Authors: Mollie Hunter
Nobody except a Shetlanderevergets it right, of course; but even so, this book is still dedicated to all my good Shetland friends, and especially in love to Freya and Bruce Tulloch, Maureen and Stuart Donald. And last, but very far from least, to Bobby (bucketing-about-in-a-small-boat) Tulloch, and his seals.
M.H.ContentsTitle PageDedication1. The Stranger2. Fiddle Music3. Gold …4. … and Dancing and Gold5. The Selkie Summer6. Old Da’s Warning7. Funeral Magic8. Finn’s Magic9. Deep Water10. Nicol11. Elspeth12. Yarl Corbie13. The Skin14. Nicol Promises15. Yarl Corbie Plans16. Guisers17. The Skuddler18. The Great SelkieCopyright1. The Stranger
It was a while ago, in the days when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk.
A stranger came ashore to an island at that time – a man who gave his name as Finn Learson – and there was a mystery about him which had to do with these selkie creatures. Or so some people say, anyway; but to be exact about all this, you must first of all know that the Selkie Folk are the seals that live in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Also, the Shetlands themselves lie in the stormy seas to the north of Britain, and it was on a night of very fierce storm that it all began.
It so happened, then, that a ship named theBergenwas wrecked on one of the islands in this storm, and the shipwreck was near a place called Black Ness – which was not so much a place, really, as a scatter of houses on hilly ground overlooking the sea. Also, there was a certain Robbie Henderson living in Black Ness at that time – a lad of twelve years old, according to all accounts – and he was the person most concerned in the mystery of this stranger, Finn Learson.
There were four other members of the Henderson family, however, apart from Robbie himself – his parents, Peter and Janet Henderson, his sister Elspeth, and his grandfather, Old Da Henderson. There was also the family’s sheepdog, Tam; and as the storm grew wilder and wilder that night, this dog became very uneasy.
The whole family could hear how the storm was raging, of course, for their house stood close to the head of a long baycutting into the rocky coast of the island – the kind of bay that Shetlanders call a “voe” – and so the thundering noise of the waves was very near. Even so, Old Da Henderson had the feeling that it was not just the storm that bothered Tam, for Old Da was pretty old and his head was simply full of the superstitions of those days. He listened, therefore: he waited, and he watched. And at last he noticed something which seemed to him the true cause of Tam’s uneasiness.
“Look there!” said he, suddenly pointing to the fire of peats burning on the hearth.
The fire had been a good one, but now the peats at either side of it were burning down and crumbling into a fine white ash. A moment later there was only one of them left burning – the peat that stood upright at the centre of the fire – and pointing again, Old Da went on, “There! Do you see the way that peat has been left standing all by itself? That means a stranger will come here tonight!”
Peter Henderson cocked an ear to the noise of the wind howling over the thatch of the roof, and with a doubtful face on him he asked, “What stranger could come to Black Nessthisnight?”
Old Da also turned an ear to the sound of the storm. “Well may you wonder about that,” he said meaningly; and suddenly they all understood what he was thinking.
“A shipwreck in the voe!” Peter exclaimed, and was about to reach quickly for his jacket when there was a great thump, as if something heavy had fallen against the door of the house. The sound brought the whole family to its feet; and on that very instant the door burst wide open and a man came half-staggering, half-falling into the room.
Rain and wind swept in with him, raising a whirling cloud of peat ash from the fire. Peter rushed to the door, and threw all his burly weight on it to close it again. Robbie’s mother and sister cried out, and clutched at one another. Robbie gripped hold ofTam, to stop him making a lunge at the stranger; and the stranger himself dropped to his knees on the floor, like a man completely exhausted.
As well he might be, the whole family realised when the struggle with the door was won and they had a chance to look properly at him. He had come straight out of the sea, it seemed, for he was streaming with water and he wore nothing except a pair of trousers held up by the kind of broad canvas moneybelt that sailor men use. Moreover, there were strands of green seaweed plastered wetly to the skin of his bare back, and the hair that hung down from his drooping head was streaked with this same green weed.
“Poor fellow – oh, the poor fellow!” exclaimed Janet Henderson, gazing pitifully down on this, and then rushed to get a blanket to throw over him. Elspeth ran to fetch him a cup of hot tea. Robbie held grimly on to Tam, who was still snarling away at the crouching form; and Peter said in an awed voice, “Well, you were right, Old Da. There’s your stranger!”
“Aye, and you guessed rightly who it would be,” Old Da returned. “This fellow is off a wreck. Just look at him – he must be!”
“No doubt of it,” Peter agreed. Then, as Old Da moved to put fresh peats on the fire, he bent to touch the stranger’s shoulder. “Who are you, lad?” he asked gently. “And where’s your ship?”
The man began rising to his feet, looking about him in a dazed sort of way. He was young, they saw then, a tall andpowerfully-builtyoung man. Also, he was very handsome, with large and very dark-brown eyes. His hair was dark too – almost black, in fact; and, for all he was so young, it had streaks of a silvery-grey colour across it.
“Who are you?” Peter asked again, but still taking care to make the question a gentle one; and slowly, in a deep, pleasant voice that had a foreign sort of sound to it, the young man answered, “I call myself Finn – Finn Learson.”
Tam began to snarl more fiercely than ever at that moment,and Robbie had to drag him even further away from the stranger. Janet came with the blanket to drape over his shoulders. Elspeth pressed the cup of tea into his hand. He smiled his thanks for all this, showing white and very even teeth that made him look more handsome than ever; and Peter asked once more, “And your ship, lad? What about that? We’ll get a boat out to her if we can, depend on it, for we are mostly seafaring men ourselves here.”
Finn Learson sipped his tea, and then nodded in the direction of the voe. “The ship lies wrecked on the rocks down there,” he said quietly. “But there is nothing you can do for her crew, for they are dead men now, all of them – swept away and drowned in the storm.”
There was a little shocked silence at this. Then Old Da murmured, “God rest their souls.”
“Amen,” the whole family responded; but by this time they had all noticed the foreign sound to Finn Learson’s voice, and after another silence, Peter asked, “Where was the ship from, then?”
“Ask that later,” Janet put in firmly. “And meanwhile, it’s time you got this young fellow into dry clothes.”
‘That sounds like sense,” Peter admitted; and told Finn Learson, “Come with me, and I’ll let you have some of mine.”
Off he went with this, into the room next door where all the family slept; for this was the way Shetland houses were built in those days, with only a living room called the but end, and a sleeping room called the ben end. Finn Learson followed Peter into the ben end, and Old Da decided, “And I’ll take a look towards the voe, just in case it’s possible to see the wreck from here.”
“I’ll come with you,” offered Robbie, who was dying with curiosity about the wreck by this time.
The moment the two of them were outside the door, however, Robbie wished he had kept quiet; for the storm was on them, then, like a thousand wet, wild hands slapping from all directions. Moreover, for all there was only a short slope down to the voe, the night lay so black against their eyes that they could see nothingthere except great fountains of spray bursting white against the darkness.
“It’s no use!” Old Da shouted. “Wherever she is, a sea like that means the wreck is foundered by this time anyway!”
They turned back into the house, their breath quite torn away by the storm; and as they struggled together to close the door, Old Da gasped, “As for that Finn Learson, it’s a miraclehemanaged to get ashore, for it would take the Selkie Folk themselves to stay alive in such a sea!”
“You’re mad, the pair of you, going out into that storm,” scolded Janet as they came shivering back to the fire. Then she turned to look at Finn Learson coming out of the ben room, dressed now in some of Peter’s clothes, with his dark hair neatly combed and a pair of homemade sealskin shoes on his bare feet.
“That’s better!” said she, and began bustling about to get everyone seated around the fire again.
Tam was still grumbling and growling, however, and so he had to be banished from the circle; but once that was done, Janet had peace to name the various members of the family to Finn Learson. Politely he nodded to each in turn, but it was still on Elspeth Henderson that his great dark eyes came finally to rest – not that this surprised anyone, of course, since Elspeth had a fresh complexion and long, sandy-gold hair that made her just about the bonniest girl in the islands.
Elspeth was a bit shy of admiring looks, all the same, for she was only seventeen at that time. Besides which, she already had a young man of her own; and so, to spare her blushes under the stranger’s gaze, Peter began quickly, “Well, you’re seemingly none the worse of your experience, my lad; and if you’re ready to tell us, we’re ready now to hear all about it.”
Finn Learson gave a little shrug. “There is not much to tell,” be remarked. “The ship was called theBergen, and she wasstoutly-enoughbuilt; but once she was caught in that north-west drift offthe voe, there was no doubt she would drive on to the rocks there. And after that, there was no hope for her.”
“TheBergen…” Peter echoed. “That sounds to me like a Norwegian name.”
“There is a port in Norway calledBergen,” Finn Learson agreed; and Peter went on, “I suppose that accounts for the foreign sound to your voice, then. You’ll be Norwegian yourself, are you?”
Finn Learson did not answer this in so many words, but he smiled in a way that seemed to mean this was indeed the case. And so, taking it for granted that he had guessed correctly, Peter remarked, “All the same, you speak good English for a foreigner. I must say that for you! “
“Indeed he does,” Janet agreed; but Finn Learson shook his head at this, and said modestly, “I cannot take any credit for that. I have always been a great traveller, after all, and so I have had the chance to hear many languages. “
“Well, you’ve had maybe the hardest voyage of your life this time,” Old Da remarked, “for it beats me howyoumanaged to get ashore when all the rest of the crew were drowned.”
“They drowned because all the lifeboats were smashed and none of them could swim,” Finn Learson explained. “But I have always been a strong swimmer – very strong. Moreover, I could see the light shining from your house, and so I knew I was not far from shore.”
The thought of Old Da’s remark about the Selkie Folk flashed across Robbie’s mind, and he could not resist chiming in at this point, “You were lucky, all the same!”
“Yes,” Finn Learson agreed, and smiled a little. “Very lucky.”
Now Robbie Henderson had what you might call a very noticing sort of mind, and there was something about this smile that struck him as being rather odd. The conversation was still going on, however; and so – even although this something had made him feel a bit uncomfortable – he had no time to think why this should have been so.
