The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 14

The Ways of the Pink–Foot

They had travelled a quarter of a mile before Peter John spoke. ‘How did you manage that?’ he asked excitedly.

Anna slackened pace and dropped into line with him.

‘I didn’t. It was the man — the one with the funny eyebrows — the one the Skipper called Martin or some name like that.’

Peter John emitted a groan of dismay.

‘But he’s Martel — the worst of them — my father told me. It’s a plot, Anna. He didn’t mean any good to us.’

‘He’s let us escape, anyway, and that’s the good I want. I had dropped off to sleep on that beastly couch when he woke me up, and said I’d better be off, for this was no place for kids. He made me follow him up on deck, keeping in the shadow so that we shouldn’t be seen. There was no one about anyhow, and not a light except the riding-light. He had already got the kayaks in the water, and he said you would notice them, for they were beside your port-hole, and if you didn’t we’d go down and rouse you up. When he saw you sitting in a kayak, he said it was what he expected, for you were a bright citizen.’

‘It’s all a trick,’ Peter John groaned. ‘Martel’s the worst devil of the lot. He wants us to escape so that we can be caught and brought back, and so give them an excuse to bully us.’

‘That sounds to me silly,’ said Anna. ‘I they wanted to treat us rough there was nothing to prevent them anyhow. I think the man is friendly. He’s a Norlander.’

‘He isn’t. He’s a Belgian.’

‘Well, he speaks Norland as well as my father. And he knows about the Islands. He was out in the dory this afternoon, and he says the Grind are coming. He says that they will rendezvous at the Stor Rock — the Grind always have a rendezvous. I don’t know why he told me that, but he seemed to think it important, for he said it several times. Only a Norlander could know about such things.’

‘He may know Norland, but he’s a Belgian and the worst of the lot. My father told me. What else did he say?’

‘He said that we must hurry like the devil, and we weren’t to go straight to the House. If we could shape any kind of course we were to go to the south part of the Island, to the Birdmarsh. That looks as if he thought the Skipper would be after us. I believe he meant well by us, Peter John, and anyway we’re free again.’

‘We won’t be long free,’ said the boy. He had his compass out, and halted for a moment to steady it. ‘I don’t trust him one bit, Anna. A course due west will bring us to the House, and that’s where we steer for. If we can’t make it, then we’ll do the opposite of what Martel said and try for the north.’

‘I don’t care where we land,’ said the girl, ‘as long as it’s on the Island.’

The boy held up his hand and listened.

‘If they find out we’re gone — or if Martel tells them — they can overhaul us in ten minutes with their outboard motor. Do you hear anything, Anna?’

The fog was breaking up into alleys and strips of moonlit sea, rayed round them like the points of a star. There was no sound, not even the ripple of water or a gull’s cry.

‘Come on,’ Anna urged. ‘We must be a quarter of the way across, and every moment counts. Take longer sweeps, Peter John, like me, and don’t behave as if you were making butter-pats.’

Then for half an hour there was no further speech. The boy had not the girl’s effortless skill, and put much needless strength into his strokes, so that his shoulders soon began to ache, and his breath to shorten. The fog was oddly intermittent. Now they would be in a circle of clear sea, now back in a haze so thick that Peter John had to keep his compass on his knee, and Anna closed in on him for guidance. On one such occasion she observed that Morag had been left behind, and that she wished well to the first hand that touched her.

‘She hasn’t,’ was his answer. ‘I flew her out of the port-hole, and tied a message to her varvel. If she doesn’t kill, they may get her at the House.’

‘What message?’ Anna asked.

‘Only that you and I were all right, but that they had better look out for squalls.’

Then, when they were in one of the patches of clear air, there fell on their ears the unmistakable sound of a motor behind them.

‘Now we’re for it,’ said Anna. ‘Heaven send the fog thickens. I was right about Martel. He told me not to go straight for the House, and that’s what we’ve done, and they’ve naturally followed us. . . . Where are you heading for now?’

The compass had dropped to the bottom of the kayak and Peter John had altered course to the north-west.

‘Martel said south,’ said Anna.

‘That’s why we are going north,’ was the answer.

