Read THE FOUR MACNICOLS: CHAPTER II of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on


But before proceeding to relate how the captive clansman was lowered into the dungeon of the castle on Eilean-na-Rona, it will be necessary to explain why he did not choose to purchase his liberty by the payment of the sum of one penny. Pennies among the boys of Erisaig, and more especially among the MacNicols, were an exceedingly scarce commodity. The father of the three MacNicols, who was also burdened with the charge of their orphan cousin Neil, was a hand on board the steamer Glenara Castle, and very seldom came ashore. He had but small wages; and it was all he could do, in the bringing up of the boys, to pay a certain sum for their lodging and schooling, leaving them pretty much to cadge for themselves as regarded food and clothes. Their food, mostly porridge, potatoes, and fish of their own catching, cost little; and they did not spend much money on clothes, especially in summer time, when no Erisaig boy except Rob MacNicol, who was a distinguished person would submit to the encumbrance of shoes and stockings. Nevertheless, for various purposes, money was necessary to them; and this they obtained by going down in the morning, when the herring boats came in, and helping the men to strip the nets. The men were generally tired out and sleepy with their long night’s work; and if they had had anything like a good haul, they were glad to give these lads twopence or threepence apiece to undertake the labour of lifting the nets, yard by yard, out of the hold, shaking out the silvery fish and dexterously extricating those that had got more firmly enmeshed. Moreover, it was a work the boys delighted in. If it was not the rose, it was near the rose. If it was not for them as yet to sail away in the afternoon, watched by all the village, at least they could take this small part in the great herring trade. And when they had shaken out the last of the nets, and received their wages, they stepped ashore with a certain pride; and generally they put both hands in their pockets as a real fisherman would do; and perhaps they would walk along the quays with a slight lurch, as if they, also, had been cramped up all the long night through, and felt somewhat unused to walking on first getting back to land.

Now these MacNicol boys, again imitating the well-to-do among the fishermen, had each an account at the savings bank; and the pence they got were carefully hoarded up. For if they wanted a new Glengarry cap, or if they wanted to buy a book telling them of all kinds of tremendous adventures at sea, or if it became necessary to purchase some more fishing-hooks at the grocer’s shop, it was their own small store of wealth they had to look to; and so it came about that a penny was something to be seriously considered. When Rob MacNicol had to impose a fine of one penny, he knew it was a dire punishment; and if there was any alternative, the fine was rarely paid. The fund, therefore, which he had started for the purchase of an old and disused set of bagpipes, and which was to be made up of those fines, did not grow apace. Of course, being a chieftain, he must needs have a piper. The revels in the halls of Eilean-na-Rona lacked half their impressiveness through the want of the pipes. No doubt, Rob had a sort of suspicion that, if ever they should grow rich enough to buy the old set of bagpipes, he would have to play them himself; but even the most ignorant person can perceive that to be one’s own piper must at least be better than to have no piper at all.

And now the captive Nicol MacNicol was led to the edge of this black pit in the floor of the lower hall of the castle. On several occasions one or other of the boys had been lowered, for slighter offences, into this dungeon; but no one had ever been condemned to go to the bottom if bottom there were. But Nicol did not flinch. He was satisfied of the justice of his sentence. He was aware he deserved the punishment. Above all he was determined to save that penny.

At the same time, when the other three had poised themselves so as to lower the rope gradually, and when he found himself descending into that black mole, he looked rather nervously below him. Of course he could see nothing. But there was a vague tradition that this dungeon was haunted by ghosts, vampires, warlocks, and other unholy things; and there was a chill, strange, earthy odour arising from it; and the walls that he scraped against were slimy and damp. He uttered no word, however; and those above kept slowly paying out the coil of rope.

Rob became somewhat concerned.

‘It’ll be no easy job to pull him back,’ he said in a whisper.

‘It’s as deep as the dungeon they put Donald Gorm Mor into,’ said his cousin Neil.

‘Maybe there’s no bottom at all,’ said Duncan, rather awe-stricken.

Suddenly a fearful thing happened. There was a cry from below a quick cry of alarm; and at the same moment they were startled by a wild whizzing and whirring around them, as if a legend of fiends had rushed out of the pit. With a shriek of fright Duncan sprang back from the edge of the dungeon; and that with such force that he knocked over his two companions. Moreover, in falling, they let go the rope; when they rose again they looked round in the twilight, but could find no trace of it. It had slipped over the edge. And there was no sound from below.

