The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 15

Transformation by Fire

For sheer misery I give the night when the children were missing the top place in my experience. By dinner-time I was anxious; by midnight I was pretty well beside myself; but when morning came with no word of them, I had fallen into a kind of dull, aching torpor. Haraldsen, Lombard, and I were on our feet for ten hours, and we dragged the ancient servants after us till their legs gave out. My first thought was naturally for the kayaks, and we ascertained that they were not in the harbour. Gregarsen, the skipper of the now useless motor-boat, was positive that the children had been out in them in the morning, but he had a sort of notion that he had seen them return. The sea was like a mill-pond, so they could not have come to grief through ill weather. My special job was to range the coast, but nowhere on the east side of the island was there any sign of the kayaks, and I had to put the west side off till the next day. Lombard tried the fishing-lochs in case there had been a mishap there. As for Haraldsen I don’t know what he did except to prowl about like a lost dog. He seemed almost demented, and hardly spoke a word.

When I returned to the House about 5.30, the riding lights of the Tjaldar across the Channel were just going out. I had a momentary idea that the children might have gone there, but I at once rejected it. Neither Peter John nor Anna was the sort of person to condemn their belongings to a night of needless anxiety.

At the corner of the lawn, where a high trellis had been erected to shield a bowling green, I found Haraldsen looking a good deal the worse for wear. But he did not look maniacal, as I must have looked. It was rather as if his mind had withdrawn itself from the outer world altogether. His eyes were almost sightless, like those of an old dog which moons about the doors. He had been in a queer ‘fey’ mood, ever since we arrived on the Island, but Anna’s disappearance seemed to have taken the pin out of his wits altogether.

He was staring owlishly at something which was making a commotion at the top of the trellis — staring helplessly and doing nothing about it. It was a bird which had somehow got tangled in the top wires, and was flapping wildly upside-down on the end of a string, and was obviously in a fair way to perish from apoplexy. I saw that it was Morag, caught by her lead.

It didn’t take me long to extricate her, and get savagely bitten in the process. I saw the paper round her leg, and with some difficulty unwound it. My first feeling, as I read it, was a deep thankfulness. At any rate the children were still in the land of the living.

They were on the Tjaldar. I saw the little ship across the Channel. She had got up steam, and was moving away from her anchorage with her head to the north. But she would return. The message had said that she was our enemies’ base, and that on that day they would attack us.

The news pulled me out of my stupefied misery into a fury of action. I shouted at Haraldsen as if he were deaf. ‘They’ve got the children,’ I cried. ‘Out there on the Tjaldar! God knows how, but they’ve got ’em. They’ve cut the telephone and wrecked the motor-boat, and today they are coming for us. . . . D’you hear? The children are safe so far. But we must prepare to meet an attack. Don’t look like a stuck pig, man. At any rate now we have something to bite on.’

I hustled him into the House, where we found a very gummy-eyed Lombard. I raked up some breakfast from a demoralized household, but I remember that none of us could eat much, though we swallowed a good many cups of tea. And all the time I was discussing our scanty defences, simply to keep my mind and those of the others from ugly speculations. . . . We had a pretty poor lay-out. None of the old servants could be trusted with a gun, for your Norlander knows little of fire-arms. The only man who might have been of any use was old Absalon the fowler down at the clachan, and he was bedridden. The fighting-men were Haraldsen, Lombard, myself, and Geordie Hamilton — all of us fair shots, and Haraldsen, as I had discovered, a bit of a marksman. Happily we had plenty of weapons and ammunition. But we had a big area to hold, and the House was ill-adapted for defence — it could be approached on too many sides. We were bound to be outnumbered, and we were badly handicapped by the fact that the enemy had the two children as hostages. From what Sandy had told me of D’Ingraville it was not likely that he would be too scrupulous in the use of them. . . .

Sandy! The memory of him was like a blow in the face. What in God’s name had happened to him? Here were we up to our necks in a row of his devising, and no word of him! I pictured him held up by an accident somewhere on the road, and frantically trying to get a message through to an island which was now wholly cut off from the world.

I tried to think calmly and picture what an attack would be like. Our enemies were out for business, and their ways would not be gentle. What did they want? To occupy the House and ransack it at their leisure. Yes, but still more to get hold of Haraldsen. He was what really mattered. They must get their hands on him, and force him to do what they wanted. As for Lombard and me, they must silence us. Kill us, or hide us away somewhere for good. Or bribe us. The horrid thought struck me that they would try to bribe me with Peter John as the price.

