The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Part III

The Island of Sheep

Chapter 12

Hulda’s Folk

I had never before sailed in northern waters, and I had pictured them as eternally queasy and yeasty and wind-scourged. Very different was the reality in that blue August weather. When Lombard, Geordie Hamilton, and I embarked in the Iceland boat at Leith, there was a low mist over the Forth, but we ran into clear air after the May, and next morning, as we skirted the Orkneys, the sea was a level plain, with just enough of a breeze to crisp it delicately, and in the strong sunlight the distant islets stood out sharp and clear like the kopjes in a veld morning.

But the fine weather did nothing to raise my spirits. I had never started out on a job with less keenness or with drearier forebodings. Lombard put me to shame. This man, whom I thought to have grown soft and elderly, was now facing the unknown, not only composedly but cheerfully. He had a holiday air about him, and would have been glad to be in the business, I’m positive, even though he had never sworn that ancient oath. I began to think that the profession of high finance was a better training than the kind of life I had led myself. Part of his cheerfulness was due to the admiration he had acquired for Sandy, which made him follow as docilely as a small boy in the wake of a big brother. I yielded to no one in my belief in Sandy, but we had been through too many things together for me to think him infallible. That rotten Greek sentence that Macgillivray had quoted stuck in my mind. Both Sandy and I had had amazing luck in life, but luck always turned in the end.

My trouble was that I could not see how the affair could finish. We were to get to grips, in some remote island which was clean outside any law, with a gang that knew no law. That could only mean a stand-up fight in the old style. No doubt Haraldsen would have his own people, but the Norlanders were not a warlike folk, and, though we would have numbers on our side, I wasn’t prepared to be cocksure about the result. If we beat them off, it might put the wind up Troth and Barralty for good and all, but it would have no effect on D’Ingraville. Not unless we killed him. If, on the other hand, we were beaten, God knows what would happen to Haraldsen and his daughter — and to the rest of us, and especially to Sandy. There could be no end to the business unless either D’Ingraville or Sandy perished. It looked like one of those crazy duels that the old Northmen used to fight, and I remembered that they always chose an island for the purpose. The more I considered the business, the more crazy and melodramatic I thought it. Two sober citizens, Lombard and myself, were being dragged at the chariot wheels of two imaginative desperadoes, for Sandy had always a kind of high-strung daftness about him — that was where his genius lay. And it looked as if Haraldsen had reverted to some wild ancestral type.

But most of all I was worried about those we had left behind. Mary I hoped did not realize the full danger, for I had always put the affair to her as a piece of common blackmail. We had gone to settle Haraldsen in his home, and see that he was comfortable, and the worst that could happen would be that we might have to read the Riot Act to some vulgar blackmailers. Sandy must have put it in the same way to Barbara — at least, I fervently hoped so. Neither knew anything about D’Ingraville. But Mary was an acute person who missed very little, and was extraordinarily sensitive to an atmosphere. She was greatly attached to the Haraldsens, and would never have hinted that I should back out of my duty towards them. But I was pretty certain that she understood that that duty was a more solemn thing than the light holiday task I had pretended. She had said nothing, and had bidden me good-bye as if we were off to Norway to catch salmon. Yet I had a notion that her calm was an enforced thing, for no woman had ever more self-control, and that her anxiety would never sleep till she saw me again. She would remember that August morning at Machray when I had gone out for an ordinary day’s stalking, and had been found by her twenty hours later senseless on the top of a crag with Medina dead at the bottom.

With these thoughts in my head I got no good of the bright afternoon, as we skirted the northern butt of the Orkneys and approached the Roost through which our course lay. Suddenly I noticed that the ship was slowing down. The captain, a placid old Dane with whom I had made friends, joined me.

‘We take another passenger, General,’ he said. ‘One who was too late for us at Leith. We were advised of him by wireless. He will have to pay the whole fare between Leith and Reykjavik, or there will be trouble with your British port authorities.’

I followed his eyes and saw approaching us from the land a small motor-boat, with a single figure in the stern.

‘It is a man,’ he said, handing me the glasses. ‘Some Icelander who has tarried too long in Scotland, or some Scot who would come in for the last of the Iceland salmon.’

