IN this matter-of-fact, prosaic age, when everything is put into the crucible or reduced to its original constituents, the spirit world, as it was known to our forefathers, is at a discount. Spiritualism to-day is the creature of a special class; it has no hold on the masses. The ghosts, and fairies, and the mermaids of the centuries ago were, on the contrary, the possession of the country-side. The spectre who walked the Castle halls on certain specific occasion and who took his departure when he saw the first streaks of dawn break in upon the eastern sky, was no mere vision from beyond the gates. It was a real spectre, accepted, credited, believed in, sworn to; and there were peasants by the score who could offer irrefragable evidence as to its bona fides. The green wood knolls where the fairies, danced by the moon beams were veritable trysting-places of the little, elves from their poetic worlds somewhere adjacent. And the mermaids who dwelt in the coral groves of the emerald sea and lured the mariner or the stray fisherman on to his doom, were no shadowy creations of the heat oppressed brain, but accepted as perfectly genuine by the great masses of the people. There was perhaps nobody in all Scotland three or four hundred years ago who did not believe in witchcraft and in demonology; and if there were unbelievers, they must have consisted of those who turned to account their special gifts for deceiving the multitude, and who themselves were credited with having seen and heard those things which mortal eye should not have seen and which the ear of mortal should not have heard. To-day we ridicule ghost-lore. The brownie and the pigmy are no more, the wraith has ceased to foreshadow the coming death, and the good people of fairy-land have gone with their queen into the court of oblivion.
To understand, therefore, the tenacity with which our forefathers adhered to their faith in that which. is not, it is necessary to remember that they were reared amid surroundings congenial to superstition, and that they adhered as firmly as we do to the teachings of science, and far more firmly, to the traditions of the country-side. To two of these traditions, similar in kind, we turn.
Udolphe Ederic was a Danish pirate, a rover of the days when piracy was, a profession, and when the strong arm of the individual was potent. His hunting-ground was the Scottish coast, and many were the descents he made upon it. We read of these of the war galleys of the Danes, and the picture naturally crosses our vision of a lofty bark, with tapering masts, and heavy spars, impelled partly by the breezes of heaven and partly by the long sweeps, or oars, in the hands of the brawny rowers. We fill her decks with men-at-arms, mail-clad warriors, helmet on head and shield on arm, spear in hand, and stout sword girded to their thigh.
Imagination plays us false. Were one of these war-galleys to sail to-day into one of our ports, we should see the vision dispelled. The vessel before our eyes would be no larger than a good-sized Highland smack or trawler, with no deck running fore and aft, but only a short poop in the afterpart of the ship ; with one solitary mast and one large sail on it; the greater part of the vessel open, right down to the keel, and so constructed that a succession of heavy seas would at the very least bring her rail down to the water's edge, if not completely and for ever overwhelm her ; holes in her side for oars, and herself not so heavy or unwieldy that her crew could not make fair way with her in a dead calm. The men on board might be heroes, and all the more heroic that their vessel was frail and unseaworthy ; but in the times when these were the warships that threw the coast-dwellers into trepidation, the weather was a vastly important study, with the Vikings. They lay under lee of headlands and in sheltered bays when the sea was stormy or the wind contrary, and they only ventured out into the open when intuition told them that the weather was "set fair " and the breezes propitious. And when they encountered the fury of the elements, they hasted to shelter, where they could find a haven, or let their feeble craft drive on before the wind and the waves until these had exhausted their fury.
But to the story, Udolphe Ederic was not a Viking of this type. The sea was his home, and he revelled in the storm. No loud gale that ever blew could daunt him, or compel him to seek refuge or to ride at anchor when he had made up his mind to be off and away. He bent the elements to his service, and he never was happier than when the sea ran riot and the howling gale whistled shrill monotone in the shrouds of his gallant war-vessel. The dwellers of the Ayrshire coasts knew him well. He ravaged their shores, took their Cattle from the fields, and their sheep from the hillsides. He landed on the beach where towered the strong keep, he sacked the portlets, and he slew the wardens; and he bore away with him the wealth and the hard-won treasures of the people. The spirits that ride on the storm knew him ; they spoke to him in the hurricane, and he answered them so that no mortal knew in what words he addressed them. He boarded the little trading ships, and he helped himself to their cargoes ; and the black sides of his galley struck terror into the hearts of the many. His men were faithful to him, and of undaunted courage. They never turned their backs upon dangerous enterprises, or retreated without evincing their true metal in the face of overwhelming odds.
On one eventful occasion his ship rode under the lee of the Cumbraes. She was bound down for the Carrick coast; there to land her warrior-seamen. Udolphe Ederic had resolved that come what might, thither he would go.
