The Antiquary

Chapter VIII

Walter Scott

There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully on the confined deep;
Bring me but to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear.


THE SHOUT of human voices from above was soon augmented, and the gleam of torches mingled with those lights of evening which still remained amidst the darkness of the storm. Some attempt was made to hold communication between the assistants above and the sufferers beneath, who were still clinging to their precarious place of safety; but the howling of the tempest limited their intercourse to cries as inarticulate as those of the winged denizens of the crag, which shrieked in chorus, alarmed by the reiterated sound of human voices, where they had seldom been heard.

On the verge of the precipice an anxious group had now assembled. Oldbuck was the foremost and most earnest, pressing forward with unwonted desperation to the very brink of the crag, and extending his head (his hat and wig secured by a handkerchief under his chin) over the dizzy height, with an air of determination which made his more timorous assistants tremble.

“Haud a care, haud a care, Monkbarns!” cried Caxon, clinging to the skirts of his patron, and withholding him from danger as far as his strength permitted—“God’s sake, haud a care!—Sir Arthur’s drowned already, and an ye fa’ over the cleugh too, there will be but ae wig left in the parish, and that’s the minister’s.”

“Mind the peak there,” cried Mucklebackit, an old fisherman and smuggler—“mind the peak—Steenie, Steenie Wilks, bring up the tackle—I’se warrant we’ll sune heave them on board, Monkbarns, wad ye but stand out o’ the gate.”

“I see them,” said Oldbuck—“I see them low down on that flat stone—Hilli-hilloa, hilli-ho-a!”

“I see them mysell weel eneugh,” said Mucklebackit; “they are sitting down yonder like hoodie-craws in a mist; but d’yo think ye’ll help them wi’ skirling that gate like an auld skart before a flaw o’ weather?—Steenie, lad, bring up the mast—Od, I’se hae them up as we used to bouse up the kegs o’ gin and brandy lang syne—Get up the pickaxe, make a step for the mast—make the chair fast with the rattlin—haul taught and belay!”

The fishers had brought with them the mast of a boat, and as half of the country fellows about had now appeared, either out of zeal or curiosity, it was soon sunk in the ground, and sufficiently secured. A yard across the upright mast, and a rope stretched along it, and reeved through a block at each end, formed an extempore crane, which afforded the means of lowering an arm-chair, well secured and fastened, down to the flat shelf on which the sufferers had roosted. Their joy at hearing the preparations going on for their deliverance was considerably qualified when they beheld the precarious vehicle by means of which they were to be conveyed to upper air. It swung about a yard free of the spot which they occupied, obeying each impulse of the tempest, the empty air all around it, and depending upon the security of a rope, which, in the increasing darkness, had dwindled to an almost imperceptible thread. Besides the hazard of committing a human being to the vacant atmosphere in such a slight means of conveyance, there was the fearful danger of the chair and its occupant being dashed, either by the wind or the vibrations of the cord, against the rugged face of the precipice. But to diminish the risk as much as possible, the experienced seaman had let down with the chair another line, which, being attached to it, and held by the persons beneath, might serve by way of gy, as Mucklebackit expressed it, to render its descent in some measure steady and regular. Still, to commit one’s self in such a vehicle, through a howling tempest of wind and rain, with a beetling precipice above and a raging abyss below, required that courage which despair alone can inspire. Yet, wild as the sounds and sights of danger were, both above, beneath, and around, and doubtful and dangerous as the mode of escaping appeared to be, Lovel and the old mendicant agreed, after a moment’s consultation, and after the former, by a sudden strong pull, had, at his own imminent risk, ascertained the security of the rope, that it would be best to secure Miss Wardour in the chair, and trust to the tenderness and care of those above for her being safely craned up to the top of the crag.

“Let my father go first,” exclaimed Isabella; “for God’s sake, my friends, place him first in safety!”

“It cannot be, Miss Wardour,” said Lovel;—“your life must be first secured—the rope which bears your weight may”—

“I will not listen to a reason so selfish!”

“But ye maun listen to it, my bonnie lassie,” said Ochiltree, “for a’ our lives depend on it—besides, when ye get on the tap o’ the heugh yonder, ye can gie them a round guess o’ what’s ganging on in this Patmos o’ ours—and Sir Arthur’s far by that, as I’m thinking.”

Struck with the truth of this reasoning, she exclaimed, “True, most true; I am ready and willing to undertake the first risk—What shall I say to our friends above?”

“Just to look that their tackle does not graze on the face o’ the crag, and to let the chair down and draw it up hooly and fairly;—we will halloo when we are ready.”

