On the fourth day of March, in the year 1867, being at that time in
my five-and-twentieth year, I wrote down the following words in my
note-book--the result of much mental perturbation and conflict:--
"The solar system, amidst a countless number of other systems as
large as itself, rolls ever silently through space in the direction of the
constellation of Hercules. The great spheres of which it is composed spin
and spin through the eternal void ceaselessly and noiselessly. Of these
one of the smallest and most insignificant is that conglomeration of solid
and of liquid particles which we have named the earth. It whirls onwards
now as it has done before my birth, and will do after my death--a
revolving mystery, coming none know whence, and going none know whither.
Upon the outer crust of this moving mass crawl many mites, of whom I, John
M`Vittie, am one, helpless, impotent, being dragged aimlessly through
space. Yet such is the state of things amongst us that the little energy
and glimmering of reason which I possess is entirely taken up with the
labours which are necessary in order to procure certain metallic disks,
wherewith I may purchase the chemical elements necessary to build up my
ever-wasting tissues, and keep a roof over me to shelter me from the
inclemency of the weather. I thus have no thought to expend upon the vital
questions which surround me on every side. Yet, miserable entity as I am,
I can still at times feel some degree of happiness, and am even--save the
mark!--puffed up occasionally with a sense of my own importance."
These words, as I have said, I wrote down in my note-book, and they
reflected accurately the thoughts which I found rooted far down in my
soul, ever present and unaffected by the passing emotions of the hour. At
last, however, came a time when my uncle, M`Vittie of Glencairn, died--the
same who was at one time chairman of committees of the House of Commons.
He divided his great wealth among his many nephews, and I found myself
with sufficient to provide amply for my wants during the remainder of my
life, and became at the same time owner of a bleak tract of land upon the
coast of Caithness, which I think the old man must have bestowed upon me
in derision, for it was sandy and valueless, and he had ever a grim sense
of humour. Up to this time I had been an attorney in a midland town in
England. Now I saw that I could put my thoughts into effect, and, leaving
all petty and sordid aims, could elevate my mind by the study of the
secrets of nature. My departure from my English home was somewhat
accelerated by the fact that I had nearly slain a man in a quarrel, for my
temper was fiery, and I was apt to forget my own strength when enraged.
There was no legal action taken in the matter, but the papers yelped at
me, and folk looked askance when I met them. It ended by my cursing them
and their vile, smoke-polluted town, and hurrying to my northern
possession, where I might at last find peace and an opportunity for
solitary study and contemplation. I borrowed from my capital before I
went, and so was able to take with me a choice collection of the most
modern philosophical instruments and books, together with chemicals and
such other things as I might need in my retirement.
The land which I had inherited was a narrow strip, consisting mostly
of sand, and extending for rather over two miles round the coast of Mansie
Bay, in Caithness. Upon this strip there had been a rambling, grey-stone
building--when erected or wherefore none could tell me--and this I had
repaired, so that it made a dwelling quite good enough for one of my
simple tastes. One room was my laboratory, another my sitting-room, and in
a third, just under the sloping roof, I slung the hammock in which I
always slept. There were three other rooms, but I left them vacant, except
one which was given over to the old crone who kept house for me. Save the
Youngs and the M`Leods, who were fisher-folk living round at the other
side of Fergus Ness, there were no other people for many miles in each
direction. In front of the house was the great bay, behind it were two
long barren hills, capped by other loftier ones beyond. There was a glen
between the hills, and when the wind was from the land it used to sweep
down this with a melancholy sough and whisper among the branches of the
fir-trees beneath my attic window.
I dislike my fellow-mortals. Justice compels me to add that they
appear for the most part to dislike me. I hate their little crawling ways,
their conventionalities, their deceits, their narrow rights and wrongs.
They take offence at my brusque outspokenness, my disregard for their
social laws, my impatience of all constraint. Among my books and my drugs
in my lonely den at Mansie I could let the great drove of the human race
pass onwards with their politics and inventions and tittle-tattle, and I
remained behind stagnant and happy. Not stagnant either, for I was working
in my own little groove, and making progress. I have reason to believe
that Dalton's atomic theory is founded upon error, and I know that mercury
is not an element.
During the day I was busy with my distillations and analyses. Often I
forgot my meals, and when old Madge summoned me to my tea I found my
dinner lying untouched upon the table. At night I read Bacon, Descartes,
Spinoza, Kant--all those who have pried into what is unknowable. They are
all fruitless and empty, barren of result, but prodigal of polysyllables,
reminding me of men who, while digging for gold, have turned up many
worms, and then exhibit them exultantly as being what they sought. At
times a restless spirit would come upon me, and I would walk thirty and
forty miles without rest or breaking fast. On these occasions, when I used
to stalk through the country villages, gaunt, unshaven, and dishevelled,
the mothers would rush into the road and drag their children indoors, and
the rustics would swarm out of their pot-houses to gaze at me. I believe
that I was known far and wide as the "mad laird o' Mansie." It was rarely,
however, that I made these raids into the country, for I usually took my
exercise upon my own beach, where I soothed my spirit with strong black
tobacco, and made the ocean my friend and my confidant.
