The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 10

The Dog Samr

Anna Haraldsen’s arrival made us tighten the precautions at Laverlaw. We were now all assembled there, except the laird, and he might be trusted to look after himself. Lombard showed no desire to leave. He had wound up his business affairs in anticipation of a holiday, and thought that he might as well take the first few days of it in Scotland. He wrote a long account to his wife of his journey, which he read to me with pride — certainly it was a vigorous bit of narrative; and at the end he put in something about staying on to watch events. ‘That will please Beryl,’ he said. ‘She’s very keen about this business, and will like to know that I’m doing my bit.’ I asked him what events he expected, and he replied that he had a feel in his bones that things would begin to move. That was not my own view, for, short of bombs from an aeroplane, I didn’t see what the other lot could do to harm us. Laverlaw was as well guarded as a royal palace.

I have mentioned that Haraldsen was becoming a cured man. Under Peter John’s care he had lost nearly all his jumpiness, he ate and slept well, laughed now and then, and generally behaved like an ordinary mortal. You could see that he was homesick, for the sight of Sandy’s possessions reminded him of his own. But he had altogether lost the hunted look. The coming of his daughter put the top stone on his recovery. It was as if a nomad had got together a home again. I expected him to be in a great state about the very real risk she had run; I knew that with Peter John it would have come between me and my sleep; but he never gave it a thought. Indeed, he scarcely listened when Lombard told him about it. He wrote to Miss Barlock and sent for Anna’s kit, and then shut the lid on that chapter.

But it did one good to see him and the girl together. For a couple of years the two had not met each other. He talked a good deal to her of the Norlands, which she was beginning to forget, and he was always reminding her of things that had happened in the Island of Sheep. I noticed that he tried to appear interested in her stories about school, but on that subject she had better listeners in Mary and Barbara and me, and an infinitely better one in Lombard. He seemed to wish to forget all that had happened in England, as if it had been a bad dream. He reminded me one day with satisfaction that at Laverlaw we were half-way to the Norlands.

One thing was clear — for him that English chapter was closed. Haraldsen was not only a cured man, but a new man, or perhaps he had returned to what he had been before I met him. There was confidence in his voice, more vigour in his eyes, and he held himself and walked like a free man. That was all to the good, for he would be a combatant now, I hoped, instead of a piece of compromising baggage. He was beginning to assert himself, too, and I came to think that, if Lombard was right, and things started to move, Haraldsen himself might be the propelling force. He was becoming restless again, not from shaky nerves, but from some growing purpose. He and Anna had long serious palavers in Norland, and I guessed that he was trying to hammer out some line of action. He might soon take a hand in shaping his own destiny.

Peter John, his former comrade, was now wholly neglected, and Haraldsen and Anna made most of their expeditions together. I had asked myself how my son would get on with the girl, and I soon found an answer. They didn’t get on at all. Peter John had never had much to do with women, except his mother, and to some small degree with Barbara Clanroyden and Janet Roylance, because they were the belongings of his friends. I did not believe that he would make friends with any kind of girl, and it soon became clear that, anyhow, Anna was not his kind. Never were there such obvious incompatibles. He talked little, and when you asked him a question it was like dropping a stone into a deep well — you had to wait for the answer. She babbled like a brook. He had a ridiculously formal style of speech — Johnsonian English, his house-master had called it whereas she revelled in every kind of slang — school slang out of novels, slang from film captions. I found her mannerisms often delightful, for she had not a complete command of English. For example, she would make unfamiliar positives from negative words, ‘couth’ (as the opposite of uncouth) was a favourite term of praise with her, and, contrary-wise, ‘unbeautiful’ a condemnation. Peter John thought them merely silly. Then she was always chaffing him, and it was about as much use chaffing Cleopatra’s Needle for all the response she got. He treated her with elaborate politeness, and retired into his kennel, as an old house-dog will sometimes do when visitors bring a strange hound.

