III, Dark Star, by Fiona Macleod
NOTE TO THE DĀN-NAN-RŌN
This story is founded upon a superstition familiar throughout the Hebrides. The legend exists also on the western coasts of Ireland; for Mr. Yeats has told me that one summer he met an old Connaught fisherman who claimed to be of the Sliochd-nan-Rōn, an ancestry, indeed, indicated in the man's name: Rooney.
As to my use of the forename "Gloom," in "Under the Dark Star" series of stories, I should explain that the designation is not a baptismal name. At the same time, I have actual warrant for its use; for I knew a Uist man who in the bitterness of his sorrow, after his wife's death in childbirth, named his son Meelad(i.e. the gloom of sorrow: grief).
When Anne Gillespie, that was my friend in Eilanmore, left
the island after the death of her uncle, the old man Robert Achanna, it was to go far
When Mānus asked Anne to go with him she agreed. The three
brothers were illpleased at this, for apart from their not wishing their cousin to go so
far away, they did not want to lose her, as she not only cooked for them and did all that
a woman does, including spinning and weaving, but was most sweet and fair to see, and in
the long winter nights sang by the hour together, while Gloom played strange wild airs
upon his feadan, a kind of oaten pipe or flute.
"It was a cruel thing."
"You know what is said in the isles about---about---this or that man, who is under gheasan, who is spell-bound and---and---about the seals---"
"Yes, Marcus, it is knowing it that I am: 'Tha iad a' cantuinn gur h-e daoine fo gheasan a th' anns no roin.'"
"'They say that seals,'" he repeated slowly, "'They say that seals are men under magic spells.' And have you ever pondered that thing, Anne, my cousin?"
"I am knowing well what you mean."
"Then you will know that the MacCodrums of North Uist are called the Sliochd-nan-Rōn?"
"I have heard."
"And would you be for marrying a man that is of the race of the beasts, and himself knowing what that geas means, and who may any day go back to his people?"
"Ah, now, Marcus, sure it is making a mock of me you are. Neither you nor any here believe that foolish thing. How can a man born of a woman be a seal, even though his sinnsear were the off spring of the sea-people, which is not a saying I am believing either, though it may be; and not that it matters much, whatever, about the far-back forbears."
Marcus frowned darkly, and at first made no response. At last he answered, speaking sullenly:
"You may be believing this or you may be believing that, Anna-nic-Gilleasbuig, but two things are as well known as that the cast wind brings the blight and the west wind the rain. And one is this: that long ago a Seal-man wedded a woman of North Uist, and that he or his son was called Neil MacCodrum; and that the sea-fever of the seal was in the blood of his line ever after. And this is the other: that twice within the memory of living folk, a MacCodrum has taken upon himself the form of a seal, and has so met his death, once Neil MacCodrum of Ru' Tormaid, and once Anndra MacCodrum of Berneray in the Sound. There's talk of others, but these are known of us all. And you will not be forgetting now that Neildonn was the grandfather, and that Anndra was the brother of the father of Mānus MacCodrum?"
"I am not caring what you say, Marcus. It is all foam of the sea."
"There's no foam without wind or tide, Anne, an' it's a dark tide that will be bearing you away to Uist, and a black wind that will be blowing far away behind the East, the wind that will be carrying his death-cry to your ears."
The girl shuddered. The brave spirit in her, however, did not quail.
"Well, so be it. To each his fate. But, seal or no seal, I am going to wed Mānus MacCodrum, who is a man as good as any here, and a true man at that, and the man I love, and that will be my man, God willing, the praise be His!"
Again Gloom took up the feadan, and sent a few cold, white notes floating through the hot room, breaking, suddenly, into the wild, fantastic, opening air of the 'Dān-nan-Rōn.'
With a low cry and passionate gesture Anne sprang forward, snatched the oat-flute from his grasp, and would have thrown it in the fire. Marcus held her in an iron grip however.
"Don't you be minding Gloom, Anne," he said quietly, as he took the feadan from her hand and handed it to his brother: "sure he's only telling you in his way what I am telling you in mine."
She shook herself free, and moved to the other side of the table. On the opposite wall hung the dirk which had belonged to old Achanna. This she unfastened. Holding it in her right hand, she faced the three men.
"On the cross of the dirk I swear I will be the woman of Mānus MacCodrum."
The brothers made no response. They looked at her fixedly.
"And by the cross of the dirk I swear that if any man come between me and Mānus, this dirk will be for his remembering in a certain hour of the day of the days."
As she spoke, she looked meaningly at Gloom, whom she feared more than Marcus or Seumas.
"And by the cross of the dirk I swear that if evil come to Mānus, this dirk will have another sheath, and that will be my milkless breast; and by that token I now throw the old sheath in the fire."
As she finished, she threw the sheath on to the burning peats. Gloom quietly lifted it, brushed off the sparks of flame as though they were dust, and put it in his pocket.
"And by the same token, Anne," he said, "your oaths will come to nought."
