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Title: A New Species
Author: Robert Coutts Armour
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Language: English
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A New Species

by

Robert Coutts Armour


Published in The Red Magazine, June 1921


Eternally battered by demoniac seas, ringed by reefs wicked as a shark's teeth, outermost of the Outer Hebrides, the isle of Eiarn is but seldom visited by man. The sea-birds own it. Their ceaseless crying cuts shrilly across the boom of the waves breaking at the foot of basalt cliffs, or thundering into the recesses of caves worn by ages of unremitting hammer strokes. They brought Porter to Eiarn.

He was a little grey man, very lithe and active, brown of face from incessant exposure to all kinds of weather, with a twinkle in his grey eyes and the infernal patience of a cat hidden somewhere behind them.

Indeed, there had been need of that last quality before ever he got to the island, for he had waited nearly two months until the launch which he had chartered dared put out; and even then they had lain for a day and a night in the lee of the place ere the cargo she carried could be landed. Provisions enough for half a year had been hurried ashore, and in hot haste the launch's crew erected the hut Porter intended to make his home for the next three months. It was very small, but strongly made of sections which bolted together, with a roof that offered no hold to the wind and a well-fitted door, calculated to resist the pelt of hurricane driven rain. It was placed in a niche a little below the flat summit of the island, and well ballasted with heavy stones.

"I reckon ye'll no get blawn awa' there Maister Porter," said the skipper, as he finished his labours and drew back to observe the result. "Man, it's no' me that's envying ye. This is no' canny place. There's tales, ye ken--"

"Oh, I've heard all the yarns," replies Porter. "The sea folks come here, don't they--mermaids and mermen and all sort of thing? Well, I dare say I shall be glad of their company. I'll ask 'em to tea, eh?"

"Mebbe it's you they'd be wanting for dinner," the skipper chuckled; and then since the sea was rising once again, hurried his fellows aboard.

Half an hour later the little vessel was out of sight down to leeward, and Porter was monarch of all he surveyed.

His first feeling, so he says, was one of elation. A keen ornithologist, he had long dreamed of this expedition. This solitude peopled by a multitude of birds, was paradise enough for him. He had his cameras, a gun and a little rifle for collecting specimens, egg blowing apparatus, preservatives for notebooks, a full equipment, and inexhaustible material. He was happy.

The weather held fine for something more than a fortnight, during which he was busy from sunrise 'til far into the night, grudging the time, spent over meals because he knew well that such favourable conditions could not last long.

"Then there came a gale from the northward,--a regular snorter," he says. "I thought I knew something about wind, but that was an experience I'd hardly care to live through again. I dared not venture more than a few steps from the hut, lest I should be torn off the rock and slung into the sea. The air was full of spray, so that I could hardly see my feet, and the row was appalling. The whole island quivered, and grew nervous lest the rock under which the hut lay should topple bodily on top of me. I put in a lot of time piling up big stones around the hut and on the roof. By the time the gale abated it had the place nearly buried in stones. At a little distance it looked like some Palaeolithic dwelling, and nothing short of an earthquake could have shifted it."

Calm succeeded the hurricane, comparative calm that is, with a light south-westerly wind that brought rain, and only a moderate groundswell. Porter seized the opportunity of neap tide to explore certain low-lying ledges which he had not ventured to visit before, and wandered a good way from the strip of beach in the tiny cove, or recess, that was the landing place, 'til the turn of the tide warned him it was time to return.

"I was disappointed, for I had hoped to reach the mouth of a cave which I could see from the cove. There were certainly nests in it, and I wanted to observe the habits of the troglodytes. But there was no sense in risking a wetting, or perhaps an uncomfortable night in the open, so I took one or two photographs and turned about. The ledge was narrow, and I had to go slowly. I came to a corner, and was in the act of slipping round it, when I had a queer sensation that something was looking at me.

