The Watter’s Mou’ Chapter IV
Matters looked serious enough on the Sea Gull when the time came in which rather the darkness began to disappear than the light to appear. Night and day have their own mysteries, and their nascence is as distant and as mysterious as the origin of life. The sky and the waters still seemed black, and the circle in which the little craft lived was as narrow as ever; but here and there in sky and on sea were faint streaks perceptible rather than distinguishable, as though swept thither by the trumpet blast of the messenger of the dawn. Mendoza’s men did not stint their curses nor their threats, and Neil with passionate violence so assailed them in return that both MacWhirter and Andrew had to exercise their powers of restraint. But blood is hot, and the lives of lawless men are prone to make violence a habit; the two elder men were anxious that there should be no extension of the present bitter bickering. As for MacWhirter, his mind was in a whirl and tumult of mixed emotions. First came his anxiety for Maggie when she had set forth alone on the stormy sea with such inadequate equipment. Well the old fisherman knew the perils that lay before her in her effort to win the shore, and his heart was postively sick with anxiety when every effort of thought or imagination concerning her ended in something like despair. In one way he was happier than he had been for many months; the impending blow had fallen, and though he was ruined it had come in such a time that his criminal intent had not been accomplished. Here again his anxiety regarding Maggie became intensified, for was it not to save him that she had set forth on her desperate enterprise. He groaned aloud as he thought of the price that he might yet have to pay – that he might have paid already, though he knew it not as yet – for the service which had saved him from the after-consequences of his sin. He dared not think more on the subject, for it would, he feared, madden him, and he must have other work to engross his thoughts. Thus it was that the danger of collision between Neil and Mendoza’s men became an anodyne to his pain. He knew that a quarrel among seamen and under such conditions would be no idle thing, for they had all their knives, and with such hot blood on all sides none would hesitate to use them. The whole of the smuggled goods had by now been thrown overboard, the tobacco having gone the last, the bales having been broken up. So heavy had been the cargo that there was a new danger in that the boat was too much lightened. As Mendoza had intended that force as well as fraud was to aid this venture he had not stuck at trifles. There was no pretence of concealment and even the ballast had made way for cask and box and bale. The Sea Gull had been only partially loaded at Hamburg, but when out of sight of port her cargo had been completed from other boats which had followed, till, when she started for Buchan, she was almost a solid mass of contraband goods. Mendoza’s men felt desperate at this hopeless failure of the venture; and as Neil, too, was desperate, in a different way, there was a grim possibility of trouble on board at any minute.
The coming of the dawn was therefore a welcome relief, for it united – if only for a time – all on board to try to avert a common danger.
Lighter and lighter grew the expanse of sea and sky, until over the universe seemed to spread a cool, pearly grey, against which every object seemed to stand starkly out. The smugglers were keenly on the watch, and they saw, growing more clearly each instant out of the darkness, the black, low-lying hull, short funnel, and tapering spars of the revenue cutter about three or four miles off the starboard quarter. The preventive men seemed to see them at the same time, for there was a manifest stir on board, and the cutter’s head was changed. Then MacWhirter knew it was necessary to take some bold course of action, for the Sea Gull lay between two fires, and he made up his mind to run then and there for Port Erroll.
As the Sea Gull drew nearer in to shore the waves became more turbulent, for there is ever a more ordered succession in deep waters than where the onward rush is broken by the undulations of the shore. Minute by minute the dawn was growing brighter, and the shore was opening up. The Sea Gull, lightened of her load, could not with safety be thrown across the wind, and so the difficulty of her tacks was increased. The dawn was just shooting its first rays over the eastern sea when the final effort to win the little port came to be made.