There seemed something familiar about the shape of the passenger, but I went below to fetch my tobacco pouch, and I did not see the motor-boat arrive. What was my amazement, when I came on deck again, to find Peter John! He was wearing one of my ulsters, and had his kit in a hold-all. Also, he had Morag the falcon on his wrist. There he stood, looking timid and sheepish like a very little boy. He said nothing, but held out a letter.

It was from Mary. She said simply that she couldn’t bear the sight of her son’s tragic face. ‘He has been wandering about like a lost dog,’ she wrote. ‘I think some sea air would be good for him, for he has been rather limp in the heat lately. And if there is any trouble he might be useful, for he is pretty sensible. He has promised me to keep an eye on you, and I shall be happier in my mind if I know he is with you. Cable from Hjalmarshavn, please, to say he has arrived.’

That was all. Peter John stood very stiff, as if he expected a scolding, but I wasn’t inclined to scold. It was a joy to have him with me, and that Mary should send him after me convinced me that she was not really anxious — though I doubt if that conclusion did justice to her stoicism. Then a thought struck me. The boy knew how dangerous our mission was, for he had heard Sandy expound it.

‘Did you tell your mother that there was some risk in this business?’ I asked.

‘Yes. I thought that was only fair.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She said that she knew it already, and that she would feel easier if I were with you to take care of you.’

That was Mary all over. Another woman would have clutched at her boy to keep at least one of her belongings out of danger. Mary, knowing that a job had to be done, was ready to stake everything to have it well done.

Peter John’s solemn face relaxed into a smile when he saw the change in mine.

‘How did you get here?’ I asked.

‘I flew,’ was the reply. ‘I flew to Inverness and then to Kirkwall. The only difficult things were the motor-boat and the wireless message.’

At that I laughed.

‘I don’t know that you can take care of me. But there’s no doubt you can take care of yourself.’

We came to the little port of Hjalmarshavn, the capital of the Norlands, in the same bright, west-wind weather. The green hills behind the black sea-cliffs, the blue tides creaming white on the little skerries, the wall of dimmer peaks to the north, all seemed to sleep in a peace like that of the Blessed Isles in the story. In Hjalmarshavn there was a gentle bustle, and about a thousand varieties of stinks, from rotting seaweed to decaying whale. The houses were painted in a dozen colours, and the little bay was full of many kinds of small craft — fishing smacks, whale boats, kayaks, and primitive motor-launches. The only big craft were the Grimsby trawlers, and a steamer flying the red and white Danish flag which had just come in from Iceland. Ours was the first passenger ship for a fortnight that had arrived from the south, so the other lot had not preceded us. I made inquiries and heard that the Aberdeen trawler had arrived three days before, and that Haraldsen had at once gone on to his island.

We hired a motor-boat, and that afternoon rounded the south end of the main island, skirted its west side, and threaded our way through an archipelago of skerries till we were abreast of Halder, the second biggest of the group. Its shore was marvellously corrugated, deep-cut glens running down from peaks about 3,000 feet in height and the said peaks sometimes ending in mighty precipices and sometimes falling away into moorish levels and broad shingly beaches. Presently on our port appeared a low coast-line, which from the map I saw was the Island of Sheep. It was separated from Halder by a channel perhaps two miles wide, but its character was wholly different from its neighbour. It reminded me of Colonsay, a low, green place cradled deep in the sea, where one would live as in a ship with the sound of waves always in one’s ear.

Then I saw the House, built on high land above a little voe, half castle, half lighthouse it seemed, belonging both to land and water. There are no trees in the Norlands, but even from a distance I could see that some kind of demesne had been laid out, with stone terraces ending in little thatched pavilions. Below it, close to the shore, nestled a colony of small dwellings. What caught the eye was the amazing greenness. After the greys and browns of the Shetlands the place seemed to be as vividly green as an English meadow in May. The lower part of the House was rough stone, the upper part of a dark timber, but the roof was bright green turf, growing as lustily as in a field. When in the early twilight we put in to the little jetty, I seemed to be looking at a port outside the habitable world in some forgotten domain of peace.

