Alistair MacLean

The Lonely Sea


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eachan looked at him in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eachan flung the counter-flap up with a crash.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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