The harbour of Port Erroll is a tiny haven of refuge won from the jagged rocks that bound the eastern side of Cruden Bay. It is sheltered on the northern side by the cliff which runs as far as the Watter’s Mou’, and separated from the mouth of the Water of Cruden, with its waste of shifting sands, by a high wall of concrete. The harbour faces east, and its first basin is the smaller of the two, the larger opening sharply to the left a little way in. At the best of times it is not an easy matter to gain the harbour, for only when the tide has fairly risen is it available at all, and the rapid tide which runs up from the Scaurs makes in itself a difficulty at such times. The tide was now at three-quarters flood, so that in as far as water was concerned there was no difficulty; but the fierceness of the waves which sent up a wall of white water all along the cliffs looked ominous indeed.
As the Sea Gull drew nearer to the shore, considerable commotion was caused on both sea and land. The revenue cutter dared not approach so close to the shore, studded as it was with sunken rocks, as did the lighter draughted coble; but her commander evidently did not mean to let this be to the advantage of the smuggler. A gun was fired to attract the authorities on shore, and signals were got ready to hoist.
The crowd of strangers who thronged the little port had instinctively hidden themselves behind rock and wall and boat, as the revelation of the dawn came upon them, so that the whole place presented the appearance of a warren when the rabbits are beginning to emerge after a temporary scare. There were not wanting, however, many who stood out in the open, affecting, with what nonchalance they could, a simple business interest at the little port. Sailor Willy was on the cliff between the guard-house and the Watter’s Mou’, where he had kept his vigil all the night long. As soon as possible after he had sent out his appeal for help the lieutenant had come over from Collieston with a boatman and three men, and these were now down on the quay waiting for the coming of the Sea Gull. When he had arrived, and had learned the state of things, the lieutenant, who knew of Willy Barrow’s relations with the daughter of the suspected man, had kindly ordered him to watch the cliff, whilst he himself with the men would look after the port. When he had first given the order in the presence of the other coastguards, Willy had instinctively drawn himself up as though he felt that he, too, had come under suspicion, so the lieutenant took the earliest opportunity when they were alone of saying to Willy:
“Barrow, I have arranged your duties as I have done, not by any means because I suspect that you would be drawn by your sympathies into any neglect of duty – I know you too well for that – but simply because I want to spare you pain in case things may be as we suspect!”
Willy saluted and thanked him with his eyes as he turned away, for he feared that the fullness of his heart might betray him. The poor fellow was much overwrought. All night long he had paced the cliffs in the dull routine of his duty, with his heart feeling like a lump of lead, and his brain on fire with fear. He knew from the wildness of Maggie’s rush away from him that she was bent on some desperate enterprise, and as he had no clue to her definite intentions he could only imagine. He thought and thought until his brain almost began to reel with the intensity of his mental effort; and as he was so placed, tied to the stake of his duty, that he could speak with no one on the subject, he had to endure alone, and in doubt, the darkness of his soul, tortured alike by hopes and fears, through all the long night. At last, however, the pain exhausted itself, and doubt became its own anodyne. Despair has its calms – the backwaters of fears – where the tired imagination may rest awhile before the strife begins anew.
With joy he saw that the storm was slackening with the coming of the dawn; and when the last fierce gust had swept by him, screaming through the rigging of the flagstaff overhead, and sweeping inland the broken fragments of the mist, he turned to the sea, now of a cool grey with the light of the coming dawn, and swept it far and wide with his glass. With gladness – and yet with an ache in his heart which he could not understand – he realised that there was in sight only one coble – the Sea Gull – he knew her well – running for the port, and farther out the hull and smoke, the light spars and swift lines of the revenue cutter, which was evidently following her. He strolled with the appearance of leisureliness, though his heart was throbbing, towards the cliff right over the little harbour, so that he could look down and see from close quarters all that went on. He could not but note the many strangers dispersed about, all within easy distance of a rush to the quay when the boat should land, or the way in which the lieutenant and his men seemed to keep guard over the whole place. As first the figures, the walls of the port, the cranes, the boats, and the distant headlands were silhouetted in black against the background of grey sea and grey sky; but as the dawn came closer each object began to stand out in its natural proportions. All kept growing clearer and yet clearer and more and more thoroughly outlined, till the moment came when the sun, shooting over the horizon, set every living thing whose eyes had been regulated to the strain of the darkness and the twilight blinking and winking in the glory of the full light of day.