"Perhaps you know the feeling? I remember a fellow at the Travellers' telling a yarn of how he was stalked by a lion on the veldt. He said he would have fallen an easy prey to the brute if he hadn't suddenly felt its eyes boring into his back, as it were. Well, this was exactly the same thing. I felt eyes upon me, and a chilly creeping of the skin along my spine.

"I turned as sharply as I could. There was nothing on the ledge, absolutely nothing, nor on the face of the rocks above. Nothing could have scaled that scarp. Then I saw a ring of ripples spreading across the face of the smooth water in the cave-mouth, as though something had just dived there. I waited a minute, but saw no more, so went on and reached the cove all right.

"There is a steep path up from the beach, and the flat ledge behind it, to the hut. I paused at the foot of it, took a final look round, and started up. Then I had the feeling again! I whisked about, with no better luck, for though I thought I saw something vanish from the midst of the cove, the sea was too lively to show any ripples there.

"I climbed the path, puzzling over the matter. Some of the diving birds have an uncanny way of disappearing when one turns towards them, but I had had them stare at me often enough before without feeling it, and, besides, the bird that could have made such a disturbance as those ripples by the cave must have been a monster such as I had never heard of.

"I concluded that it must have been a seal, and then it occurred to me that I had seen none since my arrival, though the island seemed an ideal spot for the creatures. This was the more curious in that I had not seen many along the coast of Lewis, and on the trip out. But perhaps they had gone northward for the summer, leaving one old, solitary bull, who, grown cautious through years, would take no risks. On the whole, I thought this the most likely notion.

"I spent the rest of the afternoon developing an accumulation of plates, and went early to bed to rise with the sun. That was the finest day of my whole stay. The sky was cloudless and the sea nearly calm, so I ventured to bathe.

"What I had called the beach of the cove was in reality a sloping shelf of rock, with shingle in pockets and crevices. It dipped suddenly, so that after wading three or four steps I was in deep water. I swam out for perhaps a hundred yards, turned over on my back, and floated. Except for the gentle heave of the swell, the sea was perfectly smooth.

"Then suddenly I saw a swirl on the surface close to me, the sort of eddy that is caused by a big fish swimming just below the surface, and a moment later had that same old uncanny feeling that I was being observed from behind.

"I turned over, but once again too late. There was a ring of spreading ripples, but nothing more. I did not wait. I am no great swimmer, but, I fancy I must have covered the hundred yards to shore in something close to record time. I think, though not sure, that the Thing accompanied me on a parallel course, until I stood upright and splashed up the shelf.

"I began to dress in a hurry, blundered into my trousers, and, losing my balance; thrust a foot against a sharp stone, cutting it rather badly. I had splashed the rock freely with my blood before I succeeded in stanching the wound. I sat down on a rock to finish my toilet, cursing the ill-luck that would confine me to the neighbourhood of the hut for several days to come, when, round the buttressed end of the island came a fishing-boat. She was well out, but, on seeing me wave, turned towards the cove, dropping her sail to negotiate the reefs about the entrance.

"There were four men aboard her, and it seemed to me that they were reluctant to come ashore. The two who were rowing hung on their oars, while the man in the bow shouted a string of questions, of which I understood nothing, since he spoke Gaelic. I noticed that the man steering had a gun across the thwart beside him--a somewhat unusual piece of furniture for a fishing craft.

"I beckoned hospitably, and made invitation as I hobbled to the water's edge. Finally, the boat came in, disembarked the bow man, and backed out quickly while he waded ashore in a mighty hurry, bursting into a flood of speech as he reached me.

"I fancy he was urging me to come aboard at once, to which I could only reply by shaking my head and pointing to my hut. When he saw the blood on the rocks and noted my wounded foot, he looked very concerned, much more than the matter warranted, I thought, and when at length I made him understand that I would have him come up and taste my whisky; he insisted on half carrying me over the lower part of the path. So far as I could make out, he thought the bloody trail I left on the stones an uncanny thing.