This went on for the better part of a week. Then suddenly Lombard’s prophecy came true, and events quickened their pace to a run.

One afternoon all of us, except Barbara’s infant, made an expedition to the shieling of Clatteringshaws, where the shepherd’s only daughter — his name was Tarras — was being married to Nickson, the young herd on the home farm. It was a slack time in the pastoral year, before the autumn fairs began, and the whole Laverlaw estate turned out to the ceremony, for Nickson was popular and Tarras was one of the oldest hands on the place. The minister of Hangingshaw was to marry the couple at half-past two; after that there was to be high tea on the green beside the burn; then dancing was to follow till all hours in the big shed. Few of us had seen a Scots wedding, and, besides, Jean Tarras had been one of the Laverlaw maids, so we all set out on ponies to make an afternoon of it — except Peter John who, according to his custom, preferred to walk.

It was divine weather — just as well for the tea beside the burn — and we made a cheerful party. Anna especially was in wild spirits, and I realized for the first time those good looks about which Mary had been so certain. Now that she was in prettier clothes than her school uniform, and had been out a good deal in the sun, she had become an altogether more vivid and coloured being. Her hair had gold glints in it. Her skin had flushed to a sort of golden ivory, and her lovely eyes had become deeper by contrast. She held herself well in the saddle, and her voice rang out over the heather as sweet and true as a bell. She was riding with Mary and Lombard, and I was behind with Barbara and Haraldsen, and I couldn’t help telling her father that she was an uncommonly pretty child. The fact was so patent that he didn’t trouble even to look pleased.

‘Where does she get her name?’ I asked. ‘Her mother?’

‘No, my mother. Anna is a common name in the Norlands. But it is not right for her. She is no Jewish prophetess. If I had the christening of her again, it should be Nanna, who was Balder’s wife.’

I remembered vaguely that Balder was some sort of Norse god, and certainly the girl looked a goddess that afternoon. Haraldsen was getting very full of Northern lore these days, for he went on in his queer staccato way to explain that a goddess’s name would not do for her either — that she was more like the maidens in the Edda, who had to live in the underworld in a house ringed with fire till a hero rescued them. He ran over a string of those ladies, of whom Brynhild was the only one I recognized.

‘Poor Anna,’ he said. ‘Perhaps she will be like the women in the Sagas, ill-fated because her men are doomed. She may be as proud and sad as Bergthora, but she will never be treacherous like Halgerda.’

I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about. I had read one or two of the Sagas on Sandy’s advice, and I observed that they were gloomy anecdotes.

‘They are the Scriptures of my race,’ said Haraldsen. ‘And they have truths from which we cannot escape, though they are sad truths. They are true for me — and for you too, Hannay, and for Lord Clanroyden, and for our kind ladies, and for your son, who is striding yonder as if he were Thor on his travels. You Scots know it too, for you have it in your sayings. There is a weird which none can escape. Fenris–Wolf is waiting in Hell for Odin himself.’

‘I should let Fenris–Wolf sleep in this weather,’ I told him, and he laughed.

‘True,’ he said. ‘It is not well to think of ultimate things. There is a Norland proverb which says that few can see farther forth than when Odin meets the wolf.’

He stopped and sniffed the scents, a wonderful mingling of thyme and peat and heather blown by a light west wind over miles of moorland. ‘This place is like the Norlands,’ he said with abstracted eyes. ‘I have smelled this smell at midsummer there, when there was a wind from the hills.’

‘It’s my own calf-country,’ I said, ‘and I’m glad to think it reminds you of yours.’

‘The reminder is not all pleasure. It makes me sad also. There is another of our proverbs — I seem to be quoting many today — that strongest is every man in his own house. I am in the house of a stranger — the kindest of strangers.’

‘So am I,’ I said; ‘but I’m not complaining.’

‘But you have your home — you can reach it in a day. Anna and I have a home, but it is shut to us. She is like the poor Princess in the tale — there is a ring of flame round her dwelling.’