It was early night, and the galley swung idly at anchor. The crew were all asleep, and the commander himself had either lain down to rest or was meditating on the enterprise to be undertaken the following day. Only one Solitary footstep paced the deck, that of a nephew of Ederic himself. He looked over the ship's side-there was nothing visible save the dark waters, lit here and there by the pale reflection of the stars. The sea was rolling up, not hurriedly, not angrily, but with the long swell which the accustomed mariner knows portends the coming of the storm that, from far out on the ocean, sends its courier waves before it. The night wind was sighing plaintively, and low down on the western horizon sat a heavy bank of cloud. But though there were indications of storm somewhere, the sea is so sensitive that no sailor, even with these omens under his vision, would hesitate to heave up his anchor and risk the fates without. Udolphe Ederie's nephew was akin with the night influences. He was a gallant youth, but not cast in the same stern mould as his Viking uncle ; and if the spirits of the vasty deep were to speak at all, he was just such an one as would be the chosen recipient of their secrets.
As, impressed with the night's solemnity, he walked backwards and forwards, his sharp ear detected, mingling with the sighing sough of the breezes, sounds to which he had hitherto been a stranger. The sound, first indistinct, was weird and wild and incoherent; but it gradually formed itself into ' voice. The young man leaned over the ship's rail, and he listened. It was like a dream to him, and he shook himself together to make sure that he was awake. There could be no doubt of it. There were the stars and the sea; beneath his feet the ship rising and falling; to starboard the dark loom of the land. The wind blew fresh upon him, and on the beach he heard the gentle ripple of the breaking waters upon the rocks and the shingle; and, amid it all, and permeating it all, the voice from space. It seemed all round him, and yet there was but the one voice. It thrilled him, driving the blood back upon his hart and then sending it coursing through his veins. By and bye the voice became more distinct and clear. It separated itself from the elements and the surroundings. It no longer a wandering sound, but the voice of a woman, a sweet, wild voice, And thus it sang
When upon Carrick's rocky shores
Resounds the thunder sea,
Shall dwell the Rover and his crew
In ocean's caves with me.
The young man was enchanted with the song. Weird was it and dire in its foreboding, but so long as it lasted, and the refrain was sung again and again, the listener could not lift the spell that lay -upon his senses. The song gradually died away as it had come. It became indistinct. It mixed itself up with the murmur of the sea-it seemed now to ascend into space, and then to die away in the distance; and it was not until all was still again that the youth recovered his freedom from the charm which the strange melody had laid upon him.
Night passed on and the morning broke. The sun rose and shone in a windy sky. The breeze was freshening, and in from the Atlantic were beginning to troop the white-crested breakers. All the day long the storm increased untill, late in the afternoon, it had attained to the dimensions of a gale. The scud flitted fast along the sky the dark squalls broke in sequence of fury, and higher and higher ran the sea. The hilltops put on their caps, and loomed up like spectres against the black horizon. The experienced nautical eye saw at a glance that no passing gale was intended, and that it would be worse, ere it would be better. Udolphe Ederie's nephew was in charge of the deck. Occasionally the rover himself came up from below, and scowled back to the scowling face of Nature. He exchanged words with no one. His nephew, thinking that it was, the time to give the ship additional moorings, was in the act of ordering the crew to take an anchor out to windward, when his commands were rudely cut short by the appearance of the Viking. " What means this ?" he asked, "We are to sail to-night."
The words were abruptly spoken. His nephew read resolution in his eyes, but remembering, as he could not forget, the song of the mermaid, he asked his uncle to go below with him. The pirate, hesitated. He had no liking to be crossed. But if there was a soft bit in his heart at all, it was for his nephew ; and, checking the angry words which rose spontaneous to his lips, he turned on his heel and disappeared down the hatchway. His nephew followed him. "Oil what fool's errand," asked the pirate, "have you brought me hither ? ',
On no fool's errand replied the young man. And then he told of the incident, of the previous night-how that lying over the vessel's side he had heard no human voice speak to him, but a voice from the other world, with its note of warning. He repeated the Siren's song.
The rover frowned anew, but he made no reply. He turned his back on the young man and ascended anew to the deck. "Now then," he cried, " make haste and get in the anchors." The crew stared, and wondered, but they knew better than to question or to disobey. " No storm that ever blew," he continued, " shall turn me from my purpose. Get sail set and we shall see what the mermaid has to say for herself." The men heard what he said and were troubled ; but labouring, they brought in the anchors, heaved up to the mast head the square canvas, reefed double; and the galley, impelled on its way, moved -out from under shelter of the Cumbraes and put to sea. The, storm was from the north west. The wind was what sailors call :leading," right abeam, and so permitting vessels to sail in either of two directions. So long as the vessel was under shelter of the land she was in little or no danger ; therefore, no sooner had the Curubrae Heads been cleared than the Viking kept as near the wind as possible, so as to avail himself of the highland of Arran.