What companion is there like the great restless, throbbing sea? What
human mood is there which it does not match and sympathise with? There are
none so gay but that they may feel gayer when they listen to its merry
turmoil, and see the long green surges racing in, with the glint of the
sunbeams in their sparkling crests. But when the grey waves toss their
heads in anger, and the wind screams above them, goading them on to madder
and more tumultuous efforts, then the darkest-minded of men feels that
there is a melancholy principle in Nature which is as gloomy as his own
thoughts. When it was calm in the Bay of Mansie the surface would be as
clear and bright as a sheet of silver, broken only at one spot some little
way from the shore, where a long black line projected out of the water
looking like the jagged back of some sleeping monster. This was the top of
the dangerous ridge of rocks known to the fishermen as the "ragged reef o'
Mansie." When the wind blew from the east the waves would break upon it
like thunder, and the spray would be tossed far over my house and up to
the hills behind. The bay itself was a bold and noble one, but too much
exposed to the northern and eastern gales, and too much dreaded for its
reef, to be much used by mariners. There was something of romance about
this lonely spot. I have lain in my boat upon a calm day, and peering over
the edge I have seen far down the flickering, ghostly forms of great
fish--fish, as it seemed to me, such as naturalist never knew, and which
my imagination transformed into the genii of that desolate bay. Once, as I
stood by the brink of the waters upon a quiet night, a great cry, as of a
woman in hopeless grief, rose from the bosom of the deep, and swelled out
upon the still air, now sinking and now rising, for a space of thirty
seconds. This I heard with my own ears.
In this strange spot, with the eternal hills behind me and the
eternal sea in front, I worked and brooded for more than two years
unpestered by my fellow men. By degrees I had trained my old servant into
habits of silence, so that she now rarely opened her lips, though I doubt
not that when twice a year she visited her relations in Wick, her tongue
during those few days made up for its enforced rest. I had come almost to
forget that I was a member of the human family, and to live entirely with
the dead whose books I pored over, when a sudden incident occurred which
threw all my thoughts into a new channel.
Three rough days in June had been succeeded by one calm and peaceful
one. There was not a breath of air that evening. The sun sank down in the
west behind a line of purple clouds, and the smooth surface of the bay was
gashed with scarlet streaks. Along the beach the pools left by the tide
showed up like gouts of blood against the yellow sand, as if some wounded
giant had toilfully passed that way, and had left these red traces of his
grievous hurt behind him. As the darkness closed in, certain ragged clouds
which had lain low on the eastern horizon coalesced and formed a great
irregular cumulus. The glass was still low, and I knew that there was
mischief brewing. About nine o'clock a dull moaning sound came up from the
sea, as from a creature who, much harassed, learns that the hour of
suffering has come round again. At ten a sharp breeze sprang up from the
eastward. At eleven it had increased to a gale, and by midnight the most
furious storm was raging which I ever remember upon that weather-beaten coast.
As I went to bed the shingle and seaweed were pattering up against my
attic window, and the wind was screaming as though every gust were a lost
soul. By that time the sounds of the tempest had become a lullaby to me. I
knew that the grey walls of the old house would buffet it out, and for
what occurred in the world outside I had small concern. Old Madge was
usually as callous to such things as I was myself. It was a surprise to me
when, about three in the morning, I was awoke by the sound of a great
knocking at my door and excited cries in the wheezy voice of my
house-keeper. I sprang out of my hammock, and roughly demanded of her what was the matter.
"Eh, maister, maister!" she screamed in her hateful dialect. "Come
doun, mun; come doun! There's a muckle ship gaun ashore on the reef, and
the puir folks are a' yammerin' and ca'in' for help--and I doobt they'll
a' be drooned. Oh, Maister M`Vittie, come doun!"
"Hold your tongue, you hag!" I shouted back in a passion. "What is it
to you whether they are drowned or not? Get back to your bed and leave me
alone." I turned in again and drew the blankets over me. "Those men out
there," I said to myself, "have already gone through half the horrors of
death. If they be saved they will but have to go through the same once
more in the space of a few brief years. It is best therefore that they
should pass away now, since they have suffered that anticipation which is
more than the pain of dissolution." With this thought in my mind I
endeavoured to compose myself to sleep once more, for that philosophy
which had taught me to consider death as a small and trivial incident in
man's eternal and everchanging career, had also broken me of much
curiosity concerning worldly matters. On this occasion I found, however,
that the old leaven still fermented strongly in my soul. I tossed from
side to side for some minutes endeavouring to beat down the impulses of
the moment by the rules of conduct which I had framed during months of
thought. Then I heard a dull roar amid the wild shriek of the gale, and I
knew that it was the sound of a signal-gun. Driven by an uncontrollable
impulse, I rose, dressed, and having lit my pipe, walked out on to the beach.
It was pitch dark when I came outside, and the wind blew with such
violence that I had to put my shoulder against it and push my way along
the shingle. My face pringled and smarted with the sting of the gravel
which was blown against it, and the red ashes of my pipe streamed away
behind me, dancing fantastically through the darkness. I went down to
where the great waves were thundering in, and shading my eyes with my
hands to keep off the salt spray, I peered out to sea. I could distinguish
nothing, and yet it seemed to me that shouts and great inarticulate cries
were borne to me by the blasts. Suddenly as I gazed I made out the glint
of a light, and then the whole bay and the beach were lit up in a moment
by a vivid blue glare. They were burning a coloured signal-light on board
of the vessel. There she lay on her beam ends right in the centre of the
jagged reef, hurled over to such an angle that I could see all the
planking of her deck. She was a large two-masted schooner, of foreign rig,
and lay perhaps a hundred and eighty or two hundred yards from the shore.