Mid-channel in the small hours with an enemy close behind you is no place for argument. Anna followed obediently, the more as she saw that the new route was taking them into thicker weather. Presently on their port beam they heard the chug of a motor, but could see nothing when they screwed their heads round. Now they were back in dense fog, and the compass was brought into use again. Fear and the sense of pursuit had given both a fresh vigour, and the little craft slipped gallantly through the water. The moon was setting, and its golden light no longer transfused the sea-mist, which was becoming cold and grey. Soon it would be dawn.

Then suddenly they got a dreadful scare. The sound of a motor broke just ahead of them. They stopped and held their breath, living by their ears, for their eyes were useless in the brume. . . . The noise came nearer — soon it was not twenty yards ahead — but they saw nothing. Then slowly it died away towards the west.

‘That was their second motor,’ said Peter John. ‘It had a different sound from the other.’

‘Who was right?’ said Anna triumphantly. ‘I said we should trust that Martin man, but you wouldn’t. We’ve disobeyed both the things he told us to do, and the result is we’ve been jolly nearly copped.’

After that there were no more alarms. The fog grew denser as they approached the Island, but it lifted slightly when the lap of the tide told them that they were close to shore. In this part the cliffs rose sheer from a narrow rock-strewn beach, but the children had visited the place before, and knew that a landing could be made in one of the tiny bays cut by descending streams. One such they found, where there was a half-moon of sand at the foot of a steep gully in the crags. They beached the kayaks and hid them in the cover of some big boulders. Then, taking hands, they proceeded to climb the ravine, which was stony and rough, but quite practicable. Near the top they found a recess of heath and bracken and there Anna resolutely sat down.

‘Thank God for His mercies,’ she said. ‘If we had only some food I’d be happy. I’m going to sleep, and you’d better do the same, Peter John, for Heaven knows what sort of a day we have before us.’

They had no watch, and Peter John, who could usually tell the time by the sky, was out of his reckoning in those northern latitudes. They slept sound in the nook of rock, and it was only the sun on Anna’s face that woke them. The time cannot have been much short of noon.

The mist had gone, and the day was bright and hot, but the visibility was poor. Halder, of which they had a full view, was a cone of dull blue with no details showing, and the Channel between might have been a bottomless chasm, for it had none of the sheen of water.

‘It will be fine till three,’ said Anna, who knew the Norland weather. ‘Then I think it will blow again from the east, and blow hard.’

She stood up to stretch her arms, but Peter John caught her skirt and pulled her back. ‘We mustn’t show ourselves,’ he enjoined. ‘Remember, they’re after us. Wait here while I reconnoiter.’ He crawled out of the cleft, and lay prone on a knuckle of rock from which the view was open eastward. He was back in a few seconds. ‘The Tjaldar has gone,’ he whispered. ‘No sign of her, and I could see twenty miles of water. It must be pretty late in the day, for I’m desperately hungry. Aren’t you?’

‘Perishing, but it’s no good thinking about it. We’ll get no food till we get home. How is that to be managed? I’ve been taking our bearings from Halder, and we should be about two miles north of the House. There’s a track to it on the top of the cliffs, and it’s mostly in sight of the Channel, but if the Tjaldar isn’t there that won’t matter. I expect she is somewhere on the west side of the island.’

‘What lies between the House and the west side?’ Peter John asked. It was about the only part they had not explored.

‘There’s the hill Snowfell. A little hill compared to the ones at Laverlaw. Then there’s a boggy place which we call the Goose Flat, because the pink-foot breed there. Then there’s the sea — a rather nasty bit of coast with only one decent landing. . . . Let’s bustle and get home. If the brutes are going to attack today there’s no reason why they shouldn’t start early, for just now there’s no darkness to wait for.’

They climbed to the top of the gully where it ran out on to the tussocky cliff-top. Peter John, upon whom unpleasant forebodings had descended, insisted on keeping close in cover and showing no part of themselves on the skyline. Presently they looked down on a small tarn, much overgrown with pond-weed, which they remembered as the only lochan which had no boat. The track to the House passed its eastern edge, and by this their road lay.

It was a terribly exposed track, and Peter John regarded it with disfavour.