His destination was the Carrick coast and he could not reach it without crossing the Firth. It was a rash deed, by a rash man. Carrick was a lee shore, driven straight upon by the nor'-wester, and no mariner who was not courting doom would for a moment have thought of aught else than giving it as wide a berth is possible. Not so Udolphe Ederic. Blow high, blow low, thither he would go, and take the fate that might befall. So he ordered the galley's head to be eased towards the south-west and then towards the south, and out he went into the scene of riot on the Firth. By this time the gale raged at its full height. The wind filled the bellying canvas until it nearly tore the sail away from the bolt-ropes. Ederic's hand was upon the tiller, and with unquivering nerve he watched the following seas. They rose high above the stern of the vessel, but so well was she handled that she rode the waves like a thing of life. No star was visible, nothing overhead but far-stretching gloom, one vast pall of undefined blackness, save where here and there angry greyish-edged clouds came sweeping up from the distant abyss. In the rigging the gale howled mournfully. The mast strained, but the good Norwegian stick, though it bent, remained unbroken. Heavy rain and hail squalls burst at intervals, and so thick was the atmosphere with the driving spray that the prow of the galley was invisible to the men who sheltered themselves beneath the after bulwarks. The Rover was undismayed, a smile lit up his features as he watched the sky, and he muttered to himself words which none comprehended save he. Whether he spoke with the spirit of the storm or with unseen friends from space, that clustered round him, none knew. He even sang the songs of his far-away fatherland; and his voice, borne on the wings of the tempest, added a fresh terror to the environment.
Beside Ederic stood his nephew. He knew that fate was awaiting them. He knew that it was not for nothing that the Siren had sung her lay ; nay, even amid the raging of the tempest he caught at intervals the flashing echoes of her voice. The crew heard it, too; but they set it down to the shrill screaming of the gale in the blocks and in the cordage. Swiftly sailed the staunch galley. To add to the terrible grandeur of the scene the vivid flash of the lightning came to light up the gloom and to show the boiling waters of the Firth all around. In these bright flashes the youth kept his gaze steadily fixed ahead : and as the lightning sped, he descried not a mile distant, the dark loom of the Carrick coast. He pointed with his finger to the spot ; the Rover understood the sign and brought the vessel's head up a little on the wind. His intention was evident-it was to run along the coast until the gale abated. For Ederic had no mind to rush into destruction. He had kept his word. He had sailed to the Carrick coast, and there was nothing now to prevent him striving to escape, the clutches of death and to set the mermaid's prognostication at defiance. And now began the struggle with his fate.
It was an unequal fight. On the one side the little vessel, buffeted, driven hither and thither with the raging waters, the hand of mortal on the tiller ; on the other the furies of the storm, to leeward a treacherous coast, and the malign influence of the Siren's prognostication. Ederic had a stout heart, none stouter; and he did not quail in face of the trial. He knew the craft beneath him ; he knew just how far she could be brought up on the wind and sea, and the very point at which she was certain to broach-to; he knew her capacity for riding out a gale. His eager eye watched the shore whenever the lightning gleamed; and he felt hopeful that he was holding his own. The close reefed sail was shivering, and not one single inch more could the galley be brought to windward. His hope was ill-founded, and his experience told him that it was, but with firm hand he kept the vessel on her course. But the sea and the gale were working against him, and he was going steadily to leeward. His nephew saw it and acknowledged it to himself long ere the Rover would admit it; but ever as he ran along the coast the successive flashes of lightning told him that he was making rapid and dangerous leeway. And worse than that, In front of him was a headland, and he was to leeward of it. Could he but weather that, he might yet, escape. But could he ? He would try; and no man could do more. To go about was an impossibility; he must clear the headland or perish.
The ship was so near the wind that she was not making much headway ; and the less speed she made the more she drifted. Still raged the storm, wilder than ever in its intensity; and to the horrors of the riotous chaos to windward was added the roar of the surf on the cliffs to leeward. Strange unearthly sounds fell upon the Rover's ear ; and as he glanced in the gleaming flashes, on the face of his nephew, he saw that he, too, heard them, and knew their meaning. They were sounds such as he had heard tell of in the folk-lore of his far away home ; and no man could hear them and live. Now they were piercing and fierce in their tone, and again triumphant and rapturous. The Viking felt how hopeless was his position, but he brought the galley's head in closer to the wind in a desperate attempt to achieve an impossibility. The storm caught him aback; the sail lay flat, pinned against the mast by the violence of the hurricane; and the galley began to glide, stern foremost, upon the shore. All was about over. A rending peal of thunder reverberated overhead, and its solemn roll was continued until it blended away into the roar of the surf lashing up on the cliffs. Nearer and nearer drifted the galley, and ever as she drifted the siren song pealed the louder and the clearer.