As long as I live I shall remember my first step on land — the whiff of drying stockfish from the shore, the black basalt rocks, the clumps of broad-leaved arch-angelica, and the oyster-catchers piping along the shingle.

Haraldsen and Anna were awaiting us. Haraldsen was wearing the native Norland dress, coat and breeches of russet home-spun, with silver buttons at collar and knees, homespun stockings and silver-buckled shoes, and a queer conical cap of dark blue and red. He looked half squire and half pirate, but wholly in keeping with his surroundings. Anna had a navy-blue skirt and a red jumper, bare legs, and buckled raw-hide mocassins.

‘You have brought the boy,’ Haraldsen said after his first words of greeting. His eyes looked troubled.

‘His mother sent him after us,’ I said. ‘He is supposed to take care of me.’

‘He is very welcome,’ was the answer, but his brow was furrowed. I could see that a second child in the party seemed to him to add heavily to his responsibilities. . . . Little did either of us guess that these two children were to be our salvation.

Very different was Anna’s greeting. She seemed to have shed the English schoolgirl, and with that all her tricks of speech and manner which had annoyed my son. Hitherto, as I have said, she had treated him cavalierly, and driven him to a moody silence. Now she was a hostess in her own house, and she had the manner of a princess welcoming a friend to her kingdom. Amazingly handsome she looked, with her brilliant hair and eyes, and her ivory skin coloured by the sea-winds and lit by the sun. She took the boy’s hand in both of hers.

‘I am very glad to see you, Mr. Peter John,’ she said. ‘We shall have great fun together.’

I was not prepared for such a palace as the old Haraldsen had built. I had accepted the family fortune as a fact, but had seen no evidence in a hunted man and a rather shabby schoolgirl. Now I realized that there must be great wealth in the background. Above the low cliffs the land had been levelled, and there were wide lawns as fine as England could show, for in that moist climate the turf was perfect. There was some attempt at flowers too, roses and larkspur and simple annuals, but only in sunken hollows to avoid the winds, which in the Norlands can blow like the wrath of God. The House itself was of three storeys, sheltered on three sides by a half moon of hills, while the bulk of Halder across the channel was there to break the force of the eastern blasts. Following the old Norland fashion, the ground floor was mainly storerooms, as in a Border keep, with the living-rooms above them, and the bedrooms in the top storey. It was all new except at one end, where stood a queer little stone cell or chapel, with walls about five feet thick. This, according to the tale, had been the home of an Irish hermit, who in the dark ages had found a refuge here till the heathen Northmen were the death of him.

The entrance was by a flight of steps which seemed to be hewn out of the living rock. First came a vast hall, at least a hundred feet long and the full height of the house. This had been constructed, I suppose, on the model of a Viking hall, and in it one seemed to cheat the ages. Where the old Haraldsen had got the timbers I do not know, but they were hoar-ancient, and the black-oak panelling was carved in wild grotesques. The furniture was ancient and immense; there was a long dining-table which would have accommodated fifty Vikings, and gigantic chairs which only Falstaff could have decently filled. For decorations there were some wonderful old pieces of tapestry, and a multitude of ship models of every age in silver and ivory and horn and teak, which must have been worth a ransom.

That was the state apartment, and a pretty comfortless one. But on either side of it were other rooms — a big drawing-room, expensively furnished, but as barren of human interest as a museum, and like a museum full of collector’s pieces; a smoking-room, on the walls of which hung every kind of Norland implement from the Stone Age downward; a billiard room, with a collection of sporting trophies, including many of the old man’s African heads; and above all a library. That library was the pleasantest room in the house, and it was clearly Haraldsen’s favourite, for it had the air of a place cherished and lived in. Its builder had chosen to give it a fine plaster ceiling, with heraldic panels between mouldings of Norland symbols. It was lined everywhere with books, books which had the look of being used, and which consequently made that soft tapestry which no collection of august bindings can ever provide. Upstairs the bedrooms were large and airy, with bare oak floors, and not too much furniture, but with all modern comforts.

What struck me especially was that everything was of the best and probably of high value. It seemed queer to be contemplating a siege in a treasure house.

‘The treasures were my father’s,’ said Haraldsen. ‘Myself I do not want possessions. Only my books.’

