"Old Nick is enough for them!" said he. "He doesn't need me to complete his infernal orchestra."
We may well believe that these strange apparitions frequently furnished a text for the evening stories. Jack Ryan was ending the evening with one of these. His auditors, transported into the phantom world, were worked up into a state of mind which would believe anything.
All at once shouts were heard outside. Jack Ryan stopped short in the middle of his story, and all rushed out of the barn. The night was pitchy dark. Squalls of wind and rain swept along the beach. Two or three fishermen, their backs against a rock, the better to resist the wind, were shouting at the top of their voices.
Jack Ryan and his companions ran up to them. The
shouts were, however, not for the inhabitants of the farm, but to warn men who, without being aware of it, were going to destruction. A dark, confused mass appeared some way out at sea. It was a vessel whose position could be seen by her lights, for she carried a white one on her foremast, a green on the starboard side, and a red on the outside. She was evidently running straight on the rocks.
"A ship in distress?" said Ryan.
"Ay," answered one of the fishermen, "and now they want to tack, but it's too late!"
"Do they want to run ashore?" said another.
"It seems so," responded one of the fishermen, "unless he has been misled by some--"
The man was interrupted by a yell from Jack. Could the crew have heard it? At any rate, it was too late for them to beat back from the line of breakers which gleamed white in the darkness.
But it was not, as might be supposed, a last effort of Ryan's to warn the doomed ship. He now had his back to the sea. His companions turned also, and gazed at a spot situated about half a mile inland. It was Dundonald Castle. A long flame twisted and bent under the gale, on the summit of the old tower.
"The Fire-Maiden!" cried the superstitious men in terror.
Clearly, it needed a good strong imagination to find any human likeness in that flame. Waving in the wind like a luminous flag, it seemed sometimes to fly round the tower, as if it was just going out, and a moment after it was seen again dancing on its blue point.
"The Fire-Maiden! the Fire-Maiden!" cried the terrified fishermen and peasants.
All was then explained. The ship, having lost her reckoning in the fog, had taken this flame on the top of Dundonald Castle for the Irvine light. She thought herself at the entrance of the Firth, ten miles to the north, when she was really running on a shore which offered no refuge.
What could be done to save her, if there was still time? It was too late. A frightful crash was heard above the tumult of the elements. The vessel had struck. The white line of surf was broken for an instant; she heeled over on her side and lay among the rocks.
At the same time, by a strange coincidence, the long flame disappeared, as if it had been swept away by a violent gust. Earth, sea, and sky were plunged in complete darkness.
"The Fire-Maiden!" shouted Ryan, for the last time, as the apparition, which he and his companions believed supernatural, disappeared. But then the courage of these superstitious Scotchmen, which had failed before a fancied danger, returned in face of a real one, which they were ready to brave in order to save their fellow-creatures. The tempest did not deter them. As heroic as they had before been credulous, fastening ropes round their waists, they rushed into the waves to the aid of those on the wreck.
Happily, they succeeded in their endeavors, although some--and bold Jack Ryan was among the number--were severely wounded on the rocks. But the captain of the vessel and the eight sailors who composed his crew were hauled up, safe and sound, on the beach.
The ship was the Norwegian brig MOTALA, laden with timber, and bound for Glasgow. Of the MOTALA herself nothing remained but a few spars, washed up by the waves, and dashed among the rocks on the beach.