The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 16

The Riddle of the Tablet

I have often wondered how we should define the courage of the ordinary rapscallion. A contempt, doubtless, for certain kinds of danger with which he is familiar and which for him have lost the terrors of the unknown. Not a settled habit of mind, for often he will be paralysed by the unexpected, and thrown into a panic by what is outside his experience. The first happened when Haraldsen went berserk and plucked D’Ingraville out of the heart of his gang; the second, when several score of ensanguined Norlanders turned the knees of the gang to water. Certainly it was the wildest spectacle I ever beheld, and he would have been a stout fellow who stood up against that nightmare army of bloodstained trolls. . . . As a matter of fact, two of the gang did put up some kind of resistance with their guns, and perished as if they had been pilot-whales. I doubt if the Norlanders knew what they were doing. Like Haraldsen they had gone back to type — they were their forebears of a thousand years ago making short work of a pirate crew.

The rest, who surrendered like sheep, were not maltreated, but were trussed up like bundles of hay with the home-made ropes that every Norlander carries with him. The detachment in the boats who had swarmed over the Tjaldar behaved with extreme circumspection. I fancy that the atmosphere of a modern steamer got them out of their atavistic dreams quicker than their kinsmen on the land. They were civil to Barralty and his friends, though they found it hard to find a common tongue, and, having brought the vessel round to a better anchorage and left everything shipshape about her, they came ashore soberly to take counsel with the rest of us.

For the madness did not take long to ebb. The case of Haraldsen was curious. As soon as I saw that there was no fear of resistance and that the Norlanders were ready to do whatever Anna told them, I started off with Peter John for the top of the cliffs, for Haraldsen seemed to be the one big problem left. I found him sitting up on the turf, with his huge fists stuck in his eyes like a sleepy child. I think it was the sight of Peter John, who had always been his close friend, that gave him a bridge back to the ordinary world.

‘Anna’s all right, sir,’ said the boy. ‘She’s down there with all the Norland men behind her.’

‘Good!’ he said. ‘They’ll do what she tells them. Have the Grind come to my island?’

Peter John nodded.

‘It is the first time for ten years,’ said Haraldsen. ‘I must go down and arrange about food and drink. The Grind are a hungry and thirsty job, and a dirty one.’

His wits were still wool-gathering, and I tried to steady them.

‘You’re safe,’ I said, ‘and the House, and Lord Clanroyden and all of us. You need never give another thought to this trouble.’

‘I am glad of that,’ he said dully. ‘There was a lot of trouble. Where is the tall man with the beard?’

‘Dead,’ I said, ‘in the sea.’

‘He would be’ was the odd answer. ‘He came out of the sea, and he has returned to it.’

Then he yawned, his limbs relaxed, and before I could count five he was fast asleep. I knew better than to waken him. We got together a sort of litter, and had him carried down to the House, where he was put to bed and slept for thirty-two hours. He woke ravenous, had a bath and shaved, and then ate the better part of a ham and emptied three coffee-pots. He remembered not one solitary thing between his discovery that the children were lost and his waking in his own bed, and it wasn’t for me to enlighten him. But one thing that berserk fit had done for him: it had drained him for good of timidity. He was now as steady-nerved and confident as his father had been, and a hundred per cent. more restful.

The fishery boat arrived an hour before midnight, by which time we had taken counsel, not only among ourselves, but with the folk on the Tjaldar and had settled on our story. It was no good having the true business broadcast to the world. Barralty and his people had gone yachting with D’Ingraville, who had picked his crew and had forced them into an attack on the Island of Sheep for his own purposes. They had refused to come on shore, and had seen nothing of the doings on land. The fortunate advent of the Grind had averted tragedy. The children had found the Islanders and had led them to the House, where we had been putting up a forlorn defence. Haraldsen had picked off one of the desperadoes, and had fought with D’Ingraville on the cliff-top to the latter’s doom. (Sandy could provide a dossier of D’Ingraville which would prevent unavailing regrets about his end.) The coming of the Islanders had led to the general surrender of the invaders, two of the latter being the only casualties.

D’Ingraville’s gang was a collection of blackguards of various races which it was left for the Copenhagen courts to sort out and deal with. Most of them were rather urgently wanted by their several countries. The Tjaldar, which had been chartered in Troth’s name, had the rudiments of a regular crew who had not been mixed up in the piracy, and it was arranged that, under the convoy of the Danish destroyer, she should return to Aberdeen.

With the clearing away of our anxieties came a clearing of the skies. The Norlands seemed to swim into a zone of halcyon weather — sunlit days, calm seas, and wonderful, long-lit, golden evenings. When I came there first I thought I was getting outside the world, and then presently I found that I was indeed outside the world in a nightmarish limbo. Now that the nightmare had gone, the Island seemed a happy place, where life could be worthily lived in the company of sea-tides, and friendly wild things, and roaring mornings, and blissful drowsy afternoons. To me it was Fosse, and to Sandy it was Laverlaw, but both, so to speak, set in a world of new dimensions. To Lombard, the man whom I had once thought of as degenerated into a sleek mediocrity, it was a revelation. It had brought back to him something of his youth and his youth’s dreams.

I remember that he and I sat together on the highest point of Snowfell, looking across the empty Channel to Haldar, bright as a jewel in the sunshine. The Tjaldar and the fishery boat were at anchor below us; beside us curlew and plover kept up a gentle complaining; around us, except in the east, there was a great circle of glittering sea. The landscape was as delicate and unsubstantial as the country of a dream.

‘I shall come back to the Norlands,’ said Lombard, shaking out his pipe. ‘It was good of you to let me into this show, Hannay; I hope I haven’t misconducted myself.’

