III, Under a Dark Star,
IIFor all the evil omens, the marriage of Anne and Mānus MacCodrum went well.
He was more silent than of yore, and men avoided rather than sought him; but he was happy with Anne, and content with his two mates, who were now Callum MacCodrum and Ranald MacRanald. The youth Donull had bettered himself by joining a Skye skipper who was a kinsman, and Aulay MacNeil had surprised every one, except Mānus, by going away as a seaman on board one of the Loch line of ships which sail for Australia from the Clyde.
Anne never knew what had happened, though it is possible she suspected somewhat. All that was known to her was that Marcus and Gloom Achanna had disappeared, and were supposed to have been drowned. There was now no Achanna upon Eilanmore, for Seumas had taken a horror of the place and his loneliness. As soon as it was commonly admitted that his two brothers must have drifted out to sea, and been drowned, or at best picked up by some ocean-going ship, he disposed of the island-farm, and left Eilanmore forever. All this confirmed the thing said among the islanders of the west, that old Robert Achanna had brought a curse with him. Blight and disaster had visited Eilanmore over and over in the many years he had held it, and death, sometimes tragic or mysterious, had overtaken six of his seven sons, while the youngest bore upon his brows the "dusk of the shadow." True, none knew for certain that three out of the six were dead, but few for a moment believed in the possibility that --Alasdair and Marcus and Gloom were alive. On the night when Anne had left the island with Mānus MacCodrum, he, Seumas, had heard nothing to alarm him. Even when, an hour after she had gone down to the haven, neither she nor his brothers had returned, and the Luath had put out to sea, he was not in fear of any ill. Clearly, Marcus and Gloom had gone away in the smack, perhaps determined to see that the girl was duly married by priest or minister. He would have perturbed himself litttle for days to come, but for a strange thing that happened that night. He had returned to the house because of a chill that was upon him, and convinced too that all had sailed in the Luath. He was sitting brooding by the peat-fire, when he was startled by a sound at the window at the back of the room. A few bars of a familiar air struck painfully upon his ear, though played so low that they were just audible. What could it be but the "Dān-nan-rōn," and who would be playing that but Gloom? What did it mean? Perhaps after all, it was fantasy only, and there was no feadan out there in the dark. He was pondering this when, still low but louder and sharper than before, there rose and fell the strain which he hated, and Gloom never played before him, that of the Dāvsa-na-mairv, the "Dance of the Dead." Swiftly and silently he rose and crossed the room. In the dark shadows cast by the byre he could see nothing, but the music ceased. He went out, and searched everywhere, but found no one. So he returned, took down the Holy Book, with awed heart, and read slowly till peace came upon him, soft and sweet as the warmth of the peat-glow.
But as for Anne, she had never even this hint that one of the supposed dead might be alive, or that, being dead, Gloom might yet touch a shadowy feadan into a wild remote air of the grave.
When month after month went by, and no hint of ill came to break upon their peace, Mānus grew light-hearted again. Once more his songs were heard as he came back from the fishing, or loitered ashore mending his nets. A new happiness was nigh to them, for Anne was with child. True, there was fear also, for the girl was not well at the time when her labour was near, and grew weaker daily. There came a day when Mānus had to go to Loch Boisdate in South Uist: and it was with pain and something of foreboding that he sailed away from Berneray in the Sound of Harris, where he lived. It was on the third night that he returned. He was met by Katreen MacRanald, the wife of his mate, with the news that on the morrow after his going Anne had sent for the priest who was staying at Loch Maddy, for she had felt the coming of death. It was that very evening she died, and took the child with her.
Mānus heard as one in a dream. It seemed to him that the tide was ebbing in his heart, and a cold, sleety rain falling, falling through a mist in his brain.
Sorrow lay heavily upon him. After the earthing of her whom he loved, he went to and fro solitary: often crossing the Narrows and going to the old Pictish Towre under the shadow of Ban Breac. He would not go upon the sea, but let his kinsman Callum do as he liked with the Luath.
Now and again Father Allan MacNeil sailed northward to see him. Each time he departed sadder. " The man is going mad, I fear," he said to Callum, the last time he saw Mānus.
