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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (November 1, 1933)

The Mystery Tower of Tarken

page 41

The Mystery Tower of Tarken

The following story was awarded the first prize (five guineas) in the recent short story contest conducted by the Commercial Writers' Institute, Dunedin.

Marcus Solley had not sufficiently emerged from the first mists of infancy to feel the pulse of wonder, almost of fear, that beat through Tarken village when the island tower was being built.

He was not able to mix with the groups that gathered on the sands, day after day, discussing, speculating, prophesying; but with his first ordered reasoning he came to understand that here in this lonely, sea-encircled tower was something inexplicably odd, something that pulled at his heart like the straps holding him to the table-leg as a tiny child, had pulled at his waist when he had striven to reach the lovely, leaping fire.

He wanted to grab at life with both hands, but that grey, unsolved riddle of a place held him back with an emotion which was half loyalty and half fear.

Not till he could read and write under Granny Solley's slow tuition was he told of the manner of its building, and then only because he asked and asked until he wore down her resistance. After that he never really knew peace. Perhaps he was not destined to peace anyway, for he was as strange as that strange building, and had come as mysteriously. “Left like a little windblown feather on my doorstep,” Granny Solley had told the villagers. And that was all anyone knew of him.

The tower stood on an island not more than a stone's throw from the coast. Access to it was effectually barred however, by a channel of seething waters known as Devil's Gap (the name was inevitable. Man's mind has not yet invented a more apt metaphor).

It was a churning, rock-studded hell of water that worked its torment day and night.

The island itself was like a bundle of dry faggots tied and set up for some giant's kindling. It was stripped, sterile and unscalable. No one had been known to set foot upon it, though many had tried after the tower had been set there to torment curiosity, and two had died of the trying.

Yet there it was, that strange erection, set up before men's eyes, a puzzling, tantalising achievement.

The story went, that for many nights the riding lights of a ship had been seen close in to the shore. Then one day an army of men had appeared on the level crown of the island, and had begun smashing, heaving, chipping at the stone. How they had climbed there, no one could say. Goblin men they were said to be, and with a goblin purpose.

Noise and fret of building had continued day after day until the grey tower was finished. Then the men had disappeared as mysteriously as they had come, and Tarken, scourged by curiosity, had been left to work out the puzzle as best it might.

Young Marcus, naturally mystical and brooding, could hear strange sounds coming from that place. He had heard them at night when he was quite little, and had cried piteously until the old woman had gone to him and told him 'twas nothing but the wind shrieking around the coast. Or if it was in daytime that he had heard them, well, 'twas nothing but those sea-gulls at their eternal quarrelling.

But he had never been satisfied with these explanations. There was something more than just wind and bird-cries. There was a voice, and it called to him, coming inland like the sorrow of the sea.

As a strong-willed mother can dominate the life of her child, so that mystery tower dominated Marcus who knew no real mother. His spirit cleaved to it, though he was tortured by a mingling of love and repellance. So like himself it was too —lonely, unexplored, breeding suspicion.

For the heavy-minded village folk had not taken him to their hearts. He was always an outcast—exotic—disturbing. Not even his singular beauty of face and form could draw people to him. His first attempt at proffered friendship was met with ill-concealed aversion, so that he allowed himself to be thrust back and barred in to his own prisonhouse.

Even Granny Solley with her simple, protective love for him, failed to reach behind those bars to his sensitive, closely guarded mind.

When he was old enough, she put him in the fishing fleet under the wing of old Pedrin Mee. At fourteen he had a boat of his own and a reputation for recklessness. His interest in the tower, come now to be an obsession, was known and derided, for the villagers had worn out all speculation long since and had accepted its presence with philosophical indifference.

One day, in his sixteenth year, Marcus came in from the sea to find two men standing on the cliff near his home. They were looking out with calculating eyes towards the island tower. Dark visaged, black-browed men they were who talked quickly in some language Marcus could not understand. One of them, the taller of the two, kept raising and lowering his arm as he talked. The other nodded in a series of automatic jerks, evidently of agreement. A stone, rattling away from under Marcus's foot, drew their attention to him.

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“Gooda evening,” the taller man said, advancing and eyeing him quickly from head to toe. “Do you knowa how far a distance it is to thata rock?”