With the sedulous attention of a parent to a child, Lovel bound Miss Wardour with his handkerchief, neckcloth, and the mendicant’s leathern belt, to the back and arms of the chair, ascertaining accurately the security of each knot, while Ochiltree kept Sir Arthur quiet. “What are ye doing wi’ my bairn?—what are ye doing?—She shall not be separated from me—Isabel, stay with me, I command you!”

“Lordsake, Sir Arthur, haud your tongue, and be thankful to God that there’s wiser folk than you to manage this job,” cried the beggar, worn out by the unreasonable exclamations of the poor Baronet.

“Farewell, my father!” murmured Isabella—“farewell, my—my friends!” and shutting her eyes, as Edie’s experience recommended, she gave the signal to Lovel, and he to those who were above. She rose, while the chair in which she sate was kept steady by the line which Lovel managed beneath. With a beating heart he watched the flutter of her white dress, until the vehicle was on a level with the brink of the precipice.

“Canny now, lads, canny now!” exclaimed old Mucklebackit, who acted as commodore; “swerve the yard a bit—Now—there! there she sits safe on dry land.”

A loud shout announced the successful experiment to her fellow-sufferers beneath, who replied with a ready and cheerful halloo. Monkbarns, in his ecstasy of joy, stripped his great-coat to wrap up the young lady, and would have pulled off his coat and waistcoat for the same purpose, had he not been withheld by the cautious Caxon. “Haud a care o’ us! your honour will be killed wi’ the hoast—ye’ll no get out o’your night-cowl this fortnight—and that will suit us unco ill.—Na, na—there’s the chariot down by; let twa o’ the folk carry the young leddy there.”

“You’re right,” said the Antiquary, readjusting the sleeves and collar of his coat, “you’re right, Caxon; this is a naughty night to swim in.—Miss Wardour, let me convey you to the chariot.”

“Not for worlds till I see my father safe.”

In a few distinct words, evincing how much her resolution had surmounted even the mortal fear of so agitating a hazard, she explained the nature of the situation beneath, and the wishes of Lovel and Ochiltree.

“Right, right, that’s right too—I should like to see the son of Sir Gamelyn de Guardover on dry land myself—I have a notion he would sign the abjuration oath, and the Ragman-roll to boot, and acknowledge Queen Mary to be nothing better than she should be, to get alongside my bottle of old port that he ran away from, and left scarce begun. But he’s safe now, and here a’ comes”—(for the chair was again lowered, and Sir Arthur made fast in it, without much consciousness on his own part)—“here a’ comes—Bowse away, my boys! canny wi’ him—a pedigree of a hundred links is hanging on a tenpenny tow—the whole barony of Knockwinnock depends on three plies of hemp—respice finem, respice funem—look to your end—look to a rope’s end.—Welcome, welcome, my good old friend, to firm land, though I cannot say to warm land or to dry land. A cord for ever against fifty fathom of water, though not in the sense of the base proverb—a fico for the phrase,—better sus. per funem, than sus. per coll.

While Oldbuck ran on in this way, Sir Arthur was safely wrapped in the close embraces of his daughter, who, assuming that authority which the circumstances demanded, ordered some of the assistants to convey him to the chariot, promising to follow in a few minutes, She lingered on the cliff, holding an old countryman’s arm, to witness probably the safety of those whose dangers she had shared.

“What have we here?” said Oldbuck, as the vehicle once more ascended—“what patched and weather-beaten matter is this?” Then as the torches illumed the rough face and grey hairs of old Ochiltree,—“What! is it thou?—Come, old Mocker, I must needs be friends with thee—but who the devil makes up your party besides?”

“Ane that’s weel worth ony twa o’ us, Monkbarns;—it’s the young stranger lad they ca’ Lovel—and he’s behaved this blessed night as if he had three lives to rely on, and was willing to waste them a’ rather than endanger ither folk’s. Ca’ hooly, sirs, as ye, wad win an auld man’s blessing!—mind there’s naebody below now to haud the gy—Hae a care o’ the Cat’s-lug corner—bide weel aff Crummie’s-horn!”

“Have a care indeed,” echoed Oldbuck. “What! is it my rara avis—my black swan—my phœnix of companions in a post-chaise?—take care of him, Mucklebackit.”

“As muckle care as if he were a graybeard o’ brandy; and I canna take mair if his hair were like John Harlowe’s.—Yo ho, my hearts! bowse away with him!”