I have never contemplated an uglier prospect, and the notion that the children were part of it made me sick at heart. No doubt the enemy would begin with overtures — Haraldsen and the House to be handed over — Lombard and myself to sign some kind of bond of conformity. When that was refused they would attack. We might stall them off for a bit and do them a certain amount of damage, but in the end we must be overpowered. . . . Was there any hope? Only to protract the business as long as possible on the chance that something might turn up. I tried to make a picture of Sandy hurrying to our rescue, but got little comfort out of it. If he was going to do anything, he would have been here long ago.

The sole way of spinning out the affair was to keep Haraldsen away from their hands. So long as he was uncaptured they had not won. Therefore he must be got out of the House into hiding. Was there any place of concealment?

He was more reasonable than I expected. He forced his mind back from its wanderings, and his eyes became more like those of a rational being. He saw my point. I had been afraid that his bellicosity would make him refuse to keep out of the scrap, but Anna’s loss seemed to have weakened the spirit in him. He agreed that our only chance was to delay his own capture as long as possible. . . . There was one hiding-place known only to Anna and himself. I have mentioned that to the north of the House, at the end of a kind of covered arcade used for pot-plants, stood the little stone cell of an Irish hermit who had brought Christianity to the Norlands and had been murdered by the sea-rovers. The elder Haraldsen had restored this, and had put a roof on it, not of living turf like the House, but of ordinary thatch. In the floor of the cell the workmen had discovered steps which led downward to the sea, ending in a cave in the cliffs at the north side of the harbour. The discovery had been kept secret — which was the only alternative to blocking the place up — and the entrance was through a trap carefully concealed by a heavy bench which old Haraldsen had had made of driftwood.

This seemed to be what we wanted. I told Haraldsen that he must get to it at once, taking with him a lantern and a packet of food. If the worst happened and we were all scuppered or kidnapped, the attack would still have failed if he remained at large. I told him not to try to get out at the sea end, for then he would be certainly taken, but to stay tight in the passage till the enemy had gone, and then to try what he could do in the way of getting help. The one thing that mattered was that he himself should keep out of their hands. Addled as his wits were, I think that he understood this. He looked at me with eyes like a willing, but stupid, dog’s. Arn fitted him out with food and light, but the last thing he did was to go up to his bedroom and fetch a light sporting rifle and some clips of cartridges. ‘I shall feel safer with this,’ he said, and I saw no harm in his being armed. The enemy might find the passage, and the show conclude with a scrap in the bowels of the earth. I saw him into the cell, watched his lantern flickering down a stone staircase like a precipice, and pulled the bench back over the trap. There can have been no lack of ventilation in that passage, for a current of air drew up it like a tornado.

Then Lombard and I set ourselves to barricade the House. It wasn’t a great deal that we could do, for the place was big and rambling, and had not been built for defence. We shuttered the windows, and stacked furniture at the doors, and at the back parts, where the entrance was simplest, made a kind of abattis of derelict machines like chaff-cutters and mangles and even an old weaver’s loom. The ancient servants were no use except to watch certain entrances and give timely warning. To Geordie Hamilton, who was something of a shot, I gave the front of the House, his post being a little pavilion at the south end. He was to let nobody approach the main door, and challenge anybody who showed his face on the Terrace. Lombard I placed in command of the rear. He distrusted his prowess with a rifle, and preferred to trust to four double-barrelled shot-guns. There was not much of a field of fire in the back parts, owing to the rise of the hill, and any assault there was likely to be close-quarters fighting. For myself I chose the roof, which gave me a prospect of the whole terrain. I could see little of the Island, for the lift of the hill blocked the view to north and south and west, but I had the Channel clear before me, and that would give me early news of the Tjaldar.