"When we got to the hut, he examined the door before he went in, nodding approval of its strength. While I poured out whisky he caught sight of my gun, and brightened a little, but on examining some cartridges, shook a desponding head, and by vigorous signs signified that he thought the charge No. 8 was the heaviest shot I had--far too light. As for the little rifle, he snorted contempt over it. Certainly a 22-calibre bullet is no great missile, though I have always found it sufficient for my purposes.

"Over the whisky he waxed eloquent. Indeed, it clarified his language signs so much that I understood clearly he wished me to come away with him at once, though it did not suffice to make me understand the reason why. I replied by showing him, on the calendar, the probable date of my departure, some nine weeks later, at which he threw up his hands in despair.

"Finally, seeing me adamant, he took his leave, but not before he had chopped a lead sinker, from his pocket, into slugs, with which he charged a cartridge in place of the despised small shot.

"From the door of the hut I saw the boat slide in and take him aboard, and at once shove off. In a few minutes they had caught a slant of wind, which took them out of sight in a short while, leaving me in a very low mind. In vain I reminded myself that these simple fishers believed all manner of weird legends that every rock of the thousands along coast was the haunt of some watersprite or mermaiden, that seals were the descendants of folks drowned at sea, and that once a year, on the Eve of St. John, they doffed their skins and danced on the beach in human form from midnight to dawn.

"Very likely Eiarn was haunted by some bogey, some baseless fabrication of the Celtic imagination, I told myself. What is more natural amidst perilous seas, where the red dawn comes up like blood, and all manner of queer sounds echo along precipices wreathed in sea mists?

"Yet even as I laughed half-heartedly, I knew that something more tangible than kelpies or witchwork lay behind the fisherman's evident anxiety. There is something very concrete about lead slugs. A man doesn't bother to hack up a good sinker merely on account of hypothetical merfolks.

"Could it be that the Thing was the cause of his perturbation? Had I had a narrow escape? And, above all, what under heaven could It be?

"I had time enough to ponder over the problem, for there was no going far that day. I redressed my wounded foot by the door of the hut, fed myself, and so sat me down again, staring at the cove, fancying at times that I could see something moving swiftly across it, a little below the surface, reflecting that, after all the dredging and netting that has been going on systematically for well over half a century men knew precious little about the inhabitants of the sea.

"Undoubtedly the ocean holds many species of which we have, so far, neither specimens nor record. The great sea-serpent may yet be proved no myth of bibulous sailor men, and the kraken not altogether a figment of the imagination.

"So went my musings, until a fog crept up I sat just within the doorway, the tiny and blotted the cove, the path, and everything but the ground on which I stood, out of sight. I went into the hut, and got out Campbell's Myths and Legends of the Western Highlands, which I had brought for light reading, and was soon deep in tales of warlocks and witches who could raise storms and go to sea in eggshells.

"I sat just within the doorway, the tiny window of the hut being useful only as a ventilator. The fog stood like a wall beside me; through the obscurity the eternal crying of the birds came fitfully, a thin wailing as of lost souls, that made a very fitting accompaniment to my reading. The light was fading. I was on the point of closing my book and rising to make tea, when, without a sound, something loomed up out of the fog within a couple of yards of me--a wavering indefinite thing that looked near as tall as a man.

"A sickening reek swept to my nostrils. Then I yelled in sheer panic, and at the sound of my voice the Thing vanished. I heard a rattle of stones, no more: the fog stood blank as before the visitation.

"'But there can't be anything!' I found myself shouting to vacancy. 'There's nothing here which could do that!'

"Which is--or was--perfectly true. Nothing of the apparent size of my phantom visitor able to climb the steep path from the sea existed in those waters, so far as natural history books recorded. A seal might have made the ascent, but, allowing for the magnification of the fog, this must have been the great father of all the seals, something of the dimensions of the elephant-seal, whose habitat lies half a world away from Eiarn.

"Thus, having convinced myself by a few seconds' reasoning that what I had seen couldn't exist, I leapt inside and slammed the door, shooting the bolt with a pang of regret that it was so frail a thing, then fortifying it with the heaviest packing-cases. In short, I was for a while in the bluest of funks.