The entertainment was as good as the lodging. There was an old steward called Arn Arnason, who wore the same clothes as his master and looked like Rumpelstiltzkin in the fairy-tale, and he had under him four elderly serving maids. I gathered from Haraldsen that it was his habit to send his motor-boat once a week to Hjalmarshavn for letters and such things as he imported. But the island itself produced most of his supplies. He had his own cows for milk, the mutton was about the best in the world, and he cured his own hams and bacon; he grew all the simpler vegetables, including superb potatoes: the sea yielded the fish he wanted, not to speak of lobsters, and there were sea-trout and brown trout to be had from the lochs. Indeed, I never ate better food in my life — simple food, but perfect basic material perfectly cooked. In two things only it deviated into luxury. There was a wonderful cellar in which the sherry and the madeira in particular were things to dream of, and following the Northern fashion, our meals began with a preposterous variety of hors d’oeuvre. Peter John, till he learned better, used to eat of so many small outlandish dishes that he had no room for solid food.

We went early to bed, but before turning in I had one word with Haraldsen about serious business.

‘We are well in front,’ I said. ‘Any news of our friends?’

‘None. We have a telephone to Hjalmarshavn, and I have arranged to get word of all strangers who arrive there. But I do not think they will come by Hjalmarshavn.’

‘Any news of Lord Clanroyden?’

He shook his head. ‘No doubt he will soon telegraph, and we will get the message by telephone. He said he would follow at once.’

I asked one other question, and got an answer which sent me to bed with an uneasy mind. ‘What men have you on the island?’

He looked perturbed.

‘There is Arn Arnason in the house,’ he said. ‘There are the three gardeners, Dahl and Holm and Evansen. Down at the harbour there is Jacob Gregarsen, who is in charge of the motor-boat. And there is also Absalon the fowler, who is bed-ridden. All these are old men, I fear.’

‘Good God!’ I cried. ‘I thought you had a lot of hefty youths.’

‘It is my blunder,’ he said penitently. ‘I had forgotten. There were a score of young men on the Island of Sheep, but now they are all abroad. Some have gone to Greenland and Iceland after cod, and some are at the halibut fishing. One, on whom I counted most, sailed last month for America.’

The clear blue weather ended that night. Next morning we were back in the typical Norlands, a south-west wind which brought scuds of rain, and mist over all the hills. Halder, as seen across the Channel, was only a grey wraith. The fashion of the household was for a skimpy petit déjeuner and then an elaborate midday meal. Haraldsen had some business of his own, so Lombard, Peter John, and I got into oilskins, and, escorted by Anna, started out to prospect the island.

Its main features were simple, and, since they are important to my story, I must make them clear. The place was about six miles long, and at the greatest two miles wide, and it lay roughly north and south. The House stood about two-thirds of the way up, and the highest ground, only five or six hundred feet in altitude, was just behind it. Towards the north end the land was broken moorland, with two or three small lochs full of trout, and the butt itself was a sheer cliff of at least four hundred feet, over which one of the lochs emptied in a fine waterfall. All that part of the coast was rugged and broken, little gullies descending from the uplands to a boulder-strewn shore.

Below the House, as I have said, was a small voe, with to the south a village close to the water. South of this again were stretches of sand, and, since the coast there ran out to a point, there was good shelter for boats in almost any wind. The southern part of the island was quite different in character. The ground fell to only a few feet above sea-level, and the shore was either sand or sprawling reefs. Inland there was a waste of bent and marsh, with several swampy lochs which looked as if they might furnish difficult fishing. Peter John’s eyes brightened as we circumnavigated the place, for it was plainly a paradise for birds. A shout from him called my attention to a pair of purple sandpipers. In the Norlands no shooting is permitted on land, and only for a short season on the sea, so the islands are pretty well a sanctuary. It was absurd to see curlews almost running between our legs like tame pheasants, and so shy a bird as the golden plover coolly regarding us from a rock two yards off. That great bog must have been at least four square miles in extent, and it was alive with every kind of bird. It wasn’t easy to get my son away from it.