So I sat down among the lush greenery of the roof, with a chimney-stack as cover, a revolver in my pocket, a couple of .240 magazine rifles beside me, and my spirits as low as I ever remembered them. The thought of Peter John made me sick at heart. The message on Morag’s leg said they were both safe, but that was nothing; they were on the Tjaldar, and that meant in the enemy’s power. D’Ingraville wasn’t likely to fling away such a trump card. He would use these helpless children to the limit as bargaining counters, and if I refused to deal, he would not be scrupulous about the counters. . . . I remember wondering just how far his colleagues would approve of his methods — Troth and Barralty and the rest, who were probably more particular about the kind of crime in which they dabbled. But D’Ingraville would not pay much attention to the whimsies of sedentary folk who by this time must be putty in his hands. . . . I longed to see the Tjaldar appear, for, though that would mean the beginning of the end, it would also mean that I was within a mile or so of my son. I tried to concentrate my mind on a plan, but I simply could not think. I must wait and see how D’Ingraville opened the action.

It was a mild morning, growing closer as it neared midday. The visibility was only moderate, but the Channel was clear, and there was no Tjaldar in it. . . . Five minutes after twelve, just when I was thinking of taking a look round our defences, I saw the first sign of the enemy. Some one keeping well in cover came over the skirts of Snowfell, and took up position to the north of the House, about half a mile off. My glass showed me that he had a seaman’s boots and jersey, and that he was armed. The timing must have been good, because five minutes later the sudden clamour of a flock of black-backed gulls to the south made me turn that way, and I saw a second man of the same type ensconce himself just behind the reservoir and rake the House and the gardens with his glasses. I knew now what was happening. D’Ingraville was getting his vedettes placed, so as to prevent any movement out of the House. The earths were being stopped before the pack came up. . . . I turned my glass on Snowfell. There were two men squatting on its upper screes.

A thought struck me which gave me a moment of comfort. Why did he take these precautions? He must have thought, not only that we were helpless, but that we were unsuspecting. The breakdown of the telephone and the motor-boat might have alarmed us, but we had no cause to assume the near presence of the enemy. Or the Tjaldar as his base. But Anna and Peter John knew! Could they have escaped? Could D’Ingraville imagine that they were now in the House? . . . I rejected the vain hope. How could the children get out of the clutches of men who left nothing to chance? Or why should these men imagine that we could escape when we had nowhere to fly to? . . .

Nothing happened for an hour or two. I descended from my perch and made a tour of the House. Geordie Hamilton had seen nothing — he was too low down for any long views. Lombard too had not much of a prospect, and the watchmen on Snowfell were just beyond his radius of vision. I left Geordie lunching solidly off bread-and-cheese and beer, had a pow-wow with Lombard, and returned to my watch-tower. I noticed that the weather was changing. It was getting very dark to the east over Halder, the Channel was being flawed with odd little cat’s-paws, and, though it was still close, I had the feeling of being in a hot room next to an ice box — as if something sharp and bitter were just round the corner.

Close on three o’clock there came a diversion. There was a shot behind me, and when I looked over the ridge of the roof I saw some stone splinters clattering off one of the byres. I hastened down to investigate, and found that it was Lombard who had drawn fire. He had remembered that Morag was immured in the cheese-house, and would probably be pretty thirsty. So he had set out to water her, and had been observed by a picket, who had fired a warning shot which sent him back to cover. The earth-stoppers were taking their job seriously.

A few minutes later we got our first news of the hounds. Round the seaward cliff north of the harbour came the bows of a ship. I had not seen the Tjaldar at close quarters before, and at first did not recognize her. As seen at her moorings under Halder she had looked a smaller craft. But with my glass I picked out her name. She was showing no colours, for the Danish flag was no longer at her masthead. . . .

I did not see her anchor and lower her boats. For she was no sooner off the mouth of the voe than the gloom which had been brooding over the Channel burst in the father and mother of a storm. I would have been beaten off my perch if I had not found some shelter from the chimney stack. In a minute or two the grass of the roof was white with hailstones the size of a sparrow’s eggs. The garden, the terrace, the hillside looked deep in snow. And with the hail came a wind that cut like a knife. It must have been the better part of half an hour before the tornado passed, and I could look seaward at anything but a blinding scurry.

There was the Tjaldar, white as a ship marooned in the Arctic ice, rocking in a sea which had suddenly become sullen and yeasty. Her starboard ladder was down, but there was no sign of boats. These must have landed. On her deck I thought I saw the flutter of a woman’s dress. . . . And then I looked at the foreground, where a path from the harbour climbed on to the terrace. In the same second of time I saw heads appear above the terrace’s edge, and heard Geordie Hamilton’s challenge. The heads disappeared. I found a better stance in the corner of my chimney-stack and picked up one of the rifles. I considered that presently I might have to get busy.