‘Oh, we’re going to put those fires out,’ I said cheerfully. ‘It won’t be long till you’re as snug in your island as Sandy in Laverlaw and me at Fosse — a dashed sight more snug, for you haven’t to pay income-tax. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll come up and join you.’

A sudden queer look came into his face. He had been talking dolefully in a brisk voice, and he had been half laughing. But now his eyes grew grave, just as his father’s used to.

‘I wonder if I shall ever find peace,’ he said slowly. ‘We Norlanders get tied up in a skein of fate from which there is no escape. Read in the Sagas, and you will see how relentless is the wheel. Hrut slays Hrap, and Atli slays Hrut, and Gisli slays Atli, and Kari slays Gisli. My father, God rest him, punishes the old Troth, and the younger Troth would punish me, and if he succeeds perhaps Anna or some child of Anna’s will punish him.’

It was in a whirl of outlandish names and with Haraldsen looking as mysterious as a spae-wife that we plashed through the burn and off-saddled on the green of Clatteringshaws.

You could not imagine a pleasanter spectacle. A dozen shepherds had brought their womenfolk, and there was a big contingent of the Laverlaw servants, and an ancient horse-bus had conveyed a party from Hangingshaw village. The minister, an active young man who had got a Military Cross in the War, had come on a bicycle. Stoddart, the head-shepherd on the Mains, was the master of ceremonies, and he was busy with the preparations for tea, with Sim and Oliver as his lieutenants. Tarras welcomed us with that kindly composure which makes a Border shepherd the best gentleman on earth, for he is as sure of himself as any king. There must have been fully fifty guests. The older men were in their Sunday blacks, their regular garb for church, weddings, and funerals, but the younger wore the glen homespun, and the keepers were, of course, in knickerbockers. I noticed that every man had a black-and-white checked necktie, a thing which Sandy always wore at home and which was the Laverlaw equivalent to a tartan. The women were in bright colours, except the bride, who wore white, and I thought how female clothes had been evened up since the War. Most of the girls were fully as well-dressed as Barbara or Janet.

The ceremony in Tarras’s little parlour was a suffocating business, but happily it did not last long. Then the blushing Nickson and the very demure bride disappeared up a wooden ladder to shed some of their finery, and we examined the presents laid out in the kitchen. Tarras and his wife did hosts at the tea on the green, and I have never seen a company tuck in more resolutely to more substantial viands. There were hot mutton pies, and cold mutton hams, and all that marvellous variety of cakes and breads in which Scotland has no rival, and oceans of strong tea and rich cream, and beer for those who liked it, and whisky for the elderly. Old Tarras made a speech of Welcome, and Barbara replied almost in his own accent, for the American South, when it likes, has the same broad vowels as the Border. And then, after a deal of eating and drinking, all hands set to work to remove the tables, and the company split up into groups, while youth wandered off by itself. Presently dancing would begin in the wool-shed — the fiddlers were already tuning up — and there would be supper some time in the small hours.

The ladies started for home early, and, since I wanted exercise, I sent my pony back with Geordie Hamilton. Lombard professed the same wish, and Haraldsen, who had been a silent figure at the feast, followed suit, so that Geordie departed like a horse-thief who had made a good haul. We were in no hurry, for it was less than an hour’s walk home over hill turf, so we went round to the back of the cottage, where some of the older men were sitting on a rock above a small linn, smoking their pipes and talking their slow talk. I remember thinking that I had rarely had so profound an impression of peace. The light wind had dropped, and the honey-coloured bent and the blue of the sky were melting into the amethyst of twilight. In that cool, mellow, scented dusk, where the only sounds were the drift of distant human speech, and the tinkle of the burn, and the calling of wild birds, and the drowsy bleat of an old ewe, I seemed to have struck something as changeless as the hills.