Eagerly he searched the faces of the crowd with his glass for Maggie, but he could not see her anywhere, and his heart seemed to sink within him, for well he knew that it must be no ordinary cause which kept Maggie from being one of the earliest on the look-out for her father. Closer and closer came the Sea Gull, running for the port with a speed and recklessness that set both the smugglers and the preventive men all agog. Such haste and such indifference to danger sprang, they felt, from no common cause, and they all came to the conclusion that the boat, delayed by the storm, discovered by the daylight, and cut off by the revenue cutter, was making a desperate push for success in her hazard. And so all, watchers and watched, braced themselves for what might come about. Amongst the groups moved the tall figure of Mendoza, whispering and pointing, but keeping carefully hidden from the sight of the coastguards. He was evidently inciting them to some course from which they held back.
Closer and closer came the Sea Gull, lying down to the scuppers as she tacked; lightened as she was she made more leeway than was usual to so crank a boat. At last she got her head in the right direction for a run in, and, to the amazement of all who saw her, came full tilt into the outer basin, and, turning sharply round, ran into the inner basin under bare poles. There was not one present, smuggler or coastguard, who did not set down the daring attempt as simply suicidal. In a few seconds the boat stuck on the sandbank accumulated at the western end of the basin and stopped, her bows almost touching the side of the pier. The coastguards had not expected any such manoeuvre, and had taken their place on either side of the entrance to the inner basin, so that it took them a few seconds to run the length of the pier and come opposite the boat. The crowd of the smugglers and the smugglers’ friends was so great that just as Neil and his brother began to shove out a plank from the bows to step ashore there was so thick a cluster round the spot that the lieutenant as he came could not see what was going on. Some little opposition was made to his passing through the mass of people, which was getting closer every instant, but his men closed up behind, and together they forced a way to the front before any one from the Sea Gull could spring on shore. A sort of angry murmur – that deep undertone which marks the passion of a mass – arose, and the lieutenant, recognising its import, faced round like lightning, his revolver pointed straight in the faces of the crowd, whilst the men with him drew their cutlasses.
To Sailor Willy this appearance of action gave a relief from almost intolerable pain. He was in feverish anxiety about Maggie, but he could do nothing – nothing; and to an active and resolute man this feeling is in itself the worst of pain. His heart was simply breaking with suspense, and so it was that the sight of drawn weapons, in whatever cause, came like an anodyne to his tortured imagination. The flash of the cutlasses woke in him the instinct of action, and with a leaping heart he sprang down the narrow winding path that led to the quay.
Before the lieutenant’s pistol the crowd fell back. It was not that they were afraid – for cowardice is pretty well unknown in Buchan – but authority, and especially in arms, has a special force with law-breakers. But the smugglers did not mean going back altogether now that their booty was so close to them, and the two bodies stood facing each other when Sailor Willy came upon the scene and stood beside the officers. Things were looking pretty serious when the resonant voice of MacWhirter was heard:
“What d’ye mean, men, crowdin’ on the officers. Stand back, there, and let the coastguards come aboard an they will. There’s naught here that they mayn’t see.”
The lieutenant turned and stepped on the plank – which Neil had by this time shoved on shore – and went on board, followed by two of his men, the other remaining with the boatman and Willy Barrow on the quay. Neil went straight to the officer, and said:
“I want to go ashore at once! Search me an ye will!” He spoke so rudely that the officer was angered, and said to one of the men beside him:
“Put your hands over him and let him go,” adding, sotto voce, “He wants a lesson in manners!” The man lightly passed his hands over him to see that he had nothing contraband about him, and, being satisfied on the point, stood back and nodded to his officer, and Neil sprang ashore, and hurried off towards the village.