The Tjaldar’s party were no fools. Some of them must have gone south under the cliff to their picket stationed beside the reservoir, and learned from him how we had placed our men. I had hoped that Geordie had kept himself well in cover, but he must have shown himself to the sentry, who told the new-comers of his whereabouts. Anyhow, the next thing I heard was a roar like a bull’s from Geordie’s little pavilion, and I had a glimpse of a confused struggle there which ended in a sudden silence. The Scots Fusilier had been overpowered, and one of the three defenders put out of action. . . .

The next act followed fast. The terrace became suddenly populous, and the new-comers were unchallenged. D’Ingraville had not underrated his opponents, for to match our miserable trio he had brought at least twenty. I did not count the numbers beneath me, but there were at least a score, and there were also the pickets to be reckoned with. Clearly they knew all about us, for, now that Geordie Hamilton had been dealt with, they seemed at their ease. They were following a prearranged plan, based on exact knowledge of the place, for some made their way to the back parts, and some to the arcade which led to the hermit’s cell, but more waited at the foot of the steps which led to the main door. They were grouped in two bodies with an alley between them, and seemed to be waiting for somebody.

Who that was soon appeared. Up the alley came three men. I had no doubt about who they were, for I remembered Sandy’s descriptions. D’Ingraville was the tall fellow in the yachting cap and grey flannels — he had grown his beard again and looked like a naval officer, except that his light, springy stride was scarcely the walk of the quarter-deck. The dark, lean man, with the long face made in two planes, was Carreras the Spaniard. And beyond doubt the slim one, in the much-stained blue suit and the cap a little over one eye, was Martel, the Belgian.

Of the others I had only a vague general impression, as of something hard, tough, and ruthless, but well-disciplined. This might be a posse of gangsters, but they would obey orders like a Guards battalion. But the three leaders made the clearest and sharpest impact on my mind. They were perhaps three hundred yards away from me, but their personalities seemed as vivid as if they were in the same room. I had an overpowering impression of a burning vitality which was also evil, a glowing, incandescent evil. It cried out from the taut lines of D’Ingraville, from his poise like that of a waiting leopard. It clamoured from Carreras’s white, pitiless face. Above all it seemed to me that it shouted from the Belgian Martel’s mean, faun-like presence. It was the last one I hated worst. D’Ingraville was a fallen angel, Carreras a common desperado, but Martel seemed to be apache, sewer-rat, and sneak-thief all in one.

They had something to say to us. I moved out from the shelter of the chimney, was instantly seen, and covered by twenty guns. I dropped my own rifle and held up my hand.

‘Will you gentlemen kindly tell me your business?’ I shouted against the east wind.

It was D’Ingraville who replied. He bowed, and his two queer companions did the same.

‘Sir Richard Hannay, isn’t it?’ he said, and his pleasant voice coming down wind was easily heard. ‘We want a talk with Mr. Haraldsen. But it would perhaps save time — and trouble — if I could first have a word with Lord Clanroyden.’

‘Sorry,’ I shouted. ‘Mr. Haraldsen is not at home. He has left the island.’

From where I stood I could see the smile on his face, repeated in those of his two companions. They knew very well that I was lying.

‘How unfortunate!’ he said. ‘Well, what about Lord Clanroyden?’

Did they know that we were without Sandy? Or was this a fishing question? Or did they believe that he was in the House? Anyhow, it was not for me to enlighten them.

‘If you have anything to say you can say it to me,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, for it’s devilish cold waiting.’

‘A roof-top is scarcely the place for a conference,’ said D’Ingraville. ‘Won’t you come down, Sir Richard, from your eyrie? It’s a cold day, as you justly observe, and we might talk indoors.’

‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll come down.’ And then, as I looked at the three men, I had a sudden inspiration. I had meant to ask that D’Ingraville should be their envoy, when I observed the man Martel standing in an odd position, his left arm flung across his chest and clutching the biceps of his right. That was an attitude I had seen before, and it woke in me a wild surmise. It might be meant as a sign. My mind was pretty hopeless, for their desire to talk seemed to me certain proof that they wanted to make terms about the children, but it was just not sodden enough to miss this little thing.