It was to other shipwrecks at other times on the island that the talk had now turned, and after a while of this, Peter rose to take down a violin that was hanging on the wall.
“We’re great folk to play the fiddle here, as maybe you’ve heard tell,” he said to Finn Learson. “Indeed, there’s hardly a house in these islands without a fiddle in it, and hardly a family without someone who can knock out a tune. But there’s one tune we never play, except to mourn the death of one of our fisher lads. And so it’s fitting now, it seems to me, that I should play it for your dead mates.”
Tucking his fiddle under his chin then, Peter played the mourning song of the Shetland fishermen, and the rest of the family listened to it with tears not far away; for nothing can sing sweeter than a violin, and no music could have been sadder than this lament for drowned men. There was no telling what Finn Learson thought of it, however, for he sat with one hand over his face all the time Peter was playing, and everyone had too much respect for his feelings to guess what expression he might be hiding.
Old Da was ready with the right words, nevertheless, once the music was finished and Peter was hanging the fiddle back in its place.
“That was well done, Peter,” said he. “The souls of those poor fellows will rest easier for it; and as for their bodies, we will give them decent burial when the time comes.”
Finn Learson looked up at these words. “How will you do that?” he asked curiously, and Old Da explained, “Well, the bodies willdrift ashore sooner or later, and then we’ll bury them just above high-water mark at the place where they’re found. For it’s our custom, you know, never to take far from the sea anything the sea has claimed for its own.”
“A wise custom,” said Finn Learson, and smiled again, in the way that Robbie found rather odd. Then, with a glance at all the various bits of farming gear in the room, he asked, “But you are farmers too, as well as fishermen, are you not?”
“You could say that, I suppose,” Peter agreed. “Everybody here has the wee bit of land we call a ‘croft’, and between that and the fishing, we manage to makesomesort of a living.”
“Ach, Peter,” Janet protested. “It’s not such a bad living as all that!”
“No indeed. It’s not all hard work for us here,” Old Da assured Finn Learson. And with this to start it off, the talk was soon flowing with stories of life on the islands, for the but end was now all set for this kind of talk.
The fire was red and cheerful. The only other light in the room was the gentle glow from a little lamp filled with fish oil – a “kollie,” as it was called. Moreover, the hour was just right for storytelling, and Finn Learson was always ready with a question of the kind that would start yet another story.
So the time ran on that night without any of the Hendersons realising how neatly all these questions were putting a stop to the ones they might have been asking him. The grandfather clock in the but end chimed midnight. Everyone suddenly realised how late it was; and with her eyes on the clock, Janet reminded them, “We have an early rise tomorrow.”
The rest of the family knew what she meant by this, for those were hard times when the salvage off a wreck was precious, and they would all have to be down at the voe to get what they could from theBergen. They took the hint to rise, therefore, and Janet waved Finn Learson towards the wooden settle standing againstone wall of the room.
“You can take that blanket I gave you and sleep there, on the restin’ chair,” said she, and then steered Elspeth ahead of her into the ben room.
Old Da followed in a minute or so. Robbie and Peter stayed to bank down the fire for the night and to put out the kollie; and it was then, with his fingers reaching up to close on the wick of the kollie, that Robbie noticed Tam creeping back to his usual place by the fire.
“You’ll not mind old Tam, will you?” he asked. “He’s not fierce, really – just a bit upset by everything tonight.”
Finn Learson stretched out on the restin’ chair and pulled the blanket close around himself. One eye gleamed at Robbie over the edge of this blanket – a bright, and somehow very watchful eye. A voice came, muffled by the blanket’s folds.
“Off you go, lad,” said the voice. “I’ll know how to calm your dog if it snarls again.”
Still Robbie hesitated, for there was something he did not like about the tone of the muffled voice. His father only laughed at it, however, and reached over Robbie’s head to snuff out the kollie.
“Aye, surely,” he agreed as he did this. Then, with a goodnight to Finn Learson from both him and Robbie, they too went ben to their beds.
They were proper old-fashioned Shetland beds, these, made like a large box complete with a lid on top and a sliding door in one side. There were air-holes in the sliding doors, neatly pierced in the shape of hearts and diamonds; the box-beds themselves stood on legs that raised them above draughts, and there were three of them in the room – one for Peter and Janet, one for Elspeth, and one that Robbie shared with Old Da.
Robbie was dead tired by this time, and he lost not a moment in getting in beside Old Da. Almost instantly then, he was asleep, for the bed was comfortable and Old Da had warmed it for him. Butjust as suddenly, it seemed to him, he was awake again, wondering how long he had slept and what had happened to wake him.
There was no sound or movement in the ben room, he realised. But therewasa sound coming from somewhere – the sound of a fiddle very softly played and near at hand – and for several startled moments he lay wondering who on earth could be playing the fiddle at that hour of the night.
Robbie’s surprise was soon over, however, and it was uneasiness that gripped him then; for by the end of those first few moments he had realised that the music was coming from the but end of the house where his father’s fiddle hung. And yet his father was lying asleep in the box-bed a few feet away from his own! The sliding door of this bed was open, and he could see his father there – which meant that the only person who could be playing the fiddle was the stranger, Finn Learson. And why should he be doing that at such an hour?
Moreover, Robbie thought, there was something very odd about the music itself, something very eerie and mysterious, for there was no tune to it – or nothing he could recognise as a tune, at least. It was just like voices sliding up and down a scale, in fact; high voices, echoing very sad and sweet in some hollow place, and in spite of the warmth of the bed, the sound they made was beginning to send shivers up and down his back.
Crouching lower into the warmth, Robbie tried not to hear the voices; but he was curious about them, as well as uneasy. Besides which, he told himself, Finn Learson had norightto be playing his Da’s fiddle, and he had a good mind to say so to his very face! This was the very thought to give his curiosity the spur it needed, and gaining courage from it, he slipped cautiously out of bed.
A draught of cold air blew around his bare legs. The floor of the ben room was cold too, for it was only beaten earth, hard-packed and polished from the use of many years. With his toes curling away from the feel of this floor, Robbie padded to the door of theben room. For a moment he stood there, shivering as much from the cold now as from uneasiness. Then, carefully, he advanced a hand to the door knob.
The noise of Tam growling began to sound through the music; and instantly on this, it stopped. Tam’s growls grew louder, then began to die again; and tightening his grasp on the knob, Robbie pulled the door open far enough to allow him to see into the but end.
It was a roomful of strange shapes and shadows that met his eye, for the fire was still sending out a red glow that lit some things and left others in darkness. Even so, he saw that his father’s fiddle was gone from its usual place on the wall, and there was no form stretched out under the blanket on the restin’ chair. The fiddle now lay on top of this blanket, as if Finn Learson had hurriedly placed it there; and Finn Learson himself was kneeling on one knee in front of the fire, with Tam crouching in front of him.
The dog’s back was towards Robbie, but both dog and man were lit by the fire’s glow, and Robbie saw that Finn Learson had his hands cupped lightly around Tam’s head. His eyes were fixed on Tam’s eyes, and it seemed to Robbie that he was commanding Tam to silence with this stare.
It struck Robbie, too, that Tam was afraid of the look holding him there as well as fascinated by it, for the dog was shivering all over its body. Lower and lower it crouched, its eyes never leaving Finn Learson’s eyes, its growl fading with every second of the look; until finally, it was altogether silent.
Finn Learson drew his hands away from its head, and in that moment he looked up, straight into Robbie’s eyes. The firelight fell on his face, making a gleaming red mask of it in the surrounding dusk. His great dark eyes seemed bigger and darker than ever in that red mask, and the effect of all this sent a stab of fear through Robbie.
Everything he had meant to say fled from his mind then, and allhe could think of was getting back to his safe, warm bed. Stepping backwards he began gently to close the door and as he did so, Finn Learson rose to his feet. Robbie’s heart quickened its beat still further, but he continued with his gentle closing of the door; and the last thing he saw in the last inch of its closing was Tam, still staring up in fascination at the man in front of him.
Quickly and silently then, Robbie dashed for his bed, and creeping into it, he lay wondering about everything that had happened. It was very late at night by this time, however, and he was still tired. Also, it was very cosy, lying there in the warmth beside Old Da. Robbie soon found he was too drowsy to think properly; and promising himself he would work out all the whys and wherefores of it in the morning, he drifted off to sleep again.3. Gold â¦
The storm had not quite blown itself out by the time morning came, and the Hendersons woke to find that Old Da had been right in thinking theBergenhad foundered. There was plenty of wreckage from it, however, and this was already drawing people down from all the other houses on the hill overlooking the voe.
“Come on!” urged Janet, giving everyone breakfast on the run; but Robbie had something more than wreckage to think about at that moment, for strange events that happen in the middle of the night have a way of seeming as far off and unreal as a dream the next day, and this was how things were for him then.
He stared around the but end, wondering if he had indeed dreamt the events of the night before; for there was his father's fiddle hanging in its usual place, and there was Tam dozing peacefully as usual in front of the fire. There was Finn Learson too, looking like any other young man supping porridge along with everyone else, and not giving a single hint or sign that he had ever moved from his night's sleep on the restin' chair.
Robbie swallowed down his own porridge, telling himself that hemusthave dreamt about the strange music and the look that had commanded Tam to silence. It was impossible to imagine otherwise, in fact, with everything now so much as usual and daylight making the but end itself seem such an ordinary place!
The need to make haste in starting the salvage work began to take a grip on him also, so that even the “dream” grew fainter in his mind. Then came something else which drove it still further away. A voice called from outside the house, the familiar and very cheerful voice ofElspeth's young man, Nicol Anderson; and Nicol, as it happened, was also Robbie's very good friend.
Robbie rushed to let him into the but end, and then the place seemed crowded, for Nicol was a big fellow â as big and powerful a man as Finn Learson, in fact. Moreover, he had gleaming red hair that gave him the look of a big, smiling sun when he laughed, and which also drew even more attention to his height.
“Who's ready to come down to the voe, then?” he asked, after all the explanations about Finn Learson had been made; and instantly, Robbie was on his feet.