‘You were the steadiest of the lot,’ I said warmly. ‘You never gave a cheep even when things looked ugliest.’

He laughed.

‘I often wanted to. But I’m glad to find I haven’t gone quite soft. I never really thought I had. But I’ve let myself get dull and flat. That’s what this business has taught me. I want to get air and space round me, for I live in a dashed stuffy world. . . . So I’m coming back to the Norlands to make my soul.’

I suppose I must have looked at him in surprise, for he laughed again. ‘You know well enough what I mean. The Norlands are a spiritual place which you won’t find on any map. Every man must discover his own Island of Sheep. You and Clanroyden have found yours, and I’m going to find mine.’

My last recollection is of two meals in the great hall of the House. The first was the night of the coming of the Grind, or rather the small hours of the following morning. The Danish fishery boat had arrived; the malefactors were safely stowed away; and, while Haraldsen lay in his bed upstairs, in the hall were gathered the Norlanders who had saved us, both the boat parties and those who had come by land — the officers of the destroyer — Sandy, Lombard, and myself — and Anna and Peter John. The children seemed to have got their second wind, for, having been very tired and drowsy at first, they woke up before midnight to an astonishing vigour. The Danish officers, who knew the Norlands well and also Haraldsen, were the friendliest of souls. As for the Norlanders, to them the Island of Sheep was the home of legend and the Haraldsen family the centre of their mythology. At first they were shy and laggard, for your Norlander is an excellent giver but a poor taker. But they were very hungry, and Arn had provided a feast of fat things, and in twenty minutes they had squared their elbows to the job and were as merry as grigs.

I shall never forget that scene. Arn had supplemented the electric light by several score of candles, and the huge place was as bright as day. The tapestries, the carved grotesques, the many ships’ models, the curious panelling — their minutest lines and their subtlest colours were displayed in that fierce radiance. And below sat a company which might have come out of a picture in a child’s Grimm. Many of the islanders wore their cowls, for they were in doubt as to whether that vast hall should be reckoned a dwelling. And at the head of the long oaken table, in a chair like a galley’s beak, sat Anna. I had never seen anything quite like her. She had changed from rough clothes into a white silk gown, and the coronel of lights under which she sat made her seem a creature of gold and ivory. She ruled the feast, too. It was she who gave the toasts; it was she who in musical Norland thanked our preservers. Here was the true fairy-tale princess, the Queen out of the North, and to that wild gathering she lent an air of high ceremonial. But she was a stony-hearted princess, for she insisted on toasting Peter John. I don’t know what she said about him, but it got the Norlanders out of their seats and he was hoisted — Morag angrily protesting — on a dozen shoulders. A speech was demanded, and his was of two sentences. ‘Thank you all very much. — Anna, you beast, I’ll pay you out for this.’

The second meal was the following day, when the Tjaldar was about to sail under the convoy of the Danish destroyer, and the islanders had returned to their homes. We had the Tjaldar party to dinner, and Haraldsen himself was the host. I have never been present on a more fantastic occasion. Sandy said we had to do it, to mark the close of hostilities, but it was a pretty cruel business for the exconspirators. Albinus was a dingy figure, still considerably rattled. Barralty was the frightened intellectual trying to recover his poise, but he was a long way short of getting back his self-esteem. The lady was the most composed. She wore a charming gown, and had the wit not to make any pretences. They had got themselves into an ugly show, and were now quit of it and correspondingly grateful. But they all looked at Sandy in some awe. I gathered that, as Martel, he had been chiefly responsible for scaring the life out of them.

I think I may say that we all behaved well. Lombard talked the City to Barralty and Troth, Sandy had some polite things to say about politics, a great deal of information was vouchsafed about the Norlands, some of Haraldsen’s treasures were exhibited, and Miss Ludlow was caressingly sweet to Anna. I should add that old Arn excelled himself, that the food was perfection, and that the best of Haraldsen’s cellar was forthcoming. This last point was especially appreciated by Troth, who soon relaxed into bonhomie. I found him a very friendly fellow, with sensible notions about the Essex creeks and tides.

It was he who, before they left, made an attempt at an apology.

‘I hope, Mr. Haraldsen,’ he said, ‘that we’re all going to forgive and forget.’

Haraldsen looked down on him from his great height.

‘I ask for nothing better,’ he said. ‘I understand that you feel some grievance against me, Mr. Troth. On my father’s account, I think, and for your own father’s sake? Well, we are willing that some reparation should be made. Lord Clanroyden will tell you what.’

Sandy took from his pocket something in a chamois-leather wrapping.

‘This belonged to the late Mr. Haraldsen,’ he said. ‘It came into my hands in rather an odd way, about which I wrote to the papers. I do not intend to hand it over to the British Museum. I propose, Mr. Troth, to give it to you in full settlement of any claims you may think you have against the late Mr. Haraldsen’s estate.’

He took from a bag the tablet of emerald jade which he had shown us at Fosse.

Troth received it with a face in which surprise, greed, and a kind of shame were mingled. He turned the lovely thing over in his hands, made as if to read the inscription, and then looked at Sandy a little confusedly.

‘D’you mean that, Lord Clanroyden?’ he asked. ‘It’s extraordinarily good of you. Of course I give up any claims — I had already given them up. D’you mean me to act on what this tablet may tell me?’

‘Certainly.’

‘And to keep for myself whatever I may find?’

‘Certainly. For yourself, and any friends you want to share with you.’

Troth peered at the inscription.

‘One side’s in Latin. The other side — the important side — I suppose I can get that translated?’

‘It has been already translated,’ said Sandy gravely. ‘I have seen to that.’

‘And you found?’ The eternal treasure-hunter was in Troth’s voice.

‘We found a list of the Twelve Major Virtues and the Ninety–Nine Names of God!’

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