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The Seal Catcher And The Merman

from The Scottish Fairy Book





Once upon a time there was a man who lived not very far from John o'
Groat's house, which, as everyone knows, is in the very north of
Scotland. He lived in a little cottage by the sea-shore, and made his
living by catching seals and selling their fur, which is very valuable.

He earned a good deal of money in this way, for these creatures used to
come out of the sea in large numbers, and lie on the rocks near his
house basking in the sunshine, so that it was not difficult to creep up
behind them and kill them.

Some of those seals were larger than others, and the country people used
to call them "Roane," and whisper that they were not seals at all, but
Mermen and Merwomen, who came from a country of their own, far down
under the ocean, who assumed this strange disguise in order that they
might pass through the water, and come up to breathe the air of this
earth of ours.

But the seal catcher only laughed at them, and said that those seals
were most worth killing, for their skins were so big that he got an
extra price for them.

Now it chanced one day, when he was pursuing his calling, that he
stabbed a seal with his hunting-knife, and whether the stroke had not
been sure enough or not, I cannot say, but with a loud cry of pain the
creature slipped off the rock into the sea, and disappeared under the
water, carrying the knife along with it.

The seal catcher, much annoyed at his clumsiness, and also at the loss
of his knife, went home to dinner in a very downcast frame of mind. On
his way he met a horseman, who was so tall and so strange-looking and
who rode on such a gigantic horse, that he stopped and looked at him in
astonishment, wondering who he was, and from what country he came.

The stranger stopped also, and asked him his trade and on hearing that
he was a seal catcher, he immediately ordered a great number of seal
skins. The seal catcher was delighted, for such an order meant a large
sum of money to him. But his face fell when the horseman added that it
was absolutely necessary that the skins should be delivered that
evening.

"I cannot do it," he said in a disappointed voice, "for the seals will
not come back to the rocks again until to-morrow morning."

"I can take you to a place where there are any number of seals,"
answered the stranger, "if you will mount behind me on my horse and come
with me."

The seal catcher agreed to this, and climbed up behind the rider, who
shook his bridle rein, and off the great horse galloped at such a pace
that he had much ado to keep his seat.

On and on they went, flying like the wind, until at last they came to
the edge of a huge precipice, the face of which went sheer down to the
sea. Here the mysterious horseman pulled up his steed with a jerk.

"Get off now," he said shortly.

The seal catcher did as he was bid, and when he found himself safe on
the ground, he peeped cautiously over the edge of the cliff, to see if
there were any seals lying on the rocks below.

To his astonishment he saw no rocks, only the blue sea, which came right
up to the foot of the cliff.

"Where are the seals that you spoke of?" he asked anxiously, wishing
that he had never set out on such a rash adventure.

"You will see presently," answered the stranger, who was attending to
his horse's bridle.

The seal catcher was now thoroughly frightened, for he felt sure that
some evil was about to befall him, and in such a lonely place he knew
that it would be useless to cry out for help.

And it seemed as if his fears would prove only too true, for the next
moment the stranger's hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he felt
himself being hurled bodily over the cliff, and then he fell with a
splash into the sea.

He thought that his last hour had come, and he wondered how anyone could
work such a deed of wrong upon an innocent man.

But, to his astonishment, he found that some change must have passed
over him, for instead of being choked by the water, he could breathe
quite easily, and he and his companion, who was still close at his side,
seemed to be sinking as quickly down through the sea as they had flown
through the air.

Down and down they went, nobody knows how far, till at last they came to
a huge arched door, which appeared to be made of pink coral, studded
over with cockle-shells. It opened, of its own accord, and when they
entered they found themselves in a huge hall, the walls of which were
formed of mother-of-pearl, and the floor of which was of sea-sand,
smooth, and firm, and yellow.

The hall was crowded with occupants, but they were seals, not men, and
when the seal catcher turned to his companion to ask him what it all
meant, he was aghast to find that he, too, had assumed the form of a
seal. He was still more aghast when he caught sight of himself in a
large mirror that hung on the wall, and saw that he also no longer bore
the likeness of a man, but was transformed into a nice, hairy, brown
seal.

"Ah, woe to me," he said to himself, "for no fault of mine own this
artful stranger hath laid some baneful charm upon me, and in this awful
guise will I remain for the rest of my natural life."

At first none of the huge creatures spoke to him. For some reason or
other they seemed to be very sad, and moved gently about the hall,
talking quietly and mournfully to one another, or lay sadly upon the
sandy floor, wiping big tears from their eyes with their soft furry
fins.