“I am!” said he. Then off he hurried to the voe with Nicol, firmly putting even the memory of his strange “dream” from his mind, and never thinking he was making the great mistake of his young life in doing so.
Robbie was in good company with this, however, for everyone in Black Ness made mistakes that morning; and naturally enough, these were the same ones that the Henderson family had already made about Finn Learson.
No one doubted for a moment that he was indeed a survivor of the wreck, and so there was nothing but sympathy for him. No one asked him any more questions than had already been asked â there was no time for this, since the wreckage was so widely scattered over the voe that everyone was anxious to get it ashore before it could drift even further. Moreover, Finn Learson immediately offered his help in this work; and since Nicol Anderson was the only man there who equalled him in size and strength, this offer was eagerly accepted.
So, for hours after that, the work went on, with Finn Learson bending his back so willingly to it that there was even greater sympathy for him when the tide eventually brought the bodies of theBergen'screw washing ashore.
Old Da Henderson was as good as his word, however, and the bodies were buried just above high-water mark at the point wherethey were found. A stone was placed to mark each grave, a hymn was sung, and Old Da spoke a prayer.
“Amen,” said everyone at the end of this. And thatAmenwas the final word on the wreck of theBergen; for, the way they all saw it then, it was bad enough for a young fellow like Finn Learson to lose all his mates in one night without folk asking questions that would only remind him of this loss.
There was still the question of what he would do next, however; and so, after supper that night, Peter began, “And what are your plans now, lad? Are you thinking of going back to your own country?”
“No,” said Finn Learson, taking a sideways glance at the fiddle on the wall. “I'm in no hurry to do that.”
“Then what will you do?” Peter asked. “Will you take ship for another voyage?”
“Indeed, no!” Finn Learson told him. “It's the land for me for a while.”
“And no one could blame you for that!” Peter agreed. “Which means you'll be here for a few days yet, I suppose â and welcome, I'm sure, if you do not mind our sort of life.”
“Far from that,” Finn Learson assured him. “I think it must be a fine life! A few weeks of it, in fact â or even a few months â would be nearer what I have in mind.”
Now the Hendersons were hospitable people, but they were also much too poor to be burdened for months with a pair of idle hands and an idle mouth to feed. Yet where was Finn Learson to live if he stayed for months on the island, unless it was with them? None of them had the answer to this question, but Finn Learson guessed the meaning of their silence, and quickly he added, “But I would not expect to stay here for nothing, of course!” With his hand reaching into the pouch of his canvas moneybelt as he said this, he pulled out a coin and laid it on the table; but this only left the Hendersons even more lost for words, for the coin was a largeone and it was made of gold.
It was also an old coin, so old that the pattern had been rubbed almost smooth; and as they stared in wonder at it, Finn Learson asked anxiously, “Is that not enough?”
“Enough!” Janet exclaimed. “It's a fortune, man! But where in the world did you get so ancient a coin?”
“Off a sunken treasure ship!” guessed Robbie, thinking that this must certainly be the answer; but his father frowned, and told him, “You talk an awful lot of nonsense, boy.”
“I don't know about that,” Old Da objected. “I remember, when I was a young man I saw a coin washed ashore from a Spanish treasure ship that was wrecked in ancient times on this island. A piece of eight, they called it, and it looked exactly like this one.”
“I don't doubt you,” Peter remarked. “But you know what Robbie is like! He was letting his fancy run away with a whole shipload of treasure, instead of the odd piece a sailor man might pick up on his travels â which is where this one came from I'll wager!”
Finn Learson smiled at this â the same, rather odd little smile Robbie had noticed the night before. “Yes, of course,” he agreed. “Itisjust something I picked up on my travels. And since I have no coins in my belt of the kind you use, it is all I can offer you.”
“But we cannot take it,” Janet declared, “for gold does not lose its value however old the coins that are made from it. And this one is worth more than it would cost to keep you, supposing you stayed for a year with us.”
Finn Learson began to speak again, but Peter checked him.
“Wait,” said he. “Let me tell you this. There is no money to be made from fishing in the voe, and none either from working a croft. And so, all the men like myself have to go off every summer to earn money at the deep-sea fishing â thehaaf, as we call it. But before we can do that, there is all the spring work of the croft to be tackled â digging, planting, sowing, cutting peatsâ”
“I can see what's in your mind!” Old Da interrupted, and thenturned ruefully to Finn Learson. “I'm getting too old to share such hard work,” he went on, “and Robbie is still too young to give a man's help on the croft. Yet there are only six weeks left now before Peter goes off to thehaaf, and if he does not manage to get the crops in before then, how will we all eat next winter?”
“But if you were willing to help me with that work,” Peter finished, “it would be worth more to us than the cost of your stay here, and it would give you a real chance to try our kind of life. So, what do you say, Finn Learson?”
“I say âDone!'” Finn Learson exclaimed. “But you must still have the gold, for it may still cost you more than you think to have me here.”
“Nonsense!” Peter and Janet protested together, and Peter began sliding the coin across the table to Finn Learson. Yet still he would not allow this.
“If you will not take it in payment,” said he, “take it at least as a keepsake of me when I have gone back to my own country.”
Firmly he pushed the coin back across the table. Then, with a glance at Elspeth, he added, “There! When you look at that, you'll remember it did not seem half so bright to me as the gold of your daughter's hair.”
Elspeth blushed scarlet at this, but the others laughed at such a compliment.
“Would you not like Nicol to say fine things like that?” Robbie teased her; and Peter told Finn Learson, “Well, we can hardly refuse it onthoseterms!”
And so it was settled. Elspeth stood the coin on its edge like an ornament on the mantelpiece; and there it stayed, its smooth surface glittering in the light of the kollie. Janet made up a proper bed for Finn Learson in the barn that was built on to the gable wall of the but end; and he also stayed, to help Peter with all the work that had to be done before thehaaf.
The new arrangement, it seemed, was going to be a good one â and not just for Peter, either.
The whole family felt the benefit of it, for Robbie and Old Da had now more time each day to go fishing in the voe, and a good catch of fish meant more food for everyone. Also, they had more time to look after the livestock, and so there were fewer lambs and calves lost than in the year before that. Moreover, Finn Learson himself settled down so quickly that he was no trouble at all to anyone â- quite the opposite, in fact.
He worked hard, yet still he continued so polite and pleasant in his ways that both Janet and Elspeth were quite taken by his charm and declared he was apleasureto have around. Peter was delighted to have such a strong and willing helper. Tam no longer barked or growled at him; so that, in no time at all it seemed, he was coming and going about the place as if he had always lived there.
“He's a silent sort of man, though, isn't he?” Old Da remarked one day to Janet. “A good listener, mark you â indeed, I've never seen a man for watching andlisteningso closely to everything that goes on. Yet he never has much to say on his own account.”
“That's no great fault,” Janet exclaimed. “And one talker in the house is enough, surely?”
Old Da laughed. “Now you're having a dig at me,” he teased Janet, for it was perfectly true that Old Da was a great talker; and although they were all glad enough of his stories around the firein the winter time, Janet and Peter were inclined to complain that Robbie took all this kind of talk too seriously.“Letting his imagination run away with him,”they called it; which was a foolish habit, in their opinion, and therefore one which should be checked before it got too strong a grip on him.
This was not to the point at that moment, however, and so Janet simply ignored Old Da's teasing. “Anyway,” she finished, “the main thing is that Finn Learson is settling here as to the manner born, and that should be enough for all of us.”
So the Hendersons went on talking from time to time among themselves about the new arrangement â all except Robbie, that is, for no one thought of askinghisopinion. Moreover, he would not have known what to answer even if he had been asked, for Finn Learson was still given to smiling that odd little smile he had worn first on the night of the storm, and Robbie did not care for this.
It was like someone smiling at a secret joke, he thought, and felt uneasy at such an idea. On the other hand, there was no doubt that Finn Learson had a powerful charm of manner which made himwantto like the man â¦
So Robbie swithered and swayed in the opinion that was never asked, and meanwhile, Finn Learson was getting acquainted with all the rest of the people in Black Ness. Very easy, he found this, too, for all that he was a man of few words, since there is nothing Shetlanders enjoy better than visiting back and forward in one another's houses.
Sooner or later also, on such occasions, out will come the fiddle. All the young folk â and very often some of those that are not so young â will get up to have a dance; and the first evening that this was the way of things in the Hendersons' house, Finn Learson showed the lightest, neatest foot in the whole company.
He was merry as a grig, too, clapping his hands in time to the fiddling, white teeth flashing all the time in a laugh, eyes glittering like two great dark fires in his handsome head. No amount ofleaping and whirling seemed to tire him, either; and curiously looking on at this with Robbie and Janet, Old Da remarked, “Well, there's one stranger that knows how to make himself at home on the islands!”
“Indeed, aye,” Janet agreed, admiring the light footwork that was going on. “A man who can dance like that is sure of a welcome in Black Ness.”
And so it turned out, of course, for a good dancer is always a challenge to the skill of a good fiddler. Moreover, a handsome young man who is neat and light on his feet is a catch for any girl; and the result of all this was that Finn Learson soon found himself welcome anywhere the young folk were trying to stir things up for a bit of a dance.
No one minded, either, that he had so little to say for himself. He was a foreigner, after all, they excused him; and he could hardly be expected to chatter in a tongue that was strange to him. Occasionally too, when it struck someone that there was a certain oddness in the intent way he listened and watched in other folks' company, this was also put down to the fact that he was a stranger to the islands, and therefore curious about life there.
There was one person in Black Ness, however, who was not too pleased to see him staying on with the Hendersons, and that was Elspeth's young man, Nicol Anderson. This was just natural jealousy on his part, of course, Finn Learson being so handsome and Elspeth so young and bonny. But after all, as Peter took care to point out to Nicol, it was only until the spring work was finished; and once that was the case, there was no doubt Finn Learson would return to his own country.
About a week before the start of thehaafseason, however, Peter found himself thinking differently, for it was then that one of his boat's crew fell sick. There was not a man in Black Ness to replace him, either; and so, after thinking all around the subject, Peter said to Finn Learson, “It's like this, you see. It's a boat called a âsixareen'we use at thehaaf, because it takes six men to row it. Yet here I am now, one short of my crew; and even with strong young fellows like Nicol Anderson among them, a sixareen is a heavy craft to pull, And so I'm in trouble, unless â Unless, maybe,youwould be willing to make up my crew for me.”