‘Hadn’t we better hug the cliff-edge where there’s a certain amount of cover?’ he suggested.

‘You may if you like, but I won’t. The Skipper and his lot can’t be near the place yet, and I want to be home soon. They’ll all be mad with anxiety. I must loosen my bones, for I’m as stiff as a ramrod. I’ll race you, Peter John.’

She shook her yellow locks, and before the boy could prevent her was off at a gallop along the track. There was nothing for it but to follow her. He found it hard to catch her up, and the effort put other things out of his head. When they topped the rise, which overlooked the hollow where the House lay a mile distant, they were abreast and going at their best speed.

Then the boy saw something which made him halt in his tracks, clutch at Anna’s arm, and bring her slithering to the ground. . . . Behind a rocky knoll three hundred yards off a man was posted.

He had not heard them, for he continued to smoke and regard the House through binoculars. They had only a back view of him, but he was plainly a sailor from the Tjaldar by his blue jersey and baggy blue serge trousers. He had some notion of landscape, for he was so placed that he must command any access to the House from the north.

Peter, his hand on Anna’s bowed head, lay for a little with his nose in a patch of lousewort. He was thinking hard and studying the environs of the House. Their only chance now was to reach it from the west or south. But west lay Snowfell, where there was scarcely cover for a tomtit. On the south the approaches were better, but to reach the south it was necessary to get to the back of Snowfell and fetch a wide circuit. One ugly thought struck him. If the Tjaldar had gone to the west of the island, might it not have all that side under observation? This watcher came from the Tjaldar. If the enemy had posted his vedettes up to the edges of the House, was he not likely to be holding the intermediate ground?

Nevertheless, it was their only chance. The two very cautiously wormed their way back over the ridge they had crossed, left the track, and made good speed across a marshy field which was the source of the stream that fed the lochan. They saw no sign of life except a group of Norland ponies, as tame as puppies, who came up to have their noses rubbed, and fell to grazing quietly as soon as they had passed. But, warned now, they made the final ascent of the spine of the island, a continuation of Snowfell, with immense care, pulling themselves up between two patches of bracken to look over the far side.

There was no sign of the Tjaldar. The hill fell steeply in screes and rocks to the water’s edge. There seemed to be a bay there, the contours of which were concealed by the hump of the cliffs, with a spire of smoke ascending from it. South, the ground flattened out into a mantelpiece, where pools of water glimmered among rushes and peat. Beyond that a bulge of hill cut off further view. There was no sign of life except the white specks, which were birds down in the Goose Flat, a nimbus of screaming gulls over a dead porpoise on one of the reefs, and the column of smoke.

‘That’s all right,’ said Anna with relief. ‘They’ve been here this morning, and that smoke is the remains of a breakfast fire. They have landed that man to keep an eye on the House, and they have gone off in the Tjaldar on some other business. Probably they’re back at Halder by now to mislead us. Their time is the evening. We can’t go over Snowfell, for the picket would see us, but we can get round by the Goose Flat and reach the House by way of the reservoir. Come on, for I’m weak with starvation.’

Anna would have marched boldly down the hill, but Peter John had sense enough to make her keep cover. This was not so difficult as long as they were on the encumbered slopes, for any road had to be picked among secret tangles of rock and fern. But before they came to the Goose Flat they found themselves on short heather and screes and as conspicuous as rooks on a snow-field. Even Anna was sobered.

‘Let’s run this bit,’ she whispered, ‘and get it over.’

It was no doubt the best plan, but it failed. They had not covered ten yards before a whistle cleft the silence. A figure showed itself on the edge of the seaward cliff — and then another. To Peter John’s horror, as he cast his eye in the opposite direction, a man appeared on the ridge of Snowfell.

‘Three,’ he groaned.

‘Four,’ Anna corrected. ‘There’s another behind us — we must have passed close to him.’

A rib descended from Snowfell, and Peter John saw that if they could get beyond that they would be for a moment out of sight of the watchers, even of him on the hill. The rib bisected the Goose Flat, making a kind of causeway across it. There was no real cover in the Flat, for to any one on the edge whatever tried to hide itself among the short rushes and shallow lagoons would be easily visible. But to gain even a minute or two was something. The children in full view raced beyond the rib, waded into the Goose Flat, and flung themselves behind exiguous tussocks.