Willy had, by this time, a certain feeling of relief, for he had been thinking, and he knew that MacWhirter would not have been so ready to bring the coastguards on board if he had any contraband with him. Hope did for him what despair could not, for as he instinctively turned his eyes over the waste of angry sea, for an instant he did not know if it were the blood in his eyes or, in reality, the red of the dawn which had shot up over the eastern horizon.
Mendoza’s men, having been carefully searched by one of the coastguards, came sullenly on shore and went to the back of the crowd, where their master, scowling and white-faced, began eagerly to talk with them in whispers. MacWhirter and his elder son busied themselves with apparent nonchalance in the needful matters of the landing, and the crowd seemed holding back for a spring. The suspense of all was broken by the incoming of a boat sent off from the revenue cutter, which, driven by four sturdy oarsmen, and steered by the commander himself, swept into the outer basin of the harbour, tossing amongst the broken waves. In the comparative shelter of the wall it turned, and driving into the inner basin pulled up on the slip beyond where the Sea Gull lay. The instant the boat touched, six bluejackets sprang ashore, followed by the commander, and all seven men marched quietly but resolutely to the quay opposite the Sea Gull’s bow. The oarsmen followed, when they had hauled their boat up on the slip. The crowd now abandoned whatever had been its intention, and fell back looking and muttering thunder.
By this time the lieutenant was satisfied that the coble contained nothing that was contraband, and, telling its master so, stepped on shore just as Neil, with his face white as a sheet, and his eyes blazing, rushed back at full speed. He immediately attacked Sailor Willy:
“What hae ye dune wi’ ma sister Maggie?”
He answered as quietly as he could, although there shot through his heart a new pain, a new anxiety:
“I know naught of her. I haven’t seen her since last night, when Alice MacDonald was being married. Is she not at home?”
“Dinna ye ken damned weel that she’s no’. Why did ye send her oot?” And he looked at him with the menace of murder in his eyes. The lieutenant saw from the looks of the two men that something was wrong, and asked Neil shortly:
“Where did you see her last?” Neil was going to make some angry reply, but in an instant Mendoza stepped forward, and in a loud voice gave instruction to one of his men who had been on board the Sea Gull to take charge of her, as she was his under a bill of sale. This gave Neil time to think, and his answer came sullenly:
“Nane o’ ye’re business – mind yer ain affairs!” MacWhirter, when he had seen Neil come running back, had realised the worst, and leaned on the taffrail of the boat, groaning. Mendoza’s man sprang on board, and, taking him roughly by the shoulder, said:
“Come, clear out here. This boat is to Mendoza; get away!” The old man was so overcome with his feelings regarding Maggie that he made no reply, but quietly, with bent form, stepped on the plank and gained the quay. Willy Barrow rushed forward and took him by the hand and whispered to him:
“What does he mean?”
“He means,” said the old man in a low, strained voice, “that for me an’ him, an’ to warn us she cam oot last nicht in the storm in a wee bit boat, an’ that she is no’ to her hame!” and he groaned. Willy was smitten with horror. This, then, was Maggie’s high and desperate purpose when she left him. He knew now the meaning of those despairing words, and the darkness of the grave seemed to close over his soul. He moaned out to the old man: “She did not tell me she was going. I never knew it. O my God!” The old man, with the protective instinct of the old to the young, laid his hand on his shoulder, as he said to him in a broken voice:
“A ken it, lad! A ken it weel! She tell’t me sae hersel! The sin is a’ wi’ me, though you, puir lad, must e’en bear yer share o’ the pain!” The commander said quietly to the lieutenant:
“Looks queer, don’t it – the coastguard and the smuggler whispering?”
“All right,” came the answer, “I know Barrow; he is as true as steel, but he’s engaged to the old man’s daughter. But I gather there’s something queer going on this morning about her. I’ll find out. Barrow,” he added, calling Willy to him, “what is it about MacWhirter’s daughter?”