Towards the south end the land rose slightly to hummocky downs, and the sea began to poke its fingers into it. There must have been a dozen little inlets, and a big voe a quarter of a mile wide into which one of the lochs discharged a stream. Seatrout were jumping merrily at the stream mouth. I wished to Heaven that I had come here for a holiday and not on a grim job, for I never saw a more promising fishing-ground. We walked to the mouth of the voe, where a swell was breaking under the wind, and looked out on low mists and a restless sea.

We had two days of dripping weather, and, since there was nothing I could do, I put in some hard thinking. Our total strength when Sandy arrived would be four reasonably active men, two children, three or four ancient servitors, and a batch of women. My picture had vanished of a lot of stalwart young Norlanders prepared to fight for their master. That was bad enough, but my real perplexity was what we should be called on to fight about. Sandy had been clear that we must come here to bring things to a head, but I hadn’t a notion what that head would be.

I could see perfectly well the old game of Troth and Barralty. It would be easy enough to descend on a lonely island and terrify a nervous recluse into doing their will. It might not have been so difficult to lay their hands on him in England, a stranger in a strange land, and frighten him into compliance. But now he had formidable friends about him, and they knew it. Lombard was a figure in the City, Sandy was a famous man, and I had a reputation of sorts. Haraldsen’s enemies were men of a certain position, and one at least was a man of devouring ambition; they couldn’t afford to go brazenly outside the law when there were people like Sandy to advertise their trespasses. A raid even on the Island of Sheep would be too clumsy a piece of folly. Besides, it would be futile. Even if they had the bigger man-power, we could summon help. I understood that there were only half a dozen policemen in the Norlands and these not of much account, but a telephone message to Hjalmarshavn would certainly fetch volunteer support, and there was a Danish Government boat cruising somewhere about the fishing-grounds. A wireless message from Hjalmarshavn would bring it to the succour of law and order.

Gradually I argued myself into the conviction that the enemy would not come at all, that, like the wicked, we had fled with no man pursuing, and that the best thing Lombard and I could do was to make a fishing holiday of it. That of course couldn’t last for ever. We couldn’t roost indefinitely in these outlandish parts, for we had all a good deal to do at home. I decided that I would give the place a fortnight’s trial, and then, if nothing happened, we would consider Haraldsen safe and go back to England.

But my decision did not greatly comfort me, for I could not get Sandy’s words out of my head. He had been positive that a big climax was impending; and, besides knowing more of our enemies than the rest of us, his instinct wasn’t often at fault. And then I remembered the words Macgillivray had spoken in the spring. I remembered the mysterious D’Ingraville, whom I had never seen. He was a different proposition from the others; he had no reputation to lose, no prestige to endanger; he was the outlaw at war with society who would stick at nothing to get his desire. Troth and Barralty were only the jackals that the lion forced to go hunting with him to find him game. Also he had a definite rendezvous with Sandy, and would not fail to keep it. With D’Ingraville in the affair there were no limits. He would bring things to a brute struggle, with death and treasure as the stakes. And we were not only feeble; with two children on our hands we were hopelessly vulnerable. By cunning or by force he would find out our weak points and play ruthlessly to win.

The upshot was that by the second afternoon I was as nervous as a hen; I longed for Sandy to cheer me, but there was no sign or word of him. The thick weather and the leaden prospect, only a rain-drummed sea and the ghost of Halder, and wet bogs and sweating black crags, did not raise my spirits. We could see the Channel fairly plain, and in those two days nothing passed up it except a drifter out of its course, and a little steamer flying the Danish flag which Arnason said was a Government ship sent out for the purpose of marine biology. It hustled north at a great pace, with a bone in its teeth, as seamen say. The fishing fleets were miles to the west, and the Iceland boats took the other side of Halder. I felt that the mist shut us into a dark world far away from the kindly race of men, a world into which at any moment terrible things might irrupt. Though I had Peter John at my side, an impression of deep loneliness settled on me. Also a horrid premonition of coming disaster, which I could not get rid of. A ridiculous sailor’s rhyme haunted my memory:

‘Take care, beware
The Bight of Benin —
One comes out
Though forty go in.’