"Only because I had seen something inexplicable in the fog? No. Rather it was the result, the culmination, of all that had gone before, and, most of all, the fisherman's anxiety for my safety. This Thing must be deadly, or that big, red-bearded man would never have made so much fuss. I shoved the cartridge he had loaded into the breech of my gun, and prepared several others in like manner using a leaden paperweight. When I had done this I felt happier. I was ready to protect myself.

"The evening wore on. Nothing happened. Finally I put out my lamp and turned in, all standing, dropping off to sleep almost at once, strange to say. Some hours must have passed before I was awakened by a noise outside, the sound of one of the stones I had piled against the walls falling with a rattle. A moment later another followed. Assuredly the Thing was trying to climb upon the roof. I lit the lamp, and as the rays streamed from the window I saw--or thought I saw--something dark move swiftly across the illuminated patch of fog outside.

"There was no more noise, but though I lay down I could not sleep again. When wan daylight came at last I could stand no more, but opening the door, peered out, my gun ready. Nothing! Except that some shreds of the blood-soaked handkerchief I had left lying by the door when I removed it, were scattered over the rocks.

"I went a little way down the path, and found more shreds here and there. The Thing had come up and gone back to the sea that way. I grew foxy. I would at least have notice of its coming, and be ready for it. So I piled a wall of small stones across in such a fashion that not even a rabbit could have passed without bringing them rattling down. Since there are no rabbits on Eiarn, there was little chance of a false alarm. Afterwards, I prepared a flare of straw and packing paper soaked with oil.

"I endeavoured to occupy myself with my notebooks, with little success, the gun between my knees bringing my thoughts back continually to what might be lurking in the fog close at hand. I don't think I ever spent a more uncomfortable day, and I was glad when at long last it began to grow dark, for I felt certain that my visitor would return.

"Leaving the window open, but shading the lamp so that only a glow could be visible from without, I settled to my vigil with ears pricking to every whisper of sound. At nine I ate my simple supper. At ten I gave up the pretence of reading. By twelve I had grown sulky, telling myself that the Thing would not come that night. And, only two or three minutes later, I heard my alarm-wall fall.

"I had rehearsed exactly what I would do, and did it without a hitch. I lit my flare, flung it through the window, then opening the door, sprang out and let drive a barrel down the path.

"There was a commotion of rolling stones, a sort of coughing bellow, a swirl of the fog, and something dark and indefinite blundered past up the hollow and so to the plateau beyond. I fired the second barrel into it as it passed, eliciting another roar.

"Then followed a great outcry from the birds as they rose before the disturber of peace, but since there was nothing more to be done I got me in again, reloading as I went.

"Slowly the racket among the bird folk died away; there was silence, save for the usual nigh noises. For the time the enemy was routed.

"But I did not sleep. The gully running past the hut was the only way down to the sea, so far as I knew, and the creature might return at any moment, paying me a visit in passing. However, I was no longer nervous, but rather eager to have another shot at the beggar. Chiefly I was consumed by curiosity, my glimpse of the Thing having in no way enlightened me. I had seen only a dark bulk which might have been anything, a blur shapeless as a puff of smoke.

"I puzzled myself 'til daylight, then, since nothing seemed likely to happen, snoozed for several hours. The mist was gone from the upper part of the island when I awoke, though it still hung thickly above the sea. Determined to follow up my quarry and make an end of the mystery, if I could, I snatched a hasty breakfast and hobbled out.

"There was no difficulty in following the trail. A pool of blood where I had built the little wall, and many splashes all up the gully showed that I had hit hard. On the plateau above the trail was still plain. The creature had ploughed straight over the close lying nests, crushing eggs and fledglings in its passage.