Every spar and rope and writhing piece of cordage showed up hard and clear
under the livid light which sputtered and flickered from the highest
portion of the forecastle. Beyond the doomed ship out of the great
darkness came the long rolling lines of black waves, never ending, never
tiring, with a petulant tuft of foam here and there upon their crests.
Each as it reached the broad circle of unnatural light appeared to gather
strength and volume, and to hurry on more impetuously until, with a roar
and a jarring crash, it sprang upon its victim. Clinging to the weather
shrouds I could distinctly see some ten or twelve frightened seamen, who,
when their light revealed my presence, turned their white faces towards me
and waved their hands imploringly. I felt my gorge rise against these poor
cowering worms. Why should they presume to shirk the narrow pathway along
which all that is great and noble among mankind has travelled? There was
one there who interested me more than they. He was a tall man, who stood
apart from the others, balancing himself upon the swaying wreck as though
he disdained to cling to rope or bulwark. His hands were clasped behind
his back and his head was sunk upon his breast, but even in that
despondent attitude there was a litheness and decision in his pose and in
every motion which marked him as a man little likely to yield to despair.
Indeed, I could see by his occasional rapid glances up and down and all
around him that he was weighing every chance of safety, but though he
often gazed across the raging surf to where he could see my dark figure
upon the beach, his self-respect or some other reason forbade him from
imploring my help in any way. He stood, dark, silent, and inscrutable,
looking down on the black sea, and waiting for whatever fortune Fate might
It seemed to me that that problem would very soon be settled. As I
looked, an enormous billow, topping all the others, and coming after them,
like a driver following a flock, swept over the vessel. Her foremast
snapped short off, and the men who clung to the shrouds were brushed away
like a swarm of flies. With a rending, riving sound the ship began to
split in two, where the sharp back of the Mansie reef was sawing into her
keel. The solitary man upon the forecastle ran rapidly across the deck and
seized hold of a white bundle which I had already observed but failed to
make out. As he lifted it up the light fell upon it, and I saw that the
object was a woman, with a spar lashed across her body and under her arms
in such a way that her head should always rise above water. He bore her
tenderly to the side and seemed to speak for a minute or so to her, as
though explaining the impossibility of remaining upon the ship. Her answer
was a singular one. I saw her deliberately raise her hand and strike him
across the face with it. He appeared to be silenced for a moment or so by
this, but he addressed her again, directing her, as far as I could gather
from his motions, how she should behave when in the water. She shrank away
from him, but he caught her in his arms. He stooped over her for a moment
and seemed to press his lips against her forehead. Then a great wave came
welling up against the side of the breaking vessel, and leaning over he
placed her upon the summit of it as gently as a child might be committed
to its cradle. I saw her white dress flickering among the foam on the
crest of the dark billow, and then the light sank gradually lower, and the
riven ship and its lonely occupant were hidden from my eyes.
As I watched those things my manhood overcame my philosophy, and I
felt a frantic impulse to be up and doing. I threw my cynicism to one side
as a garment which I might don again at leisure, and I rushed wildly to my
boat and my sculls. She was a leaky tub, but what then? Was I, who had
cast many a wistful, doubtful glance at my opium bottle, to begin now to
weigh chances and to cavil at danger. I dragged her down to the sea with
the strength of a maniac and sprang in. For a moment or two it was a
question whether she could live among the boiling surge, but a dozen
frantic strokes took me through it, half full of water but still afloat. I
was out on the unbroken waves now, at one time climbing, climbing up the
broad black breast of one, then sinking down, down on the other side,
until looking up I could see the gleam of the foam all around me against
the dark heavens. Far behind me I could hear the wild wailings of old
Madge, who, seeing me start, thought no doubt that my madness had come to
a climax. As I rowed I peered over my shoulder, until at last on the belly
of a great wave which was sweeping towards me I distinguished the vague
white outline of the woman. Stooping over, I seized her as she swept by
me, and with an effort lifted her, all sodden with water, into the boat.
There was no need to row back, for the next billow carried us in and threw
us upon the beach. I dragged the boat out of danger, and then lifting up
the woman I carried her to the house, followed by my housekeeper, loud
with congratulation and praise.
Now that I had done this thing a reaction set in upon me. I felt that
my burden lived, for I heard the faint beat of her heart as I pressed my
ear against her side in carrying her. Knowing this, I threw her down
beside the fire which Madge had lit, with as little sympathy as though she
had been a bundle of fagots. I never glanced at her to see if she were
fair or no. For many years I had cared little for the face of a woman. As
I lay in my hammock upstairs, however, I heard the old woman as she chafed
the warmth back into her, crooning a chorus of, "Eh, the puir lassie! Eh,
the bonnie lassie!" from which I gathered that this piece of jetsam was
both young and comely.
