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Literary Tales
The Haunted Ships


"ALEXANDER MACHARG, besides being the laird of three acres of peatmoss, two kale gardens, and the owner of seven good milch cows, a pair of horses, and six pet sheep, was the husband of one of the handsomest women in seven parishes. Many a lad sighed the day he was brided; and a Nithsdale laird and two Annandale moorland farmers drank themselves to their last linen, as well as their last shilling, through sorrow for her loss. But married was the dame; and home she was carried, to bear rule over her home and her husband, as an honest woman should. Now ye maun ken that, though the flesh-and-blood lovers of Alexander’s bonnie wife all ceased to love and to sue her after she became another’s, there were certain admirers who did not consider their claim at all abated, or their hopes lessened by the kirk’s famous obstacle of matrimony. Ye have heard how the devout minister of Tinwald had a fair son carried away, and bedded against his liking to an unchristened bride, whom the elves and the fairies provided; ye have heard how the bonnie bride of the drunken laird of Soukitup was stolen by the fairies out at the back window of the bridal chamber, the time the bridegroom was groping his way to the chamber door; and ye have heard—but why need I multiply cases? such things in the ancient days were as common as candle-light. So ye’ll no hinder certain water elves and sea fairies, who sometimes keep festival and summer mirth in these old haunted hulks, from falling in love with the weel-faured wife of Laird Macharg; and to their plots and contrivances they went, how they might accomplish to sunder man and wife; and sundering such a man and such a wife was like sundering the green leaf from the summer, or the fragrance from the flower.

"So it fell on a time that Laird Macharg took his half-net on his back, and his steel spear in his hand, and down to Blawhooly Bay gade he, and into the water he went right between the two haunted hulks, and, placing his net, awaited the coming of the tide. The night, ye maun ken, was mirk, and the wind lowne, and the singing of the increasing waters among the shells and the peebles was heard for sundry miles. All at once lights began to glance and twinkle on board the two Haunted Ships from every hole and seam, and presently the sound as of a hatchet employed in squaring timber echoed far and wide. But if the toil of these unearthly workmen amazed the laird, how much more was his amazement increased when a sharp shrill voice called out, ‘Ho! brother, what are you doing now?’ A voice still shriller responded from the other haunted ship, ‘I’m making a wife to Sandie Macharg!’ and a loud quavering laugh, running from ship to ship, and from bank to bank, told the joy they expected from their labour.

"Now the laird, besides being a devout and a God-fearing man, was shrewd and bold; and in plot, and contrivance, and skill in conducting his designs, was fairly an overmatch for any dozen land elves. But the water elves are far more subtle; besides, their haunts and their dwellings being in the great deep, pursuit and detection is hopeless if they succeed in carrying their prey to the waves. But ye shall hear. Home flew the laird,—collected his family around the hearth,—spoke of the signs and the sins of the time; and talked of mortification and prayer for averting calamity; and finally, taking his father’s Bible, brass clasps, black print, and covered with calf-skin, from the shelf, he proceeded without let or stint to perform domestic worship. I should have told ye that he bolted and locked the door, shut up all inlet to the house, threw salt into the fire and proceeded in every way like a man skilful in guarding against the plots of fairies and fiends. His wife looked on all this with wonder; but she saw something in her husband’s looks that hindered her from intruding either question. or advice, and a wise woman was she.

"Near the mid hour of the night the rush of a horse’s feet was heard, and the sound of a rider leaping from its back, and a heavy knock came to the door, accompanied by a voice, saying, ‘The cummer drink’s hot, and the knave bairn is expected at Laird Laurie’s to-night; sae mount, gudewife, and come.’

"'Preserve me!' said the wife of Sandie Macharg; ‘that’s news indeed! who could have thought it? the laird has been heirless for seventeen years! Now Sandie, my man, fetch me my skirt and hood.’

"But he laid his arm round his wife’s neck, and said, ‘If all the lairds in Galloway go heirless, over this door threshold shall you not stir to-night; and I have said, and I have sworn it: seek not to know why or wherefore - but, Lord, send us thy blessed mornlight.’ The wife looked for a moment in her husband’s eyes, and desisted from further entreaty.