“I don’t know for certain, sir, but I fear she was out at sea last night.”.
“At sea,” broke in the commander; “at sea last night – how?”
“She was in a bit fishin’-boat,” broke in MacWhirter. “Neighbours, hae ony o’ ye seen her this mornin’? ‘Twas ma son Andra’s boat, that he keeps i’ the Downans!” – another name for the Watter’s Mou’. A sad silence that left the angry roar of the waves as they broke on the rocks and on the long strand in full possession was the only reply.
“Is the boat back in the Watter’s Mou’?” asked the lieutenant sharply.
“No.” said a fisherman. “A cam up jist noo past the Barley Mill, an’ there’s nae boat there.”
“Then God help her, an’ God forgie me,” said MacWhirter, tearing off his cap and holding up his hands, “for A’ve killed her – her that sae loved her auld father, that she went oot alane in a bit boat i’ the storm i’ the nicht to save him frae the consequence o’ his sin.” Willy Barrow groaned, and the lieutenant turned to him: “Heart, man, heart! God won’t let a brave girl like that be lost. That’s the lass for a sailor’s wife. ‘Twill be all right – you’ll be proud of her yet!”
But Sailor Willy only groaned despite the approval of his conscience; his words of last night came back to him. “Ye’re no fit wife for me!” Now the commander spoke out to MacWhirter:
“When did you see her last?”
“Aboot twa o’clock i’ the mornin’.”
“Aboot twenty miles off the Scaurs.”
“How did she come to leave you?”
“She pulled the boat that she cam in alongside the coble, an’ got in by hersel – the last I saw o’ her she had hoisted her sail an’ was running nor’west . . . But A’ll see her nae mair – a’s ower wi’ the puir, brave lass – an’ wi’ me, tae, that killed her – a’s ower the noo – a’s ower!” and he covered his face with his hands and sobbed. The commander said kindly enough, but with a stern gravity that there was no mistaking:
“Do I take it rightly that the girl went out in the storm to warn you?”
“Ay! Puir lass – ’twas an ill day that made me put sic a task on her – God forgie me!” and there and then he told them all of her gallant deed.
The commander turned to the lieutenant, and spoke in the quick, resolute, masterful accent of habitual command:
“I shall leave you the bluejackets to help – send your men all out, and scour every nook and inlet from Kirkton to Boddam. Out with all the lifeboats on the coast! And you, men!” he turned to the crowd, “turn out, all of you, to help! Show that there’s some man’s blood in you, to atone if you can for the wrong that sent this young girl out in a storm to save her father from you and your like!” Here he turned again to the lieutenant, “Keep a sharp eye on that man – Mendoza, and all his belongings. We’ll attend to him later on: I’ll be back before night.”
“Where are you off to, Commander?”
“I’m going to scour the sea in the track of the storm where that gallant lass went last night. A brave girl that dared what she did for her father’s sake is not to be lost without an effort; and, by God, she shan’t lack it whilst I hold Her Majesty’s command! Boatswain, signal the cutter full steam up – no, you! We mustn’t lose time, and the boatswain comes with me. To your oars, men!”
The seamen gave a quick, sharp “Hurrah!” as they sprang to their places, whilst the man of the shore party to whom the order had been given climbed the sea-wall and telegraphed the needful orders; the crowd seemed to catch the enthusiasm of the moment, and scattered right and left to make search along the shore. In a few seconds the revenue boat was tossing on the waves outside the harbour, the men laying to their work as they drove her along, their bending oars keeping time to the swaying body of the commander, who had himself taken the tiller. The lieutenant said to Willy with thoughtful kindness:
“Where would you like to work on the search? Choose which part you will!” Willy instinctively touched his cap as he answered sadly:
“I should like to watch here, sir, if I may. She would make straight for the Watter’s Mou’!”