The long summer nights brought peace and beauty to the isles. It was a great herring-year, and the moon-fishing was unusually good. All the Uist men who lived by the sea-harvest were in their boats whenever they could. The Pollack, the dogfish, the otters, and the seals, with flocks of sea-fowl beyond number, shared in the common joy. Mānus MacCodrum alone paid no heed to herring or mackerel. He was often seen striding along the shore, and more than once had been heard laughing; sometimes, too, he was come upon at low tide by the great Reef of Berneray, singing wild strange runes and songs, or crouching upon a rock and brooding dark.
The midsummer moon found no man on Berneray except MacCodrum, the Rev. Mr. Black, the minister of the Free Kirk, and an old man named Anndra McIan. On the night before the last day of the middle month, Anndra was reproved by the minister for saying that he had seen a man rise out of one of the graves in the kirk-yard, and steal down by the stone-dykes towards Balnahunnur-sa-mona,š where Mānus MacCodrum lived. šBaille-'na-aonar,sa mhonadh, "the solitary farm on the hill-slope." "The dead do not rise and walk, Anndra."
"That may be, maigstir, but it may have been the Watcher of the Dead. Sure it is not three weeks since Padruig McAlistair was laid beneath the green mound. He'll be wearying for another to take his place."
"Hoots, man, that is an old superstition. The dead do not rise and walk, I tell you."
"It is right you may be, maigstir, but I heard of this from my father, that was old before you were young, and from his father before him. When the last-buried is weary with being the Watcher of the Dead he goes about from place to place till he sees man, woman, or child with the death-shadow in the eyes, and then he goes back to his grave and lies down in peace, for his vigil it will be over now."
The minister laughed at the folly, and went into his house to make ready for the Sacrament that was to be on the morrow. Old Anndra, however, was uneasy. After the porridge, he went down through the gloaming to Balnahunnur-sa-mona. He meant to go in and warn Mānus MacCodrum. But when he got to the west wall, and stood near the open window, he heard Mānus speaking in a loud voice, though he was alone in the room.
"B'ionganntach do ghrādh dhomhsa, a' toirt barrachd air grādh nam ban! " . . . ˛
This, Mānus cried in a voice quivering with pain. Anndra stopped still, fearful to intrude, fearful also, perhaps, to see some one there beside MacCodrum whom eyes should not see. Then the voice rose into a cry of agony.
"Aoram dhuit, ay an déigh dhomh fās aosda!" ŗ
˛"Thy love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women."
ŗ"I shall worship thee, ay, even after I have become old."
With that, Anndra feared to stay. As he passed the byre he
started, for he thought he saw the shadow of a man. When he looked closer he could see
nought, so went his way, trembling and sore troubled.
Suddenly an access of fury wrought him to madness. With an abrupt lilt the tune swung into the Davsā-na-mairv, and thence, after a few seconds, and in a moment, into that mysterious and horrible Codhail-nan-Pairtean which none but Gloom played.
There could be no mistake now, nor as to what was meant by the muttering, jerking air of the "gathering of the crabs."
With a savage cry Mānus snatched up a long dirk from its place by the chimney, and rushed out.
There was not the shadow of a sea-gull even in front; so he sped round by the byre.
Neither was anything unusual discoverable there.
"Sorrow upon me," he cried; "man or wraith, I will be putting it to the dirk!"
But there was no one; nothing; not a sound.
Then, at last, with a listless droop of his arms, MacCodrum turned and went into the house again. He remembered what Gloom Achanna had said: " You'll hear the 'Dān-nan-Rōn' the night before you die, Mānus MacCodrum, and lest you doubt it, you'll hear it in your death-hour."
He did not stir from the fire for three hours; then he rose, and went over to his bed and lay down without undressing.
He did not sleep, but lay listening and watching. The peats burned low, and at last there was scarce a flicker along the floor. Outside he could hear the wind moaning upon the sea. By a strange rustling sound he knew that the tide was ebbing across the great reef that runs out from Berneray. By midnight the clouds had gone. The moon shone clear and full. When he heard the clock strike in its worm-eaten, rickety case, he satup, and listened intently. He could hear nothing. No shadow stirred. Surely if the wraith of Gloom Achanna were waiting for him it would make some sign, now, in the dead of night.
An hour passed. Mānus rose, crossed the room on tip-toe, and soundlessly opened the door. The salt wind blew fresh against his face. The smell of the shore, of wet sea-wrack and pungent bog-myrtle, of foam and moving water, came sweet to his nostrils. He heard a skua calling from the rocky promontory. From the slopes behind, the wail of a moon-restless lapwing rose and fell mournfully.
