I GO TO THE QUEEN'S FERRY
Much rain fell in the night; and the next morning there blew a
bitter wintry wind out of the north-west, driving scattered
clouds. For all that, and before the sun began to peep or the
last of the stars had vanished, I made my way to the side of the
burn, and had a plunge in a deep whirling pool. All aglow from
my bath, I sat down once more beside the fire, which I
replenished, and began gravely to consider my position.
There was now no doubt about my uncle's enmity; there was no
doubt I carried my life in my hand, and he would leave no stone
unturned that he might compass my destruction. But I was young
and spirited, and like most lads that have been country-bred, I
had a great opinion of my shrewdness. I had come to his door no
better than a beggar and little more than a child; he had met me
with treachery and violence; it would be a fine consummation to
take the upper hand, and drive him like a herd of sheep.
I sat there nursing my knee and smiling at the fire; and I saw
myself in fancy smell out his secrets one after another, and grow
to be that man's king and ruler. The warlock of Essendean, they
say, had made a mirror in which men could read the future; it
must have been of other stuff than burning coal; for in all the
shapes and pictures that I sat and gazed at, there was never a
ship, never a seaman with a hairy cap, never a big bludgeon for
my silly head, or the least sign of all those tribulations that
were ripe to fall on me.
Presently, all swollen with conceit, I went up-stairs and gave my
prisoner his liberty. He gave me good-morning civilly; and I
gave the same to him, smiling down upon him, from the heights of
my sufficiency. Soon we were set to breakfast, as it might have
been the day before.
"Well, sir," said I, with a jeering tone, "have you nothing
to say to me?" And then, as he made no articulate reply, "It will
be time, I think, to understand each other," I continued. "You
took me for a country Johnnie Raw, with no more mother-wit or
courage than a porridge-stick. I took you for a good man, or no
worse than others at the least. It seems we were both wrong.
What cause you have to fear me, to cheat me, and to attempt my
He murmured something about a jest, and that he liked a bit of
fun; and then, seeing me smile, changed his tone, and assured me
he would make all clear as soon as we had breakfasted. I saw by
his face that he had no lie ready for me, though he was hard at
work preparing one; and I think I was about to tell him so, when
we were interrupted by a knocking at the door.
Bidding my uncle sit where he was, I went to open it, and found
on the doorstep a half-grown boy in sea-clothes. He had no
sooner seen me than he began to dance some steps of the
sea-hornpipe (which I had never before heard of far less seen),
snapping his fingers in the air and footing it right cleverly.
For all that, he was blue with the cold; and there was something
in his face, a look between tears and laughter, that was highly
pathetic and consisted ill with this gaiety of manner.
"What cheer, mate?" says he, with a cracked voice.
I asked him soberly to name his pleasure.
"O, pleasure!" says he; and then began to sing:
"For it's my delight, of a shiny night,
In the season of the year."
"Well," said I, "if you have no business at all, I will even
so unmannerly as to shut you out."
"Stay, brother!" he cried. "Have you no fun about you? or
want to get me thrashed? I've brought a letter from old Heasyoasy
to Mr. Belflower." He showed me a letter as he spoke. "And I
say, mate," he added, "I'm mortal hungry."
"Well," said I, "come into the house, and you shall have
if I go empty for it."
With that I brought him in and set him down to my own place,
where he fell-to greedily on the remains of breakfast, winking to
me between whiles, and making many faces, which I think the poor
soul considered manly. Meanwhile, my uncle had read the letter
and sat thinking; then, suddenly, he got to his feet with a great
air of liveliness, and pulled me apart into the farthest corner
of the room.
"Read that," said he, and put the letter in my hand.
Here it is, lying before me as I write:
"The Hawes Inn, at the Queen's Ferry.
"Sir, -- I lie here with my hawser up and down, and send my
cabin-boy to informe. If you have any further commands for
over-seas, to-day will be the last occasion, as the wind will
serve us well out of the firth. I will not seek to deny that I
have had crosses with your doer, Mr. Rankeillor; of which, if
not speedily redd up, you may looke to see some losses follow. I
have drawn a bill upon you, as per margin, and am, sir, your most
obedt., humble servant,
"You see, Davie," resumed my uncle, as soon as he saw that I had
done, "I have a venture with this man Hoseason, the captain of a
trading brig, the Covenant, of Dysart. Now, if you and me was to
walk over with yon lad, I could see the captain at the Hawes, or
maybe on board the Covenant if there was papers to be signed; and
so far from a loss of time, we can jog on to the lawyer, Mr.
Rankeillor's. After a' that's come and gone, ye would be
swier to believe me upon my naked word; but ye'll believe
Rankeillor. He's factor to half the gentry in these parts; an
auld man, forby: highly respeckit, and he kenned your father."
I stood awhile and thought. I was going to some place of
shipping, which was doubtless populous, and where my uncle durst
attempt no violence, and, indeed, even the society of the
cabin-boy so far protected me. Once there, I believed I could
force on the visit to the lawyer, even if my uncle were now
insincere in proposing it; and, perhaps, in the bottom of my
heart, I wished a nearer view of the sea and ships. You are to
remember I had lived all my life in the inland hills, and just
two days before had my first sight of the firth lying like a blue
floor, and the sailed ships moving on the face of it, no bigger
than toys. One thing with another, I made up my mind.
"Very well," says I, "let us go to the Ferry."
My uncle got into his hat and coat, and buckled an old rusty
cutlass on; and then we trod the fire out, locked the door, and
set forth upon our walk.