The morning after the gale was peaceful and sunny. As I walked along
the long sweep of sand I could hear the panting of the sea. It was heaving
and swirling about the reef, but along the shore it rippled in gently
enough. There was no sign of the schooner, nor was there any wreckage upon
the beach, which did not surprise me, as I knew there was a great undertow
in those waters. A couple of broad-winged gulls were hovering and skimming
over the scene of the shipwreck, as though many strange things were
visible to them beneath the waves. At times I could hear their raucous
voices as they spoke to one another of what they saw.
When I came back from my walk the woman was waiting at the door for
me. I began to wish when I saw her that I had never saved her, for here
was an end of my privacy. She was very young--at the most nineteen, with a
pale somewhat refined face, yellow hair, merry blue eyes, and shining
teeth. Her beauty was of an ethereal type. She looked so white and light
and fragile that she might have been the spirit of that storm-foam from
out of which I plucked her. She had wreathed some of Madge's garments
round her in a way which was quaint and not unbecoming. As I strode
heavily up the pathway, she put out her hands with a pretty child-like
gesture, and ran down towards me, meaning, as I surmise, to thank me for
having saved her, but I put her aside with a wave of my hand and passed
her. At this she seemed somewhat hurt, and the tears sprang into her eyes,
but she followed me into the sitting-room and watched me wistfully. "What
country do you come from?" I asked her suddenly.
She smiled when I spoke, but shook her head.
"Francais?" I asked. "Deutsch?" "Espagnol?"--each time she shook her
head, and then she rippled off into a long statement in some tongue of
which I could not understand one word.
After breakfast was over, however, I got a clue to her nationality.
Passing along the beach once more, I saw that in a cleft of the ridge
a piece of wood had been jammed. I rowed out to it in my boat, and brought
it ashore. It was part of the sternpost of a boat, and on it, or rather on
the piece of wood attached to it, was the word "Archangel," painted in
strange, quaint lettering.
"So," I thought, as I paddled slowly back, "this pale damsel is a
Russian. A fit subject for the White Czar and a proper dweller on the
shores of the White Sea!" It seemed to me strange that one of her apparent
refinement should perform so long a journey in so frail a craft. When I
came back into the house, I pronounced the word "Archangel" several times
in different intonations, but she did not appear to recognise it.
I shut myself up in the laboratory all the morning, continuing a
research which I was making upon the nature of the allotropic forms of
carbon and of sulphur. When I came out at mid-day for some food she was
sitting by the table with a needle and thread, mending some rents in her
clothes, which were now dry. I resented her continued presence, but I
could not turn her out on the beach to shift for herself. Presently she
presented a new phase of her character. Pointing to herself and then to
the scene of the shipwreck, she held up one finger, by which I understood
her to be asking whether she was the only one saved. I nodded my head to
indicate that she was. On this she sprang out of the chair with a cry of
great joy, and holding the garment which she was mending over her head,
and swaying it from side to side with the motion of her body, she danced
as lightly as a feather all round the room, and then out through the open
door into the sunshine. As she whirled round she sang in a plaintive
shrill voice some uncouth barbarous chant, expressive of exultation. I
called out to her, "Come in, you young fiend, come in and be silent!" but
she went on with her dance. Then she suddenly ran towards me, and catching
my hand before I could pluck it away, she kissed it. While we were at
dinner she spied one of my pencils, and taking it up she wrote the two
words "Sophie Ramusine" upon a piece of paper, and then pointed to herself
as a sign that that was her name. She handed the pencil to me, evidently
expecting that I would be equally communicative, but I put it in my pocket
as a sign that I wished to hold no intercourse with her.
Every moment of my life now I regretted the unguarded precipitancy
with which I had saved this woman. What was it to me whether she had lived
or died? I was no young, hot-headed youth to do such things. It was bad
enough to be compelled to have Madge in the house, but she was old and
ugly, and could be ignored. This one was young and lively, and so
fashioned as to divert attention from graver things. Where could I send
her, and what could I do with her? If I sent information to Wick it would
mean that officials and others would come to me and pry, and peep, and
chatter--a hateful thought. It was better to endure her presence than
I soon found that there were fresh troubles in store for me. There is
no place safe from the swarming, restless race of which I am a member. In
the evening, when the sun was dipping down behind the hills, casting them
into dark shadow, but gilding the sands and casting a great glory over the
sea, I went, as is my custom, for a stroll along the beach. Sometimes on
these occasions I took my book with me. I did so on this night, and
stretching myself upon a sand-dune I composed myself to read. As I lay
there I suddenly became aware of a shadow which interposed itself between
the sun and myself. Looking round, I saw to my great surprise a very tall,
powerful man, who was standing a few yards off, and who, instead of
looking at me, was ignoring my existence completely, and was gazing over
my head with a stern set face at the bay and the black line of the Mansie
reef. His complexion was dark, with black hair, and short, curling beard,
a hawk-like nose, and golden earrings in his ears--the general effect
being wild and somewhat noble. He wore a faded velveteen jacket, a
red-flannel shirt, and high sea boots, coming half-way up his thighs. I
recognised him at a glance as being the same man who had been left on the
wreck the night before.