Crouching and with slow, stealthy step, he stole round by the seaward wall. At the dyke he stopped, and scrutinised it on each side. He could see for several hundred yards, and there was not even a sheltering sheep. Then, soundlessly as ever, he crept close to the byre. He put his ear to chink after chink: but not a stir of a shadow even. As a shadow, himself, he drifted lightly to the front, past the hayrick; then, with swift glances to right and left, opened the door and entered. As he did so, he stood as though frozen. Surely, he thought, that was a sound as of a step, out there by the hay-rick. A terror was at his heart. In front, the darkness of the byre, with God knows what dread thing awaiting him; behind, a mysterious walker in the night, swift to take him unawares. The trembling that came upon him was nigh overmastering. At last, with a great effort, he moved towards the ledge, where he kept a candle. With shaking hand he struck a light. The empty byre looked ghostly and fearsome in the flickering gloom. But there was no one, nothing. He was about to turn, when a rat ran along a loose hanging beam, and stared at him, or at the yellow shine. He saw its black eyes shining like peat-water in moonlight.
The creature was curious at first, then indifferent. At least, it began to squeak, and then make a swift scratching with its forepaws. Once or twice came an answering squeak; a faint rustling was audible here and there among the straw.
With a sudden spring Mānus seized the beast. Even in the second in which he raised it to his mouth and scrunched its back with his strong teeth, it bit him severely. He let his hands drop, and grope furtively in the darkness. With stooping head he shook the last breath out of the rat, holding it with his front teeth, with back-curled lips. The next moment he dropped the dead thing, trampled upon it, and burst out laughing. There was a scurrying of pattering feet, a rustling of straw. Then silence again. A draught from the door had caught the flame and extinguished it. In the silence and darkness MacCodrum stood, intent, but no longer afraid. He laughed again, because it was so easy to kill with the teeth. The noise of his laughter seemed to him to leap hither and thither like a shadowy ape. He could see it: a blackness within the darkness. Once more he laughed. It amused him to see the thing leaping about like that.
Suddenly he turned, and walked out into the moonlight. The lapwing was still circling and wailing. He mocked it, with loud shrill pee-weety, pee-weety, pee-weet. The bird swung waywardly, alarmed: its abrupt cry, and dancing flight aroused its fellows. The air was full of the lamentable crying of plovers.
A sough of the sea came inland. Mānus inhaled its breath with a sigh of delight. A passion for the running wave was upon him. He yearned to feel green water break against his breast. Thirst and hunger, too, he felt at last, though he had known neither all day. How cool and sweet, he thought, would be a silver haddock, or even a brown-backed liath, alive and gleaming, wet with the sea-water still bubbling in its gills. It would writhe, just like the rat; but then how he would throw his head back, and toss the glittering thing up into the moonlight, catch it on the downwhirl just as it neared the wave on whose crest he was, and then devour it with swift voracious gulps!
With quick, jerky steps he made his way past the landward side of the small, thatchroofed cottage. He was about to enter, when he noticed that the door, which he had left ajar, was closed. He stole to the window and glanced in.
A single, thin, wavering moonbeam flickered in the room. But the flame at the heart of the peats had worked its way through the ash, and there was now a dull glow, though that was within the "smooring" and threw scarce more than a glimmer into the room.
There was enough light, however, for Mānus MacCodrum to see that a man sat on the three-legged stool before the fire. His head was bent, as though he were listening. The face was away from the window. It was his own wraith, of course; of that, Mānus felt convinced. What was it doing there? Perhaps it had eaten the Holy Book, so that it was beyond his putting a rosad on it! At the thought he laughed loud. The shadowman leaped to his feet.
The next moment MacCodrum swung himself on to the thatched roof, and clambered from rope to rope, where these held down the big stones which acted as dead-weight for thatch, against the fury of tempests. Stone after stone he tore from its fastenings, and hurled to the ground over beyond the door. Then with tearing hands he began to burrow an opening in the thatch. All the time he whined like a beast.
He was glad the moon shone full upon him. When he had made a big enough hole, he would see the evil thing out of the grave that sat in his room and would stone it to death.