Rob was the first to regain his senses. He rushed to the edge of the hole and stooped over.

‘Nicol, are ye there?’

His heart jumped within him when he heard his brother’s voice.

‘Yes, I am; and the rope too. How am I to get up?’

Rob turned quickly.

’Duncan, down to the boat with ye! Loosen the lug-sail halyards, and bring them up quick, quick!’

Duncan was off like a young roe. He slid down the crags; he dashed through the larch-wood; he jumped into the boat on the beach. Presently he was making his way as quickly back again, the halyards coiled round his arm so as not to prevent his climbing.

‘Nicol!’ shouted Rob.


‘I am lowering the halyards to ye. Fasten them to the end of the rope.’

‘I canna see them.’

‘Grope all round till ye come to them.’

And so, in process of time, the end of the rope was hauled up, and thereafter to the great relief of every one and to his own, no doubt, Nicol appeared alive and well, though somewhat anxious to get away from the neighbourhood of that dungeon. He went immediately out into the warm summer air, followed by the others.

‘Man, what a fright I got!’ he said at last, having recovered his speech.

‘Ay, and so did we,’ Neil admitted.

‘What was’t?’ said he, timidly; as if almost afraid to put his own fears and suspicions into words.

‘I dinna ken,’ Neil said, looking rather frightened.

‘Ye dinna ken!’ Rob MacNicol said, with a scornful laugh. ’Ye ought to ken, then. It was nothing but a lot of bats; and Duncan yelled as if he had seen twenty warlocks; and knocked us over, so that we lost the rope. Come! boys, begin your games now; the steamer will be in early the day.’

Well, it seemed easier to dismiss superstitious fears out here in the sunlight. Perhaps it had been only bats, after all. Warlocks did not whirr in the air at least, they were understood not to do so. Witches were supposed to reserve their aerial performances for the night-time. Perhaps it was only bats, as Rob asserted. Indeed, it would be safer especially in Rob’s presence to accept his explanation of the mystery. At the same time the younger boys occasionally darted a stealthy glance backward to that gloomy apartment that had so suddenly become alive with unknown things.

Then the games began. Rob had come to the conclusion that a wise chieftain should foster a love for national sports and pastimes; and to that end he had invented a system of marks, the winning of a large number of which entitled the holder to pecuniary or other reward. As for himself, his part was that of spectator and arbiter; he handicapped the competitors; he declared the prizes. On this occasion he ensconced himself in a niche of the ruins, where he was out of the glare of the sun, and gracefully surrounded by masses of ivy; while his relatives hauled out to the middle of the green plateau several trunks of fir-trees, of various sizes, that had been carefully lopped and pruned for the purpose of ‘tossing the caber.’ Well, they ‘tossed the caber,’ they ‘put the stone,’ they had wrestling-matches and other trials of strength, Rob the while surveying the scene with a critical eye, and reckoning up the proper number of marks. But now some milder diversions followed. Three or four planks, rudely nailed together, and forming a piece of rough flooring about two or three yards square, were hauled out from an archway, placed on the grass, and a piece of tarpaulin thrown over it. Then two of the boys took out their Jew’s-harps alas! alas! that was the only musical instrument within their reach, until the coveted bagpipes should be purchased and gaily struck up with ‘Green grow the rashes, O!’ as a preliminary flourish. What was this now? What but a performance of the famous sword-dance by that renowned and valiant henchman, Nicol MacNicol of Erisaig, in the kingdom of Scotland! Nicol, failing a couple of broadswords or four dirks, had got two pieces of rusty old iron and placed them cross-wise on the extemporised floor. With what skill and nimbleness he proceeded to execute this sword-dance, which is no doubt the survival of some ancient mystic rite, with what elegance he pointed his toes and held his arms akimbo; with what amazing dexterity, in all the evolutions of the dance, he avoided touching the bits of iron; nay, with what intrepidity, at the most critical moment, he held his arms aloft and victoriously snapped his thumbs, it wants a Homeric chronicler to tell. It needs only be said here that, after it, Neil’s ‘Highland Fling’ was a comparative failure, though he, better than most, could give that outflung quiver of the foot which few can properly acquire, and without which the dancer of the ‘Highland Fling’ might just as well go home and go to bed. The great chieftain, having regarded these and other performances with an observant eye, and having awarded so many marks to this one and to that, declared the games over, and invited the competitors one and all to a royal banquet.