"It seemed to have gone blindly for a little way, then steered towards the edge of the cliff, along which it had gone for a considerable distance, evidently seeking a path down. I walked very warily, expecting to come upon the brute at any moment. Several times I halted before a clump of boulders and threw stones. Nothing showed, however, and the trail ran on until I had come to a place almost immediately above the cave I had mentioned. There it plunged into gully so steep that I hesitated to negotiate it with my lamed foot for handicap.

"But after hesitating a little, I ventured so far as a large rock that jutted from the face of the cliff about thirty feet down. The descent took me some time, but at last I was securely seated in a crevice, and able to scan the remainder of the gully.

"As I had thought, it did not go right down, but ceased at a broad ledge some fifty feet above the sea. The mist still hung about the ledge, while I could only catch an occasional glimpse of the dark water below. The vapour swirled with the light breeze, now blotting out the ledge altogether, now thinning 'til it was only a gauze veil, through which I could see boulders and lichen patches wavering indistinctly.

"Something moved on the ledge, something long and large, so like in colour to the rock it lay upon that only the movement revealed it for a living thing. At which moment the mist thickened again, and I saw no more.

"Waiting was my game. I trained my gun between my knees, and watched the eddying drift of the wreaths for a full half-hour at least before they thinned once more; then, as the grey, humped form loomed out again, let drive both barrels.

"From aloft it looked as though a section of the ledge lifted a little, then rolled over into the sea. I had a clear sight of what seemed a webbed paw flailing out in a vain effort to hold on--then there came a mighty splash, and with it a rush of something which flung the water aside like the bow of a destroyer. The sea foamed, I could see two dark forms battling furiously, see the spray discoloured with blood--and then the mist closed down once more, leaving me as far from a solution as ever.

"For several minutes longer I heard the battle, then quiet fell, and when the mist cleared at last, before a gust, there was nought to see but a patch of stained water, which slowly cleared. Though I waited a long while, I saw nothing more.

"That afternoon my fishermen returned, bringing with them, for interpreter, their minister, a pleasant young fellow who spoke English with the Highland clearness of accent. He came ashore, accompanied by the red-beard who had first visited me, while, as before, the boat shoved off and the man in the stern kept his gun at the ready, precautions that no longer seemed ridiculous.

"The minister opened fire as soon as he was within hailing distance, by explaining who he was and why he came.

"'Angus Macpherson here came to me in great distress because he could not make you understand the grave risks you run by remaining here,' he began. 'So I had to come perforce, as it were. Have you been molested? What is all this?'

"He had halted before the first of the bloodstains, while Angus, in great excitement, poured out a torrent of Gaelic.

"'That is the blood of one of the grave risks,' I replied. 'I can give it no other name, since I have only had the merest glimpse of the creature.'

"'And Angus cannot tell what it is, either,' he said. 'There seem to be several. One of our boats has been missing, and the men declare that it was attacked by these things. Remnants of the craft that have been picked up show the marks of terrible teeth. This isle is supposed to be a haunt of the brutes. You had better leave with us. The opportunity may not occur again for a long while.'"

"Well, I left. Solitude is all very well, and birds are extremely interesting, but they may be studied under less exacting conditions. If I had to be continually on my guard, I should be able to do little more. Therefore, we carried my baggage to the boat and pushed off, not without many a backward glance towards the dark mouth of the cave which, I suspect, held the secret of the island."

Here ends the material portion of Porter's narrative. There has been no further light on the matter, though several mysterious disappearances of fishing craft have been laid to the door of the terrors of Eiarn.

Marine zoologists are puzzled. One suggests a new species of seal, larger, more, ferocious than the gentle beasts we know of, carnivorous and bloodthirsty. Another gloats on the prospects of discovering a novel sort of alligator which has taken the sea for its province. A third boldly plumps for something altogether new and strange, an amphibious shark-tiger, product of heaven knows what evolutionary process in the mighty deep.

And, while the expedition that is to solve the riddle is being got ready, Mr Porter wanders the halls of the United Services Museum and all other places where slaughter weapons are displayed, meditating an armament. He does not propose to return to Eiarn without precaution.


THE END

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