The Mystery of the Sea/Chapter 49
GORMALA'S LAST HELP
After Gormala had disappeared down the zigzag under the rock, where I could no longer see her movements, I waited for her return. At the end of the Haven, where the little beach runs up to the edge of the cliff, there is a steep path. Even this is so steep that it is impracticable to ordinary persons; only fisher folk, dalesmen and hunters can use such ways. For myself I dare not leave my post; from the end of the Haven I could not see any part at all of the coast I had come to watch, except the narrow spot between great cliffs where the channels ran right and left of the Rock of Dunbuy. So I crept back to my hiding place behind the angle of the wall, from which I could watch the entrance to the track down which she had passed.
Time wore away slowly, slowly; and the mist kept coming in more frequent belts, heavier and more dank. After the sunset the fog seemed to come more heavily still, so that the promise of the night was darkness invincible. In Aberdeen, however, the twilight is long, and under ordinary conditions it is easy to see for hours after sunset. All at once, after the passing of a belt of mist, I was startled by a voice behind me:
"And for what is it ye watch, the nicht? Is it the Mystery o' the Sea that holds ye to the dyke; or maybe it is the treasure that ye seek!" Gormala had evidently come up the path at the end of the Haven. For a while I did not say a word, but thought the matter over. Now, if ever, was there need to use my wits, and I could best deal with Gormala if I should know something of her own wishes beforehand; so I tried to master her purpose and her difficulties. Firstly, she must have been in search of some hiding place herself, or she would not have come behind the wall; I was quite sure that she had not known of my presence before she went down the sheep track. If she wanted cover, what then was it she was watching? She had been down to the beach of the Haven, and so must have known whether or no it was bare of interest. As she was choosing a corner whence she could watch the track, it was at least likely that she expected some one to go up or down by it. If she were looking for some one to go down, she would surely rather watch its approaches than the place itself. It was, therefore, for some one to come up for whom she wished to watch. As, instead of hurrying away or hiding herself from me when she had seen me without my seeing her, she had deliberately engaged with me in conversation, it was evident that she did not expect whomever she watched for to come up at once. In fine I concluded, she intended to watch for some one who might come; with this knowledge I drew a bow at a venture:
"So your friend isn't coming up yet? Why didn't you fix matters when you were down below?" For an instant she was betrayed into showing astonishment; the surprise was in both her expression and in the tones of her voice as she replied:
"How kent ye that I was doon the Haven?" Then she saw her mistake and went on with a scowl:
"Verra clever ye are wi' yer guesses; and a daft aud wife am I to no ken ye better?" Why did——"
"Did you find him down below?" even whilst I was speaking the conviction came to me—I scarcely know how, but it was there as though deep-rooted in my brain all my life—that our enemies were down below, or that they had some hiding place there. Gormala must have seen the change in my face, for she exclaimed with jubilation:
"It would hae been better for ye that ye had taken my sairvice. The een that watched others micht hae been watchin' to yer will. But it's a' ower the noo. What secret there was is yours nae mair; an' it may be waur for ye that ye flouted me in the days gone." As she spoke, the bitterness of her manner was beyond belief; the past rushed back on me so fiercely that I groaned. Then came again, but with oh! what pain, the thought of my dear one in the hands of her enemies.
Let no man question the working of the Almighty's hand. In that moment of the ecstasy of pain, something had spoken to the heart of the old woman beside me; for when I came back to myself they were different eyes which looked into mine. They were soft and full of pity. All the motherhood which ever had been, or might have been, in that lonely soul was full awake. It was with a tender voice that she questioned me:
"Ye are muckle sad laddie. Do I no ken a look like that when I speer it, and know that the Fates are to their wark. What maks ye greet laddie; what maks ye greet?" for by this time the revulsion of tenderness had been too much for me and I was openly weeping. "Is it that the lassie is gone frae ye? Weel I ken that nane but a lassie can mak a strong man greet." I felt that the woman's heart was open to me; and spoke with all the passion of my soul:
"Oh, Gormala help me! Perhaps you can, and it may not be too late. She is stolen away and is in the hands of her enemies; wicked and desperate men who have her prisoner on a ship somewhere out at sea. Her life, her honour are at stake. Help me if you can; and I will bless you till the last hour of my life!" The old woman's face actually blazed as I spoke. She seemed to tower up in the full of her gaunt height to the stature of her woman's pride, as with blazing eyes she answered me:
"What! a woman, a lassie, in the hands o' wicked men! Aye an' sic a bonnie, gran' lassie as yon, though she did flout me in the pride of her youth and strength. Laddie, I'm wi' ye in all ye can dae! Wi' a' the strength o' my hairt an' the breath o' my body; for life or for death! Ne'er mind the past; bad or good for me it is ower; and frae this oot I'm to your wark. Tell me what I can dae, an' the grass'll no grow under my feet. A bonnie bit lassie in the power o' wicked men! I may hae been ower eager to win yer secret; but I'm no that bad to let aught sic come between me and the duty to what is pure and good!" She seemed grand and noble in her self-surrender; such a figure as the poets of the old sagas may have seen in their dreams, when the type of noble old womanhood was in their hearts; in the times when the northern nations were dawning. I was quite overcome; I could not speak. I took her hand and kissed it. This seemed to touch her to the quick; with a queer little cry she gasped out:
"Oh, laddie, laddie!" and said no more. Then I told her of how Marjory had been carried off by the blackmail gang; I felt that she was entitled to this confidence. When I had spoken, she beat with her shut hand on the top of the wall and said in a smothered way:
"Och! if I had but kent; if I had but kent! To think that I might hae been watchin' them instead o' speerin' round yon hoose o' yours, watchin' to wring yer secret frae ye, an' aidin' yer enemies in their wark. First the outland man wi' the dark hair; an' then them along wi' the black man wi' the evil face that sought ye the nicht gone. Wae is me! Wae is me! that I ha' done harm to a' in the frenzy o' my lust, and greed, and curiosity!" She took on so badly that I tried to comfort her. I succeeded to a measure, when I had pointed out that the carrying off of Marjory was altogether a different matter from what had gone on in my house. Suddenly she stopped rocking herself to and fro; holding up one long gaunt arm as I had seen her do several times before, she said:
"But what matters it after a'! We're in the hands o' Fate! An' there are Voices that speak an' Een that see. What is ordered of old will be done for true; no matter how we may try to work our own will. 'Tis little use to kick against the pricks."
Then all at once she became brisk and alert. In a most practical tone of voice she said:
"Noo tell me what I can dae! Weel I ken, that ye hae a plan o' yer ain; an' that you and ithers are warkin' to an end that ye hae set. Ye hae one ither wi' ye the nicht; for gude or ill." She paused, and I asked her:
"Why did you go down the sheep path to the Haven. For what or for whom were you looking?"
"I was lookin' for the treasure that I suspect was ta'en frae your hoose; an' for them that took it! 'Twas I that guided them, after the dark man had gone; and watched whiles they were within. Then they sent me on a lang errand away to Ellon; and when I got back there was nane there. I speered close, and saw the marks o' a cairt heavy loaden. It was lost on the high road; an' since then, nicht an' day hae I sought for any trace; but all in vain. But I'm thinkin' that it's nigh to here they've hid it; I went down the yowes' roadie, an' alang the rock, an' up the bit beach; but never a sign did I see. There's a many corners aboot the crags here, where a muckle treasure might lie hid, an' nane the wiser save them that pit it there!" Whilst she was talking I was scribbling a line in my pocket-book; I tore out the page and handed it to her:
"If you would help me take that letter for I must not leave here. Give it to the dark gentleman whom you know by sight. He is somewhere on the rocks beyond the Castle." My message was to tell Don Bernardino that I believed the treasure was hidden somewhere near me, and that the bearer of the note would guide him if he thought wise to join me.
Then I waited, waited. The night grew darker and darker; and the fog belts came so thick and so heavy that they almost became one endless mass. Only now and again could I get a glimpse of the sea outside the great rock. Once, far off out at sea but floating in on the wind, I heard eight bells sound from a ship. My heart beat at the thought; for if the Keystone were close at hand it might be well for us later on. Then there was silence, long and continuous. A silence which was of the night alone; every now and again when some sound of life from near or far came to break its monotony the reaction became so marked that silence seemed to be a positive quality.
All at once I became conscious that Gormala was somewhere near me. I could not see her, I could not hear her; but it was no surprise to me when through the darkness I saw her coming close to me, followed by Don Bernardino. They both looked colossal through the mist.
As quickly as I could, I told the Don of my suspicions; and asked his advice. He agreed with me as to the probabilities of the attempt to escape, and announced his willingness to go down the path to Dunbuy Haven and explore it thoroughly so far as was possible. Accordingly, with Gormala to guide him, he went to the end of the Haven and descended the steep moraine—it was a declension rather than a path. For myself I was not sanguine as to a search. The night was now well on us, and even had the weather been clear it would have been a difficult task to make search in such a place, where the high cliffs all around shut out the possibilities of side light. Moreover, along the Haven, as with other such openings on this iron-bound coast, there were patches of outlying rock under the cliffs. Occasionally these were continuous, so that at the proper state of the tide a fairly good climber could easily make way along them. Here, however, there was no such continuity; the rocks rising from the sea close under the cliffs were in patches; without a boat it would be useless to attempt a complete exploration. I waited, however, calmly; I was gaining patience now out of my pain. A good while elapsed before the Don returned, still accompanied by Gormala. He told me that only the beach had been possible for examination; but as far as he could see out by either channel, there was no sign of anyone hiding, or any bulk which could be such as we sought.
