Little Grey Ships/That Night at the Skerries

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pp. 157–165.


By one of the lochs on the Atlantic side of the Outer Isles dwells an old fisherman with a new yarn, which none of his neighbours will believe. Admittedly, the yarn is of things most extraordinary; yet in these times, surely, the extraordinary is received more wisely with wonder than with scepticism. Even after two long years of bitter warfare, however, there are still indications that the country, in the wider sense of the word, contains persons to whose intelligence the war appeals in the vaguest fashion. As Angus, the old fisherman, says to his mockers: “Ye fools, ye do not know how near it is to ye.” So hurt and disgusted is he with the local reception of his story that he refuses to state whether or not he has told it to the proper authorities; and now it is far from easy to persuade him to give it in outline, much less recite it in detail. In short, old Angus has taken the huff. Until his return, on that blustery morning, from the Skerries, without a single lobster, he had enjoyed the reputation of a sober man and a truthful. To-day the politer of his neighbours say that he dreamed a very bad dream; the blunt sort dub him daft.

It is truly unfortunate that while not alone, he was yet, as shall presently be made clear, without a fellow-witness of the strange and gruesome happening about to be briefly—and, of course, with all reserve—set forth.

On that morning he and his partner, Donald, a stout, heavy-eyed, middle-aged person, rather deaf, were later than usual in putting to sea; in fact, it was close on noon when they hoisted sail for the run to the Skerries and lobster traps, fully twenty miles away. The weather was slightly showery, the breeze fresh and favourable, and they promised themselves one of the speediest trips on record there and back. They had no misgivings whatsoever as to the next four-and-twenty hours. Nevertheless it is a rare weather wisdom indeed that is never at fault in the Outer Isles. Before the Skerries were sighted, the wind had backed to the sou'-west, and by the time the black rocks were discernible, weltering, as it seemed, in the surging swell, it was blowing pretty stiffly under an ugly, threatening, yellowish sky.

The question of turning back was discussed, but without much heartiness on either side. The partners had been caught before, and in far dirtier weather. This was merely a summer blast that would soon and suddenly exhaust itself. Also, the lifting of the creels was already overdue, and the postal orders from the London merchant would be very welcome indeed. At the worst, they could anchor in the lee of the largest skerry, and there wait—wait with that wonderful, placid patience which the wind and sea had taught their souls and bodies through the souls and bodies of generations before them.

So rough and heavy was the swell when they reached the place of the creels that they determined to postpone the lifting until after the turn of the tide, then ebbing with several hours to go.... At a spot where they had lain once in the past they lowered sail and dropped the anchor, not ignoring the possibility of their having eventually to sacrifice the latter, with some fathoms of good rope, to the sunken reef below. They had secured for the present, however, comparative safety and shelter, though in that tugging, tumbling boat a landsman could have found neither moral nor bodily comfort of the slightest. Saving the surge-battered, foam-spattered skerry, with its floating fringes of brown weed and its satellites of all but submerged rocks, the Atlantic, as far as eye could discern in the dull atmosphere, was empty. There were no sounds besides the noise of many waters and the intermittent complaints of sea-birds.

In a silence, neither sullen nor thoughtful, but vaguely brooding, the two men made a meal of bread and cheese, finishing with a sup of water direct from a black quart bottle. Then deaf Donald, buttoning the neck of his oilskin coat over a very thick muffler, yawned and looked inquiringly at his partner. The old man shook his head, indicating that he did not want to sleep, and Donald, having replaced his peaked cap with a sou'wester, lost no time in curling down in the bottom of the boat and giving himself over to slumber.

It was now late in the afternoon and, under those lowering skies, almost as dusky as it would have been at midnight, at that season, in clear weather. Angus also donned his sou'wester and buttoned up. Rain, not a mere shower, was at hand. He sat along the stern thwart, his feet against the gunwale, jammed in that position. He lit his pipe, smoked it slowly, and continued drawing at it long after it had gone cold. At intervals he glanced around him, completing each survey with a keen look at the straining anchor rope. Between times his gaze rested idly on the large skerry which supplied their shelter, such as it was. There were grey seals on the skerry, but probably he did not notice them. He says he was thinking of nothing at all, at all. He was simply waiting, waiting until it should be possible to lift the creels with their black, writhing prisoners, worth in the aggregate maybe a sovereign, maybe thirty shillings. Donald snored blissfully.

The rain came. A long, fierce blatter subsided at last to a drear, driving fog that grew denser and denser, blurring the near waters, blotting out the rest.

Hours passed. The time of low water was nigh when Angus was abruptly roused from his apathy—which seems to be the only word for it, since he swears he was not even dozing. He was roused by a sound, not loud, but startling in all its strangeness to his ears. He was dumbfounded, he confesses—so much so that Donald's presence was not immediately remembered. The sound, far and faint at first, was a queer mixture of purring and crickling, with occasional pops, and it came from the fog—aloft; how high he could not guess. Oh, no; not so high as Ben Cleisham, the highest mountain in Harris—surely not 3,000 feet. Rapidly it drew nearer—and lower—and the purring became a soft roaring. Still nearer, and the noise was that of the flurry of a great flame at the fanning of a gale. It broke upon Angus that here was the Last Day, but that the Angel was late in sounding his trump. But a moment later a new sound was added—that of large bodies plunging into the sea, not a hundred fathoms from where he sat motionless and sweating. Four times he heard it; four times in quick succession, even as he had often heard a school of porpoises plunge on a still, warm, misty day. Yet the plunge was not quite like that of a porpoise. It was “thicker,” says Angus. And since he was a regular reader of a weekly paper, his mind jumped away to bombs.... But where were the explosions?

And nearer and lower came the mingling sounds, merging into a steady roaring flurry; nearer, lower, yet never so near, so low, that any shape loomed through the fog. But suddenly he thought he heard human voices, crying....

Out of the fog, down through the mirk, down upon the weedy verge of the skerry, a shape, large, sprawling, familiar, fell with a dull, horrid, squelching sound that made old Angus feel sick. On the weeds it moved—once—arching itself—and collapsed.

And thereupon Angus opened his mouth to yell to deaf, snoring Donald; but ere utterance could be made, the fog above him glowed, and upon his wet face he felt a warmth. In a moment it was past; the glow and warmth were gone; but the roaring flurry, now intermittent, and failing with the distance, continued, till of a sudden, with the shriek of ardent metal plunged in water, it ceased.

Angus threw himself from the thwart and frantically shook the sleeper.

“Donald!—your knife—cut the rope! See, yonder!”—-pointing to the dim, inert shape on the weedy verge—“A man! He fell...”

A wave, the first monster of the flowing tide, rolled up against the southern side of the skerry, up, up, and burst so high that tons of brine dashed down the other side, raging, frothing, back to the Atlantic. And when the weedy verge was visible again, lo! nothing lay there.

“I tell you,” says Angus wearily to the grinning face of Unbelief. “I tell you there wass an airship of the Germans, and she wass in trouble with her works, and she went out of her control, and then she went on fire, and she wass plown where God told His wind to plow her.... And men, Germans and all, will surely like petter to die in the water than in the flame. And that will pe all I can say.”