But the third morning the wind shifted to the east, and we woke to steel-blue skies, Halder clear in every cranny, and calm sunlit seas. The tonic weather reminded me of South Africa, where in the Boer War I used often to go to bed supperless on the wet ground and wake whistling from pure light-heartedness. I simply could not keep up my reasoned gloom, and all the rest of us fell into the same cheerful mood. It was difficult to believe that this fresh shining place could ever harbour evil folk and dark deeds. Also there came a message from Sandy, telephoned on from Hjalmarshavn. It didn’t say much — only, ‘Delayed, but coming on. Expect me when you see me,’ but it seemed to lighten my responsibility. The Hjalmarshavn office didn’t give the date and the place from which it was sent, and it was too much to expect from it a written confirmation.

That day, and for the next day, we put care behind us. Haraldsen came out of his silent spell, and played the host manfully. He took us down to the village and showed us the life of the place — the dry-houses for the fish, the queer old women spinning and weaving and making their native dyes of lichen and seaweed, wild geranium and clover. After the whale and the codfish the important animal was the sheep, which gave the island its name, funny little shaggy fellows with wonderful fleeces. ‘Sheep’s wool is Norland gold,’ was a local proverb. It was a strange clachan, full of uncanny stinks, for the winter fodder for the cows was dried whale’s flesh, and you could smell it a mile away. I had a great talk with old bed-ridden Absalon, the fowler, who was a ‘king’s bonder,’ a yeoman whose family for generations had had a croft direct from the king. Haraldsen farmed his land for him, since his two sons had both perished at sea. He sat up in a bed made of ship’s timbers, and told yarns, which Haraldsen translated, of seal hunts when there were still seals in the Norlands, and great walruses that had drifted down from the Arctic, and whale hunts when the waters of the voes were red with blood. His crooked old hands clawed at the blankets, and his voice was as wild as a solan’s, but he had the benign face of an apostle.

I came out of his house a happier man, and my cheerfulness was increased by the sight of the Danish marine biology boat putting into the bay in Halder across the Channel. Gregarsen, the man in charge of our motor-boat, told me that her name was the Tjaldar, and that she had been trawling off the northern capes. ‘This wind will last,’ he said, ‘for her men are cunning, and only choose that anchorage when it blows steady from the east.’ Somehow I felt that the trim little ship kept us in touch with civilized things.

Haraldsen, as I have said, was a good host these days, but he was a queer one. At Laverlaw, when he had got over his nervous trouble, he was very like an ordinary Englishman, apart from a slight foreign trace in his speech. But on his native heath he was a Norlander, steeped in island lore, rejoicing in his home with the passion of a returned exile. He, who had been sparing of words, was now almost garrulous, as if he wanted to explain himself to us and let us into the secrets of his life. He used to recount the folk-tales as if he believed in them — how the seals were the souls of Pharaoh’s soldiers who had been drowned in the Red Sea, and the wren who picked at the seams of the houses was the mouse’s brother changed into a bird by the Trolls’ enchantment. The Trolls by his way of it were the chief plague of the Norlands — with pixies and mermaids as runners-up. They were Hulda’s Folk — Hulda being a sort of she-devil — and they were always on the watch to do mankind a mischief. They shipwrecked boats, and hag-rode the cattle, and sucked the blood of young lambs, and even kidnapped little girls — and here his eye would turn anxiously to Anna.

Then he was full of the islands’ history, from the famous old saga of Trond of Gate, which is the Norland epic, to the later days when Algerian pirates raided the coast and sent the people into the hills and the sea-caves. By and by I saw the meaning of his talk. He was reminding himself — and us — that in the Norlands life had always been on a razor’s edge, and that what he had to expect in the near future was what all his kin had had to face in the past. Clearly it was a comfort to him that he was following a long tradition. He had none of my scepticism; he believed that Fate was waiting for us as certainly as that the sun would rise tomorrow.