‘You can keep yourself for Lord Clanroyden,’ I told D’Ingraville. ‘I’ll do my talking to that other chap — the one on your left. Send him forward, and I’ll let him indoors.’

‘If there’s any dirty work,’ said D’Ingraville, his voice suddenly becoming shrill, ‘you’ll pay for it bloodily. You understand that?’

‘I do. I’ll leave the door open so that you can keep your eye on me, and plug me if I try to be funny.’

I went downstairs with an ugly void at the bottom of my stomach. Old Arn was on guard at the main door, and had built up a perfect battlement of furniture, which it took some minutes to clear away. When I got the door opened and the east wind in my face, I saw that the three men had moved nearer — close to the foot of the steps. I beckoned to Martel.

‘You two stay where you are,’ I said. ‘This man and I will be inside the hall out of the wind. We’ll be well in sight.’ I turned and reentered the House. I heard footsteps on the stone and was conscious that Martel had joined me. My heart was in my mouth, for I was certain that his first word would be about the children and the price we were prepared to pay for them.

I swung round on him. ‘Well?’ I demanded. ‘What do you want?’

But the words died away on my lips.

Said the man called Martel, ‘Dick, my lad, we’ve made rather a hash of this business.’

God knows how he had managed it. There was no ordinary makeup about him, no false moustache or dyed hair or that sort of thing. But in some subtle way he had degraded himself — that is the only word for it. Everything about him — slanting eyebrows, furtive eyes, tricky mouth, slouching shoulders — was mean and sinister, because he chose that it should be so. But when he looked me in the face, with that familiar twinkle in his eyes and that impish pucker of the lips, he was the friend I knew best in the world.

There was just an instant when his eyes had the old insouciance. Then they became very grave.

‘We must talk fast, for there isn’t much time. I’ve made a deuce of a mess of things, and I thought I was being rather clever. First — to ease your mind. Peter John and the girl are safe — for the moment, at any rate.’

‘Thank God!’ I said fervently. Such a load was lifted from my heart that I felt almost confident. But Sandy’s next words disillusioned me.

‘I’ve done most of what I set out to do. I’ve got Barralty and his lot scared into fits. No more high-handed crimes for them! They’re sitting in the Tjaldar sweating with terror. . . . I’ve collected enough evidence to keep them good for the rest of their lives, and incidentally to hang D’Ingraville and most of his crowd. Do you realize that up to now we had nothing against him that any court would listen to? . . . So I had to make him commit himself. You see that? He had to attack Haraldsen in his island, and have a show-down once and for all. Well, I thought I had got him taped. I was counting on Haraldsen doing as he promised to do, and having a hefty push of young islanders to defend him. I would know D’Ingraville’s plans, being his chief staff-officer, and so could play into their hands. And lo and behold! when I get here, I find there’s not a soul in the island but dotards, and the whole place is as unprotected as a stranded whale.’ He stopped and sniffed, and then said a strange thing. ‘Just the weather for the Grind,’ he said. ‘Gad, that would be a bit of luck.’

Then he demanded, ‘Where’s Haraldsen?’ I told him and he nodded. ‘I hope he’ll stay in his earth. . . . See here, Dick. The layout as I planned it was that D’Ingraville should be encouraged to attack you and so commit himself. But before he had time to do any harm, your supports would arrive and hold him. Well, that’s a wash-out, for there are no supports. I have got word to the Danish destroyer that patrols the fishing banks. She’s on her way, but she’s coming from the Westmanns, and can’t be here much before midnight. That gives D’Ingraville time to do the deuce of a lot of damage. I tried to have the attack delayed, and I managed to have it put off till now — it was arranged for this morning — principally because I got them hunting for the children. But now we’re for it. It’s seven or eight hours till midnight, time enough for D’Ingraville to cut all our throats if he wants to. If he gets hold of Haraldsen there may be some ugly work. If it’s only you and Lombard he’ll be content perhaps with ransacking the House. How long can you stick it?’

‘An hour maybe,’ I said. ‘We’ve no manpower to keep them out. They are old hands, and won’t give us much of a chance of picking them off piecemeal.’

‘They won’t,’ he said. ‘If you can make it three hours we might do the trick. . . . I’ll go back and report that you won’t treat. I’ll say you can agree to nothing without Haraldsen’s consent, and that he isn’t here, and that you’ll do your damnedest to defend his property. I’ll try to tangle up things at the other end. I’ll have to come over to you some time, but I’ll choose my own time for that — the moment when I can be of most use. If D’Ingraville finds that he has been diddled and gets his hands on me, then my number is up, and I won’t be any use to you as a corpse.’