Finn Learson shook his head at this. “The kind of deep-sea fishing I have learned,” said he, “is not likely to be the kind you practise.”
“Och, we'll soon take care of that!” Peter exclaimed. “We'll teach you all you need to know. And just think of the money you could make at thehaaf! Besides which, you would very likely enjoy it for its own sake, for it's out there in the deep water where the big fish lie that you get the real fishing and the real feel of the sea!”
“Out there in the deep waterâ¦” Finn Learson repeated softly, his eyes beginning to gleam with the excitement that lit them when he was dancing. He was silent for a moment, with everyone waiting expectantly for his next word, then suddenly he decided. “Iwouldenjoy that,” he told Peter. “To be out there in the deep water with the sea all around me again â that would be fine. I'll go with you to thehaaf!”
So that was another matter settled, and the night before Peter and his crew left for the fishing station in the north of the islands, they all met for a celebration in the Hendersons' house. Peter filled glasses for everyone to drink a toast, but before he could utter one word of this, Nicol Anderson said, “Hold on, Peter. What toast are you going to give?”
Peter stared at him. “The usual one, of course,” he said. “The one we always drink before we go to thehaaf.”
“Aye, I thought so,” Nicol answered. “But if that is the way of it, we cannot have a man in the boat who does not even know the meaning of the toast. And so, before Finn Learson comes with us, he must first guess the answer to a riddle.”
Everyone began to smile at this, guessing riddles being afavourite game in Shetland. Nicol seemed to be in deadly earnest, however, which made the Hendersons realise that there was a bit of rivalry building up now between the two young men. Yet still, Peter realised, Nicol had every right to put out such a challenge. And so, even although he could see himself being short of a crew member at the very last moment, he had to allow it.
“On you go, then,” said he; and staring Finn Learson right in the eye, Nicol said, “Right â read me this riddle, Finn Learson.What head is it that wears no hair?”
Now this was such a very old Shetland riddle that no one outside the islands could possibly guess the meaning of it. Or so everyone thought, anyway; yet even so, Finn Learson took only a moment to think before he answered, “There's no hair on the head of a fish; and so that is the reading of your riddle â the fish!”
There was a burst of applause at this. Even Nicol applauded, for he was most certainly not the kind of man to hold on toill-feeling. Moreover, Finn Learson had spoken in the most friendly and pleasant way, and so now Nicol answered him with his usual big sun-burst of a smile.
“You've earned your place in the boat,” he agreed, and then turned to tell Peter, “Give your toast, man!”
“I will that!” exclaimed Peter, relieved at this pleasant outcome of an awkward moment. Then, raising his glass high, he shouted, “Here we go then, boys. It's off to thehaaf, and âDeath to the head that wears no hair!'”
“Death to the head that wears no hair!”the whole crew echoed, shouting; and drained their glasses on the words.
“And a tune or two before the night is out!” added Peter, reaching for his fiddle and starting up a reel.
So the celebration began for everyone except Robbie, who was still puzzling over the way Finn Learson had solved the riddle; and under cover of all the noise, he said to Old Da, “There's no one outside the islands has ever managed to read that riddle, Old Da.And so how didheguess the answer?”
Now Old Da had been forming his own idea about this, just as he had slowly been forming ideas about other matters concerning Finn Learson â particularly those of the gold coin he had brought ashore, and also his love of dancing. Old Da's thoughts on such matters, however, were all very sober ones which he had no intention of telling to anyone at that moment. Least of all did he mean to tell them to Robbie; and so now he got out of the situation by saying, “Maybe he already knew the answer to it, Robbie. Or maybe he guessed it just because he's a clever man.”
“Aye, maybe,” Robbie agreed; but he was not satisfied with this, and he went to his bed still puzzling over it.
The next day when all the men had gone to thehaaf, he was still thinking about it; and this kept his eyes going to the only reminder of Finn Learson that was now left in the house â the gold coin on the mantelpiece.
Finn Learson had never actually denied that it had come from a sunken treasure ship, he told himself. And so, where and how it had been picked up on his travels was still a mystery. Moreover, Finn Learson himself was still a mystery, for no one knew a thing more about him than they had when he first arrived on the island. And that was six weeks ago, Robbie thought; which did indeed make him a clever man â much more clever, in fact, than anyone except himself seemed to have realised!
There was his smile, too â that strange little smile which made him look as if he had some secret to hide â¦
Robbie stared at the coin as if staring by itself could tell him how Finn Learson had come by it. But the more he stared, the less he could think of an answer to this, and the more the coin seemed to wink back at him like an ancient golden eye that had its own secret to keep.5. The Selkie Summer
There was little to do on the croft once the men had gone, but Robbie and Old Da were still kept busy in various ways.
The eggs and young of seabirds were in season, and these were needed to provide something extra for the pot. The different kinds of moss that Janet and Elspeth used for dyeing cloth had also to be picked at that time of the year; and of course, there was always fishing to be done. It happened to be an unusually fine summer that year, however, so that Robbie and Old Da were soon having a high old time to themselves.
For days at a time the weather held. The sun made the grass look greener than green, the sky bluer than blue, and the two of them chose the rest of these fine days to get their bag of eggs and young seabirds. Not that they were intent simply on getting the best of the weather on these occasions, mind you, for it was on the ledges of the high cliffs above the voe that the seabirds nested, and Robbie could easily have been blown into the sea if he tried scrambling down there on windy days.
With Old Da to guide him, however, Robbie never made any such mistake. He always climbed barefoot, too, which helped to give his toes a grip on the steep rockface; and since he had a good head for heights, he enjoyed all this scrambling about the cliffs. As for Old Da, he had done the very same climbs in his own young days; and so he was in his glory now, leaning over the clifftop to shout advice and encouragement on any one that Robbie attempted.
Gathering moss for dyes was another ploy for the finest weather,for then Old Da would take Robbie and Tam on a whole day of wandering footloose among the hills where such moss was to be found. To Robbie’s great pleasure too, as they wandered like this, Old Da told him one story after another, and there was only one thing that could cast a gloom on such a day.
It was always Tam who gave warning of such a gloom, too, and it always happened in the same way. Tam would start to whine, and then the other two would realise they were approaching a sort of long, shadowy hollow where no flowers grew; and here and there, in such hollows they would see a green mound with a doorhole that was screened by ferns,
“Aye, the dog has a sixth sense about such places,” Old Da would interrupt himself to say then, and they would all hurry past the hollow; for these green mounds were said to be the homes of a small people calledtrows. And trows are creatures of the Otherworld which is not human.
Once they were clear of such places, however, the feeling of gloom lifted from them, and Old Da would go on with his storytelling. Yet still he kept his voice low, for now his stories would be about the trows themselves, and these are creatures which are quick to take offence at anything that is said about them. Moreover, trows can make themselves invisible at will, and trowie ears are sharp ears!
“Have you ever seen a trow?” Robbie sometimes asked. But Old Da would not answer yes or no to this, and so Robbie had to be content with listening, and wondering, and keeping a sharp lookout on his own account.
Mornings and evenings of every day were the times when the two of them went fishing, sometimes casting their lines from the clifftop, and sometimes rowing out in the small boat that was kept for this purpose; but it was the boat trips Robbie preferred, for there were always seals swimming in the voe, and this gave him the chance to follow his liking for watching these creatures at closequarters.
The interest in seals was something else he had learned from Old Da, of course; for Old Da had long ago taught him the trick of holding the boat so steady in one place that they lost all fear of it. Little, feathery strokes of the oars were the secret of this trick, and as soon as Robbie mastered this way of “feathering” with the oars, he found the seals swimming quite close to the boat and surfacing on all sides of it.
“They like music,” Old Da told him then; and to prove this, he began to sing. Immediately the seals reared chest-high out of the water to stare towards the sound of his voice, and Old Da laughed to see this.
“I told you,” he remarked. “And now I’ll tell you something else about the Selkie Folk and music. They have a great envy of the way people like ourselves can dance to it; and so they gather sometimes on a lonely beach where they can cast off their skins and take human form. And there they sing, and dance to the music of this singing.”
Robbie stared at this, for neither he nor anyone else could ever be sure how much was true in Old Da’s stories, and how much was made up. He was still curious to know more about the selkie dancing, however, and so he asked,
“Buthowcan they cast off their skins and change like that?”
“You’ll have to put that question to a wiser man than me,” Old Da told him, “for the only answer I can give you is that selkies are a lot more than they seem to be. They are not animal creatures at all, in fact, but a kind of folk that have been doomed to live as selkies – a strange, gifted folk, who have powerswedo not understand.”
Robbie considered this, still feeling a bit doubtful. “What kind of folk?” he asked. And solemnly Old Da answered, “Fallen angels. Angels that sinned against Heaven, when Heaven was shining new; and for their sins, were cast out from all that glory.”
“Oh!” said Robbie, feeling a shiver run up his back at this. “Oh,my!” And he shivered again, still not knowing what to believe, for it was hard to think of all these inquisitive creatures around the boat as fallen angels. And yet, when he looked at the wise, and somehow sad expression in their great dark eyes, he was more than half-persuaded that Old Da was speaking truly after all.
“You’re forgetting to feather,” Old Da reminded him; which was true. And what with the way this had allowed the boat to rock, the seals were all beginning to dive out of sight.
Old Da chuckled to see them scatter like this, and began to sing again in his quavery, old man’s voice,
“I am a man upon the land,
A selkie in the sea –”
“What’s that song?” interrupted Robbie.
“An old one that tells about the Great Selkie,” said Old Da; but of course, this only brought another question from Robbie.
“Who’s the Great Selkie?” he wanted to know then, and Old Da told him, “Ah, well now. That’s another story, Robbie! He’s the King of all the selkies, he is; which means he’s the great bull seal that has his home deep, deep down in the deepest sea. That’s where the selkies’ own country is; and that’s where he rules, from a palace that has walls of crystal and floors of coral, with sea anemones for jewels, and a roof of waving golden weed. Or maybe the roof is made of waving golden hair – the hair of drowned girls. Nobody knows for sure, for people can enter that country, but they cannot come back again.”