"Hullo!" I said, in an aggrieved voice. "You got ashore all right,
"Yes," he answered, in good English. "It was no doing of mine. The
waves threw me up. I wish to God I had been allowed to drown!"
There was a slight foreign lisp in his accent which was rather
pleasing. "Two good fishermen, who live round yonder point, pulled me out
and cared for me; yet I could not honestly thank them for it."
"Ho! ho!" thought I, "here is a man of my own kidney. Why do you wish
to be drowned?" I asked.
"Because," he cried, throwing out his long arms with a passionate,
despairing gesture, "there--there in that blue smiling bay, lies my soul,
my treasure--everything that I loved and lived for."
"Well, well," I said. "People are ruined every day, but there's no
use making a fuss about it. Let me inform you that this ground on which
you walk is my ground, and that the sooner you take yourself off it the
better pleased I shall be. One of you is quite trouble enough."
"One of us?" he gasped.
"Yes--if you could take her off with you I should be still more
He gazed at me for a moment as if hardly able to realise what I said,
and then with a wild cry he ran away from me with prodigious speed and
raced along the sands towards my house. Never before or since have I seen
a human being run so fast. I followed as rapidly as I could, furious at
this threatened invasion, but long before I reached the house he had
disappeared through the open door. I heard a great scream from the inside,
and as I came nearer the sound of a man's bass voice speaking rapidly and
loudly. When I looked in the girl, Sophie Ramusine, was crouching in a
corner, cowering away, with fear and loathing expressed on her averted
face and in every line of her shrinking form. The other, with his dark
eyes flashing, and his outstretched hands quivering with emotion, was
pouring forth a torrent of passionate pleading words. He made a step
forward to her as I entered, but she writhed still further away, and
uttered a sharp cry like that of a rabbit when the weasel has him by the
"Here!" I said, pulling him back from her. "This is a pretty to-do!
What do you mean? Do you think this is a wayside inn or place of public
"Oh, sir," he said, "excuse me. This woman is my wife, and I feared
that she was drowned. You have brought me back to life."
"Who are you?" I asked roughly.
"I am a man from Archangel," he said simply; "a Russian man."
"What is your name?"
"Ourganeff!--and hers is Sophie Ramusine. She is no wife of yours.
She has no ring."
"We are man and wife in the sight of Heaven," he said solemnly,
looking upwards. "We are bound by higher laws than those of earth." As he
spoke the girl slipped behind me and caught me by the other hand, pressing
it as though beseeching my protection. "Give me up my wife, sir," he went
on. "Let me take her away from here."
"Look here, you--whatever your name is," I said sternly; "I don't
want this wench here. I wish I had never seen her. If she died it would be
no grief to me. But as to handing her over to you, when it is clear she
fears and hates you, I won't do it. So now just clear your great body out
of this, and leave me to my books. I hope I may never look upon your face
"You won't give her up to me?" he said hoarsely.
"I'll see you damned first!" I answered.
"Suppose I take her," he cried, his dark face growing darker.
All my tigerish blood flushed up in a moment. I picked up a billet of
wood from beside the fireplace. "Go," I said, in a low voice; "go quick,
or I may do you an injury." He looked at me irresolutely for a moment, and
then he left the house. He came back again in a moment, however, and stood
in the doorway looking in at us.
"Have a heed what you do," he said. "The woman is mine, and I shall
have her. When it comes to blows, a Russian is as good a man as a
"We shall see that," I cried, springing forward, but he was already
gone, and I could see his tall form moving away through the gathering
For a month or more after this things went smoothly with us. I never
spoke to the Russian girl, nor did she ever address me. Sometimes when I
was at work in my laboratory she would slip inside the door and sit
silently there watching me with her great eyes. At first this intrusion
annoyed me, but by degrees, finding that she made no attempt to distract
my attention, I suffered her to remain. Encouraged by this concession, she
gradually came to move the stool on which she sat nearer and nearer to my
table, until after gaining a little every day during some weeks, she at
last worked her way right up to me, and used to perch herself beside me
whenever I worked. In this position she used, still without ever obtruding
her presence in any way, to make herself very useful by holding my pens,
test-tubes, or bottles, and handing me whatever I wanted, with
never-failing sagacity. By ignoring the fact of her being a human being,
and looking upon her as a useful automatic machine, I accustomed myself to
her presence so far as to miss her on the few occasions when she was not
at her post. I have a habit of talking aloud to myself at times when I
work, so as to fix my results better in my mind. The girl must have had a
surprising memory for sounds, for she could always repeat the words which
I let fall in this way, without, of course, understanding in the least
what they meant. I have often been amused at hearing her discharge a
volley of chemical equations and algebraic symbols at old Madge, and then
burst into a ringing laugh when the crone would shake her head, under the
impression, no doubt, that she was being addressed in Russian.
She never went more than a few yards from the house, and indeed never
put her foot over the threshold without looking carefully out of each
window in order to be sure that there was nobody about. By this I knew
that she suspected that her fellow-countryman was still in the
neighbourhood, and feared that he might attempt to carry her off. She did
something else which was significant. I had an old revolver with some
cartridges, which had been thrown away among the rubbish. She found this
one day, and at once proceeded to clean it and oil it. She hung it up near
the door, with the cartridges in a little bag beside it, and whenever I
went for a walk, she would take it down and insist upon my carrying it
with me. In my absence she would always bolt the door. Apart from her
apprehensions she seemed fairly happy, busying herself in helping Madge
when she was not attending upon me. She was wonderfully nimble-fingered
and natty in all domestic duties.
