The Seal Catcher and the Merman
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.
THE SCOTTISH FAIRY BOOK
ELIZABETH W. GRIERSON