“Why not?” asked Robbie, staring fascinated at Old Da. “Why can they not come back?”
“Because the Great Selkie will not allow it,” Old Da told him.
“And the drowned girls?” Robbie asked. “Who were they?”
“Well,” said Old Da thoughtfully, “they do say that every now and then this Great Selkie manages to tempt some poor lass to enter his kingdom. And when she tries to escape back to her own kind – as shemust sooner or later always want to do – that is what happens to her.”
“I don’t believe that,” declared Robbie, deciding that Old Da was just making it up after all; but Old Da just laughed at this, and went on with another story.
All this was long before that particular summer, however, and most of Old Da’s stories were dim in Robbie’s mind by then. He was not a bit less interested in the selkies themselves, all the same, and so Old Da patiently taught him a little more each day about the true life of these creatures.
“You know how they come ashore each year when their pups are due to be born,” said he, on one of these occasions. “Well, believe it or not, Robbie, these same pups are all four weeks old before they even start learning to swim. Yet, for all that, they still grow up to be the most travelled of any sea creatures.”
“Where do they go?” Robbie asked curiously.
“Out into the Atlantic Ocean,” Old Da told him. “And if they are bull selkies, they spend the whole of the first seven or eight years of their lives wandering all the seas of the world before they come back here to rejoin their own kind.”
Robbie sat watching the fishing lines they had cast, and thinking of all the selkie pups be had seen. They were such helpless little creatures, he remembered; and it was strange, very strange, to think of them growing up to be so adventurous.
“We’ll go and have a look at this year’s pups, will we?” he asked, and Old Da agreed, “Of course, Robbie. Come September or October when the pups are born, we’ll go off as usual and watch them to your heart’s content.”
And maybe then, Robbie thought secretly, he would get to do at last what be had always wanted to do – pick up one of the pups and hold it so that he could discover what a sealfeltlike. Old Da guessed what he was thinking, however, and said sternly, “But you’re not to try touching them, mind! You’ll only get a bite from their sharp little teeth, if you do that.”
“Who said I wanted to touch them?” protested Robbie, trying to look innocent. “And anyway, you’ll not getmerisking a walk into a nursery of selkie pups with two or three of those great, powerful selkies roaring away in the middle of it!”
“Now that’s wise,” Old Da remarked approvingly, and went on to talk of how he had learned about seals in his own young days.
So, in this way, Robbie managed to add quite a bit that summer to the store of information he already had about selkies; and when the menfolk came home for a weekend from the fishing station – which they occasionally did throughout thehaafseason – he began boasting to his father of all he had learned.
“Well,” remarked Peter after a while of patient listening to this, “I’m glad your Old Da is telling you useful things nowadays, as well as all those fanciful tales of his.”
Old Da chuckled at this remark. Then he turned to Finn Learson who had also been listening; and with his face growing serious again, he asked,
“And what doyouthink I should tell Robbie about selkies?”
Finn Learson smiled the little smile that made him look as if he were enjoying some secret joke.
“I think,” said he drily, “that you should tell him exactly as much as you think proper for him to know, for I also think that you are a very wise old man.”
“And you could be right at that,” remarked Old Da, looking hard at him.
Robbie stared at them both, wondering what lay behind this peculiar scrap of conversation; but nobody else seemed to notice anything unusual about it, and the weekend was so very quickly over that he had no time to ponder it as he would have liked.
Very shortly after that particular weekend, also, something else happened which put every other thought completely out of his mind. Old Da fell ill – very ill. And after a time it looked as if he would die.
There was nothing much wrong with Old Da at first â just a chill that he took after getting his feet wet one day; but it was soon plain that he could not throw off this chill, and Janet altered the sleeping arrangement so that he would have more room to toss and turn at night.
Elspeth, she decided, would move in beside herself, while Robbie took Elspeth's bed; yet even when this was done and Old Da had a bed to himself, he still could not get a peaceful night's sleep. His bones shook with the fever that was on him, his breath came hard and painful. Watching him, Janet feared for the worst; and quietly, without telling the young people what she was about, she sent word to Peter of his condition.
Each night after that she lay awake for a long time, uneasily listening to the way the old man's breath wheezed and rattled in his chest. Through the day, Robbie and Elspeth took turns to sit with him; but it was Robbie's company he liked best, and it was while he sat by the box-bed holding the hot, paper-thin old hand between his own strong young hands, that Robbie at last also realised his Old Da was dying.
This was a hard fact to face; and what made it harder was that Old Da seemed so anxious to talk to him, yet still could do no more than wheeze out a few words at a time. Robbie kept telling him to rest, not to bother talking; but still Old Da persisted, as if what he had to say was important â even urgent â and Robbie got the strangest feeling that he was trying to utter a warning of some kind.
For two days this went on. Then, on the evening of the second day, Old Da said in a clear and perfectly normal voice, “Robbie, listen to me.”
Robbie saw that his eyes were wide open, and quite calm. He waited for the next word, and Old Da said,
“I should have told you all before this, but I wasn't sure. Now I'm dying, and Imustspeak. Don't trust him, Robbie.Don't trust him.”
“Trust who?” asked Robbie, bewildered by this; and with his voice getting fainter now, Old Da answered, “Finn Learson.”
“But why not?” Robbie demanded. “You've got to have a reason for saying that, Old Da. Why shouldn't I trust him?”
Old Da struggled to sit up. “This is the reason,” he began. “It has to do with gold, Robbie, and dancing, and the crystal palace under the sea â”
Old Da's breath was wheezing painfully again, and Robbie was alarmed by this. It seemed to him too, that the old man was now talking very strangely, and so he said quickly, “I'll call my Mam.”
“No â my breath is going!” exclaimed Old Da, clutching at him. “Listen first, then tell the others. Tell Elspeth. She's the one in danger â”
“Mam!” interrupted Robbie, shouting, for he was in real fear now over the way Old Da was panting. “Come quick, Mam!”
“It has happened before,” Old Da's wheezing voice persisted faintly. “Listen, Robbie. There was another stranger like Finn Learson. He came ashore the way Finn Learson did, and the story about him was that he â¦”
Old Da's voice faded to nothing. He made a great effort to gather his breath again, and Janet came in at the door as he gasped, “The story was that he â”
“Story!” exclaimed Janet, with a scandalised look on her face. “What's this, Robbie? Have you no heart at all that you can let your poor Old Da waste his last breath on stories for you?”
“I didn't want him to do that,” Robbie protested. “I tried to hushhim, but hewouldspeak.”
“Well, he's quiet now,” said Janet, looking down at Old Da; and indeed he was quiet, for the effort of speaking to Robbie had quite exhausted him.
“Away you go, then,” Janet went on, “and I'll sit with him until he sleeps.”
Robbie nodded; then he leaned down to Old Da and said softly, “Goodnight, Old Da.”
Old Da looked up at him without making any further attempt to speak, but there was something in his eyes that made Robbie add, “I'll remember what you said â and I'll do as you told me.”
Old Da smiled, just a faint shadow of a smile, but enough to show he had understood; and Robbie went away feeling puzzled by what had happened, yet relieved that Old Da was no longer distressing himself by trying to talk.
That night, however, he found he could not sleep for thinking of what the old manhadsaid; and late, very late, when Janet and Elspeth were asleep and even Old Da's breathing had eased, he slipped from his bed and went outside.
It was not dark then, of course, otherwise he would never have gone out like this, for it is in the hours between sunset and sunrise that the trows are free to work their magic. The Shetlands lie so far north, however, that there is no darkness there in summer. All that happens is a dimming of the light when the sun sets, but the colours stay in the sky for a while. Then the sky becomes white for an hour or two before the next sunrise; and it was into this sort of white night that Robbie ventured.
A quick glance around showed him there were no trows in sight; but just in case there were any lurking invisibly around, he did as Old Da had taught him to do in such situations. He made the sign of the Cross on himself, and said aloud,“God be about me and all that I see.”
Immediately then, he knew he was safe, for these are wordsthat trows cannot bear to hear and so they scatter instantly at the sound of them. Without bothering any further about trowie magic, therefore, he climbed the hill above the voe, and sitting down on the grass there he tried to sort out all the questions that had kept running through his mind.
Had Old Da really been trying to tell him something? Something important? Had he really been trying to give warning of some danger that threatened Elspeth? Or had he simply been raving in the grip of his fever?
Robbie stared down at the silky-grey of the voe's waters, noticing the occasional seal which surfaced there; and vague memories of the stories Old Da used to tell him went chasing through his head â¦a crystal palace under the seaâ¦ Could there be such a thing?There was another stranger like Finn Learson.What stranger? And what had this other man to do with the crystal palace of the Great Selkie?
Robbie got tired at last of asking himself such questions, for he could not arrange any answers to them in a way that made sense. Besides which, he told himself, it was time he was going home again. There was a wash of pale gold across the white of thenorth-easternsky, and a rim of brighter gold on the horizon as the sun touched it again.
Dreamily, almost on the point of sleep at last, Robbie sat watching this rim of gold grow wider and brighter, and then was suddenly jerked wide awake again by the sight of his father's sixareen coming into the voe.
There was no doubt, either, that itwashis father's sixareen, for the sun was gilding the heads of the rowers and he could see it gleaming red off Nicol Anderson's red hair. Another moment or two and he could also see a head of hair that was the samesandy-goldcolour as Elspeth's and his own â his father's head, rising into the light then dropping back into shadow when he bent to the oar.
With a leap of excitement at his heart, Robbie gathered himselfto rise and run down to the shore. But even as he stirred, a sound broke the white and gold silence of the morning â the sound of Tam howling at the door of the Hendersons' house. And without being able to tell how or why this should be so, Robbie knew in that instant that his Old Da was dead.
On and on the howls went; and supposing his own life had hung on it, Robbie could not have moved then. As still as if he had been part of the hillside itself, he sat watching the boat coming to rest and all the men climbing out of it. His father was first out, jumping clear even before the boat's prow touched the shingle, and racing up the slope to the house. The other men stayed to beach the boat, then they too hurried up the slope.