It was not long before I discovered that her suspicions were well
founded, and that this man from Archangel was still lurking in the
vicinity. Being restless one night I rose and peered out of the window.
The weather was somewhat cloudy, and I could barely make out the line of
the sea, and the loom of my boat upon the beach. As I gazed, however, and
my eyes became accustomed to the obscurity, I became aware that there was
some other dark blur upon the sands, and that in front of my very door,
where certainly there had been nothing of the sort the preceding night. As
I stood at my diamond-paned lattice still peering and peeping to make out
what this might be, a great bank of clouds rolled slowly away from the
face of the moon, and a flood of cold, clear light was poured down upon
the silent bay and the long sweep of its desolate shores. Then I saw what
this was which haunted my doorstep. It was he, the Russian. He squatted
there like a gigantic toad, with his legs doubled under him in strange
Mongolian fashion, and his eyes fixed apparently upon the window of the
room in which the young girl and the housekeeper slept. The light fell
upon his upturned face, and I saw once more the hawk-like grace of his
countenance, with the single deeply-indented line of care upon his brow,
and the protruding beard which marks the passionate nature. My first
impulse was to shoot him as a trespasser, but, as I gazed, my resentment
changed into pity and contempt. "Poor fool," I said to myself, "is it then
possible that you, whom I have seen looking open-eyed at present death,
should have your whole thoughts and ambition centred upon this wretched
slip of a girl--a girl, too, who flies from you and hates you. Most women
would love you--were it but for that dark face and great handsome body of
yours--and yet you must needs hanker after the one in a thousand who will
have no traffic with you." As I returned to my bed I chuckled much to
myself over this thought. I knew that my bars were strong and my bolts
thick. It mattered little to me whether this strange man spent his night
at my door or a hundred leagues off, so long as he was gone by the
morning. As I expected, when I rose and went out there was no sign of him,
nor had he left any trace of his midnight vigil.
It was not long, however, before I saw him again. I had been out for
a row one morning, for my head was aching, partly from prolonged stooping,
and partly from the effects of a noxious drug which I had inhaled the
night before. I pulled along the coast some miles, and then, feeling
thirsty, I landed at a place where I knew that a fresh water stream
trickled down into the sea. This rivulet passed through my land, but the
mouth of it, where I found myself that day, was beyond my boundary line. I
felt somewhat taken aback when rising from the stream at which I had
slaked my thirst I found myself face to face with the Russian. I was as
much a trespasser now as he was, and I could see at a glance that he knew
"I wish to speak a few words to you," he said gravely.
"Hurry up, then!" I answered, glancing at my watch. "I have no time
to listen to chatter."
"Chatter!" he repeated angrily. "Ah, but there. You Scotch people are
strange men. Your face is hard and your words rough, but so are those of
the good fishermen with whom I stay, yet I find that beneath it all there
lie kind honest natures. No doubt you are kind and good, too, in spite of
"In the name of the devil," I said, "say your say, and go your way.
I am weary of the sight of you."
"Can I not soften you in any way?" he cried. " Ah, see--see here"--he
produced a small Grecian cross from inside his velvet jacket. "Look at
this. Our religions may differ in form, but at least we have some common
thoughts and feelings when we see this emblem."
"I am not so sure of that," I answered.
He looked at me thoughtfully.
"You are a very strange man," he said at last. "I cannot understand
you. You still stand between me and Sophie. It is a dangerous position to
take, sir. Oh, believe me, before it is too late. If you did but know what
I have done to gain that woman--how I have risked my body, how I have lost
my soul! You are a small obstacle to some which I have surmounted--you,
whom a rip with a knife, or a blow from a stone, would put out of my way
for ever. But God preserve me from that," he cried wildly. "I am deep--too
deep--already. Anything rather than that."
"You would do better to go back to your country," I said, "than to
skulk about these sand-hills and disturb my leisure. When I have proof
that you have gone away I shall hand this woman over to the protection of
the Russian Consul at Edinburgh. Until then, I shall guard her myself, and
not you, nor any Muscovite that ever breathed, shall take her from me."
"And what is your object in keeping me from Sophie?" he asked. "Do
you imagine that I would injure her? Why, man, I would give my life freely
to save her from the slightest harm. Why do you do this thing?"
"I do it because it is my good pleasure to act so," I answered. "I
give no man reasons for my conduct."
"Look here!" he cried, suddenly blazing into fury, and advancing
towards me with his shaggy mane bristling and his brown hands clenched.
"If I thought you had one dishonest thought towards this girl--if for a
moment I had reason to believe that you had any base motive for detaining
her--as sure as there is a God in Heaven I should drag the heart out of
your bosom with my hands." The very idea seemed to have put the man in a
frenzy, for his face was all distorted and his hands opened and shut
convulsively. I thought that he was about to spring at my throat.
"Stand off," I said, putting my hand on my pistol. "If you lay a
finger on me I shall kill you."