Suddenly he became still. A cold sweat broke out upon him. The thing, whether his own wraith, or the spirit of his dead foe, or Gloom Achanna himself, had begun to play, low and slow, a wild air. No piercing, cold music like that of the feadan! Too well he knew it, and those cool, white notes that moved here and there in the darkness like snowflakes. As for the air, though he slept till Judgment Day and heard but a note of it amidst all the clamour of heaven and hell, sure he would scream because of the "Dān-nan-Rōn."
The "Dān-nan-Rōn": the Roin! the Seals! Ah, what was he doing there, on the bitterweary land! Out there was the sea. Safe would he be in the green waves.
With a leap he was on the ground. Seizing a huge stone he hurled it through the window. Then, laughing and screaming, he fled towards the Great Reef, along whose sides the ebb-tide gurgled and sobbed, with glistening white foam.
He ceased screaming or laughing as he heard the "Dān-nan-Rōn" behind him, faint, but following; sure, following. Bending low, he raced towards the rock-ledges from which ran the reef.
When at last he reached the extreme ledge he stopped abruptly. Out on the reef he saw from ten to twenty seals, some swimming to and fro, others clinging to the reef, one or two making a curious barking sound, with round heads lifted against the moon. In one place there was a surge and lashing of water. Two bulls were fighting to the death.
With swift, stealthy movements Mānus unclothed himself. The damp had clotted the leathern thongs of his boots, and he snarled with curled lip as he tore at them. He shone white in the moonshine, but was sheltered from the sea by the ledge behind which he crouched. "What did Gloom Achanna mean by that?" he muttered savagely, as he heard the nearing air change into the "Dance of the Dead." For a moment Mānus was a man again. He was nigh upon turning to face his foe, corpse or wraith or living body; to spring at this thing which followed him, and tear it with hands and teeth. Then, once more, the hated "Song of the Seals" stole mockingly through the night.
With a shiver he slipped into the dark water. Then with quick, powerful strokes he was in, the moon-flood, and swimming hard against it out by the leeside of the reef.
So intent were the seals upon the fight of the two great bulls that they did not see the swimmer, or if they did, took him for one of their own people. A savage snarling and barking and half-human crying came from them. Mānus was almost within reach of the nearest, when one of the combatants sank dead, with torn throat. The victor clambered on the reef, and leaned high, swaying its great head and shoulders to and fro. In the moonlight its white fangs were like red coral. Its blinded eyes ran with gore.
There was a rush, a rapid leaping and swirling, as Mānus surged in among the seals, which were swimming round the place where the slain bull had sunk.
The laughter of this long, white seal terrified them.
When his knees struck against a rock, MacCodrum groped with his arms, and hauled himself out of the water.
From rock to rock and ledge to ledge he went, with a fantastic, dancing motion, his body gleaming foam-white in the moon-shine.
As he pranced and trampled along the weedy ledges, he sang snatches of an old rune---the lost rune of the MacCodrums of Uist. The seals on the rocks crouched spellbound; those slow-swimming in the water stared with brown unwinking eyes, with their small ears strained against the sound:
By this time he was close upon the great black seal, which
was still monotonously swaying its gory head, with its sightless eyes rolling this way and
that. The sea-folk seemed fascinated. None moved, even when the dancer in the moonshine
trampled upon them.
With that, seeing the great bull did not move, he struck it full in the face with clenched fist. There was a hoarse, strangling roar, and the seal champion was upon him with lacerating fangs.
Mānus swayed this way and that. All he could hear now was the snarling and growling and choking cries of the maddened seals. As he fell, they closed in upon him. His screams wheeled through the night like mad birds. With desperate fury he struggled to free himself. The great bull pinned him to the rock; a dozen others tore at his white flesh, till his spouting blood made the rocks scarlet in the white shine of the moon.
For a few seconds he still fought savagely, tearing with teeth and hands. Once, a red irrecognisable mass, he staggered to his knees. A wild cry burst from his lips, when from the shore-end of the reef came loud and clear the lilt of the rune of his fate.
The next moment he was dragged down and swept from the reef into the sea. As the torn and mangled body disappeared from sight, it was amid a seething crowd of leaping and struggling seals, their eyes wild with affright and fury, their fangs red with human gore.
And Gloom Achanna, turning upon the reef, moved swiftly inland, playing low on his feadan, as he went.