A STORY OF SECOND SIGHT.
“Towards the close of a dark cold evening,” he said, “the 23rd October, if I remember rightly, I found, much to my annoyance, that I had quitted the high road leading to Portree and was wandering about in the most helpless manner possible amidst innumerable bogs and morasses. What was to be done? To retrace my steps was simply impossible. There was nothing to indicate the proper route. The moon had not yet risen. Darkness enveloped me like a curtain, and I was alone. Once I paused and whistled, but no human voice made answer. The sole response was the beat of the wild sea surf on the distant shore.
Stumbling and falling till I was footsore and weary, I came at length within sight of the sea. I could distinguish its billows, foam-crested and angry, as they cleft the darkness; and O, joyful sight! I also perceived twinkling lights at some little distance off along the shore. I was then in the neighbourhood of cottages, in one of which I might pass the night.
The threshold of the nearest gained, I knocked at its door. After some little delay this was opened by a middle-aged and rather gaunt looking female. My request for shelter was listened to in silence. After a moment’s reflection, she went back a few paces, threw a hurried glance over her shoulder into the interior, and then beckoned me to enter. I did so.
The room or kitchen into which she ushered me was miserable in the extreme. The plenishing consisted of a wooden table, two straw pallets in one corner, and three chairs, on one of which, cowering over the embers that glowed on the hearth, sat an aged white-haired man. Raising his faded eyes for a moment on my entrance, he again lowered them to the hearth, moaning and muttering the while in the strangest fashion.
“The woman looked on him with an unmistakable expression of awe and fear on her face, then placed for me a chair on the opposite side of the hearth, while she herself took one some little distance off. Her knowledge of English was much too limited for us to indulge in anything like conversation; still she could both understand me when I asked questions and make herself understood when she replied, which was about as much as I expected.
“Her father, she said, pointing to the old man, could talk English well, for he had been gamekeeper in his youth to a south-country gentleman, and the little she knew she had learned from him.
“A few sentences exchanged, we lapsed into silence, which I was on the point of breaking with some trivial remark when the door opened and there entered a tall, handsome girl enveloped in a chequered plaid. Darting a hasty glance at me, she addressed the woman hurriedly in Gaelic, a language with which I was but slightly acquainted. What she did say, however, seemed in some way to have reference to the old man, for my hostess, while making answer, looked at him and shook her head.
“Much to my surprise, although he must have known he was the subject of their conversation, he never once looked up nor took the slightest notice of his visitor. His dim eyes still remained riveted on the fire, and he moaned and sighed and shivered as if with cold. I could see I also was being made the subject of remark, for once more the maidens fine dark eyes turned in my direction, as mine hostess replied to some questions of hers. Her curiosity in respect to my presence apparently satisfied, the girl, having previously refused with a smile the chair I offered her, seated herself on the floor beside the woman, and conversed with her in low, anxious tones, while her eyes frequently reverted to the clock with looks of anxiety.
“I was beginning to feel perplexed and curious as to the existing state of matters in this solitary household. Was the old man ill or out of his mind? Was the handsome stranger any relation of the couple, or was she merely a sympathising friend? Why did she look so repeatedly at the clock? Had she any—here an end was put to my mental soliloquy by the girl giving a sudden start, and seizing hold of her companion’s wrist, while she raised her forefinger as if enforcing silence. An ashen hue overspread the woman’s harsh features as her visitor did this, and she remained rigid and motionless as a statue in the attitude of listening. I, too, listened.
“Mingling with the dull roar of the billows, I distinctly heard a crashing sound as though some wooden substances were being crushed together; to this succeeded a noise like the dragging of chains. The women also hearing it, a look of terror swept over their faces, and my hostess uttered, half aloud, the pious ejaculation—‘Lord, have mercy on them!’ Then both rose to their feet. The younger one, eager and trembling, undid the bar that fastened the casement, opened it, and they gazed out in silence. My curiosity now intensely excited, I also arose, and, noiselessly treading the floor, took my station immediately behind them. The wild scene I then saw I shall never forget. The moon, struggling through a dense mass of storm cloud, threw broad streams of light on the heaving billows as they broke in rude shocks on the shore. Lying at anchor, out of reach of the waves, were several fishing-boats; and, strange to say, although there was a profound calm, these were being dashed up against each other in the most unaccountable manner, while the chains by which they were fastened, creaked and rattled as though they were being dragged about by powerful hands. Then a moaning sound seemed to pervade the air.
‘“There—there it’s again! O! isn’t it dreadful?’ whispered the girl.
“‘Did you tell them about this?’ said her companion.
“‘Yes; but they only laughed at me.’
“‘Then, they’ll go.’
“‘Sure and certain.’
“‘Poor things! then I doubt they’ll never come back. O, look there!’ Again the boats were dashed to and fro; the chains emitted the same harsh grating sound, but this time I could see several little blue twinkling lights moving along the shore.
“‘The dead lights!’ groaned the elder woman. The young one, shivering, buried her face in her hands.
‘“Aye, the dead lights!’ was shouted in frenzied tones behind us. I looked round in amaze; so did the women. The old man was standing bolt upright; his hair upon end; his eyes glaring wildly into space; his hands outstretched and quivering.
‘“Aye, the dead lights! and they’re not there for nought. Death! Death! nothing but death! I see it all! There they are! The boats! dancing merrily over the sea—there—there! Three in all! Away—away! No fear of danger. Stout hearts and strong arms. The bread winners for the wives and children. The wind rises—but what of that? There is no danger! The boats are stout—and the fishers brave, and stalwart, and young! Ha! ha! A sudden squall—Good God! Down goes the foremost—and another—and another— gone, all gone. Neil, Duncan—and—Farquhar—!’
“As the old man uttered this name, the girl, with a loud cry, sank senseless on the floor, at the same time that the speaker relapsed into his moaning shivering posture by the hearth.
“When we had succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, I inquired of the woman the meaning of all this.
“‘O, sir, he has had the “second sight,”’ she said, ‘he was telling us, as he has done for the last three nights, that our fisher lads will be drowned, and poor Mary’s (pointing to the now weeping girl) lover, Farquhar Macdougall, is among them—so he said to-night.’
“‘Surely they will not go when they hear of this,’ I said.
“‘They must, sir, or we should all starve,’ was her sad answer; ‘that is they will go, though we have done our best to prevent their going this week, for should they be drowned, we’ll starve all the same.’
“Painfully impressed with what I had seen, and unwilling any longer to intrude my company upon them in their distress, I placed some silver in the woman’s resisting hand, and told her the moon being now up, if she would kindly direct me how to get to Portree, I should wish to continue my journey.
“She did so, at the same time saying how sorry she was that her father should have been taken in my presence.
“With a few words expressive of hope that he would turn out to be a false prophet, I bade her good evening, and bestowing a farewell glance on the sorrowing maiden, I went my way pondering on what I had seen and heard.
“Not many days afterwards I read in the Inverness Courier of the melancholy loss of three boats with their fishers while fishing off Skye.
“Amongst the names of the drowned were those mentioned by the aged seer.”
Psychological Review, May 1882
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The grinding noise of the fishing boats is reminiscent of the so-called “Tolaeth before the Coffin,” or the sound of phantom carpenters sawing, planning, and hammering as they make a coffin for a person soon to die. You will find a post on this subject here and another on “corpse candles“–the death lights–which presaged death. “The Blood-stained Cap” is another exceptionally chilling post about a token of death in a fishing community.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.