The Señor and the Celtic Cross
John Murray concludes his strange story
One summer in the Scottish Hebrides young and mysterious Mr Stone meets up with middle-aged, forceful occultist Mr Dukes. Mr Dukes is sexually attracted to Mr Stone but Mr Stone is attracted more by flighty, playful barmaid Kate. Dukes reacts by subjecting Stone to aggressive Tarotist analysis. Stone is mortified and flees from Muile (Mull) to I (Iona). Now read on.
Early the next morning Mr Stone departed without a word to anyone. Without telling Dukes nor Kate nor any others he slipped off to the other side of the island, down to Muile’s south-west corner.
Whether it had been Dukes’ confessions and donation of advice – if advice was what it had amounted to – that had precipitated a kind of internal dissolution, or whether such a dissolution had been fated by the years that went before, or whether both or whether neither, Mr Stone did what all of us do when cornered – he bolted like a cony.
He hitched two lifts and finally took a bus. Waiting for that bus, he had observed a wrecked fishing boat rotting in an estuary of cracking mud. This made him anxious and uneasy, innocent a sight as it was. The old wreck had been as good as melting in the scorching midday sun, just like Mr Stone himself. However, by early afternoon he had arrived at the village where the ferry departed for the isle of I. And when Stone observed I, just a stone’s throw across the sound, he could not believe his tear-filled eyes. Firstly that it was so small, secondly that it was so green, thirdly that its gentleness was so brilliantly meek in the burning sun. It looked like a skylark, like a little lark turned into an island. The green was turquoise green, the colour of Christ knows but not an earthly green. Nor was it ‘extraterrestrial’, he thought to himself contemptuously. Stone breathed deep to have escaped the presence of crankish Dukes, for he was so glad to be on his own again. He looked to I as if to a magic land. He saw its magic, its green goodness like a lark stretched out in the bay.
An astonishing interlude occurred just before Stone took the ferry across to I. As he turned from the piece of cheese and apple he was consuming, there about five yards before his eyes was the alarming presence of Kate the barmaid ...
Stone could scarcely breathe at the sight. For she should be at least forty miles away by rights. From the vision of gentle, violently gentle I to this vision of violent, gently violent Kate. She smiled at him with a full sweet countenance. Today she wore a sleeveless shirt and her arms glowed blonde with the little hairs that shone upon their surface. Her presence breathed ...
‘What?’ he murmured drunkenly.
Kate laughed gaily at his stupefaction. Stone laughed back with assurance, a queasy assurance. Melting in the liquid of remorse as he was, his contrition for times past, forbears, roots, history – himself, has he to say it? – he was confronted with the Qabbalist’s demon, the flighty woman, card one thousand in the pack not yet invented. His belly lurched for possession. She had followed him, it was as simple as that. Her eyes twinkled with the same gentleness as the appearance of I. Stone knew she was profane, of course he did. Her mouth lines were calculating, her very gaze was devious. She confused good and bad wittingly, she was as bad as the worst of them. So indeed was Stone. So indeed was Dukes, who hankered plentifully himself. He hankered after hankering young men. Kate hankered after foolery and teasing, after spurious power. Stone held out his neck for lustful decapitation.
‘It’s my afternoon off,’ she glinted. ‘I have to return inside an hour.’
‘How did you know I was ...? ’
‘The manager saw you. He was driving the other way, and saw you get onto the ferry bus. Why on earth did you make such a bolt for it?’
‘Dukes’, said Stone honestly. ‘I got sick of his presence. He was after me. He was. He was literally.’
Kate laughed riotously at that. Stone’s dancing lust made him cannibalistic. He would have been content to eat her in carnivorous portions. Sure enough, she had quixotically driven the forty miles behind him, tailing him for obscure ends. Just for the diversion. Now she was due to return the way she’d come. She had borrowed the dupe’s car who was walking carless in the mountains near Salen. Her companion Jane? Oh she was in the shop buying ice-cream. Ahah. And Mr Stone’s ferry for I was fast approaching, one that shuttled to and fro all day, until early evening when the bay here was deserted.
Had she tailed him in order to make one last bootless act of self-abasement manifest itself in Stone?
He entered the ferry, no more than a full-size rowing boat, and waved goodbye to Miss Kate. She waved goodbye perhaps affectionately. Startled, doltish-looking Jane reappeared with ice-creams from the store. She noted Stone and nodded nervously, half guiltily towards him. She was no more than Kate’s accessory, her unthinking inferior partner. Stone rued the fact that he had not stayed behind at the hotel to frustrate himself some more. Certainly if there had been no Dukes about he would have consented to stay there for ever. Such is the attraction of the never-arriving.
Here was peace that actually did pass understanding, on this isle off this island off the largest island. On its northern inhabited end, where there was village, hotel and a field for campers, even in this most bustling part there was a vast blanketing of tranquil meekness. Godless Stone abhorred adjectives like ‘sacred’ and ‘blessed’, yet even he was obliged to search for a word that speared this core of peacefulness, sheep, and sanded bays whose plangent cream and dappling turquoise water were enough to make him doubt his own capacity to doubt. Whatever it was that he doubted.
There was an old and ruined abbey near to the jetty, and further off lay the New Abbey, a place constructed in ancient style for present devotional use. The island was something of a pilgrimage place for religious individuals, who wandered about in cheerful groups, engaged in this or that residential course or earnest, loud discussion group. They, like Dukes, gave Mr Stone the frights. He could see what they were after, God himself no doubt, but such a target seemed a long way away from fervid chatter and this boneless good humour. He had heard the rumour that God was great and terrible while these souls here were surely far too vocable and puny. They never stopped talking. They were always, always pleasant. Fortunately it was easy to get away from them. Away from the café and the Abbey were near-deserted beaches, lonely paths, small patches of gold sand hidden away by protruding rocks and stones. There one might have been spied by a telescope from Muile, but otherwise complete privacy was assured.
Soon evening came on, twilight stole across the field where Stone was camped. There must have been twenty tents, all at generous spacings from each other. There were no Christians here, thank God. There was an instrument being played but it was unobtrusive. The light became frozen and more concentrated, the acoustics stretched out miraculously across the bay between I and Muile. Seabirds pierced the evening like stars. On I there were corncrakes, and they scratched their throats, and the scrape of their crake thumped through the evening like a hammer. One blow after the other. It was like nothing on earth nor in heaven. The sheep chewed quietly and the suffocating tranquillity of the place became almost too much to bear.
Mr Stone obeyed the Qabbalist. Sat outside his tent, he took out some notepaper and wrote a letter to those he had offended and those who had offended him. He found forgiveness rather an easy task. It certainly did not feel like his usual nature. All the while he wrote his letter, in fact all the time since that discussion yesterday afternoon with Dukes, he had felt himself becoming more and more liquid and contrite. About what? And why? The corncrake scraped and gave the answer. Because, because, no more, no more ...