The dogs were mostly congregated round Tarras’s back-door, on the look-out for broken meats, and I had just taken a seat on a bank beside Stoddart when a most infernal racket started in their direction. It sounded like the father and mother of dog-fights. All of us got to our feet, but we were on the wrong side of the burn, and it took us some minutes to circumvent the linn, pass through the gates of the sheep-fold, and get to the back-door where bicycles and the Hangingshaw horse-bus were parked. For the last dozen yards we had the place in sight, where a considerable drama was going on.

The centre of it was Stoddart’s dog, the patriarch Yarrow. He was about twelve years old, and in his day had been the pride of the countryside, for he had won twice at the big sheep-trials. I dare say he was an arrogant old fellow, and said nasty things to the young collies, for it isn’t in dog nature to be a swell without showing it. But as Stoddart’s dog he had a position of acknowledged preeminence, and at clippings and speanings and lamb sales he took precedence, and was given, so to speak, the first lick from the plate. But now he must have gone a bit too far. Every dog in the place had it in for him, and with bared teeth was intent on his massacre.

The old beast was something of a strategist. He had got into the corner where the peat-shed projected beyond the cottage wall, so that he couldn’t be taken in flank or in rear, and there he was putting up a sturdy fight. He had a dozen enemies, but they had not much notion of a mass assault, for if they had come on in a wave they would have smothered him. What they did was to attack singly. A little black-and-tan dog would dart forward and leap for his neck, only to be hurled back by Yarrow’s weight, for though his teeth were old and blunt, he was a heavy beast, and could have given pounds to anything else there. But some of his assailants must have got home, for he had an ear in tatters, and his neck and throat were blotched with blood.

His opponents’ game was the old one of the pack, learned when their ancestors hunted on the plains of Asia. They meant to wear the old fellow down, and then rush in and finish him. Stoddart saw what they were after, and flung his stick at them, roaring abuse. I would have bet any sum that, but for us, in ten minutes the poor old beast would have been dead.

But I would have been wildly wrong, for suddenly Yarrow changed his plan, and the fight was transformed. Instead of standing on the defence he attacked. With lips snarling back over his gums, and every hair on his thick collar a-bristle, and with something between a bark, a bay, and a howl, he charged his enemies. He didn’t snap — his teeth weren’t good enough — he simply hurled his weight on them, using jaw and paws and every part of him as weapons of offence. Far more important, he let them see that he was out for blood. He didn’t want to save his hide now, but to rend theirs. I have never seen such determination in any animal, except in African wild game. Yarrow’s twelve years by Stoddart’s fireside were forgotten. He was no more the household pet, the shepherd’s working partner, the prize-winner at shows to be patted and stroked; he was a lightning-bolt, a tornado, a devouring fiend. . . . There was a cloud of dust and fur, and then the whole mob streaked into flight. One went between my legs, one tripped up Lombard, several felt the weight of their masters’ crooks. As for old Yarrow, he had fixed his stumps in the hind-leg of a laggard, and it took Stoddart all his time to loose them.

I stopped to laugh, for it was one of the best finishes I had ever seen. Each shepherd was busy rounding up and correcting his own special miscreant, and Lombard, Haraldsen, and Peter John and I were left to ourselves. I got a glimpse of Haraldsen’s face and gripped his arm, for I thought he was going to faint. He was white as paper, and shaking like a leaf. He looked just as he had done that morning on Hanham sands when the whitefront had escaped from Peter John’s falcon.

Words came slowly from his pale lips. He was drawing a moral, but it was the opposite of the Hanham one. But the first words were the same.

‘It is a message to me,’ he croaked. ‘That dog is like Samr, who died with Gunnar of Lithend. He reminds me of what I had forgotten.’