It was a good deal more wholesome than most banquets, for it consisted of a scone and a glass of fresh milk apiece butter being as yet beyond the means of the MacNicols. And it was a good deal more sensible than most banquets, for there was no speech-making after it. But there was some interesting conversation.

‘Nicol, what did ye find in the dungeon?’ Duncan said.

‘Oh, man, it was a gruesome place,’ said Nicol, who did not want to make too little of the perils he had encountered.

‘What did ye see?’

’How could I see anything? But I felt plenty on the way down; and I’m sure it’s fu’ o’ creeping things and beasts. And then when I was near the foot, I put my hand on something leevin’, and it flew up and hit me; and in a meenit the whole place was alive. Man, what a noise it was! And then down came the rope, and I fell; and I got sich a dour on the head!’

‘Nothing but bats!’ said Rob, contemptuously.

‘I think it was houlets,’ said Duncan, confidently; ’for there was one in the wood when I was gaun through, and I nearly ran my head against him. He was sitting in one of the larches man, he made a noise!’

’Ye’ve got your heads filled with nothing but witches and warlocks the day!’ said Rob, impatiently, as he rose to his feet. ’Come, and get the things into the basket. We maun be back in Erisaig before the Glenara comes in.’

Very soon thereafter the small party made their way down again to the shore, and entered the war-galley of the chieftain, the halyards being restored to their proper use. There were no more signs of any squall; but the light steady breeze was contrary; and as Robert of the Red Hand was rather anxious to get back before the steamer should arrive, and as he prided himself on his steering, he himself took the tiller, his cousin Neil being posted as look-out forward.

It was a tedious business this beating up against the contrary wind; but there was nothing the MacNicols delighted in so much as in sailing, and they had grown to be expert in handling a boat. And it needed all their skill to get anything out of these repeated tacks with this old craft, that had a sneaking sort of fashion of falling away to leeward. However, they had the constant excitement of putting about; and the day was fine; and they were greatly refreshed after their arduous pastimes by that banquet of scones and milk. Nor did they know that this was to be the last day of their careless boyish idleness; that never again would the great chieftain, heedless of what the morrow might bring forth, hold these high frolics in the halls of Eilean-na-Rona.

Patience and perseverance will beat even contrary winds; and at last, after one long tack stretching almost to the other side of Loch Scrone, they put about and managed to make the entrance to the harbour, just weathering the rocks that had nearly destroyed them on their setting out. But here another difficulty waited them. Under the shelter of the low-lying hills, the harbour was in a dead calm. No sooner had they passed the rocks than they found themselves on water as smooth as glass, and there were no oars in the boat. For this oversight Rob MacNicol was not responsible; the fact being that oars were valuable in Erisaig, and not easily to be borrowed, whereas this old boat was at anybody’s disposal. There was nothing for it but to sit and wait for a puff of wind.

Suddenly they heard a sound the distant throbbing of the Glenara’s paddles. Rob grew anxious. This old boat was right in the fairway of the steamer; and the question was whether, in coming round the point, she would see them in time to slow.

‘I wish we were out of here,’ said he.

As a last resource, he threw the tiller into the boat, took up the helm, and tried to use this as a sort of paddle. But this was scarcely of any avail; and they could hear, though they could not see, that the steamer was almost at the point.

The next moment she appeared; and it seemed to them in their fright that she was almost upon them towering away over them with her gigantic bulk. They heard the scream of the steam-whistle, and the sharp ‘ping! ping!’ of the indicator, as the captain tried to have the engines reversed.

It was too late. The way on the steamer carried her on, even when her paddles were stopped; and the next second her bows had gone clean into the old tarred boat, cutting her almost in two and heeling her over.

She sank at once. Then the passengers of the steamer rushed to the side to see what should become of the lads struggling in the water; the mate threw overboard to them a couple of life-buoys; and the captain shouted out to have a boat lowered. There was a great confusion.

Meanwhile, all this had been witnessed by the father of the MacNicols, who had stood for a second or two as if paralysed. Then a sort of spasm of action seized him, and, apparently not knowing what he was about, he threw open the gangway abaft the paddle-box and sprang into the sea.