Crash went the vessel on the rocks ; and when the morning broke on the Carrick shore and the gale sullenly moaned itself out, the fishers of the coast found the timbers of the Danish galley and they knew that in the dark hours of the night there had gone down in the angry deep brave men and true, who had encountered the furies of the waters without. And the sage, to whom the unseen world was ever present, told them that early in the morning watch, when the hurricane was at its height he had heard the song of the weird woman of the sea which portended only evil, and that continually.
A Carrick fisher sat one fine evening " the sun was setting, hard by the Castle of Turnberry. It was a summer's eve; and behind Arran the orb of day was rapidly westering. There is no coast on which the sunset is more beautiful when the evening clear than that of Ayrshire.
Right in front rise the peaks of Arran, abrupt in their rugged grandeur. As day declines, with a clear or a watery atmosphere, they stand out in bold relief, their deep scars revealed as clearly, and their green relieving patches as well defined, as if but five, and not twenty miles of water, lie between. Never is the sunset so beautiful, never are the lights so lovely and the purple line of the cliffs so exquisite in its tinting as when rain or storm threatens. One would think to look at the corruscating masses of golden lit cloud land, ever changing from one celestial to another, that the scene was as reposeful in its portent as it is in appearance; but nothing is more certain, hard as it is at the time to believe it, that the morrow's sun will struggle through watery clouds, or glare, sickly and yellow, through a windy sky.
It was on such an evening that the fisher sat on the cliffs beside the historic Castle of Turnberry. Tradition does not tell his surname or his associations. His Christian name was William, and he dwelt in the village of the Maidens. The time was long ago, else he could not have heard the mermaid sing. He looked out over the familiar sea. Many a time had he rocked on its bosom, in storm and in calm, in his little boat. He knew its, moods by intuition ; and he knew how its placid surface was changed into heavy racing billows, chasing one another up from the deep Atlantic. The setting sun wrought out its image on the waters in a long golden chain ; and on the top of Goatfell sat low the fleecy, luminous clouds. Behind him smiled the country the western zephyrs green the trees, sweet the twittering of the birds in their branches, clear the carol of the lark in the sky. His spirit was akin with nature, receptive, sympathetic: all the calm of the summer's eve found reflection in his mind. As thus he sat pondering over the beauty and open to its every influence, he heard a strange sweet song such as he had never heard before. He could see no singer; but the song itself was, clear as its tones were entrancing. It came from the sea and it spell-bound him. Never had he heard such harmony before, such attractive and seductive melody.
"O, it is happy and blest to be here.
It is lovely on earth in greenwood bowers
To wander at eve 'mong the dewy flowers;
But sweeter and happier far to be
In the coral groves of the crystal sea." *
* Ballads founded on Ayrshire Traditions," 1850.
So sang the Siren. The fisher could not resist the charm. He rose from his seat. Beneath him his boat lay rocking on the gentle swell of the unbroken waves. Jumping lightly into it, he cast off the moorings and rowed in the direction whence the sound proceeded; but pull as he might, he could not come upon the singer. Yet still she sang and ever the further out at sea. He could not rest; he did not permit himself to think, but straight out he pulled until, the Siren still leading him on, he had left the shore far behind. The clouds were darkening. The sun had dropped behind Arran, the light had gone out of the glorious day; and in its place shone the silvery moon and the little stars. He knew that he ought to cease from his vain quest, but the spell held him to his task, and the mermaiden ceased not to wile him with her dulcet notes. He did not see that low down on the western horizon, beyond where Ailsa lifts its round head, the clouds were thickening and dark beyond the darkness of the night. He did not care that the wind, which had hardly an hour before been sufficient to ruffle the surface of the waters, now blew fresh upon him, and that the prow of his little craft was rising and falling with the wind. He shipped his mast and he spread his sail, and out he sailed faster and faster. The sea-birds, these restless creatures of the deep, which do not fold their pinions until the night is advanced, were hurrying rockwards or landwards, as he knew they did when their instinct, or their reason, told them there was a sudden change impending. He heeded nothing saye, to find the Siren whose song had captivated alike his heart and his senses. The squall began to mount up and to becloud the sky. The wind whistled the more shrilly and it caught up the tops of the waves and sent them off in flying spray. But louder and louder rose the song, with the rising storm.
These squalls smite hard and fast; and so did this upon the fisherman's bark. William never beheld the Maidens or the Carrick shore again. He awoke to his danger, but too late, and the angry sea claimed him as its own. And for long years afterwards the fishers of the coast bid their sons beware of the Siren's song and warned them of the danger of yielding. to her solicitations.