The wind, being in that cold quarter the north-west, blew nearly
in our faces as we went. It was the month of June; the grass was
all white with daisies, and the trees with blossom; but, to judge
by our blue nails and aching wrists, the time might have been
winter and the whiteness a December frost.
Uncle Ebenezer trudged in the ditch, jogging from side to side
like an old ploughman coming home from work. He never said a
word the whole way; and I was thrown for talk on the cabin-boy.
He told me his name was Ransome, and that he had followed the sea
since he was nine, but could not say how old he was, as he had
lost his reckoning. He showed me tattoo marks, baring his breast
in the teeth of the wind and in spite of my remonstrances, for I
thought it was enough to kill him; he swore horribly whenever he
remembered, but more like a silly schoolboy than a man; and
boasted of many wild and bad things that he had done: stealthy
thefts, false accusations, ay, and even murder; but all with such
a dearth of likelihood in the details, and such a weak and crazy
swagger in the delivery, as disposed me rather to pity than to
I asked him of the brig (which he declared was the finest ship
that sailed) and of Captain Hoseason, in whose praises he was
equally loud. Heasyoasy (for so he still named the skipper) was
a man, by his account, that minded for nothing either in heaven
or earth; one that, as people said, would "crack on all sail into
the day of judgment;" rough, fierce, unscrupulous, and brutal;
and all this my poor cabin-boy had taught himself to admire as
something seamanlike and manly. He would only admit one flaw in
his idol. "He ain't no seaman," he admitted. "That's Mr.
that navigates the brig; he's the finest seaman in the trade,
only for drink; and I tell you I believe it! Why, look'ere;" and
turning down his stocking he showed me a great, raw, red wound
that made my blood run cold. "He done that -- Mr. Shuan done
it," he said, with an air of pride.
"What!" I cried, "do you take such savage usage at his hands?
Why, you are no slave, to be so handled!"
"No," said the poor moon-calf, changing his tune at once, "and
he'll find. See'ere;" and he showed me a great case-knife, which
he told me was stolen. "O," says he, "let me see him, try;
dare him to; I'll do for him! O, he ain't the first!" And he
confirmed it with a poor, silly, ugly oath.
I have never felt such pity for any one in this wide world as I
felt for that half-witted creature, and it began to come over me
that the brig Covenant (for all her pious name) was little better
than a hell upon the seas.
"Have you no friends?" said I.
He said he had a father in some English seaport, I forget which.
"He was a fine man, too," he said, "but he's dead."
"In Heaven's name," cried I, "can you find no reputable life
"O, no," says he, winking and looking very sly, "they would
me to a trade. I know a trick worth two of that, I do!"
I asked him what trade could be so dreadful as the one he
followed, where he ran the continual peril of his life, not alone
from wind and sea, but by the horrid cruelty of those who were
his masters. He said it was very true; and then began to praise
the life, and tell what a pleasure it was to get on shore with
money in his pocket, and spend it like a man, and buy apples, and
swagger, and surprise what he called stick-in-the-mud boys. "And
then it's not all as bad as that," says he; "there's worse off
than me: there's the twenty-pounders. O, laws! you should see
them taking on. Why, I've seen a man as old as you, I dessay" --
(to him I seemed old)-- "ah, and he had a beard, too -- well, and
as soon as we cleared out of the river, and he had the drug out
of his head -- my! how he cried and carried on! I made a fine
fool of him, I tell you! And then there's little uns, too: oh,
little by me! I tell you, I keep them in order. When we carry
little uns, I have a rope's end of my own to wollop'em." And so
he ran on, until it came in on me what he meant by
twenty-pounders were those unhappy criminals who were sent
over-seas to slavery in North America, or the still more unhappy
innocents who were kidnapped or trepanned (as the word went) for
private interest or vengeance.
Just then we came to the top of the hill, and looked down on the
Ferry and the Hope. The Firth of Forth (as is very well known)
narrows at this point to the width of a good-sized river, which
makes a convenient ferry going north, and turns the upper reach
into a landlocked haven for all manner of ships. Right in the
midst of the narrows lies an islet with some ruins; on the south
shore they have built a pier for the service of the Ferry; and at
the end of the pier, on the other side of the road, and backed
against a pretty garden of holly-trees and hawthorns, I could see
the building which they called the Hawes Inn.
The town of Queensferry lies farther west, and the neighbourhood
of the inn looked pretty lonely at that time of day, for the boat
had just gone north with passengers. A skiff, however, lay
beside the pier, with some seamen sleeping on the thwarts; this,
as Ransome told me, was the brig's boat waiting for the captain;
and about half a mile off, and all alone in the anchorage, he
showed me the Covenant herself. There was a sea-going bustle on
board; yards were swinging into place; and as the wind blew from
that quarter, I could hear the song of the sailors as they pulled
upon the ropes. After all I had listened to upon the way, I
looked at that ship with an extreme abhorrence; and from the
bottom of my heart I pitied all poor souls that were condemned to
sail in her.
We had all three pulled up on the brow of the hill; and now I
marched across the road and addressed my uncle. "I think it
right to tell you, sir." says I, "there's nothing that will
bring me on board that Covenant."
He seemed to waken from a dream. "Eh?" he said. "What's that?"
I told him over again.
"Well, well," he said, "we'll have to please ye, I suppose.
what are we standing here for? It's perishing cold; and if I'm no
mistaken, they're busking the Covenant for sea."
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