As Sandy spoke I had a vivid memory of a bush-crowned hillock in the African moonlight, when, to defend another Haraldsen, Lombard and I had imperilled our lives. I seemed to have done all this before, and to know what was coming next, and that foreknowledge gave me confidence. I must have smiled, for Sandy looked at me sharply.

‘You’re taking this calmly, Dick. You know it’s a devilish tight fix, don’t you? The one hope is midnight and the Danish boat. Spin things out till then without a tragedy and we have won. I must be off.’ He waved his hand to D’Ingraville at the foot of the steps and turned to go. His last word was, ‘Keep Haraldsen off the stage for Heaven’s sake. He’s our weakest point.’ He went down the steps, and the next second I had clanged the great hall-door behind him and dropped the bolts. I left old Arn piling up the barricade again and skipped up to my post behind the chimney-stack, with the intention of doing some fancy shooting. I saw Sandy conferring with D’Ingraville and Carreras, looking once again the murderous scallywag.

Suddenly, in a pause of the wind, a voice rang out, a voice coming from the north, from the hermit’s cell at the end of the arcade.

‘Off the terrace,’ it shouted. ‘Back to your sties, you swine, or I shoot.’

It was Haraldsen — there could be no mistaking that voice — but it seemed to be raised to an unearthly pitch and compass, for it filled the place like the rumour of the sea in a voe. D’Ingraville’s ruffians were accustomed to the need for cover, and suddenly the whole gang seemed to shrink in size, as it splayed out and crouched with an uneasy eye on the north. All but one — Carreras. I don’t know what took the man. Perhaps he was looking for shelter in the lee of the steps and the House — at any rate, he moved forward instead of back. A shot cracked out, he flung up one arm, spun half-left, and dropped on his face.

In an instant every man of them was flat on the ground, worming his way back to the terrace wall which would give refuge from that deadly rifle. Then the voice spoke again, and what it said must have considerably surprised one at least of the crawlers.

‘Clanroyden,’ it shouted. ‘Back to the House with you! Quick, man! Do as I tell you. I can’t handle that scum if there’s a friend mixed up in it.’

How on earth he saw who Martel was I cannot tell. But it was a foolish move, and it came very near being the end of Sandy. It was the words ‘Back to the House’ that did the mischief, for they enabled D’Ingraville to identify the man Martel, when otherwise it might have seemed a mere bluff. At any rate so Sandy thought, for to my horror I saw him scramble to his feet from behind a clump of Arctic willows. He knew his danger, for he twisted and side-slipped like a rabbit. I was choking with fright, for I couldn’t get down to the main door in time, and there was Arn’s barricade to get out of the way: the front of the House was bare of cover, and till he got round the corner of it he was in the centre of an easy field of fire. But only one shot followed him, and I’m pretty certain it did not come from D’Ingraville; he must have been confident of getting his revenge at leisure. The shot missed its mark — I believe that the reason was that the fugitive at the moment stumbled over the dead Carreras. In a few seconds he was out of my orbit of sight. He would be safe in the back parts for the time being, unless he fell in with a stray picket.

Presently he was out of my mind as well, for all my attention was fixed on D’Ingraville. He had got his main force under cover of the terrace wall — out of Haraldsen’s danger, and it was plain enough what he proposed to do. It was child’s play to take Haraldsen in flank and rear. The cell’s door and window opened to the south, and its inmate could protect himself in that direction, but what could he do against an attack from above by way of the thatched roof? Three sturdy fellows with five minutes’ work could uncover the badger’s earth.

A figure squeezed in beside me behind the chimney-stack. ‘A close call,’ said Sandy. ‘The bullet went through my pocket. If I hadn’t tripped and turned side on, I’d be dead. . . . What’s our friend up to? Oh, I see. Fire. They’ll burn the thatch and smoke him out. This is our worst bit of luck. If only that damned fool had stuck in his burrow, instead of trying to be heroic. I dare say he’s off his head. Did you hear his voice? Only a madman’s could ring like that. And he gave me away, the blighter, though God knows how he spotted me! Another proof of lunacy! This show’s turning out pretty badly, Dick. In about half an hour D’Ingraville will have got Haraldsen, and very soon he’ll have got me, and he won’t be nice to either of us.’

