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Authors: Neil M. Gunn

The Silver Darlings

BOOK: The Silver Darlings
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THE SILVER DARLINGS

Neil M. Gunn

TO 
THE MEMORY OF 
MY FATHER

A
s Tormad tried to flick a limpet out of the boiling pot, he burnt his fingers, upset the pot, and spilt the whole contents over the fire, so that there was a sudden hissing with a cloud of ashes and steam.
Fortunately
the fire was outside, round the back of the cottage, where Catrine boiled clothes on her washing day.

“Did you ever see the beat of that?” he asked, hissing through his teeth and flailing his hand in the air.

It was so like him, and she so loved him, that she turned away.

He kicked the smouldering peats apart and began
retrieving
the limpets, which, being hot, stung him frequently. Holding one in the corner of his jacket, he gouged out its flesh easily with his thumb-nail. Whole and clean it came, and he cried: “They’re ready!” delighted after all with his judgement. “I’ll put the fire on for you,” he said, “in a whip,” as he scraped limpets and yellow ash together into a small rush basket.

“I don’t need it,” she answered. “Never mind. And what’s the good of blowing the ashes off that, you great fool?”

“Because I always like,” said Tormad, “to leave things neat and tidy.”

As he had probably never left anything neat and tidy in his life, Catrine turned from him towards the house. His lids lowered and his eyes glimmered in a dark humour, as following, he looked at her back and the carry of her fair
head. She was very light on the foot always, and could break into a run as quickly as she could laugh. When laughter beset her it doubled her up, but if anyone tried to catch her in the helpless middle of it, she would arch her waist and whirl off with a little abrupt yelp. He knew by the way she walked with her head up exactly how she was feeling. She did not want to break down, to discourage him, but the tears would beat her if they got half a chance. By keeping very busy and leaving the house at once, he would not give them the chance. In his twenty-four years he felt full of a great competence. Catrine was only nineteen.

“Yonder’s Ronnie,” he said, pausing for a moment at the door. “They’ll be waiting for me. Let me see, now. You have the scone and the drop of milk. There’s the net. And here’s the limpets.” He stood looking around their simple living-room, with its fire in the middle of the floor, and added, “Yes, that’s everything. I’ll be going.”

“All right, then,” she said calmly, standing quite straight, her shoulder to him.

He looked at her side face, his eyes going black. If a fly touched his sympathy, he might half-kill a man to save it. “Very well,” he said, “that’s fine.” He slung the net on to his left shoulder and balanced it, then lifted the limpets and the food. “You needn’t come down,” he said. “Don’t you come. There’s no need. Everything’s fine.”

“All right,” she answered.

He should have gone then, but the sympathy in him was his greatest weakness. He stood looking at her.

“Why don’t you go?” she asked sharply, without
turning
her head.

“Catrine,” he said gently, “why won’t you give me your blessing?”

“Why don’t you go?” she cried.

“Catrine——”

“Go!” she screamed. “Go!”

He took the step between them. “Catrine——”

“Oh, why don’t you go?” He felt her teeth biting at his
chest and her fingers digging into his back like little iron claws. The net fell from him and the small rush basket and the pocket of food. Her tears had won against her and were making her savage. Her sobs were tearing gulps.

He soothed her as best he could, and the Gaelic tongue helped him for it is full of the tenderest endearments. “You see,” he whispered in her hair, “it’s all for you—and
himself
. There’s nothing here, Catrine; nothing in this barren strip of land for us. And the men who are going to the sea are making money. Could I do less than them, when I have the strength in me not to see them in my way? Be
reasonable
now, Catrine, love of my heart, my little one, my wild, pigeon. Listen now. It’s your help I need….”

Under his talk she was quietening—indeed his words had brought a soft emotion into his own throat—and he thought they had never come so near to a grown-up
understanding
of life together, when suddenly, her fingers
gripping
his flesh, she threw her head back and looked right into his eyes. “I’ll never let you go,” she said. “I’ve got you. I’ll never let you go.” He knew her wayward moods. But this was something far beyond. It was hard and
challenging
, without any warmth. Her eyes were suddenly those of an enemy, deliberately calculating, cold as greed.

He looked away, not wanting to believe it, and said, “Don’t be foolish, Catrine.” Her fingers were hurting him. “Come, now, I’ll have to go.” He tried gently to free
himself
from her grasp; but she held on the more firmly. Her strength was astonishing. He made to take a step away. She twisted her legs round his legs, so that he staggered and they nearly fell. He appealed to her again, but she only increased her fighting hold, her teeth deep in his clothes. The strangling pressure on his neck was irking him.
Impatience
beset him. This was too much. He finally set his strength against her and tore her arms from his neck. “Why are you behaving like this?” he cried, crossing her writhing arms against her body. But she struggled like one possessed, in a wild fury, and he was panting when finally
he disentangled himself and left her on the clay floor
choking
with sobs, her face hidden.

Easing his neck, he looked about him and then down at the gathered heap she made. The anger in his mind was baffled and weary. After all he had done; selling his second beast to help buy the old boat and net; tearing the rocks out of the barren land; striving—striving … it was hard on a fellow. He bent down and heaved the net to his shoulder; lifted the limpets; stood for a moment looking at her; then, without a word, turned and walked out.

The ground sloped down to a narrow flatness before it tumbled over a steep face of earth and broken rock to the sea-beach. All that primeval hill-side of heath and whin and moss was slowly being broken-in to thin strips of cultivated land by those who lived in the little cabins of stone and turf dotted here and there with rounded backs like
earth-mounds
. They had come from beyond the mountain which rose up behind them, from inland valleys and swelling
pastures
, where they and their people before them had lived from time immemorial. The landlord had driven them from these valleys and pastures, and burned their houses, and set them here against the sea-shore to live if they could and, if not, to die.