By now Stoddart had dragged Yarrow indoors to be washed and bandaged, and the other shepherds were busy with their own dogs. The gathering twilight showed that it was time for us to set out for home. Haraldsen followed us mechanically as we crossed the paddock where Tarras grew his potatoes, and the meadow where he cut his bog-hay, and breasted the long slopes which the westering sun had made as yellow as corn. He walked with great strides, keeping abreast of us, but a little to the right, as if he wished to be left alone to his gloomy Scandinavian meditations. But there was something new about him that caught my eye. He was wearing a suit of that russet colour called crotal, and it somehow enlarged his bulk. He kept his head down and poked forward, with his great shoulders hunched, and he had the look of a big brown bear out for action. There was fight and purpose in his air which before then had only been a lounging, loose-limbed acquiescence. Now there was something of old Yarrow when he had gathered himself up for the final rush.

At the watershed of the glen we stopped by consent, for the view there was worth looking at with its twenty miles of rounded hills huddling into the sunset. There was a little cairn on which Lombard and I seated ourselves, while Peter John as usual circled round us like a restless collie. Then Haraldsen spoke:

‘I must leave you soon — Anna and I— at once,’ he said. ‘I have been too long a trespasser.’

‘We’re all trespassers on Sandy,’ I said.

He didn’t listen to me. He was in his proverbial mood, and quoted something from the Hava-mal (whatever that may be). It ran like this: ‘Stay not in the same house long, but go; for love turns to loathing if a man stays long on another’s floor.’

‘Oh, nonsense!’ I said. ‘We’re not here cadging hospitality. We’re all in the same game, and this is part of it.’

‘That is what I mean,’ he answered. ‘We are not playing it right. I, at any rate, have been a fool.’

We waited, for he was labouring with some thought for which he found it hard to get words. But it was only the words that were lacking, for every line of his face spoke of purpose.

He put his big hand on my shoulder.

‘In January, do you remember, on the Norfolk shore? I saw the goose escape the hawk by flying low. I thought that I too might escape by being quiet and humble. . . . I was wrong, for humility drains manhood away, but does not give safety. To-day I have seen the virtue of boldness. I will no longer be passive, and try to elude my enemies. I will seek them out and fight them, like Samr the hound.’

All three of us sat up and took notice, for this was a Haraldsen we had not met before. Except for his shaven chin he might have been his father. He had identified old Yarrow with some Saga dog, and he seemed to have got himself into the skin of an ancestor. His great nose looked like the beak of a Viking galley, and his pale eyes had the ice-blue fanaticism of the North.

‘I have been forgetting my race,’ he went on. ‘Always a weird followed us, and Fate was cruel to us. But we did not run from it or hide from it, but faced it and grappled with it, and sometimes we overthrew it. I have been a coward and I have seen the folly of cowardice. I have been sick too, but I am a whole man again. I will no longer avoid my danger, but go out to meet it, since it is the will of God. . . . ’

‘Quisque suos patimur Manes.’ A voice spoke below us, but I did not know what the words meant. Lombard did, and perhaps Peter John, though I doubt it.

We turned to find Sandy. He had come quietly up the hill while we had been talking, and had been eavesdropping at our backs. He was wearing an old grey flannel suit, and looked pale, as if he had been too much indoors lately.

‘How on earth did you get here?’ I asked.

‘Flew. Archie Roylance dropped me at Chryston, and that’s only five miles off. I was just in time to kiss Jean Tarras and drink her health. . . . You were saying, when I interrupted?’ and he turned to Haraldsen.

On Haraldsen’s face there was no sign of surprise at Sandy’s sudden appearance, for he was far too full of his own thoughts.

‘I was saying,’ he replied, ‘that I will skulk no longer in a foreign country or in other men’s houses. I will go home to my own land and there will fight my enemies.’

‘Alone?’ Sandy asked.

‘If need be, alone. You have been true friends to me, but no friends can take from me the burden of my own duty.’

Sandy looked at him with that quick appraising glance of his which took in so much. I could see in his eyes that, like me, he had found something new in Haraldsen which he had not expected, and which mightily cheered him. His face broke into a smile.

‘A very sound conclusion,’ he said. ‘It’s the one I’ve been coming to myself. I’ve come up here to talk about it. . . . And now let us push on for dinner. Laverlaw air has given me the first appetite I’ve had for weeks.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32