A kind of dusk had fallen owing to the cloud-wrack drifting up with the east wind, and the prospect from my roof-top was only of leaden skies and a black, fretful sea. The terrace was empty, but I could see what was happening beyond it, and I watched it with the fascinated eyes of a spectator at a cinema, held by what I saw, but subconsciously aware of the artifice of it all. My mind simply refused to take this mad world into which I had strayed as an actual thing, though my reason told me that it was a grim enough reality. I caught a glimpse of one figure after another among the stunted shrubberies and sunk plots which lay north and east of the hermit’s cell. Then an exclamation from Sandy called my attention to the cell itself. There was a man on its roof pouring something out of a bucket. ‘Petrol,’ Sandy whispered. ‘I guessed right. They’ll burn him out.’

A tongue of flame shot up which an instant later became a globe of fire. A spasm of wind swept it upwards in a long golden curl. Directly beneath me I saw men appear again on the terrace. It was safe enough now — for Haraldsen could scarcely shoot from a fiery furnace.

D’Ingraville was looking up at us, for he had guessed where Sandy would have taken position.

‘You have kept your promise, Lord Clanroyden,’ he cried. ‘I am glad of that, for this would have been a dull place without you.’

Sandy showed himself fully.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I like to keep my word.’

‘You have won the first trick,’ the pleasant voice continued. ‘At least you have deceived me very prettily, and I am not easily deceived. I make you my compliments. But I don’t think you will win the rubber. When we have secured that madman, I will give myself the pleasure of attending to you.’

I have called his voice pleasant, and for certain it was now curiously soft and gentle, though notably clear. But there was something feline in it, like the purring of a cat. There he stood with his wild crew about him, elegant, debonair, confident, and as pitiless as sin. The sight of him struck a chill in my heart. In a very little we should be at his mercy, and it was hours — hours — before there was any hope of succour. I was not alarmed for myself, or even for Haraldsen, who seemed now to have got outside the pale of humanity; but I saw nothing before Sandy except destruction, for two men had wagered against each other their lives. . . . And the children! Where and in what peril were they crouching in this accursed island? . . .

Suddenly there was a roar which defied the wind and made D’Ingraville’s voice a twitter. It was such a thunder of furious exultation as might have carried a Viking chief into his last battle. Out from the cell came Haraldsen. His figure was lit up by the blazing roof and every detail was clear. He was wearing his queer Norland clothes, and his silver buckles and buttons caught the glint of fire. One part of his face was scorched black, the rest was of a ghostly pallor. His shaggy hair was like a coronet of leaves on a tall pine. He had no weapon and he held his hands before him as if he were blind and groping. Yet he moved like a boulder rushing down a mountain, and it seemed scarcely a second before he was below me on the terrace.

There was no mistaking his purpose. The man had gone berserk, and was prepared to face a host and rend them with his naked fingers. Had I been near enough to see his eyes, I knew that they would have been fixed and glassy. . . . Once in Beira I saw a Malay run amok with a great knife. The crowd he was in were almost all armed, but the queer thing was that not a shot was fired at the man, and he had cut a throat and split two skulls before he was tripped up and sat upon by a drunken sailor coming down a side street, who hadn’t a notion what was afoot. That was what happened now. There were men behind him with guns, there were twenty men on the terrace with rifles and pistols, yet this tornado with death in its face was permitted to sweep down on them unhindered. A palsy seemed to have taken them, like what happens, I have been told, to mountaineers in the track of a descending avalanche.

What befell next must have taken many minutes, but to me it seemed to be a mere instant of time. I was not conscious till it was all over that Sandy beside me had grabbed my wrist in his excitement and dug his nails into my flesh. . . . D’Ingraville was standing in the front of a little group which seemed to close round him as the whirlwind approached. Haraldsen swept them aside like dead leaves, but whether the compulsion was physical or moral I cannot tell. He plucked D’Ingraville in his arms as I might have lifted a child of three. Then, and not till then, there was a shot. D’Ingraville had used his gun, but I know not what became of the bullet. It certainly did not touch Haraldsen.

