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Authors: Alistair MacLean

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The Lonely Sea

BOOK: The Lonely Sea
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Alistair Maclean
The Lonely Sea

Collected Short Stories


Three hours gone, Mr MacLean, three hours—and never a word of the lifeboat.

You can imagine just how it was. There were only the four of us there—Eachan, Torry Mor, old Grant, and myself. Talk? Never a word among the lot of us, nor even the heart of a dram—and there on the table, was a new bottle of Talisker, and Eachan not looking for a penny.

We just sat there like a lot of stookies, Seumas Grant with his expressionless face and yon wicked old pipe of his bubbling away, and the rest of us desperately busy with studying the pattern of the wallpaper. Listening to the screech of the wind, we were, and the hail like chuckies battering against the windows of the hotel. Dhia! What a night that was! And the worst of it was, we couldn't do a thing but wait. My, but we were a right cheery crowd.

I think we all gave a wee bit jump when the telephone rang. Eachan hurried away and was back in a moment beaming all over. One look at yon great moonface of his and we felt as if the Pladda Lighthouse had been lifted off our backs.

‘Four glasses, gentlemen, and see's over the Talisker. That was the lightkeeper at Creag Dearg. The
Molly Ann
got there in time—just. The puffer's gone, but all the crew were taken off.'

He pushed the glasses over and looked straight at old Grant.

‘Well, Seumas, what have you to say now? The
Molly Ann
got there—and Donald Archie and Lachlan away over by Scavaig. Perhaps you would be saying it's a miracle, eh, Seumas?'

There was no love lost between these two, I can tell you. Mind you, most of us were on Eachan's side. He was a hard man, was old Seumas Grant. Well respected, right enough, but no one had any affection for him and, by Jove, he had none for us—none for anyone at all, except for Lachlan and Donald, his sons. For old Seumas, the sun rose to shine on them alone. His motherless sons: for them the croft, for them the boat, for them his every waking thought. But a hard man, Mr Maclean. Aloof and—what's the word?—remote. Kept himself to himself, you might say.

‘It's a miracle when anyone is saved on a night like this, Eachan.' Old Grant's voice was slow and deep.

‘But without Donald and Lachlan?' Eachan pressed. Torry, I remember shifted in his seat, and I looked away. We didn't care for this too much—it wasn't right.

‘Big Neil's weel enough in his own way,' Grant said, kind of quiet. ‘But he'll never be the lifeboat coxswain Lachie is—he hasn't got the feel of the sea—'

Just then the hotel door crashed open, nearly lifted off its hinges by the wind. Peter the Post came stumbling in, heaved the door shut and stood there glistening in his oilskins. It only required one look at him to see that something was far wrong.

‘The lifeboat, Eachan, the
Molly Ann
!' he jerked out, very quick and urgent. ‘Any word of her yet? Hurry, man, hurry!'

Eachan looked at him in surprise.

‘Why surely, Peter. We've just heard. She's lying off Creag Dearg and…'

‘Creag Dearg! Oh Dhia, Dhia, Dhia!' Peter the Post sunk down into a chair and gazed dully into the fire. ‘Twenty miles away—twenty miles. And here's Iain Chisholm just in from Tarbert farm—three miles in four minutes on yon big Velocette of his—to say that the Buidhe ferry is out in the middle of the Sound, firing distress rockets. And the
Molly Ann
at Creag Dearg. Mo chreach, mo chreach!' He shook his head slowly from side to side.

‘The ferry!' I said stupidly. ‘The ferry! Big John must be smashed mad to take her out on a night like this!'

‘And every boat in the fishing fleet sheltering up by Loch Torridon like enough,' said Torry bitterly.

There was a long silence, then old Grant was on his feet, still puffing away.

‘All except mine, Torry Mor,' he said, buttoning up his oilskins. ‘It's God's blessing that Donal' and Lachie went to Scavaig to look over this new drifter.' He stopped and looked slowly around. ‘I'm thinking I'll be needing a bit hand.'

We just stared at him, and when Eachan spoke it was like a man in a stound.

‘You mean you'll take yon old tub out in this, Seumas?' Eachan was staggered. ‘Forty years old if she's a day—and the seas like houses roaring straight down the Sound. Why, you'll be smashed to pieces, man—before you're right clear of the harbour mouth.'