He was unlike what he had been at Laverlaw in another sense, for his nerves were all tuned up again, but in a different way. He had become high-coloured in his talk, exalted, rhetorical, speaking often like somebody in a book, as if the words were not his own. There were times when he seemed almost ‘fey,’ his eye wild, his voice harsh and shrill, and his language like an Israelitish prophet. That was generally when he was telling us some legend, into which he flung himself as if it had been his own experience. One strange thing I noticed — he was always talking about fire, as if fire were the Norland weird. In that damp, salty place fire scarcely seemed the perilous element; one would have thought wind and wave the real enemies. But it was always through fire that his house marched to triumph, and by fire that the luckless ones perished. It was fire that Hulda’s Folk employed to work their most evil deeds. It was fire that somehow at the back of his head he dreaded for himself and his belongings. ‘Then fire came,’ he would say, as if it was the natural conclusion to all things.

The happy people were Anna and Peter John. The old stiffness between the two had gone, and they had become like brother and sister. She was the mistress of the island, and she had a guest who was worthy of its treasures, for the boy had a whole new world to explore and was wildly excited. A good deal of the place was like Scotland, except that the heather was poor. There were pastures beside the burns, as bright with flowers as any English meadow. I never saw a better bloom of mint and meadow-sweet, ragged robin and cranesbill; flag-irises and a kind of marsh-marigold were everywhere, and the drier slopes were gay with ragwort. The hay was mostly tall clover. On the hills the tormentil grew as I have never seen it grow elsewhere, and the old women used to pound its roots in querns as a substitute for hops. The birds were mostly familiar, but the quantity of them was unbelievable — guillemots and razorbills, puffins as tame as sparrows, and gannets from a colony on the western cliffs. That was on the water, and on the land there was every moor bird known to Peter John except the grouse. There were no hawks, except one Iceland falcon which we got a fleeting glimpse of in the Channel. Peter flew Morag a good deal, and she brought in snipe and curlews for the pot; and she was nearly the end of one of the funny little blue Iceland cats at a cottage door.

I think that I have mentioned that my son was no horseman, but under Anna’s coercion he got himself on one of the Norland ponies, and they quartered the island together. But the real passion of both was the sea, a novelty to Peter, who was inland bred. In the soft, bright weather they were hours in or on the water. Peter was a fair swimmer, but Anna was magnificent — old Arnason had a joke that she was web-footed, being descended from seals, which she refuted by displaying her shapely feet.

There was no great variety of craft to play about in-only the motor-boat which Jacob Gregarsen looked after, and which was never used except for an emergency trip to Hjalmarshavn for supplies and once a week to fetch the mail; and one or two ancient Norland boats, double-ended things with high sterns and stern posts, about twenty feet long and very broad in the beam. But there were a couple of kayaks in the houses, the Eskimo kind like a Rob Roy canoe, and these were taken down to the water and launched, and provided the children with their chief amusement. Anna could handle hers brilliantly, and make it turn over like a turtle and right itself, and Peter John was an apt pupil. The two of them racing about in the voe and adventuring out into the Channel were like nothing so much as a pair of diving ducks. The trouble was to get them home for meals, for those long-lighted days were deceptive, and, since neither had a watch, they would wander in about midnight, thinking they were in time for dinner. Anna’s great hope was for a shoal of whales to come in and the whole Norlands to assemble for a whale hunt. She had only seen one in her life, but the memory of it was vivid. The whale was the small pilot-whale — what they call the ‘ca’in whale’ in Scotland — and I heard her discoursing to Peter John of the wild excitement of the chase, and its manifold perils. She spoke like a bloodthirsty young Viking, and was determined that they should join the hunt in their kayaks and be in at the death. I was determined in my own mind that there should be no such escapade.

Anna was wholly care-free, for Haraldsen had not told her the reason of his return to his island, and Peter John was under bond not to enlighten her. He, of course, knew the whole story, and since he was always on the move, I warned him to keep his eyes open for anything that seemed suspicious. He always carried his field glasses, and I was confident that nothing was likely to come to the island without his spotting it. It was well to have such a scout, for the place, except for the House and the village, was at the moment wholly unpeopled. He saw that I was anxious, and he did his best to live up to my instructions. The first day of the fine weather he had nothing to report. The second day he announced that in a voe on the other side of the island he had discovered signs of a visit from some petrol-driven craft. When I told Haraldsen this he paid no attention. ‘Some trawler put in for water,’ he said; ‘many of them carry boats with out-board motors.’

But on the third day the boy came to me with a grave face.