The first year had been the worst. Many had died. Many had been carried away in empty lime ships. A great number had perished on the sea. But a greater number, it was
believed
, were alive in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in Canada and other lands, though fighting against dreadful
tribulations
and adversities. It had been a bitter and terrible time. Some said it had been brought upon them for their sins, and some said it had been a visitation of the Lord upon the world because of the wicked doings of the anti-Christ, Napoleon. But with Napoleon at last in St. Helena, the burnings and evictions went on; and as for their sins, to many of them, if not to all, it seemed that their lives had been pleasant and inoffensive in their loved inland valleys; and even in an odd year, when harvests had been bad and
cattle lean, even now the memory of it seemed lapped around with an increased kindliness of one to another.

Tormad’s heels sank into the earth. He was a heavy broad fellow, a little above the average in height, with black hair that sometimes glistened. His eyes were a very dark blue and had an expression in them exasperated and sad. He knew why his wife hated the sea, but she needn’t have gone to such lengths to show it. That first winter had been a terror. For one long spell, they had had little or nothing to live on but shell-fish and seaweed. Often they ate the wrong thing and colic and dysentery were everywhere. Old men, trying to live on nothing to give the young the better chance, had become unbelievably gaunt, so that children would sometimes run from them, frightened. What had preyed on Catrine’s mind more than anything was the death of her uncle. He had been one of the most heartening men in their little colony—for there were many such colonies along that wild coast—with the gaiety in him that was natural to Catrine herself. He had got nimble at hunting the waves and was daring anyhow. They had cleaned the shore to the lowest edge of the ebb, and one day, following the suction of the receding wave, he slipped, and, before he could get up, the next wave had him and sucked him over a shallow ledge. His arms lathered the water for a moment while horrified eyes watched. Then he sank and did not come up.

Yet it was out of that very sea that hope was now coming to them. The landlord who had burned them out in order to have a suitable desolation for sheep, had set about making a harbour at the mouth of the river, the same river that, with its tributaries, had threaded their inland valleys. Money had been advanced by him (at 6½
per cent. interest) to erect buildings for dealing with fish. All along these coasts—the coasts of the Moray Firth—there was a new stirring of sea life. The people would yet live, the people themselves, for no landlord owned the sea, and what the people caught
there would be their own—or very nearly (for landlords over a long period continued to levy tribute on the fish landed). It was the end of the Napoleonic era. For the Moray Firth it was the beginning of the herring fisheries, of a busy, fabulous time among the common people of that weathered northern land.

A foretaste of the adventurous happy years to come was upon Tormad. Round the corner, at the mouth of the river, Helmsdale was getting under way. It was near the end of July and the height of the herring season. Yesterday a boat from the south side of the Firth had had a shot of herring that must have brought in nearly sixteen pounds. Sixteen golden sovereigns for one night’s work. It was a terrible amount of money. Four in the crew made it four pounds a man. Four pounds for one night—out of nothing! It so stirred the imaginations of the people that it seemed to them uncanny; seemed to them at times hardly right, as if some evil chance must be lurking somewhere, ready to pounce.

Old men and women from the gable-ends of their wretched cabins saw Tormad going by with the net on his shoulder. They stood still, silent, but others not so old began to come from their little holdings, and already a group of boys were trotting behind Tormad. His young brother, Norman, who was fifteen, strode by his side with pride. He had secretly made up his mind that next year he was going to sea himself.

When he came to the crest, Tormad saw the three
members
of his crew round the bow of the boat, keeping her stern in the water. They were learning! Others were on the beach, waiting. He went down the short steep slanting path, and out over the stones to the boat, into which he let the net fall with a thud. “I see you have the two lines,” he said, and laid the basket of bait beside them. “I think that’s everything. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Ronnie, a quiet lean fellow, with a sallow face, two years older than Tormad. Ian was a year younger
than Tormad; but Torquil was only eighteen, and though he had been able to contribute nothing to the purchase of the boat and gear, he was going with them because they couldn’t keep him back. Tormad was full of business.
Bending
down he took one or two steps forward to see that no boulder might damage the planking as they pushed off. A small wave splashed over his feet and he pulled them out smartly as if he had been stung, just saving himself from falling on his face by gripping the gunnel. The boys laughed, for this had often happened to themselves and they liked Tormad. His eyes brightened in his flushed face. “That’s the baptism,” he cried back to them comically. They were delighted, and came and put their hands on the boat,
touching
it as if it were a strange horse. Norman gripped it firmly. Looking up, Tormad saw the people in a line along the edge of the crest. The whole colony was seeing them off. He felt the pressure of eyes and decided it was high time they were away. But suddenly voices cried from the crest. All on the shore looked up, and presently Tormad saw Catrine coming over the crest and down the steep path. His whole face went dark and congested as he moved up the stones to meet her.

“You forgot your food,” she cried, holding the satchel in front of her and stepping lightly on her toes.

“Did I?” He smiled. He did not know what more to say so he pulled open the satchel’s mouth and gazed into it. “That’s fine,” he said, glancing up at her. For one moment her brown eyes—they were her loveliest feature—looked at him, and then they looked away, wild and shy.
Altogether
she was like something that might fly away, her large mouth smiling and blood-red. There was at times a gay lightness about her, like blown leaves. They could not say anything, because of the eyes around them. And the lids of Catrine’s own eyes were fired a little with the recent weeping. “Well, so long,” he said, with a laugh, raising a hand in homely salute and farewell. As he came back to the boat, the small stones roared from his heels. “Out with her,
boys!” As the three clambered aboard, Tormad gave the final push and landed neatly in the bows.

BOOK: The Silver Darlings
10.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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