All except one, Robbie saw; the big dark-haired one who was Finn Learson.
But that, he argued, feeling his mind beginning to come alive again â that was only natural. Finn Learson was no kin or neighbour to Old Da. He was a stranger, an incomer to Black Ness; and it was not proper for a stranger to thrust himself into a house of mourning.
Yet still the dark figure by the boat seemed somehow threatening to Robbie, and Old Da's words rang in his mind â“Don't trust him, Robbie. Don't trust him.”Then Finn Learson lifted his head and looked up the hill to where Robbie sat. He moved, and very leisurely began to climb the hill towards him.
Now, Robbie told himself, now was the time forhimto move â to run down the hill towards the house, to his father and mother and Elspeth, to his friend Nicol, and all the other men, to the people he knew and trusted. And then he asked himself why,whyshould he run? What did he have to fear from Finn Learson?
There was no answer to this question. There was nothing except a big man coming towards him, dark and tall against the sun â and fear in his heart; a fear he could not understand or explain.
Finn Learson was almost up on him now, and still he sat wherehe was. Then Finn Learson was standing looking down at him, and saying in his deep, pleasant voice, “The news is bad, it seems.”
“Aye,” Robbie answered flatly. “Old Da is dead.”
“That's bad â thatisbad,” said Finn Learson, sighing and shaking his head.
Robbie stared up at him, trying to make out the expression on his face, but the sun was still behind Finn Learson, and it was only a patch of shadow that met Robbie's eye.
There was a long silence, then Finn Learson spoke again, still very mildly and pleasantly.
“Were you much with him before he died, Robbie?”
Why? Robbie wondered to himself.Why did Finn Learson want to know that? “Old Da liked my company,” he said aloud. “I sat with him a lot.”
“I know, I know. You were his favourite.” Finn Learson said this so soothingly that Robbie felt sudden tears pricking his eyelids. For a moment, indeed, he almost forgot to feel wary. Then Finn Learson dropped to one knee beside him, and for the first time, Robbie saw his face.
“And he told you things, didn't he, Robbie?” the face said.
Its voice was still quiet and soothing. The face itself was young and handsome. Yet still Robbie shrank back from it, for the eyes â the gleaming, dark eyes in the face, were hard as stone; and he was mortally afraid of them.
“What did he tell you, Robbie?” the face persisted. And with Old Da's “Don't trust him. Don't trust him” ringing now like a peal of bells in his head, Robbie gathered every ounce of courage he possessed, and answered firmly, “Nothing! My Old Da told menothing!”7. Funeral Magic
It was two days later that the funeral of Old Da Henderson took place, and he was a man who had been so popular that this was a great occasion.
All the men of Black Ness came home from thehaafthat day. There was a tremendous gathering of other mourners as well, and in spite of their own grief for Old Da, the Hendersons were pleased by such respect. They were also determined to carry out all the old funeral customs of the island the way Old Da would have wanted them to do; and so, just before they were all about to start for the burying-ground, Peter came out of the house carrying the straw from the mattress of Old Da’s bed.
The minister was out there with his Bible under his arm. All the mourners stood silently gathered, with the coffin in their midst. Robbie was waiting with a lit torch in his hand, and when his father had set the straw on the ground, he thrust this torch into the heart of it.
Now this custom of burning the bed straw of a dead man – thelikstraw, as it was called – was a very ancient custom on the island. It was also very superstitious, for everyone there believed that a footprint could sometimes be seen in the ashes of thelikstraw; and this footprint would show which member of the dead man’s family would be next to die.
Naturally enough, therefore, the minister would have nothing to do with such a custom, which he thought was very unchristian. He stood well back from the fire to show his disapproval of it; and since Finn Learson was a stranger to the island and its customs, healso took care to stand back from the fire. Everyone else, however, got as close as they could to it, and every eye was fastened intently on the flames.
For a few moments the straw burned fiercely, then the flames sank and dwindled quickly to nothing more than a lick of fire. A thin column of smoke rose from the smouldering ash, drifting and slowly unwinding in the still summer air. But now the mourners were no longer silent, for they could see a bird winging heavily towards this smoke – a black bird, like a crow, but much bigger than any crow.
It was a raven – the bird of ill omen, the bird with the hoarse and arrogant cry that foretells death, and the mourners muttered fearfully to one another at its approach. They muttered again as it pitched down to light on the roof of the Hendersons’ house. And standing by with a face as sour as if he had been sucking a lemon, the minister opened his Bible to show how much he disapproved of this further show of superstition.
The Henderson family, however, did not hear the mourners and they did not heed the minister; for now the ash was settling, soft and grey, with the last trace of red gone from it. And there, in the middle of all the little mounds and hollows of its final pattern, was the clearly-marked shape of a footprint.
The shape was a small and neat one – the print of a girl’s shoe; and staring at it like someone in a dream, Elspeth recognised it for her own. Slowly she lifted one foot and advanced it towards the ashes. Carefully she set the foot down again, and the sole of her shoe fitted perfectly into the shape of the print.
Janet went sheet-white at this, for it was not in the natural order of things, of course, that anyone so young as Elspeth should be the next in the family to die. Peter and Nicol Anderson were also much shaken by this turn of events, and each of them put out a hand to draw Elspeth hastily back from the ash.
“It can’t be!” said Janet then, staring in dismay at Peter as shespoke. “Elspeth’s so much younger than either of us – it can’t be her turn next!”
This was altogether too much for Elspeth, who gave a little cry and slid in a dead faint to the ground.
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Nicol in dismay; and Janet shouted, “Then help me to undo it, will you, instead of just standing there like a great, stupid gowk!”
As usual with men in such situations, however, Nicol had no ideas at all in his head. Peter was equally useless, and seizing hold of Robbie, Janet commanded, “Off to the house with you, and get some water!” Then shoving Robbie away from her, she got down on her knees beside Elspeth.
Robbie’s mind was all in a daze over what had happened; but he took off instantly, all the same, and was back in less than a minute with a jug of water in his hand. The situation had changed, however, even in that short time, for now it was Nicol who knelt beside Elspeth. Elspeth herself had come round from her faint, and Nicol was raising her from the ground. Finn Learson had stepped forward to help him with this, and the minister was stalking back and forth raging at everyone.
“No one with any sense would believe such superstitious nonsense!” he shouted, and Nicol said awkwardly, “Of course, minister, of course. And Elspeth will be fine now.”
Elspeth, however, was still far from fine, and she could see very well the doubt and fear on all the faces around her. Piteously she glanced around for further comfort, and realised that Finn Learson was smiling at her.
“Doyouthink the minister is right?” she asked him, and cheerfully he told her, “I’ll tell you what I think! You will live to wed the man of your choice, and you will be rich when you wed. And what is more, you will be beautiful to the end of your days!”
“Thank heaven for one man with common sense!” the minister exclaimed; but it flashed across Robbie’s mind then that Elspethwould not be rich if she married Nicol Anderson.
Nicol had the same thought, it seemed, for he flushed to the roots of his red hair as Finn Learson spoke, and tried to draw Elspeth back towards himself. Elspeth had listened eagerly to Finn Learson’s words however; and now, with a flush of hope on her face, she brushed Nicol’s hand away.
“Is that truly how it will be?” she asked Finn Learson. “Are you sure of that?”
Finn Learson fixed her gaze with his own bright, dark brown one. “As sure as anyone can be of anything,” he told her; and the minister echoed, “Of course he’s sure! And now, for goodness’ sake, lassie, let him take you back to the house to have a rest while we get on with the real business of the day!”
“I’ll take her,” said Nicol, looking annoyed at this.
“You will not,” the minister told him, glaring. “He is not a member of my parish, but you are. And you will stay here with the rest to listen to what I have to say now!”
Nicol scowled at this, but dared not disobey; and while Finn Learson took Elspeth off, talking soothingly to her all the while, the minister gave everyone a fierce lecture on the folly of letting superstition rule their lives.
So the whole business of thelikstraw came to an end, with everyone feeling so shamed by the panic it had caused that they were only too anxious to put it all behind them. Besides which, there was something else happened that day which very quickly took the thoughts of the Henderson family in quite another direction.
It was an hour or so after the funeral that this second event took place. The minister had gone stalking off with his Bible under his arm and a face as sour as ever. The mourners had all scattered to their own homes. The sixareens of the men who had come home from thehaaffor the funeral had sailed away out of the voe, and the only boat left drawn up on the shingle wasPeter’s sixareen.
It was to make sure Elspeth had recovered from her fright that Peter had lingered. But, as it happened, he need not have bothered about this. Elspeth was so much herself when they got back to the house that she had made tea for everyone; and so now Peter and his crew were sitting around in the but end, having a last cup of this tea and a last talk about Old Da before they also took their departure.
Finn Learson was there too, of course, but he sat in a far corner keeping himself to himself as usual. Robbie was another who took no part in this last talk, since he had gone to the window to watch the seals in the voe while he thought his own thoughts about Old Da.
It was still Robbie, however, who brought the conversation to an end, for his view from the window showed him a boat coming swiftly into the voe; and as this boat came closer to the shore, he realised something that sent a great thrill of alarm through him. Quickly he swung round from the window and shouted above the sound of all the other voices in the room, “Da, listen! There’s a boat coming into the voe, and I think it’s the Press Gang that’s in it!”
Now this was bad news – very bad news indeed, for the Press Gang was the crew that captured men for forced service in the Navy; and this was a fate to be dreaded in those days when life aboard a naval warship was such a hard and brutal affair. Moreover, with all the men of the islands being naturally good seamen, the Press Gang was especially active there. And so, to every man in the room then, Robbie’s shout was a warning of desperate and immediate danger.
A moment of deathly silence followed Robbie's warning, then Peter headed a mad rush for the window.
“Itisthe Press Gang,” said he, staring in dismay at the boat in the voe. “And we're trapped here, because their boat is between us and the open sea. We can't escape to the hills, either, because they'd sight us the instant we're out the door â and already they have the house within range of their pistols!”
“Then we'll just have to risk being shot,” Nicol declared. “Better to make a run for the hills, Peter, than stay lamely here to be taken.”