He considered it might be advisable if he went to warn the rest of our party of our belief as to the place appointed, and so took his way up north. Gormala remained with me so as to be ready to take any message if occasion required. She looked tired, so tired and weary that I made her lie down behind the rough wall. For myself sleep was an impossibility; I could not have slept had my life or sanity depended on it. To soothe her and put her mind at rest, I told her what she had always wanted to know; what I had seen that night at Whinnyfold when the Dead came up from the sea. That quieted her, and she soon slept. So I waited and waited, and the time crept slowly away.
All at once Gormala sat up beside me, broad awake and with all her instincts at her keenest. "Whish!" she said, raising a warning hand. At this moment the fog belt was upon us, and on the wind, now risen high, the white wreaths swept by like ghosts. She held her ear as before towards seaward and listened intently. This time there could be no mistake; from far off through the dampness of the fog came the sound of a passing ship. I ran out from behind the wall and threw myself face down at the top of the cliff. I was just at the angle of the opening of the Haven and I could see if a boat entered by either channel. Gormala came beside me and peered over; then she whispered:
"I shall gang doon the yowes' roadie; it brings me to the Haven's mooth, and frae thence I can warn ye if there be aught!" Before I replied she had flitted away, and I saw her pass over the edge of the cliff and proceed on her perilous way. I leaned over the edge of the cliff listening. Down below I heard now and again the sound of a falling pebble, dislodged from the path, but I could see nothing whatever. Below me the black water showed now and again in the lifting of the fog.
The track outwards leads down to the sea at the southern corner of the opening of the Haven; so I moved on here to see if I could get any glimpse of Gormala. The fog was now on in a dense mass, and I could see nothing a couple of feet from me. I heard, however, a sort of scramble; the rush and roll of stones tumbling, and the hollow reverberating plash as they struck the water. My heart jumped, for I feared that some accident might have happened to Gormala. I listened intently; but heard no sound. I did not stay, however, for I knew that the whole effort of the woman, engaged on such a task, would be to avoid betraying herself. I was right in my surmise, for after a few minutes of waiting I heard a very faint groan. It was low and suppressed, but there was no mistaking it as it came up to me through the driving mist. It was evident that Gormala was in some way in peril, and common humanity demanded that I should go down to help her if I could. It was no use my attempting the sheep track; if she had failed on it there would not be much chance of my succeeding. Besides, there had been a manifest slip or landslide; and more than probably the path, or some necessary portion of it, had been carried away. It would have been madness to attempt it, so I went to the southern side of the cliff where the rock was broken, and where there was a sort of rugged path down to the sea. There was also an advantage about this way; I could see straight out to sea to the south of Dunbuy Rock. Thus I need not lose sight of any shore-coming boat; which might happen were I on the other path which opened only in the Haven.
It was a hard task, and by daylight I might have found it even more difficult. In parts it actually overhung the water, with an effect of dizziness which was in itself dangerous. However, I persevered; and presently got down on the cluster of rocks overhung by the cliff. Here, at the very corner of the opening to the Haven, under the spot where the sheep track led down, I found Gormala almost unconscious. She revived a little when I lifted her and put my flask to her lips. For a few seconds she leaned gasping against my breast with her poor, thin, grey hair straggling across it. Then, with a great effort, she moaned out feebly, but of intention keeping her voice low lest even in that lone spot amid the darkness of the night and the mist there might be listeners:
"I'm done this time, laddie; the rocks have broke me when the roadie gav way. Listen tae me, I'm aboot to dee; a' the Secrets and the Mysteries 'll be mine soon. When the end is comin' hand baith my hands in ane o' yours, an' keep the ither ower my een. Then, when I'm passin' ye shall see what my dead eyes see; and hear wi' the power o' my dead ears. Mayhap too, laddie, ye may ken the secrets and the wishes o' my hairt. Dinna lose yer chance, laddie! God be wi' ye an' the bonny lass. Tell her, an' ye will, that I forgie her floutin' me; an' that I bade the gude God keep her frae all harm, and send peace and happiness to ye both—till the end. God forgie me all my sins!"
As she was speaking her life seemed slowly ebbing away. I could feel it, and I knew it in many ways. As I took her hand in mine, a glad smile was on her face, together with a look of eager curiosity. This was the last thing I saw in the dim light, as my hand covered her filming eyes.
And then a strange and terrible thing began to happen.