He put his hand into his pocket, and for a moment I thought he was
about to produce a weapon too, but instead of that he whipped out a
cigarette and lit it, breathing the smoke rapidly into his lungs.
No doubt he had found by experience that this was the most effectual
way of curbing his passions.
"I told you," he said in a quieter voice, "that my name is
Ourganeff--Alexis Ourganeff. I am a Finn by birth, but I have spent my
life in every part of the world. I was one who could never be still, nor
settle down to a quiet existence. After I came to own my own ship there is
hardly a port from Archangel to Australia which I have not entered. I was
rough and wild and free, but there was one at home, sir, who was prim and
white-handed and soft-tongued, skilful in little fancies and conceits
which women love. This youth by his wiles and tricks stole from me the
love of the girl whom I had ever marked as my own, and who up to that time
had seemed in some sort inclined to return my passion. I had been on a
voyage to Hammerfest for ivory, and coming back unexpectedly I learned
that my pride and treasure was to be married to this soft-skinned boy, and
that the party had actually gone to the church. In such moments, sir,
something gives way in my head, and I hardly know what I do. I landed with
a boat's crew--all men who had sailed with me for years, and who were as
true as steel. We went up to the church. They were standing, she and he,
before the priest, but the thing had not been done. I dashed between them
and caught her round the waist. My men beat back the frightened bridegroom
and the lookers on. We bore her down to the boat and aboard our vessel,
and then getting up anchor we sailed away across the White Sea until the
spires of Archangel sank down behind the horizon. She had my cabin, my
room, every comfort. I slept among the men in the forecastle. I hoped that
in time her aversion to me would wear away, and that she would consent to
marry me in England or in France. For days and days we sailed. We saw the
North Cape die away behind us, and we skirted the grey Norwegian coast,
but still, in spite of every attention, she would not forgive me for
tearing her from that pale-faced lover of hers. Then came this cursed
storm which shattered both my ship and my hopes, and has deprived me even
of the sight of the woman for whom I have risked so much. Perhaps she may
learn to love me yet. You, sir," he said wistfully, "look like one who has
seen much of the world. Do you not think that she may come to forget this
man and to love me?"
"I am tired of your story," I said, turning away. "For my part, I
think you are a great fool. If you imagine that this love of yours will
pass away you had best amuse yourself as best you can until it does. If,
on the other hand, it is a fixed thing, you cannot do better than cut your
throat, for that is the shortest way out of it. I have no more time to
waste on the matter." With this I hurried away and walked down to the
boat. I never looked round, but I heard the dull sound of his feet upon
the sands as he followed me.
"I have told you the beginning of my story," he said, "and you shall
know the end some day. You would do well to let the girl go."
I never answered him, but pushed the boat off. When I had rowed some
distance out I looked back and saw his tall figure upon the yellow sand as
he stood gazing thoughtfully after me. When I looked again some minutes
later he had disappeared.
For a long time after this my life was as regular and as monotonous
as it had been before the shipwreck. At times I hoped that the man from
Archangel had gone away altogether, but certain footsteps which I saw upon
the sand, and more particularly a little pile of cigarette ash which I
found one day behind a hillock from which a view of the house might be
obtained, warned me that, though invisible, he was still in the vicinity.
My relations with the Russian girl remained the same as before. Old Madge
had been somewhat jealous of her presence at first, and seemed to fear
that what little authority she had would be taken away from her. By
degrees, however, as she came to realise my utter indifference, she became
reconciled to the situation, and, as I have said before, profited by it,
as our visitor performed much of the domestic work.
And now I am coming near the end of this narrative of mine, which I
have written a great deal more for my own amusement than for that of any
one else. The termination of the strange episode in which these two
Russians had played a part was as wild and as sudden as the commencement.
The events of one single night freed me from all my troubles, and left me
once more alone with my books and my studies, as I had been before their
intrusion. Let me endeavour to describe how this came about.
I had had a long day of heavy and wearying work, so that in the
evening I determined upon taking a long walk. When I emerged from the
house my attention was attracted by the appearance of the sea. It lay like
a sheet of glass, so that never a ripple disturbed its surface. Yet the
air was filled with that indescribable moaning sound which I have alluded
to before--a sound as though the spirits of all those who lay beneath
those treacherous waters were sending a sad warning of coming troubles to
their brethren in the flesh. The fishermen's wives along that coast know
the eerie sound, and look anxiously across the waters for the brown sails
making for the land. When I heard it I stepped back into the house and
looked at the glass. It was down below 29 degrees. Then I knew that a wild
night was coming upon us.
Underneath the hills where I walked that evening it was dull and
chill, but their summits were rosy-red, and the sea was brightened by the
sinking sun. There were no clouds of importance in the sky, yet the dull
groaning of the sea grew louder and stronger. I saw, far to the eastward,
a brig beating up for Wick, with a reef in her topsails. It was evident
that her captain had read the signs of nature as I had done. Behind her a
long, lurid haze lay low upon the water, concealing the horizon. "I had
better push on," I thought to myself, "or the wind may rise before I can
I suppose I must have been at least half a mile from the house when I
suddenly stopped and listened breathlessly. My ears were so accustomed to
the noises of nature, the sighing of the breeze and the sob of the waves,
that any other sound made itself heard at a great distance. I waited,
listening with all my ears. Yes, there it was again--a long-drawn, shrill
cry of despair, ringing over the sands and echoed back from the hills
behind me--a piteous appeal for aid. It came from the direction of my
house. I turned and ran back homewards at the top of my speed, ploughing
through the sand, racing over the shingle. In my mind there was a great
dim perception of what had occurred.