‘Gregarsen says that the motor-boat is out of order. Something has gone wrong with the engine — something bad — and he’ll have to get a man from Hjalmarshavn to repair it.’

‘How on earth did that happen?’ I asked crossly, for the motor-boat was our only transport to the outer world. ‘He has not had it out.’

‘It happened in the night, he thinks. He says some fools have been monkeying with it.’

I went down to the harbour and had a look at it. Sure enough there was bad mischief. The sparking-plug had gone, and the main feed pipe had been cut through. Gregarsen was a stupid elderly fellow, with a game leg which he had got at the Greenland fishing, and he had only an elementary knowledge of mechanics.

‘How did this happen?’ I demanded, for he could speak a kind of American–English, having once been a hand on a Boston tramp. ‘Have you been walking in your sleep?’

He shook his head. ‘Hulda’s Folk,’ he said darkly.

The thing made me very uneasy, for the damage had been done by some one who had had tools for the purpose. There was nothing for it but to telephone to the little shipyard at Hjalmarshavn and get them to send up a man. I did not do this at once, for I was trysted with Haraldsen to walk to the north end of the island, and put it off till we returned to luncheon.

I did not enjoy that walk, for I kept puzzling over the motor-boat, and I could not shake off the feeling that something was beginning to flaw the peace of the island. The accident was utterly incomprehensible to me, except on the supposition that Gregarsen had been drunk, or had gone temporarily insane and had forgotten what he had done. It was a nuisance, for next day we should have been sending to Hjalmarshavn for letters, and I longed for some word from Sandy. I felt myself set down on a possible battlefield with no sign of the commander-inchief. Haraldsen’s conversation did not cheer me. He was as mysterious as a spae-wife, and his only answer to my complaint was, ‘What must be, will be.’ Also the weather suddenly began to change. By midday the blue of the sky had dulled, and the heavens seemed suddenly to drop lower. The clear outlines of the Halder hills had gone, and the Channel, instead of a shining crystal, became an opaque pebble. ‘Ran is stoking his ovens,’ was all Haraldsen said on the subject, and it did not comfort me to know that Ran was a sea-god.

Immediately after luncheon I rang up Hjalmarshavn, but could not get through. There was nothing wrong with the apparatus in the House, and the trouble was probably at the other end, but the motor-boat business had filled me with suspicions, and I set out alone in the afternoon to trace the telephone line. It ran on low posts by the back of the garden and then down a shallow cleft to the beach not a quarter of a mile south of the village. It was clearly all right as far as the water’s edge. But then I had a shock. It entered the sea in a copper casing from a little concrete platform. There seemed something odd about the look of that take-off, and I ran my hand down the cable. I lifted up an end which had been neatly cut through.

That put the lid on my discomfort. The fog was thickening. While walking with Haraldsen I had been able to see the other side of the Channel and witness the Tjaldar, returning from one of her dredging expeditions, settling snugly into her little harbour. But now Halder was blotted out, and I could only see a few hundred yards of sea. I felt as if we were being shut into a macabre world where anything might happen. We and our enemies, for that our enemies were near I had no manner of doubt. They had cut our communications and had us at their mercy — three men, two children, and a batch of ancients. Where they were, how they had got here, I never troubled to think. I felt them in the fog around me — Hulda’s Folk, who had their own ways of moving by land and sea.

I ran back to the House in what was pretty near a panic. Lombard and Haraldsen had gone for a walk, and to give myself something to do I overhauled our armoury. We had half a dozen rifles, four shotguns, and plenty of ammunition. There was a revolver for each of us, and a spare one which I had destined for Peter John.

At the thought of him all my anxiety was switched on to the children. If there were evil things afoot in the island they might be at their mercy. Haraldsen and Lombard returned for tea, but not Anna and Peter John. When he heard my story Haraldsen came out of his Nordic dreams and became the distracted parent. The fog had drawn closer, and our search could only be blind, but we got together the garden staff and Gregarsen, and set out in different directions.

The dinner-hour came and there was no sign of them. In the dim, misty brume which was all the northern night, we stumbled about the island. Midnight came and we were still searching. In the small hours of the morning they had not returned.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50