Haraldsen held up his captive to the heavens like a priest offering a sacrifice. He had drawn himself to his full height, and in the brume to my scared eyes looked larger than human. D’Ingraville wriggled half out of his clutch, and seemed to be tossed in the air and recaught in a fiercer grip. The next I knew was that Haraldsen had turned north again and was racing back towards the hermit’s cell.

Then the shooting began. The men on the terrace aimed at his legs — I saw rifle bullets kick up flurries of dust from the flower beds. But for some unknown reason they missed him. The men near the cell tried to stop him, but he simply trampled them underfoot. Only one of them fired a shot, and we found the mark of it later in a furrow through his hair. . . . He was past them, and at the blazing cell where the last rafter was now dropping into a fiery pit. For a moment I thought he was going to make a burnt-offering of D’Ingraville, who by this time must have had the life half squeezed out of him in that fierce embrace. But no. He avoided the cell, and swung half-right to the downland above the sea.

By this time he was out of sight of the terrace, but in full view of Sandy and me on the roof-top. We might write off D’Ingraville now, for he was beyond hope. Haraldsen’s pace never slackened. He took great leaps among the haggs and boulders, and by some trick of light his figure seemed to increase instead of diminish with distance, so that when he came out on the cliff edge, and was silhouetted against the sky, it was gigantic.

Then I remembered one of his island tales which he had told us on our first arrival — told with a gusto and realism like that of an eyewitness. It was the story of one Hallward Skullsplitter who had descended a thousand years ago upon the Island of Sheep and cruelly ravaged it. But a storm had cut him off with two companions from his ships, and the islanders had risen, bound the Vikings hand and foot, and hurled them into the sea from the top of Foulness. . . . It was Foulness I was now looking at, where the land mouth of the harbour ran up to a sea-cliff of three hundred feet.

I had guessed right. At first I thought that Haraldsen meant to seek his own death also. But he steadied himself on the brink, swung D’Ingraville in his great arms, and sent him hurtling into the void. For a second he balanced himself on the edge and peered down after him into the depths. Then he turned and staggered back. I got my glasses on to him and saw that he had dropped on the turf like a dead man.

A tremendous drama is apt to leave one limp and dulled. D’Ingraville was gone, but his jackals remained, and now they would be more desperate than ever with no leader to think for them. Our lives were still on a razor’s edge, and it was high time for a plan of campaign. But Sandy and I clutched each other limply like two men with vertigo.

‘Poor devil!’ said Sandy at last. ‘He can’t have known what was coming. Haraldsen must have hugged him senseless.’

‘We’re quit of a rascal,’ I said; ‘but we’ve got a maniac on our hands.’

‘I don’t think so. The fury is out of him. He returned to type for a little, and is now his sober commonplace self again.’ He held out his watch. ‘Not yet seven! Five hours to keep these wolves at bay. Hungry and leaderless wolves — a nasty proposition! . . . Great God! What is that?’

He was staring southward, and when I looked there I saw a sight which bankrupted me of breath. The murky gloaming was lit to the north by the last flames of the hermit’s cell, but to the south there was a breach in the gloom and a lagoon of clear sky was spreading. Already the rim of the southern downs was outlined sharply against it. In that oasis of light I saw strange things happening. . . . At sea a flotilla of boats was nearing the harbour on a long tack, and one or two, driven by sweeps, were coming up the shore. Across the hill moved an army of men, not less than a hundred strong, sweeping past the reservoir, overflowing the sunk lawn, men shaggy and foul with blood, and each with a reeking spear.

The sight was clean beyond my comprehension, and I could only stare and gasp. It was as if a legion of trolls had suddenly sprung out of the earth, for these men were outside all my notions of humanity. They had the troll-like Norland dress, now stained beyond belief with mud and blood; their hair and eyes were like the wild things of the hills; the cries that came from their throats were not those of articulate-speaking men, and each had his shining, crimsoned lance. . . . Dimly I saw the boats enter the harbour and their occupants swarm into the Tjaldar like cannibal islanders attacking a trading ship. Dimly I saw D’Ingraville’s men below me cast one look at the murderous invasion and then break wildly for the shore. I didn’t blame them. The sight of that maniacal horde had frozen my very marrow.

Dimly I heard Sandy mutter, ‘My God, the Grind has come.’

I didn’t know what he meant, but something had come which I understood. In the forefront of the invaders were Anna and Peter John.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/sheep/chapter15.html

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