“No!” Finn Learson spoke suddenly, surprising them all with the first word he had uttered since the funeral. Every face turned towards him, and calmly he went on,
“There's no need to take such a risk, Nicol. Stay here, and â”
“But we're trapped if we stay here,” Nicol interrupted angrily. “You heard Peter say that!”
“I did,” agreed Finn Learson, calm as ever. “But Peter was wrong, for you can still escapeif you stay here long enough to let me draw them away from the beach.Make a dash for the sixareen then; head out to sea, and that will be you well clear of danger!”
“But they're certain to capture you, if you do that,” Nicol protested. “And that means you'll be the sacrifice for all of us.”
Finn Learson moved to the door, smiling his strange and secret little smile as he went. “It doesn't mean anything of the kind,” he answered. “Not with the gameIwill play! And don't wait for me once you have the chance to escape, for I'll easily find my own way back to the fishing station. And that's where I'll meet you allagain.”
He had the door open with this, and was gone before anyone could say another word. Nicol stared after him, frowning, and then said flatly,
“He's a fool. He'll be one against twenty out there!”
This started another rush for the window, but Peter soon put a stop to that.
“Get back from there!” he shouted. “Can you not see he wants them to think he is the only man in the house, and that it will spoil his plans if they noticeyourfaces at the window?”
The crew of the sixareen fell back from the window, casting sheepish looks at one another; and Peter told them,
“That's better. But we still need a look-out to tell us what's happening â and so, onyougo, Robbie. They'll not think anything of a boy watching them!”
Robbie darted to the window, and saw the Press Gang's boat only a few yards from the shore.
“The boat's coming in fast,” he reported. “It's nearly there!”
“And Finn Learson?” Peter demanded. “What's he doing?”
“Nothing yet,” Robbie answered. “He's just sauntering down to the beach as if he hadn't a thought in his head except to pass the time of day with the Press Gang!”
“Then they'll have him for sure,” Peter exclaimed. “There's not a chance he'll escape now.”
“That's the way it looks,” Robbie agreed. “Their boat's almost touching â¦ It's in! It's grounded on the shingle!”
The men in the boat began leaping ashore, waving and calling to the tall figure sauntering to meet them. Finn Learson called cheerfully in reply; and with broad grins at the thought of someone too stupid or too ignorant to run from them, the men of the Press Gang scrambled forward over the shingle.
Still Finn Learson did not run. The distance between him and the Press Gang narrowed to a few feet, and the officer who led thechase stretched out a hand to seize him.
“They're grabbing him!” Robbie shouted. But even as the words left his lips, Finn Learson leaped back out of the officer's reach. “But they've missed!” Robbie added triumphantly. “And he's running now â running just ahead of them along the beach.”
“Get ready to move,” Peter warned the rest of the crew, and they all gathered around him at the door of the but end.
Down on the beach the Press Gang continued to chase after Finn Learson, laughing like men playing a game as they ran clumsily over the shingle. And itwasonly like some horrible game to them, Robbie realised, for it still looked as if they would have no trouble in capturing him.
He was keeping ahead of them, but only just ahead; and with every step of the chase it looked as if theymustseize hold of him. Yet still, every time a hand was about to close on him, he seemed to melt out of its grasp as if he were no more solid than smoke. Then once again, he was magically that little bit ahead; and as Robbie stared in fascination at this, Peter urged, “Come on, boy. Tell us what's happening now.”
“Finn Learson's playing the wounded bird,” Robbie answered them, for that was exactly what Finn Learson was like â a bird trailing along with a pretence of a broken wing that would make it an easy capture, and all the time leading its pursuers further and further away from its nest. “But it's the way he's doing it, Da! It's like magic the way he's just not there when they grab at him!”
“Leave imagination out of this, and stick to facts,” Peter said grimly. “Are they far enough away from the sixareen yet?”
“No, but they soon will be,” Robbie told him, for now Finn Learson had reached the grassy slope that led from the beach to the cliffs rising on one side of the voe, and the pace of the hunt was quickening. The officer in charge of the Press Gang was losing patience with it too, and suddenly it was no longer a game as he spread out his men and began to close them like a net around FinnLearson.
But even this did not succeed, for suddenly also, Finn Learson was escaping from the net with an ease that seemed more than ever magical; for now he was moving so fast that his feet seemed to skim the ground with no effort at all, and he was no longer like a man running. He seemed to be flying, instead; and far from closing in on him, the men of the Press Gang were being left well behind.
The officer in charge of them drew his pistol and pointed it at the flying figure.
“They're shooting at him!” Robbie cried, and instantly Peter ordered the others, “Run for the boat! And shout as you run, to draw their attention off him!”
The shot from the officer's pistol sounded at that moment, and flinging open the door of the but end, Peter rushed outside. The others piled after him, yelling at the tops of their voices and running as hard as they could for the beach. The men of the Press Gang turned towards the sound of the yells; and crowding to the door to watch from there, Robbie and Janet and Elspeth saw them shaking their fists at the way they had been tricked.
Robbie took his last look at Finn Learson disappearing far into the distance, and then turned his attention to the voe. Half of the sixareen's crew had already got their boat pushed out and were holding it steady. The others were busy setting the Press Gang's boat adrift. The Press Gang, meanwhile, were running back to the beach, firing their pistols as they ran. But Finn Learson had taken them a good bit out of range, and well before they were within real firing distance, the sixareen was pulling strongly out into the voe.
“They'll be well out to sea before the Press Gang can gettheirboat back,” Janet decided then. “They're safe now!” And smiling with relief at this, she went back into the house to wash the teacups.
Elspeth stayed to watch the Press Gang's rage at finding their boat afloat in the voe. “That Finn Learson,” she remarked; “it was some trick he played them!” Then, a little scornfully, she added, “It's a pityNicol couldn't have been so clever.”
“That's not fair,” said Robbie, flying immediately to Nicol's defence. “Nicol was brave enough to want to make a break for the hills. And anyway, he couldn't have played the wounded bird â not the way Finn Learson did, for it was like magic the way he kept slipping through their hands. And it was like magic, too, the turn of speed he put on at the end of the chase.”
“You'll be in trouble if Mam hears you talking nonsense like that,” Elspeth told him sharply. “You know she's forever complaining about the way you let your imagination run away with you.”
“And you'll be in trouble too, if you let Nicol hear you say such things about him,” Robbie retorted. “He might even think twice about marrying you then!”
“And who said I wanted to marry Nicol?” Elspeth demanded.
Robbie stared at her. “But I thought â” he began, and Elspeth interrupted, “Oh, yes. Everybody thinks I want to marry Nicol because he wants to marry me. Well, maybe I did at one time. But maybe now I'll marry somebody quite different. Somebody â¦”
“Well?” demanded Robbie, as Elspeth's voice tailed off. “Who's this somebody?”
Elspeth smiled to herself. “Somebody rich,” she said teasingly. “What do you think of that, Robbie?”
“I think you're daft,” Robbie told her. But lying in his box-bed that night when all the excitement was over, he remembered that it was Finn Learson who had put this idea into her head in the first place.You will live to wed the man of your choice, and you will be rich when you wed.That was what he had said to her at Old Da's funeral. And now, thought Robbie, it sounded very much as if be had been encouraging her in this same idea of a rich marriage!
For a while longer he lay thinking about this, and wondering how far Elspeth might have believed anything Finn Learson had told her since the funeral. The uncanny way Finn Learson had avoided the Press Gang came back to his mind. Old Da's warning,Don't trust him,rang in his head, and sleep began to seem very far away.
But maybe Elspeth was wakeful too, he thought; and if she was, he would have a word with her about it. Then he would know for sure ifshehad trusted Finn Learson! Cautiously, quietly, Robbie slid open the door panel of his bed, and looked across the ben room.
The door panel of Elspeth's bed was open. She was sleeping, lying very still with her hands on the cover and her long hair spread out like a fan on the pillow behind her. The white night of summer had crept into the ben room to lie pale across her, making her face ghostly, turning the gold of her hair to silver; and seeing her like this, a strange idea seized hold of Robbie.
Thelikstraw and the raven, he thought, had foretold death for Elspeth; but Finn Learson had said she would live to wed the man of her choice. And now, lying there all white and silver in the white night, she was indeed like a girl dressed for her bridal. But she still did not look like Elspeth asleep. She looked like the ghost of Elspeth âlike Elspeth already dead!
Shivering, Robbie closed the door panel of his own bed, and was immediately enclosed again in safe, warm dark. Yet still this did not shut out the vision of Elspeth dressed for some deathly bridal. Still it did not banish the uneasy feeling that the vision was linked in some way to his own sense of something uncanny about Finn Learson.
Tossing about and about as he tried once more to sleep, Robbie thought miserably that Old Da would have understood this uneasiness. But Old Da was dead. And so now there was no one who would understand, no one at all he could turn to; for now there was no one except himself who even suspected there was anything uncanny about Finn Learson.9. Deep Water
It was at harvest time each year that thehaafseason ended and all the men came home to Black Ness. Finn Learson got a hero’s welcome then, of course, and he rose even higher in Peter and Janet’s favour when he offered to stay on to help with the harvest ontheircroft. Even when this work was over, however, he still lingered, and the reason for this was soon plain. It was Elspeth who had been the attraction for him all along, it seemed, for now he was beginning to court her with all the charm at his command.
There were various opinions about this situation, of course. Nicol was furious about it, but Elspeth was delighted to have no less than two handsome young men courting her. The rest of the folk in Black Ness saw no harm in it at all – how could they, indeed, when they were all still of the opinion that any strangeness about Finn Learson was due to his being a foreigner?
Only Robbie thought differently, and he was utterly dismayed by the idea that Elspeth might even consider marrying Finn Learson. But supposing she did, he argued to himself, that would make nonsense of the words,You will be rich when you wed; for how could Elspeth be rich if she married Finn Learson, any more than she would be if she married Nicol?
The weeks after harvest time slid by with Robbie still uneasily pondering this; and meanwhile, Peter and Janet agreed that they were still glad to see Finn Learson staying on with them. He was a great help on the croft, after all, and he was company for Peter now that Old Da was dead and Nicol had turned so awkward over this courtship business. Moreover – as they were both fond of saying –the favours were far from being all on their side, considering what they owed him over the matter of the Press Gang.