Rising, he made a sign to his brothers to follow. When they were outside he told Seumas to return, and to keep Anne within, by peace if possible, by force if not. Briefly they discussed their plans, and then separated. While Seumas went back, Marcus and Gloom made their way to the haven.
Their black figures were visible in the moonlight, but at first they were not noticed by the men on board the Luath, for Mānus was singing.
When the islesman stopped abruptly, one of his companion, asked him jokingly if his song had brought a seal alongside , and bid him beware lest it was a woman of the sea-people.
His face darkened, but he made no reply. When the others listened they heard the wild strain of the "Dān-nan-Rōn" stealing through the moonshine. Staring against the shore, they could discern the two brothers.
"What will be the meaning of that?" asked one of the men, uneasily.
"When a man comes instead of a woman," answered Mānus, slowly, "the young corbies are astir in the nest."
So, it meant blood. Aulay Macneil and Donull MacDonull put down their gear, rose and stood waiting for what Mānus would do.
"Ho, there! " he cried.
"What will you be wanting, Eilanmore?"
"We are wanting a word of you, Mānus MacCodrum. Will you come ashore?"
"If you want a word of me, you can come to me."
"There is no boat here."
"I'll send the bāta-beag."
When he had spoken, Mānus asked Donull, the younger of his mates, a lad of seventeen, to row to the shore.
"And bring back no more than one man," he added, "whether it be Eilanmore himself or Gloom-mhic-Achanna."
The rope of the small boat was unfastened, and Donull rowed it swiftly through the moonshine. The passing of a cloud dusked the shore, but they saw him throw a rope for the guiding of the boat alongside the ledge of the landing-place; then the sudden darkening obscured the vision. Donull must be talking, they thought, for two or three minutes elapsed without sign, but at last the boat put off again, and with two figures only. Doubtless the lad had had to argue against the coming of both Marcus and Gloom.
This, in truth, was what Donull had done. But while he was speaking Marcus was staring fixedly beyond him.
"Who is it that is there?" he asked, " there, in the stern?"
"There is no one there."
"I thought I saw the shadow of a man."
"Then it was my shadow, Eilanmore."
Achanna turned to his brother.
"I see a man's death there in the boat."
Gloom quailed for a moment, then laughed low.
"I see no death of a man sitting in the boat, Marcus, but if I did I am thinking it wonld dance to the air of the Dān-nan-Rōn,' which is more than the wraith of you or me would do."
"It is not a wraith I was seeing, but the death of a man."
Gloom whispered, and his brother nodded sullenly. The next moment a heavy muffler was round Donull's mouth; and before he could resist, or even guess what had happened, he was on his face on the shore, bound and gagged. A minute later the oars were taken by Gloom, and the boat moved swiftly out of the inner haven.
As it drew near Mānus stared at it intently.
"That is not Donull that is rowing, Aulay!"
"No: it will be Gloom Achanna, I'm thinking."
MacCodrum started. If so, that other figure at the stern was too big for Donull. The cloud passed just as the boat came alongside.
The rope was made secure, and then Marcus and Gloom sprang on board.
"Where is Donuil MacDonull?" demanded Mānus sharply.
Marcus made no reply, so Gloom answered for him.
"He has gone up to the house with a message to Anne-nic-Gilleasbuig."
"And what will that message be?"
"That Mānus MacCodrum has sailed away from Eilanmore, and will not see her again."
MacCodrum laughed. It was a low, ugly laugh.
"Sure, Gloom Ahanna, you should be taking that feadan of yours and playing the Codhail-nan-Pairtean, for I'm thinkin' the crabs are gathering about the rocks down below us, an' laughing wil their claws."
"Well, and that is a true thing," Gloom replied slowly and quietly. "Yes, for sure I might, as you say, be playing the 'Meeting of the Crabs.' Perhaps," he added, as by a sudden afterthought, "perhaps, though it is a calm night, you will be hearing the comh-thonn. The 'slapping of the waves' is a better thing to be hearing than the the 'Meeting of the Crabs."
"If I hear the comh-thonn it is not in the way you will be meaning, Gloom-mhic-Achanna. 'Tis not the 'up sail and good-bye' they will be saying, but 'Home wi' the Bride.' "
Here Marcus intervened.
"Let us be having no more words, Mānus MacCodrum. The girl Anne is not for you. Gloom is to be her man. So get you hence. If you will be going quiet, it is quiet we will be. If you have your feet on this thing, then you will be having that too which I saw in the boat."
"And what was it you saw in the boat, Achanna?"
" The death of a man."
" So---. And now " (this after a prolonged silence, wherein the four men stood facing each other) " is it a blood-matter if not of peace?"
"Ay. Go, if you are wise. If not, 'tis your own death you will be making."
There was a flash as of summer lightning. A bluish flame seemed to leap through the moonshine. Marcus reeled, with a gasping cry; then, leaning back, till his face blanched in the moonlight, his knees gave way. As he fell, he turned half round. The long knife which Mānus had hurled at him had not penetrated his breast more than an inch at most, but as he fell on the deck it was driven into him up to the hilt.
