Thursday, February 24, 2011

That Lost Delicacy Of The North, The Heather Ale (No-Man's Land Part 2)


        For a little an insatiable curiosity, the ardour of the scholar, prevailed. I forgot the horror of the place, and thought only of the fact that here before me was the greatest find that scholarship had ever made. I was precipitated into the heart of the past. Here must be the fountainhead of all legends, the chrysalis of all beliefs. I actually grew light-hearted. This strange folk around me were now no more shapeless things of terror, but objects of research and experiment. I almost came to think them not unfriendly.

        For an hour I enjoyed the highest of earthly pleasures. In that strange conversation I heard—in fragments and suggestions—the history of the craziest survival the world has ever seen. I heard of the struggles with invaders, preserved as it were in a sort of shapeless poetry. There were bitter words against the Gaelic oppressor, bitterer words against the Saxon stranger, and for a moment ancient hatreds flared into life. Then there came the tale of the hill refuge, the morbid hideous existence preserved for centuries amid a changing world. I heard fragments of old religions, primeval names of god and goddess, half-understood by the Folk, but to me the key to a hundred puzzles. Tales which survive to us in broken disjointed riddles were intact here in living form. I lay on my elbow and questioned feverishly. At any moment they might become morose and refuse to speak. Clearly it was my duty to make the most of a brief good fortune.


        And then the tale they told me grew more hideous. I heard of the circumstances of the life itself and their daily shifts for existence. It was a murderous chronicle—a history of lust and rapine and unmentionable deeds in the darkness. One thing they had early recognized—that the race could not be maintained within itself; so that ghoulish carrying away of little girls from the lowlands began, which I had heard of but never credited. Shut up in those dismal holes, the girls soon died, and when the new race had grown up the plunder had been repeated. Then there were bestial murders in lonely cottages, done for God knows what purpose. Sometimes the occupant had seen more than was safe, sometimes the deed was the mere exuberance of a lust of slaying. As they gabbled their tales my heart's blood froze, and I lay back in the agonies of fear. If they had used the others thus, what way of escape was open for myself? I had been brought to this place, and not murdered on the spot. Clearly there was torture before death in store for me, and I confess I quailed at the thought.


        But none molested me. The elders continued to jabber out their stories, while I lay tense and deaf. Then to my amazement food was brought and placed beside me—almost with respect. Clearly my murder was not a thing of the immediate future. The meal was some form of mutton—perhaps the shepherd's lost ewes—and a little smoking was all the cooking it had got. I strove to eat, but the tasteless morsels choked me. Then they set drink before me in a curious cup, which I seized on eagerly, for my mouth was dry with thirst. The vessel was of gold, rudely formed, but of the pure metal, and a coarse design in circles ran round the middle. This was surprising enough, but a greater wonder awaited me. The liquor was not water, as I had guessed, but a sort of sweet ale, a miracle of flavour. The taste was curious, but somehow familiar; it was like no wine I had ever drunk, and yet I had known that flavour all my life. I sniffed at the brim, and there rose a faint fragrance of thyme and heather honey and the sweet things of the moorland. I almost dropped it in my surprise; for here in this rude place I had stumbled upon that lost delicacy of the North, the heather ale.

        For a second I was entranced with my discovery, and then the wonder of the cup claimed my attention. Was it a mere relic of pillage, or had this folk some hidden mine of the precious metal? Gold had once been common in these hills. There were the traces of mines on Cairnsmore; shepherds had found it in the gravel of the Gled Water; and the name of a house at the head of the Clachlands meant the "Home of Gold."

        Once more I began my questions, and they answered them willingly. There and then I heard that secret for which many had died in old time, the secret of the heather ale. They told of the gold in the hills, of corries where the sand gleamed and abysses where the rocks were veined. All this they told me, freely, without a scruple. And then, like a clap, came the awful thought that this, too, spelled death. These were secrets which this race aforetime had guarded with their lives; they told them generously to me because there was no fear of betrayal. I should go no more out from this place.


        The thought put me into a new sweat of terror—not of death, mind you, but of the unknown horrors which might precede the final suffering. I lay silent, and after binding my hands they began to leave me and go off to other parts of the cave. I dozed in the horrible half-swoon of fear, conscious only of my shaking limbs, and the great dull glow of the fire in the centre. Then I became calmer. After all, they had treated me with tolerable kindness; I had spoken their language, which few of their victims could have done for many a century; it might be that I had found favour in their eyes. For a little I comforted myself with this delusion, till I caught sight of a wooden box in a corner. It was of modern make, one such as grocers use to pack provisions in. It had some address nailed on it, and an aimless curiosity compelled me to creep thither and read it. A torn and weather-stained scrap of paper, with the nails at the corner rusty with age; but something of the address might still be made out. Amid the stains my feverish eyes read, "To Mr. M—, Carrickfey, by Allerfoot Station."

Note to Reader:  John Buchan's "supernatural" short story first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, a Scottish journal originally called the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, which was published between 1817 and 1980, and which counted among its most famous contributors George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Thomas de Quincey. Conrad's Heart of Darkness was first published  in the February, March, and April 1899 issues of the journal. Blackwood's featured both essays and a goodly amount of horror fiction and its  stories are said to have influenced the writings of Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and Edgar Allen Poe, who published two satirical pieces about the magazine entitled "Loss of Breath: A Tale A La Blackwood," and "How to Write a Blackwood Article". 

Buchan's deeply affecting No-Man's Land is, remarkably, the work of a 23-year old Oxford undergraduate.  

As Michael Haslett observed in 2005: 

"No-Man's Land' is the best of the stories that Buchan wrote to pay his way at university. It was written in 1898, when through academic and literary work he had just become financially secure at Oxford, and it appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in January 1899. It was published in book form in 1902 with five other stories under the title The Watcher by The Threshold.  The narrator is a young Oxford Fellow in Celtic Studies who during a fishing and walking holiday stumbles on a small tribe of Picts. They have survived for millennia in Galloway caves and at once thrill him with the excitement of his discovery and terrify him with their cruelty and lust to kill. He escapes, but despite the risk returns, and is again taken prisoner. He is saved by a storm and landslide, and the tale ends with an unexpected twist which leaves the reader wondering what in the story is reality and what is illusion."

The unstated, subtle driver of No-Man's Land,which reappears throughout Buchan's writing until its redemptive culmination in his last novel Sick Heart River, is an examination of how fatigue (in the form of a quiet killing force and the product of passion's exhaustion) can transform the virtuous and vital into their destructive opposites, leading a man to his downfall.  Buchan, a wildly popular writer in his time who is sometimes derided as a mere yarn-spinner (a skill at which he excels), consistently displayed in his work extraordinary subtlety of  physical and psychological observation.  No-Man's Land  shows  an  uncommonly gifted young writer very near the beginning of his artistic journey channeling the experiences of a troubled, highly educated, middle-aged man (Haslett's description of  Graves, the protagonist, as "young" is misleading;  Graves is a mature person with plenty of life experience) who is only half in touch with himself -- a person relying on mental and physical "muscle memories" that formerly propelled him to accomplishment and renown, which are now irrevocably broken, ineffective and working against him.  Despite the story's somewhat conventional, "shilling shocker" ending, one wonders:  How on earth did Buchan know about this?   

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