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- In Freedom's Cause - 30/60 -


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.


In Freedom's Cause - 30/60

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