‘We’re out of their sight,’ Anna panted; ‘but they’ll be down here in a jiffy to nobble us. Let’s get on. We might beat them and get first to the Bird Marsh. We could hide there.’

‘No good,’ said the boy. ‘If we go south, we’ll be in their view in twenty yards, and the man on the hill has only got to walk down to cut us off. The chap behind, too. We’re done, Anna, unless they think we’ve broken back.’

‘They can’t. They saw us come here.’

‘Then we’re for it. We might as well have stayed on the Tjaldar.’

‘Oh, Peter John, what a mess we’ve made of everything!’ the girl wailed.

Suddenly the boy’s eyes opened wide to a strange spectacle. Just in front of them the causeway made by the rib of hill was somewhat broken, and a glimpse could be got of the swamp farther to the north. In this gap appeared the foolish heads and poised necks of a little flock of pink-foot. They were young birds who, having been hatched out in the Goose Flat, had spent their early adolescence on the sea skerries, and had now, according to their ancestral habit, returned for a little to their birthplace. They were chattering among themselves, apparently alive to the presence of something novel in front, about which they desired to be better informed.

By the mercy of God Peter John remembered a piece of lore that he had learned from the wildfowlers at Hanham in January. The pink-foot is not a skeery bird. He has resolved that his duty is not to live but to know, and he is nearly the most inquisitive thing in creation. If you want to get in range of him, Samson Grose had said, show yourself, and the odds are that he will move nearer you to discover what sort of thing you are. With young pink-foot, that is; older birds have learned wisdom.

To Anna’s amazement the boy got to his feet, while his right hand held her down. . . . She saw the echelon of geese stop and confide things to each other. Every eye of them was on to Peter John, and after a moment’s hesitation they began to move forward. They seemed oddly self-conscious, for they did not keep looking in his direction. Some would stop for a second to feed, and all kept turning their heads every way. But the whole flock was steadily drifting south, as if there was some compulsion in their rear. In five minutes they had moved at least ten yards.

The pink-foot were in sight of the watchers, and Peter John was not. Would the watchers draw the inference desired? They must do it at once, for if the geese came too near, they would lose their heads, stream back, and all would be lost. To one who did not know their habits the conclusion must surely be clear. The children were behind them, and their presence there was making them move south. Therefore it was in the north part of the Goose Flat that they must be sought. They had been seen to disappear behind the rib of hill, but they must have crawled back and got in the rear of the geese.

Peter John’s heart was in his mouth, as he stood staring at the bobbing heads and projected necks of these absurd pink-foot, who to him and Anna meant everything. At any moment he himself might come within sight of some watcher who had shifted ground. Two lots of human beings, invisible to each other, were regarding some foolish winged creatures with desperate intentness. It was a new way of taking the auspices.

Then on the boy’s ear fell that which was like an answer to his prayers. A whistle was blown up on the hillside, and answered by another from the direction of the sea. The pink-foot had been correctly observed. . . . A second later he had confirmation, for something had come north of the geese to alarm them. They stopped their leisurely advance, and straggled to left and right. The watchers had appeared to hunt for the fugitives in the north end of the swamp.

There was no time to lose, for when they found their search fruitless they would undoubtedly cast south. Peter John dragged Anna out of the foot of mud where she sat like a nesting wild-duck, and the two scrambled out of the bog and raced for their lives along the harder skirts of the hill. They did not stop till they had rounded the flank of the massif of the Isle, and were looking down on the Bird Marsh and the rolling barrens beyond it. Only once had Peter John glanced back, and that was to see the pink-foot, shaken out of their comfortable ways, bunching for a seaward flight. Once they were in the deep of the Marsh, where Anna knew the paths, they felt reasonably secure, and dared to draw breath again. As Anna cast herself on a patch of heather she could not resist one word of reproach. ‘I was right all along about the Martin man. If we had steered south as he told us we should have missed this heart-disease. We might even be home and having breakfast.’

When she had recovered her breath she spoke again.