"‘But let us send a civil message to the gossips, Sandie; and had nae ye better say I am sair laid with a sudden sickness? though its sinful-like to send the poor messenger a mile agate with a lie in his mouth without a glass of brandy.’

"To such a messenger, and to those who sent him, no apology is needed,’ said the austere laird, ‘so let him depart.’ And the clatter of a horse’s hoofs was heard, and the muttered imprecations of its rider on the churlish treatment he had experienced.

"Now Sandie, my lad,’ said his wife, laying an arm particularly white and round about his neck as she spoke, ‘are you not a queer man and a stern? I have been your wedded wife now these three years; and, beside my dower, have brought you three as bonnie bairns as ever smiled aneath a summer sun. O man, you a douce man, and fitter to be an elder than even Willie Greer himself—I have the minister’s ain word for’t,—to put on these hard-hearted looks, and gang waving your arms that way, as if ye said, "I winna take the counsel of sic a hempie’ as you." I’m your ain leal wife, and will and maun have an explanation.’

"To all this Sandie Macharg replied, ‘It is written— "Wives, obey your husbands;" but we have been stayed in our devotion, so let us pray;’ and down he knelt. His wife knelt also, for she was as devotit as bonnie; and beside them knelt their household, and all lights were extinguished.

"Now this beats a’,’ muttered his wife to herself; ‘however, I shall be obedient for a time; but if I dinna ken what all this is for before the morn by sunket-time,’ my tongue is nae langer a tongue, nor my hands worth wearing.’

"The voice of her husband in prayer interrupted this mental soliloquy; and ardently did he beseech to be preserved from the wiles of thi fiends, and the snares of Satan; ‘from witches, ghosts, goblins, elves, fairies, spunkies, and water-kelpies; from the spectre shaflop of Solway; from spirits visible and invisible; from the Haunted Ships and their unearthly tenants; from maritime spirits that plotted against godly men, and fell in love with their wives ‘—"Nay, but His presence be near us!’ said his wife in a low tone of dismay. ‘God guide my gudeman’s wits; I never heard such a prayer from human lips before. But Sandie, my man, Lord’s sake, rise: what fearful light is this ?—barn, and byre, and stable, maim be in a blaze; and Hawkie and Hurley,—Doddie, and Cherrie, and Damson Plum will be smoored with reek, and scorched with flame.’

"And a flood of light, but not so gross as a common fire, which ascended to heaven and filled all the court before the house, amply justified the good wife’s suspicions. But, to the terrors of fire, Sandie was as immovable as he was to the imaginary groans of the barren wife of Laird Laurie; and he held his wife, and threatened the weight of his right hand—and it was a heavy one—to all who ventured abroad, or even unbolted the door. The neighing and prancing of horses, and the bellowing of cows, augmented the horrors of the night; and to any one who only heard the din, it seemed that the whole onstead was in a blaze, and horses and cattle perishing in the flame. All wiles, common or extraordinary, were put in practice to entice or force the honest farmer and his wife to open the door; and when the like success attended every new stratagem, silence for a little while ensued, and a long, loud, and shrilling laugh wound up the dramatic efforts of the night In the morning, when Laird Macharg went to the door, he found standing against one of the pilasters a piece of black ship oak, rudely fashioned into something like human form, and which skilful people declared would have been clothed with seeming flesh and blood, and palmed upon him by elfin adroitness for his wife, had he admitted his visitants. A synod of wise men and women sat upon the woman of timber, and she was finally ordered to be devoured by fire, and that in the open air. A fire was soon made, and into it the elfin sculpture was tossed from the prongs of two pairs of pitch-forks. The blaze that arose was awful to behold; and hissings, and burstings, and loud cracklings, and strange noises, were heard in the midst of the flame; and when the whole sank into ashes, a drinking cup of some precious metal was found; and this cup, fashioned no doubt by elfin skill, but rendered harmless by the purification with fire, the sons and daughters of Sandie Macharg and his wife drink out of to this very day. Bless all bold men, say I, and obedient wives!"


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