About a quarter of a mile from the house there is a high sand-hill,
from which the whole country round is visible. When I reached the top of
this I paused for a moment. There was the old grey building--there the
boat. Everything seemed to be as I had left it. Even as I gazed, however,
the shrill scream was repeated, louder than before, and the next moment a
tall figure emerged from my door, the figure of the Russian sailor. Over
his shoulder was the white form of the young girl, and even in his haste
he seemed to bear her tenderly and with gentle reverence. I could hear her
wild cries and see her desperate struggles to break away from him. Behind
the couple came my old housekeeper, staunch and true, as the aged dog, who
can no longer bite, still snarls with toothless gums at the intruder. She
staggered feebly along at the heels of the ravisher, waving her long, thin
arms, and hurling, no doubt, volleys of Scotch curses and imprecations at
his head. I saw at a glance that he was making for the boat. A sudden hope
sprang up in my soul that I might be in time to intercept him. I ran for
the beach at the top of my speed. As I ran I slipped a cartridge into my
revolver. This I determined should be the last of these invasions.
I was too late. By the time I reached the water's edge he was a
hundred yards away, making the boat spring with every stroke of his
powerful arms. I uttered a wild cry of impotent anger, and stamped up and
down the sands like a maniac. He turned and saw me. Rising from his seat
he made me a graceful bow, and waved his hand to me. It was not a
triumphant or a derisive gesture. Even my furious and distempered mind
recognised it as being a solemn and courteous leave-taking. Then he
settled down to his oars once more, and the little skiff shot away out
over the bay. The sun had gone down now, leaving a single dull, red streak
upon the water, which stretched away until it blended with the purple haze
on the horizon. Gradually the skiff grew smaller and smaller as it sped
across this lurid band, until the shades of night gathered round it and it
became a mere blur upon the lonely sea. Then this vague loom died away
also and darkness settled over it--a darkness which should never more be
And why did I pace the solitary shore, hot and wrathful as a wolf
whose whelp has been torn from it? Was it that I loved this Muscovite
girl? No--a thousand times no. I am not one who, for the sake of a white
skin or a blue eye, would belie my own life, and change the whole tenor of
my thoughts and existence. My heart was untouched. But my pride--ah, there
I had been cruelly wounded.
To think that I had been unable to afford protection to the helpless
one who craved it of me, and who relied on me! It was that which made my
heart sick and sent the blood buzzing through my ears.
That night a great wind rose up from the sea, and the wild waves
shrieked upon the shore as though they would tear it back with them into
the ocean. The turmoil and the uproar were congenial to my vexed spirit.
All night I wandered up and down, wet with spray and rain, watching the
gleam of the white breakers and listening to the outcry of the storm. My
heart was bitter against the Russian. I joined my feeble pipe to the
screaming of the gale. "If he would but come back again!" I cried with
clenched hands; "if he would but come back!"
He came back. When the grey light of morning spread over the eastern
sky, and lit up the great waste of yellow, tossing waters, with the brown
clouds drifting swiftly over them, then I saw him once again. A few
hundred yards off along the sand there lay a long dark object, cast up by
the fury of the waves. It was my boat, much shattered and splintered. A
little further on, a vague, shapeless something was washing to and fro in
the shallow water, all mixed with shingle and with seaweed. I saw at a
glance that it was the Russian, face downwards and dead. I rushed into the
water and dragged him up on to the beach. It was only when I turned him
over that I discovered that she was beneath him, his dead arms encircling
her, his mangled body still intervening between her and the fury of the
storm. It seemed that the fierce German Sea might beat the life from him,
but with all its strength it was unable to tear this one-idea'd man from
the woman whom he loved. There were signs which led me to believe that
during that awful night the woman's fickle mind had come at last to learn
the worth of the true heart and strong arm which struggled for her and
guarded her so tenderly. Why else should her little head be nestling so
lovingly on his broad breast, while her yellow hair entwined itself with
his flowing beard? Why too should there be that bright smile of ineffable
happiness and triumph, which death itself had not had power to banish from
his dusky face? I fancy that death had been brighter to him than life had ever been.
Madge and I buried them there on the shores of the desolate northern
sea. They lie in one grave deep down beneath the yellow sand. Strange
things may happen in the world around them. Empires may rise and may fall,
dynasties may perish, great wars may come and go, but, heedless of it all,
those two shall embrace each other for ever and aye, in their lonely
shrine by the side of the sounding ocean. I sometimes have thought that
their spirits flit like shadowy sea-mews over the wild waters of the bay.
No cross or symbol marks their resting-place, but old Madge puts wild
flowers upon it at times, and when I pass on my daily walk and see the
fresh blossoms scattered over the sand, I think of the strange couple who
came from afar, and broke for a little space the dull tenor of my sombre life.