‘Lachie would go.' Old Grant stared at the ground. ‘He's the coxswain. He would go—and Donal'. I canna be letting my boys down.'

‘It's suicide, Mr Grant,' I urged him. ‘Like Eachan says, it's almost certain death.'

‘There's no almost about it for the poor souls out on that ferry.' He reached for his sou'wester and turned to the door. ‘Maybe I'll be managing right enough.'

Eachan flung the counter-flap up with a crash.

‘You're a stiff-necked old fool, Seumas Grant,' he shouted angrily, ‘and you'll roast in hell for your infernal pride!' He turned back and snatched a couple of bottles of brandy from the shelves. ‘Maybe these'll come in handy,' he muttered to himself, then stamped out of the door, growling deep in his throat and scowling something terrible.

Mind you, the
—that was old Seumas Grant's boat—was a deal better than Eachan made her out to be. When Campbell of Ardrishaig built a Loch-Fyner, the timbers came out of the heart of the oak. And old Grant had added mild steel frames of his own and installed one of these newfangled diesels—a 44 hp Gardner, I remember. But even so.

Outside the harbour wall—you couldn't imagine it and you'll never see the like, not even in your blackest nightmares. Bitter cold it was and the whistling sleet just flying lumps of ice that lanced your face open to the bone.

And the Sound itself! Oh Dhia, that Sound! The seas were short and desperate steep, with the speed of racehorses, and the whole Sound a great sheet of driven milk gleaming in yon pitchy blackness. Man, it makes me shudder even now.

For two hours we headed straight up into it, and, Jove, what a wild hammering we took. The
Dileas would totter up on a wave then, like she was falling over a cliff, smash down into the next trough with the crack of a four-inch gun, burying herself right to the gunwales. And at the same time you could hear the fierce clatter of her screw, clawing at the thin air. Why the Dileas never broke her back only God knows—or the ghost of Campbell of Ardrishaig.

‘Are you seeing anything, boys?' It was old Grant shouting from the doghouse, the wind whipping the words off his lips.

‘There's nothing, Seumas,' Torry bawled back. ‘Just nothing at all.'

I handed the spotlight, an ancient Aldis, over to Eachan and made my way aft. Seumas Grant, his hands light on the wheel, stood there quietly, his face a mask of blood—when yon great, seething comber had buried the
and smashed in the window, he hadn't got out of the way quick enough.

But the old eyes were calm, steady, and watchful as ever.

‘It's no good, Mr Grant,' I shouted at him. ‘We'll never find anyone tonight, and nothing could have lived so long in this. It's hopeless, just hopeless—the
can't last out much longer. We might as well go back.'

He said something. I couldn't catch it, and bent forward. ‘I was just wondering,' he said, like a man
in a muse, ‘whether Lachie would have turned back.'

I backed slowly out of the wheelhouse, and I cursed Seumas Grant, I cursed him for that terrible love he bore for those two sons of his, for Donald Archie and Lachlan. And then—then I felt the shame, black and crawling, welling up inside me, and I cursed myself. Stumbling, I clawed my way for'ard again.

I was only halfway there when I heard Eachan shouting, his voice high and excited.

‘There, Torry, look there! Just off the port bow. Somebody in the water—no, by God, two of them!'

When the
heaved over the next crest, I looked along the beam of the Aldis. Eachan was right. There, sure enough, were two dark forms struggling in the water.

In three quick jumps I was back at the doghouse, pointing. Old Grant just nodded, and started edging the
across. What a skill he had with him, that old one! Bring the bows too far round and we'd broach to and be gone in a second in yon great gullies between the waves. But old Seumas made never a mistake.

And then a miracle happened. Just that, Mr MacLean—a miracle. It was the Sea of Galilee all over again. Mind you, the waves were as terrible as ever, but just for a moment the wind
dropped away to a deathly hush—and suddenly, off to starboard, a thin, high-pitched wail came keening out of the darkness.

In a flash, Torry had whipped his Aldis round, and the beam, plunging up and down, settled on a spot less than a hundred yards away—almost dead ahead. At first I thought it was just some wreckage, then I could see it was a couple of timber baulks and planks tied together. And lying on top of this makeshift raft—no, by God,
to it!—were a couple of children. We caught only flying glimpses of them: up one minute, down the next, playthings of the devil in yon madness of a sea. The poor wee souls. Oh Dhia! The poor wee souls.