Lovel did, in fact, run a much greater risk than any of his precursors. His weight was not sufficient to render his ascent steady amid such a storm of wind, and he swung like an agitated pendulum at the mortal risk of being dashed against the rocks. But he was young, bold, and active, and, with the assistance of the beggar’s stout piked staff, which he had retained by advice of the proprietor, contrived to bear himself from the face of the precipice, and the yet more hazardous projecting cliffs which varied its surface. Tossed in empty space, like an idle and unsubstantial feather, with a motion that agitated the brain at once with fear and with dizziness, he retained his alertness of exertion and presence of mind; and it was not until he was safely grounded upon the summit of the cliff, that he felt temporary and giddy sickness. As he recovered from a sort of half swoon, he cast his eyes eagerly around. The object which they would most willingly have sought, was already in the act of vanishing. Her white garment was just discernible as she followed on the path which her father had taken. She had lingered till she saw the last of their company rescued from danger, and until she had been assured by the hoarse voice of Mucklebackit, that “the callant had come off wi’ unbrizzed banes, and that he was but in a kind of dwam.” But Lovel was not aware that she had expressed in his fate even this degree of interest,—which, though nothing more than was due to a stranger who had assisted her in such an hour of peril, he would have gladly purchased by braving even more imminent danger than he had that evening been exposed to. The beggar she had already commanded to come to Knockwinnock that night. He made an excuse.—“Then to-morrow let me see you.”

The old man promised to obey. Oldbuck thrust something into his hand—Ochiltree looked at it by the torchlight, and returned it—“Na, na! I never tak gowd—besides, Monkbarns, ye wad maybe be rueing it the morn.” Then turning to the group of fishermen and peasants—“Now, sirs, wha will gie me a supper and some clean pease-strae?”

“I,” “and I,” “and I,” answered many a ready voice.

“Aweel, since sae it is, and I can only sleep in ae barn at ance, I’ll gae down with Saunders Mucklebackit—he has aye a soup o’ something comfortable about his begging—and, bairns, I’ll maybe live to put ilka ane o’ ye in mind some ither night that ye hae promised me quarters and my awmous;” and away he went with the fisherman.

Oldbuck laid the hand of strong possession on Lovel—“Deil a stride ye’s go to Fairport this night, young man—you must go home with me to Monkbarns. Why, man, you have been a hero—a perfect Sir William Wallace, by all accounts. Come, my good lad, take hold of my arm;—I am not a prime support in such a wind—but Caxon shall help us out—Here, you old idiot, come on the other side of me.—And how the deil got you down to that infernal Bessy’s-apron, as they call it? Bess, said they? Why, curse her, she has spread out that vile pennon or banner of womankind, like all the rest of her sex, to allure her votaries to death and headlong ruin.”

“I have been pretty well accustomed to climbing, and I have long observed fowlers practise that pass down the cliff.”

“But how, in the name of all that is wonderful, came you to discover the danger of the pettish Baronet and his far more deserving daughter?”

“I saw them from the verge of the precipice.”

“From the verge!—umph—And what possessed you dumosa pendere procul de rupe?—though dumosa is not the appropriate epithet—what the deil, man, tempted ye to the verge of the craig?”

“Why—I like to see the gathering and growling of a coming storm—or, in your own classical language, Mr. Oldbuck, suave est mari magno—and so forth—but here we reach the turn to Fairport. I must wish you good-night.”

“Not a step, not a pace, not an inch, not a shathmont, as I may say,—the meaning of which word has puzzled many that think themselves antiquaries. I am clear we should read salmon-length for shathmont’s-length. You are aware that the space allotted for the passage of a salmon through a dam, dike, or weir, by statute, is the length within which a full-grown pig can turn himself round. Now I have a scheme to prove, that, as terrestrial objects were thus appealed to for ascertaining submarine measurement, so it must be supposed that the productions of the water were established as gauges of the extent of land.—Shathmont—salmont—you see the close alliance of the sounds; dropping out two h’s, and a t, and assuming an l, makes the whole difference—I wish to heaven no antiquarian derivation had demanded heavier concessions.”

“But, my dear sir, I really must go home—I am wet to the skin.”

“Shalt have my night-gown, man, and slippers, and catch the antiquarian fever as men do the plague, by wearing infected garments. Nay, I know what you would be at—you are afraid to put the old bachelor to charges. But is there not the remains of that glorious chicken-pie—which, meo arbitrio, is better cold than hot—and that bottle of my oldest port, out of which the silly brain-sick Baronet (whom I cannot pardon, since he has escaped breaking his neck) had just taken one glass, when his infirm noddle went a wool-gathering after Gamelyn de Guardover?”

So saying he dragged Lovel forward, till the Palmer’s-port of Monkbarns received them. Never, perhaps, had it admitted two pedestrians more needing rest for Monkbarns’s fatigue had been in a degree very contrary to his usual habits, and his more young and robust companion had that evening undergone agitation of mind which had harassed and wearied him even more than his extraordinary exertions of body.

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