‘That was very clever of you, Peter John. I’ll never laugh at you again for being silly about birds. I thought you had gone mad till I saw your plan. It was a miracle, and I feel happy now. We are going to win, never fear.’

‘I wish I knew how,’ said the boy dolefully. ‘We have slipped through them, but we have still to get into the House . . . . I wonder if they’ve any notion there what’s happening. . . . And after that? The brutes are three or four to our one, and they’re desperate.’

‘I don’t care,’ said Anna; ‘we’re going to win. There’ll be another miracle, you’ll see.’ She raised herself and sniffed the air. From where they sat they had no view of the Channel, but the southern part of Halder was in sight. ‘We can’t see the Tjaldar’s anchorage. I wonder if she has come back. Look at the sky over there, Peter John. I said the weather would change in the afternoon, and it’s jolly well going to. There’s the father and mother of a thunderstorm coming up over Halder, and after that it will blow like fury from the east. . . . Lordie, it’s hot, and there’s a plague of daddy-longlegs. That should mean that the Grind are coming. That was what the Martin man said. He may be a scoundrel, but we would have been better off if we had taken his advice this morning.’

Peter John was almost cross. There was no need to rub in the good intentions of Martel, which he knew to be moonshine, and less to babble about pilot whales, when the world was crashing about them. ‘Let’s start,’ he said. ‘We’ll have our work cut out getting to the House even from this side.’

Anna let her head sink back on the moss.

‘I feel dreadfully sleepy,’ she said. ‘Perhaps it’s the storm coming. All the energy has gone out of me. . . . Martin said the Grind would rendezvous at the Stor Rock. That’s only about seven miles from the south end of this island — half-way between it and Kalso.’

An exasperated Peter John got to his feet and regarded the girl as she lay with her eyes half-closed. She certainly looked very weary — and different, too, in other ways. She had become like her father — her skin had suddenly acquired his pallor, and her eyes, when she opened them, his light wildness. And her mind was still on her preposterous whales.

‘You stay here and rest,’ he said, ‘and I’ll go and prospect. There may be some difficult ground to cover, where one will be safer than two.’

‘All right,’ she said sleepily. ‘Come back before the storm begins, for I hate being alone with thunder. . . . I didn’t know there were so many daddy-longlegs in the world.’

Peter John, in a mood between irritation and depression, hopped over the tussocks of the Bird Marsh, struck the shore, and trotted northward on the edge of the shingle. Halder was beginning to veil itself in a gloom as purple as a ripe grape, but the Channel was clear, and there was no sign of the Tjaldar by the other shore. The air was oppressive and still, but he had the feeling that some fury of nature was banking up and would soon be released.

The road, which the other day had seemed but a step or two, was now interminable to his anxious mind. He came in view of the harbour and the cluster of cottages to the south of it; all was peaceful there. Then by way of the channel of a stream he climbed from the shore, and looked suddenly upon the shelf where the House stood.

There was peace there, too, but he saw various ominous things. There were pickets posted — one on the near edge of the main lawn, one on the hill behind, and one above the voe on the road up from the harbour. These pickets were armed. Their business was to see that none entered the House and that none left it. Even as he stared, the one nearest him detected some movement in the back parts and sent over a warning shot; he heard the bullet crack on the stone roof of an outhouse. These watchers were the terriers to guard the earth till the hunters arrived.

Peter John’s first impulse was to dodge the cordon and get into the House. He believed that he could do it, for he must know the ground better than they did. But if he once got in he would not get out again, and Anna would be left deserted. If the House was to be entered it must be in Anna’s company.

There was no time to lose, so he turned and made for the Bird Marsh again, no longer hugging the shore, but taking the short cut across the hill. His last glance back showed the Tjaldar rounding the cliffs north of the harbour. He felt miserably depressed and utterly feeble. The people in the House must know their danger now, but what good was that knowledge to them? There were three men there to face a dozen and more — the crew of the Tjaldar had seemed to him unduly large, and its members had not looked innocent. If Anna and he joined the defence they would only be two more non-combatants. . . . Where, oh where, was Lord Clanroyden? Peter John had come to regard Sandy as the sheet anchor in this affair, the man who had planned the whole strategy, the regular soldier among amateurs. His absence gave him a dreadful sense of confusion and impotence.