In the blank silence that followed, the three men could hear a sound like the ebb -tide in sea-weed. It was the gurgling of the bloody froth in the lungs of the dead man.
The first to speak was his brother, and then only when thin reddish-white foam-bubbles began to burst from the blue lips of Marcus.
"It is murder."
He spoke low, but it was like the surf of breakers in the ears of those who heard.
" You have said one part of a true word, Gloom Achanna. It is murder---that you and he came here for!"
" The death of Marcus Achanna is on you, Mānus MacCodrum."
" So be it, as between yourself and me, or between all of your blood and me; though Aulay MacNeil as well as you can witness that though in self-defence I threw the knife at Achanna, it was his own doing that drove it into him."
"You can whisper that to the rope when it is round your neck."
"And what will you be doing now, Gloom-mhic-Achanna? "
For the first time Gloom shifted uneasily.
A swift glance revealed to him the awkward fact that the boat trailed behind the Luath, so that he could not leap into it, while if he turned to haul it close by the rope he was at the mercy of the two men.
"I will go in peace," he said quietly.
"Ay," was the answer, in an equally quiet tone, " in the white peace."
Upon this menace of death the two men stood facing each other.
Achanna broke the silence at last.
"You'll hear the 'Dān-nan-Rōn' the night before you die, Mānus MacCodrum, and lest you doubt it you'll hear it again in your death-hour."
" Ma tha sin an Dan---if that be ordained." Mānus spoke gravely. His very quietude, however, boded ill. There was no hope of clemency; Gloom knew that.
Suddenly he laughed scornfully. Then, pointing with his right hand as if to some one behind his two adversaries, he cried out:
"Put the death-hand on them, Marcus! Give them the Grave!" Both men sprang aside, the heart of each nigh upon bursting death-touch of the newly slain is an awful thing to incur, for it means that the wraith can transfer all its evil to the person touched.
The next moment there was a heavy splash. Mānus realised that it was no more than a ruse, and that Gloom had escaped. With feverish haste he hauled in the small boat, leaped into it, and began at once to row so as to intercept his enemy.
Achanna rose once between him and the Luath. MacCodrum crossed the oars in the thole-pins and seized the boat-hook.
The swimmer kept straight for him.
Suddenly he dived.
In a flash, Mānus knew that Gloom was going to rise under the boat, seize the keel, and upset him, and thus probably be able to grip him from above. There was time and no more to leap; and, indeed, scarce had he plunged into the sea ere the boat swung right over, Achanna clambering over it the next moment.
At first Gloom could not see where his foe was. He crouched on the upturned craft, and peered eagerly into the moonlit water. All at once a black mass shot out of the shadow between him and the smack. This black mass laughed---the same low, ugly laugh that had preceded the death of Marcus.
He who was in turn the swimmer was now close. When a fathom away he leaned back and began to tread water steadily. In his right hand he grasped the boat-hook. The man in the boat knew that to stay where he was meant certain death. He gathered himself together like a crouching cat. Mānus kept treading the water slowly, but with the hook ready so that the sharp iron spike at the end of it should transfix his foe if he came at him with a leap. Now and again he laughed. Then in his low sweet voice, but brokenly at times between his deep breathings, he began to sing:
The tide was dark, an' heavy with the burden that it bore;
I heard it talkin', whisperin', upon the weedy shore;
Each wave that stirred the sea-weed was like a closing door;
'Tis closing doors they hear at last who hear no more, no more,
The tide was in the salt sea-weed, and like a knife it tore;
The wild sea-wind went moaning, sooing, moaning o'er and o'er;
The deep sea-heart was brooding deep upon its ancient lore--
I heard the sob, the sooing sob, the dying sob at its core,
In the quiet moonlight the chant, with its long, slow
cadences, sung as no other man in the isles could sing it, sounded sweet and remote beyond
words to tell. The glittering shine was upon the water of the haven, and moved in waving
lines of fire along the stone ledges. Sometimes a fish rose, and spilt a ripple of pale
gold; or a sea-nettle swam to the surface, and turned its blue or greenish globe of living
jelly to the moon dazzle.
Yes, his quick ears had caught the inland
strain of a voice he knew. Soft and white as the moonshine came Anne's singing as she
passed along the corrie leading to the haven. In vain his travelling gaze sought her; she
was still in the shadow, and, besides, a slow drifting cloud obscured the moonlight. When
he looked back again a stifled exclamation came from his lips. There was not a sign of
Gloom Achanna. He had slipped noiselessly from the boat, and was now either behind it, or
had dived beneath it, or was swimming under water this way or I that. If only the cloud
would sail by, muttered Mānus, as he held himself in readiness for an attack from beneath
or behind. As the dusk lightened, he swam slowly toward the boat, and then swiftly round
it. There was no one there. He climbed on to the keel, and stood, leaning forward, as a
salmon-leisterer by torchlight, with his spear-poiated boat-hook raised. Neither below nor
beyond could he discern any shape. A whispered call to Aulay MacNeil showed that he, too,
saw nothing. Gloom must have swooned, and sank deep as he slipped through the water.
Perhaps the dog-fish were already darting about him.