But presently they began to notice him, and to whisper to one another,
and presently his guide moved away from him, and disappeared through a
door at the end of the hall. When he returned he held a huge knife in
his hand.

"Didst thou ever see this before?" he asked, holding it out to the
unfortunate seal catcher, who, to his horror, recognised his own hunting
knife with which he had struck the seal in the morning, and which had
been carried off by the wounded animal.

At the sight of it he fell upon his face and begged for mercy, for he at
once came to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the cavern, enraged
at the harm which had been wrought upon their comrade, had, in some
magic way, contrived to capture him, and to bring him down to their
subterranean abode, in order to wreak their vengeance upon him by
killing him.

But, instead of doing so, they crowded round him, rubbing their soft
noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to
put himself about, for no harm would befall him, and they would love him
all their lives long if he would only do what they asked him.

"Tell me what it is," said the seal catcher, "and I will do it, if it
lies within my power."

"Follow me," answered his guide, and he led the way to the door through
which he had disappeared when he went to seek the knife.

The seal catcher followed him. And there, in a smaller room, he found a
great brown seal lying on a bed of pale pink sea-weed, with a gaping
wound in his side.

"That is my father," said his guide, "whom thou wounded this morning,
thinking that he was one of the common seals who live in the sea,
instead of a Merman who hath speech, and understanding, as you mortals
have. I brought thee hither to bind up his wounds, for no other hand
than thine can heal him."

"I have no skill in the art of healing," said the seal catcher,
astonished at the forbearance of these strange creatures, whom he had so
unwittingly wronged; "but I will bind up the wound to the best of my
power, and I am only sorry that it was my hands that caused it."

He went over to the bed, and, stooping over the wounded Merman, washed
and dressed the hurt as well as he could; and the touch of his hands
appeared to work like magic, for no sooner had he finished than the
wound seemed to deaden and die, leaving only the scar, and the old seal
sprang up, as well as ever.

Then there was great rejoicing throughout the whole Palace of the Seals.
They laughed, and they talked, and they embraced each other in their own
strange way, crowding round their comrade, and rubbing their noses
against his, as if to show him how delighted they were at his recovery.

But all this while the seal catcher stood alone in a corner, with his
mind filled with dark thoughts, for although he saw now that they had no
intention of killing him, he did not relish the prospect of spending the
rest of his life in the guise of a seal, fathoms deep under the ocean.

But presently, to his great joy, his guide approached him, and said,
"Now you are at liberty to return home to your wife and children. I will
take you to them, but only on one condition."

"And what is that?" asked the seal catcher eagerly, overjoyed at the
prospect of being restored safely to the upper world, and to his family.

"That you will take a solemn oath never to wound a seal again."

"That will I do right gladly," he replied, for although the promise
meant giving up his means of livelihood, he felt that if only he
regained his proper shape he could always turn his hand to something
else.

So he took the required oath with all due solemnity, holding up his fin
as he swore, and all the other seals crowded round him as witnesses. And
a sigh of relief went through the halls when the words were spoken, for
he was the most noted seal catcher in the North.

Then he bade the strange company farewell, and, accompanied by his
guide, passed once more through the outer doors of coral, and up, and
up, and up, through the shadowy green water, until it began to grow
lighter and lighter and at last they emerged into the sunshine of earth.

Then, with one spring, they reached the top of the cliff, where the
great black horse was waiting for them, quietly nibbling the green turf.

When they left the water their strange disguise dropped from them, and
they were now as they had been before, a plain seal catcher and a tall,
well-dressed gentleman in riding clothes.

"Get up behind me," said the latter, as he swung himself into his
saddle. The seal catcher did as he was bid, taking tight hold of his
companion's coat, for he remembered how nearly he had fallen off on his
previous journey.

Then it all happened as it happened before. The bridle was shaken, and
the horse galloped off, and it was not long before the seal catcher
found himself standing in safety before his own garden gate.

He held out his hand to say "good-bye," but as he did so the stranger
pulled out a huge bag of gold and placed it in it.

"Thou hast done thy part of the bargain--we must do ours," he said. "Men
shall never say that we took away an honest man's work without making
reparation for it, and here is what will keep thee in comfort to thy
life's end."

Then he vanished, and when the astonished seal catcher carried the bag
into his cottage, and turned the gold out on the table, he found that
what the stranger had said was true, and that he would be a rich man for
the remainder of his days.





Next: The Page-boy And The Silver Goblet

Previous: The Red-etin



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