Indeed, it seemed to Robbie, things had now got to the stage where Finn Learson could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes; and since the same Robbie had a great respect for his parents, he began at last to wonder if his own thoughts about Finn Learson might perhaps be a bit on the foolish side.
After all, as he had to admit to himself, he had no really good grounds for these thoughts – just his own imagination, in fact, and the last rambling words of a sick old man. Besides which, he was finding Finn Learson a much more talkative man now that Old Da was dead, and quite willing to speak in a friendly way of the roving life he had led.
“Once, on the shores of Greenland,” he told Robbie, “a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound in my shoulder …”
Then on he went, spinning many another tale of strange adventures in far countries. And never once did Robbie dream that all this friendliness might be just a device for drawing him into the same snare of charm that had already begun to hold Elspeth!
There was something else, too, which lulled Robbie’s fears at that time and drove other forms of imagining from his mind, for it was in the slack season after harvest each year that he went to school. And that particular year, he had begun to study navigation.
Now this was a subject which could take a Shetland boy far – perhaps even as far as commanding his own whaling ship – and Robbie thought it would be a grand thing to sail north, and ever northwards, in pursuit of the great whale. So it happened that he began to think ever less about Finn Learson; and it was with grand dreams of whaling ships in his head that he set off each day for the schoolhouse on the far side of the hill to study with the rest of the boys in Black Ness.
This left him with only weekends for the other great interest which always occupied him at that time of the year, and which was therefore another thing that took his mind off Finn Learson; for it was then – from about the middle of September to the end of October – that all the selkie pups were born.
Robbie knew every place where these were to be found, of course, from all the previous years he had gone with Old Da to visit them. And so, every Saturday he could persuade his father to let him have the boat, he was away by himself to the cliffs rising steeply from the west side of the voe.
This was where the sea had made deep cuts in the rock face – the kind of cut with a name that is sounded “yoe,” although it is spelt “geo.” This was where the great, dark-grey bull seals came ashore to fight for mastery of the shingle beach at the inner end of each geo. This was where the sleek and shining cow seals came ashore also, to have their pups. And this was where Robbie hoped one day to realise his great longing to pick up one of these pups so that he could learn what a seal felt like.
Not that he would take any risks in that, he assured himself when he remembered Old Da’s warnings and felt his conscience pricking him. To begin with, he would choose a small geo where there was only likely to be a small nursery of pups with a few cow seals and probably only one bull seal. Also, he would not go ashore at all if the bull was there to guard the beach, and he would take care to hold the pup so that it could not possibly bite him.
With all this in mind then, Robbie fixed that year on a geo that exactly suited his purpose; and patiently every Saturday he visited it, until at last there came the moment he had planned. Eight white seal pups lay on the tiny beach at the inner end of the geo. There was no sign of the bull seal which usually lay roaring there – no sign even of a single cow seal flopping about on the beach, or sliding gracefully through the water.
With his heart hammering out a great drumbeat on his ribs,Robbie let the boat ground gently on the shingle. Steppingknee-deepinto the water, he edged the prow on to the stones. Then, moving as silently and cautiously as possible, he approached the nearest of the pups and knelt beside it.
The pup’s fur was thick and wet; but the wetness did not seem to bother it, for it was sound asleep, lying on its back with its flippers in the air. Robbie stared at the sleeping pup. It was the first time he had seen one at such close quarters, and he could feel the desire to touch it becoming quite overpowering. Gently he reached out a hand, and laid it on the thick, white fur.
The pup’s great, round eyelids snapped open. Its mouth opened also, showing two rows of very white, very sharp teeth. Rolling quickly over on to its belly, it made an angry, hissing noise at Robbie. Then, with strong, rapid movements of its flippers, it began pulling itself away from him. Robbie stared after it, swallowing his disappointment as best he could before he turned to the next pup.
This one was also lying on its back, and it seemed even more sound asleep than the first pup had been, for it hardly stirred at all when Robbie ventured a gentle hand on its fur. Cautiously he knelt beside it. With his right hand supporting himself on the shingle, he let his left hand travel slowly, very slowly, across the pup’s soft, wet fur. And slowly, slowly, as Robbie’s fingers caressed it, the pup awakened.
It stretched, tail and flippers quivering. It made little, contented mewing noises, and its head rolled round to rest against Robbie’s right forearm. Its eyes opened; great, dark-brown, shining eyes as round as buttons, that stared soulfully up at him.
Robbie began to tremble with the effort not to laugh at this look. The pup was still leaning its head against his right arm, and when he thought he had control of himself, he slipped his left arm around the other side of its body. Carefully then, he gathered the pup clear of the shingle; and rose, holding it cradled in his arms.
It was astonishingly heavy, he found, for such a young creature.And even more astonishing was the heat that came from its damp little body. Holding it, thought Robbie, was like holding a little furnace against his chest.
The black nails on the underside of the pup’s flippers caught his attention, and he put one finger against them to see what it would do. Immediately it bent its flipper so that it could grip the finger with these nails, and there was such strength in the grip that Robbie realised there was no way of breaking it except by laying the pup down. Unwillingly, he did so, and then saw the reason for the power of the pup’s grip as it bent its flippers again and used the nails to pull itself rapidly away over the shingle.
The other pups on the beach were all awake, their heads turning towards him, their bright, brown-button eyes staring. Robbie approached them one by one, stopping gently, going down on one knee beside them; but the pups would have none of him. They hissed, showing rows of sharp white teeth as the first pup had done. Even the pup he had lifted was unfriendly, now that it was wide awake and could sense the alarm of the others; and resigning himself to this at last, Robbie walked back to the boat.
But still, he told himself, he had done what be had set out to do. He had discovered at last what a selkiefeltlike, and so he had learned something that even Old Da had never been able to teach him – quite apart from which, it had been fun to hold the pup!
Feeling greatly pleased with himself as he came to this conclusion, Robbie considered what he could do next, and wondered if he should head for one of the big geos where he knew there was a nursery of over fifty pups. He could take the boat into the geo, he thought, and from a safe distance there he could watch the three bull selkies that roared challenges to one another as they guarded the beach. And he could count the pups, to see if any more had been born since his last visit!
This last thought decided him on what he wanted to do, and bending strongly to the oars, he headed for the big geo.
It was not far away. Twenty minutes of rowing like this brought him to the entrance channel, and with careful strokes, he backed the boat through this narrow passage. In the wider water beyond, he turned the boat; then, gently feathering as Old Da had taught him, he sat staring at every detail in the scene around him.
The water lapping the boat was deep and green, the colour of melted emeralds. The high cliff walls of the geo were wet black, streaked with dull green veins of serpentine. The upward slope of the shingle beach at the geo’s inner end was backed by a great jumble of larger stones; and above this jumble, the empty mouth of a cave yawned, huge and black.
On the beach itself, three bull seals reared up, bellowing at one another. And everywhere around the great, greyish-black forms of the bulls, right from the mouth of the cave down to the edge of the emerald water, was a mass of cow seals and their pups.
The sight of the boat had already sent these cow seals heading for the water; and soon, as Robbie rowed closer inshore, they were gliding all around him. He had other things on his mind at that moment, however, and paying no attention to the graceful forms of the cow seals, he prepared for his count of the pups.
He would have to stand up in the boat to make this count, he decided; otherwise, he would not get a clear view of the pups that lay among the big boulders at the back of the beach. But standing up in the boat need not unbalance it, of course – not if he used the trick he had learned along with all the other boys of Black Ness playing around with boats in the shallows of the voe.
Carefully slipping one of his oars on this decision, Robbie slid the other one over the stern of the boat. Then, rising to his feet and holding this second oar almost upright against the stern, he made quick, gentle little movements that sent the boat sculling steadily along the line of the shore.
The three bull seals roared again, as if in astonishment at this sight. The pups kept up a shrill mewing for their vanished mothers;and, rearing chest-high out of the water, the cow seals themselves began to make the sort of noise that cow seals do make at this particular time of the year.
Robbie quite forgot to count then, for this noise from the cow seals was a high, sweet one that sounded like human voices sliding up a scale and echoing eerily between the steep walls of the geo. Also, it was something he had never heard before, in spite of all the times he had watched seals, and he was quite entranced by it. Maybe, he thought, it was this that Old Da had been thinking about when he told that long-ago story about selkie singing …
Then suddenly at the back of his mind, he found a different sort of memory stirring. Hehadheard this noise before, he realised. It was the singing sound he had heard from his father’s fiddle on Finn Learson’s first night on the island!
The boat began to rock under him as his mind wandered further down this track, and he sculled fast to try to bring it back to an even keel. It swung in a half-circle, bringing him round to face the cliff at the inner end of the geo; but where the line of the clifftop had been bare a moment before, there was now a man standing. With a jerk of surprise, Robbie recognised the man as Finn Learson, and it was this startled movement that finally cost him his balance.
The boat rocked wildly, snatching the oar from his grasp, and he pitched overboard. The emerald water closed over him. The boat was spun away by the force of his splashing plunge, and he surfaced with his mouth open on a yell, for the water was very deep and he could not swim so much as a single stroke.
A shout from the clifftop answered his yell, but Robbie was struggling too madly to hear this. Water sang in his ear. Water blurred his vision, so that black cliff and grey sky and emerald water became nothing but colours jumbling in a confused mass around him. Yet still he managed to gulp enough air to keep from choking; for the fact of the matter is that even a person in Robbie’s position can stay afloat like this for a good minute before he goesright under.
No one had ever toldhimthis, however, and so the terror of drowning was like a frenzy on him. Moreover, he was too blinded by water to see Finn Learson starting down towards him, and leaping swift as a cat from ledge to ledge on the cliff face.
Half-way down the cliff Finn Learson paused, balanced for a blink of an eye on his perch, then dived; and Robbie’s first hint of rescue was the splash and surging backwash of this dive. A second later he felt a hand catch hold of his hair. An arm closed round him, pinning his threshing hands to his sides. A voice breathed in his ear.