‘Mr Grant!' I roared in old Seumas's ear. ‘There's a raft dead ahead—two wee children on it.'

The old eyes were quiet as ever. He just stared straight ahead: his face was like a stone.

‘I canna be picking up both,' he said, his voice level and never a touch of feeling in it, damn his flinty heart. ‘To come round in this would finish us—I'll have to quarter for the shelter of Seal Point to turn. Can the children be hanging on a while longer, do you think, Calum?'

‘The children are near gone,' I said flatly. ‘And they're not hanging on—they're

He looked quickly at me, his eyes narrowing.

‘Lashed, did you say, Calum?' he asked softly. ‘Lashed?'

I nodded without speaking. And then a strange thing happened, Mr MacLean, a strange thing indeed. Yon craggy old face of his broke into a smile—I can see yet the gleam of his teeth and the little rivers of blood running down his face—and he nodded several times as if in satisfaction and understanding…And he gave the wheel a wee bit spin to starboard.

The little raft was drifting down fast on us, and we had only the one chance of picking them up. But with old Seumas at the wheel that was enough, and Torry Mor, with one sweep of his great arm, had the children, raft and all, safely aboard.

We took them below and old Grant worked his way up to Seal Point. Then we came tearing down the Sound, steady as a rock—for in a heavy stern sea there's no boat on earth the equal of a Loch-Fyner—but never a trace of the two men did we see. A mile out from harbour old Seumas handed over to Torry Mor and came below to see the children.

They were sitting up on a bunk before the stove, wrapped in blankets—a lad of nine and a fair-haired wee lass of six. Pale, pale they were, and frightened and exhausted, but a good night's sleep would put them right.

Quietly I told old Grant what I'd learned. They'd been playing in a wee skiff, under the sheltered walls of the Buidhe harbour, when the
boy had gone too near the entrance and the wind had plucked them out to the open Sound. But they had been seen, and the two men had come after them in the ferryboat: and then, they couldn't turn back. The rest they couldn't remember: the poor wee souls they'd been scared to death.

I was just finishing when Eachan came below.

‘The wind's backing, Seumas, and the sea with it. Perhaps there's a chance for yon two—if they're swimmers at all—of being
carried ashore.

Old Seumas looked up. His face was tired, lined and—all of a sudden—old.

‘There's no chance, Eachan, no chance at all.'

‘How can you be so sure, man?' Eachan argued. ‘You never know.'

‘I know, Eachan.' The old man's voice was a murmur, a million miles away. ‘I know indeed. What was good enough for their old father was good enough for Donal' and Lachie. I never learned to swim—and neither did they.'

We were shocked into silence, I tell you. We looked at him stupidly, unbelievingly, then in horror.

‘You mean—' I couldn't get the words out.

‘It was Lachie and Donal' all right. I saw them.' Old Grant gazed sightlessly into the fire. ‘They must have come back early from Scavaig.'

A whole minute passed before Eachan spoke, his voice wondering, halting.

‘But Seumas, Seumas! Your own two boys. How could you—'

For the first and only time old Grant's self-control snapped. He cut in, his voice low and fierce, his eyes masked with pain and tears.

‘And what would you have had me do, Eachan? Pick them up and let these wee souls go?'

He went on, more slowly now.

‘Can't you see, Eachan? They'd used the only bits of wood in yon old ferryboat to make a wee raft for the children. They knew what they were doing—and they knew, by doing it, that there was no hope for themselves. They did it deliberately, man. And if I hadn't picked the wee craturs up, it—it—'

His voice trailed off into silence, then we heard it again, the faintest shadow of a whisper.

‘My two boys, Lachie and Donal'—oh, Eachan, Eachan, I couldna be letting them down.'

Old Grant straightened, reached out for a bit of waste, and wiped the blood from his face—and, I'm thinking, the tears from his eyes. Then he picked up the wee girl, all wrapped in her blankets, set her on his knee and smiled down gently.

‘Well, now, mo ghaol, and how would you be fancying a wee drop hot cocoa?'

BOOK: The Lonely Sea
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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