Before he reached the Bird Marsh the weather had changed with a vengeance. The purple cloud had crossed the Channel from Halder, and the afternoon had grown as dark as a winter’s gloaming. There was no lightning, but the gloom suddenly burst in a tornado of hail. So violent was the fall that the boy was beaten to the ground, where he lay with his back humped, protecting every inch of exposed skin from that blistering bastinado.

This lasted for perhaps five minutes. But when the hail ceased the sky did not lighten. The ground was white like winter and a wind as icy as the hail blew out of the east. He threaded the Bird Marsh to where he had left Anna, listless in the heat of the summer afternoon. . . . The girl had gone. Peter John lifted up his voice and called her, but there was no answer.

She had not followed him, for in that case he would have met her. It was scarcely possible that the enemy could have arrived from the Goose Flat and captured her. East and west lay impassable lochs. She could only have gone south on to the low dunes which stretched to the butt of the island. The hail had obliterated her tracks in the heather, but a few yards on there was a deep scar in a peat-hagg as if some one had slipped. A little farther and there was another footmark in the peat. Peter John followed the trail till he was out of the swampy ground and on the thymy slopes.

Suddenly he became aware that there was another sound in his ears beside the whistle of the wind. It came from in front of him, a strange blend of excited shouting and what seemed like the dash of waves on a skerry. At first he thought it the screeching of gulls over a dead porpoise. And then there came a note in it which was human, which must be human — deep voices in the act of giving orders — a note which no animal can compass. He stumbled over the last ridge, and looked down on the big voe into which one of the lochs of the Bird Marsh discharged its waters, and the network of lesser voes which made up the south end of the Island.

The shores of the voe were dense with people, and its surface and that of the lesser voes black with a multitude of boats. But at the heads of each inlet was a spouting and quivering morass in which uncouth men laboured with bloody spears. It was a scene as macabre as any nightmare, but it was orderly too. There were men with papers on the shore pricking off figures. . . . For a second his mind wandered in utter confusion, and then he got the answer. Anna’s tales had come true. The Grind had arrived.

At first he did not realize that this meant salvation. The strangeness of the spectacle lifted it clean out of his normal world. He only knew that Anna was down there, and that he must find her. But as he raced down the slopes the scene before him began to change. Men left their toil and moved to a post midway up the big voe. The boats from the lesser voes began to draw to the same place. The people with the papers in their hands did likewise — one of them was shouting what sounded like an order. Long before Peter John had reached the point at least three-fourths of the people had moved there. . . . Then as he came nearer he saw a group make a platform of their arms, and some one was hoisted on to it.

It was Anna, but an Anna whom he had not known before. Around her was bent and shingle grimed with blood — men with conical caps, and beards like trolls and wild eyes and blood-stained whale spears — a few women like mænads — and as a background a channel choked with animals dying or dead. She stood on a human platform, like a Viking girl in the Shield-ring, the wind plucking at her skirts and hair, her figure braced against it, her voice shrill and commanding. Something had been reborn in her out of the ages, some ancient power of domination; and something too had been reborn in her hearers, an ancestral response to her call.

She was speaking Norland, of which he understood not one word. What she said, as he learned afterwards, was that pirates were attacking her house and her father, and she summoned the men of the islands to their defence. She struck a note which reverberated through all their traditions, the note of peril from strangers — Norse and Scots rovers, Algerian pirates, who had driven the folk to the caves of the hills. The Norlander is not a fighting man, but he has fighting strains in him if the right chord be touched. Moreover, these men had their blood hot and their spirit high from the Grind hunt. . . .

She saw Peter John, and she seemed to use him to point her appeal. An older man spoke and was answered with a frenzied shouting. Certain men were detailed to keep watch on the Grind — they drew themselves off from the rest as the speaker called their names. . . . Then suddenly Anna was no more on her platform. She had Peter John’s hand in hers, and behind them, racing northward, was the better part of a hundred islanders babbling like hounds, and in each right hand a reddened whale-spear.

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