wall, while the
rough soldier lads that mounted guard upon the battlements had filled
the neighbourhood with their mementoes--broken tobacco-pipes for the
most part, and that in a surprising plenty, but also metal buttons from
their coats. There were times when I thought I could have heard the
pious sound of psalms out of the martyrs' dungeons, and seen the
soldiers tramp the ramparts with their glinting pipes, and the dawn
rising behind them out of the North Sea.

No doubt it was a good deal Andie and his tales that put these fancies
in my head. He was extraordinary well acquainted with the story of the
rock in all particulars, down to the names of private soldiers, his
father having served there in that same capacity. He was gifted besides
with a natural genius for narration, so that the people seemed to speak
and the things to be done before your face. This gift of his and my
assiduity to listen brought us the more close together. I could not
honestly deny but what I liked him; I soon saw that he liked me; and
indeed, from the first I had set myself out to capture his good will. An
odd circumstance (to be told presently) effected this beyond my
expectation; but even in early days we made a friendly pair to be a
prisoner and his gaoler.

I should trifle with my conscience if I pretended my stay upon the Bass
was wholly disagreeable. It seemed to me a safe place, as though I was
escaped there out of my troubles. No harm was to be offered me; a
material impossibility, rock and the deep sea, prevented me from fresh
attempts; I felt I had my life safe and my honour safe, and there were
times when I allowed myself to gloat on them like stolen waters. At
other times my thoughts were very different. I recalled how strong I had
expressed myself both to Rankeillor and to Stewart; I reflected that my
captivity upon the Bass, in view of a great part of the coasts of Fife
and Lothian, was a thing I should be thought more likely to have
invented than endured; and in the eyes of these two gentlemen, at least,
I must pass for a boaster and a coward. Now I would take this lightly
enough; tell myself that so long as I stood well with Catriona Drummond,
the opinion of the rest of man was but moonshine and spilled water; and
thence pass off into those meditations of a lover which are so
delightful to himself and must always appear so surprisingly idle to a
reader. But anon the fear would take me otherwise; I would be shaken
with a perfect panic of self-esteem, and these supposed hard judgments
appear an injustice impossible to be supported. With that another train
of thought would be presented, and I had scarce begun to be concerned
about men's judgments of myself, than I was haunted with the remembrance
of James Stewart in his dungeon and the lamentations of his wife. Then,
indeed, passion began to work in me; I could not forgive myself to sit
there idle; it seemed (if I were a man at all) that I could fly or swim
out of my place of safety; and it was in such humours and to amuse my
self-reproaches that I would set the more particularly to win the good
side of Andie Dale.

At last, when we two were alone on the summit of the rock on a bright
morning, I put in some hint about a bribe. He looked at me, cast back
his head, and laughed out loud.

"Ay, you're funny, Mr. Dale," said I, "but perhaps if you glance an eye
upon that paper you may change your note."

The stupid Highlanders had taken from me at the time of my seizure
nothing but hard money, and the paper I now showed Andie was an
acknowledgment from the British Linen Company for a considerable sum.

He read it. "Troth, and ye're nane sae ill aff," said he.

"I thought that would maybe vary your opinions," said I.

"Hout!" said he. "It shaws me ye can bribe; but I'm no to be bribit."

"We'll see about that yet a while," says I. "And first, I'll show you
that I know what I am talking. You have orders to detain me here till
Thursday, 21st September."

"Ye're no a'thegether wrong either," says Andie. "I'm to let ye gang,
bar orders contrair, on Saturday, the 23rd."

I could not but feel there was something extremely insidious in this
arrangement. That I was to reappear precisely in time to be too late
would cast the more discredit on my tale, if I were minded to tell one;
and this screwed me to fighting point.

"Now then, Andie, you that kens the world, listen to me, and think while
ye listen," said I. "I know there are great folks in the business, and I
make no doubt you have their names to go upon. I have seen some of them
myself since this affair began, and said my say into their faces too.
But what kind of a crime would this be that I had committed? or what
kind of a process is this that I am fallen under? To be apprehended by
some ragged John-Hielandmen on August 30th, carried to a rickle of old
stones that is now neither fort nor gaol (whatever it once was) but just
the gamekeeper's lodge of the Bass Rock, and set free again, September
23d, as secretly as I was first arrested--does that sound like law to
you? or does it sound like justice? or does it not sound honestly like a
piece of some low dirty intrigue, of which the very folk that meddle
with it are ashamed?"

"I canna gainsay ye, Shaws. It looks unco underhand," says Andie. "And
werenae the folk guid sound Whigs and true-blue Presbyterians I would
hae seen them ayont Jordan and Jeroozlem or I would have set hand to
it."

"The Master of Lovat'll be a braw Whig," says I, "and a grand
Presbyterian."

"I ken naething by him," said he. "I hae nae trokings wi' Lovats."

"No, it'll be Prestongrange that you'll be dealing with," said I.

"Ah, but I'll no tell ye that," said Andie.

"Little need when I ken," was my retort.

"There's just the ae thing ye can be fairly sure of, Shaws," says Andie.
"And that is that (try as ye please) I'm no dealing wi' yoursel'; nor
yet I amnae goin' to," he added.

"Well, Andie, I see I'll have to be speak out plain with you," I
replied. And I told him so much as I thought needful of the facts.

He heard me out with serious interest, and when I had done, seemed to
consider a little with himself.

"Shaws," said he at last, "I deal with the naked hand. It's a queer
tale, and no vary creditable, the way you tell it; and I'm far frae
minting that is other than the way that ye believe it. As for yoursel',
ye seems to me rather a dacent-like young man. But me, that's aulder and
mair judeecious, see perhaps a wee bit further forrit in the job than
what ye can dae. And here is the maitter clear and plain to ye. There'll
be nae skaith to yoursel' if I keep ye here; far frae that, I think
ye'll be a hantle better by it. There'll be nae skaith to the
kintry--just ae mair Hielantman hangit--Gude kens, a guid riddance! On
the ither hand it would be considerable skaith to me if I would let you
free. Sae, speakin' as a guid Whig, an honest freen' to you, and an
anxious freen' to my ainsel', the plain fact is that I think ye'll just
have to bide here wi' Andie an' the solans."

"Andie," said I, laying my hand upon his knee, "this Hielantman's
innocent."

"Ay, it's a peety about that," said he. "But ye see in this warld, the
way God made it, we cannae just get a'thing that we want."

Robert Louis Stevenson

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