Marcus regarded him sullenly through halfclosed lids. “No,” he answered, curtly.

The other man approached. He too looked at Marcus curiously. They exchanged words together in their foreign tongue, looked at him again, then shook their heads as if dismissing an idea.

“You don't get many strangers to thisa here parts, huh?” the first man asked, taking off his hat and showing his dark, sleek hair and knotted forehead.

“No,” said Marcus again.

“What is the thing told about thata place, huh?”

The man's head jerked seawards, indicating the tower. Marcus was filled with anger. Why were these strangers asking him these things? Why had they come to pry and stare at his possession? It was a violation.

A new emotion came to life within him, a desire for protecting that which was sacred. Men in far off days have been known to go mad at the sight of their women stripped and offered for the public gaze. So it was now with Marcus in this little obscure Irish village and this unprotected, stark and torturing love of his. But he could do nothing.

In his fury he flung away from them and ran into the cottage, slamming the door so that old Granny Solley dozing in her chair, started up crying, “Marcus, lad, is it the wild devils that are after ye?”

Granny Solley, who acted as midwife for the village, was called that night to a housewife who lived on the furthest outskirts of Tarken. She was to be away three days. The following morning Marcus stayed indoors, crouching at the window, watching.

The strangers had come again, and with them a dozen or so villagers with a load of gear on a sledge. They worked all day, and the next, and the day following with Marcus still watching from his window.

On the evening of the third day, out on the edge of the cliff stood a strange, new erection. It was poised there, held at a steep angle by a steel rope attached to a winch. Even to Marcus's unschooled eyes its purpose was evident. He had watched the workers putting it in place, and knew that when the winch was set in motion, the structure would be lowered over Devil's Gap to form a bridge.

“To-morrow morning, then?” he heard a man call as he went back down the cliffs to the village.

“To-morrow; yes,” came the answer, and in their voices, Marcus could hear a note of excitement and triumph.

The sun set redly that evening, throwing back its glow upon the stone tower till it seemed flushed with anger.

Marcus trod the cottage floor with impatient fury. His face was splotched and livid; more like the face of a cruel gnome than of a comely lad. There was a fire in his brain which burned and burned until at last all thought was consumed. Then it grew cold and dead like ashes.

The disc of the moon came up over the seabowl bringing with it a spreading fan of clouds that raced ahead, tossing, joining, separating. Wind crept through the air, stealthily at first then growing bold and bolder. Its shrieking soon filled the night. Its tearing fingers took hold upon the water and plucked it into waves.

Marcus went to the door and listened to the voice of the island calling through the squalls. He stepped out and left the door open behind him. The world was full of moan and a strange sad singing. His brain was heavy with it, like a bird stoned and beaten to the ground.

Stark beside him in the flickering moonlight reared the bridge, poised for its lowering. He turned to it, and his fingers touched the winch. Fumblingly he found the handle, eased the strain and let loose the pawl. Nothing happened. It was a moment of paralysing disappointment.

Desperately then he shook the structure and it began to move. With a high-pitched whirr the rope ran out. Above the noise of the wind he could hear that swift descent, like the falling of a tree, ending in a splintering crash.

Clouds still came and went like shutters over the eye of the moon. In the intervals of brightness Marcus could see the wrecked bridge, its far end clinging in some way to the rim of the island. Its back was broken and hung over the gap in sagging curve. Waves leapt at it in fury.

But it held—a line of communication between the mainland and the island.

Marcus began to be filled with a new elation, as clinging, toiling, agonising, he worked his way across. Sharp arrows of rain thrust their points into his eyes and through his clothes, bringing him a discomfort which he ignored. He came drenched and bleeding to the other side.

But the touch of the island sent the blood racing warmly through his veins. He had attained the goal of a life-long desire.

Behind him the bridge swayed like a hammock, its end caught precariously in a wedge of rock and wailing in its thraldom. Marcus kicked at it with his foot again and again until it went hurtling down into the seething waters below. It had served him well, but it would not be left to serve others.

And now he turned to the tower, so close to him at last and sought entrance. He was like a bird fluttering madly with joy because there was a hand upon the door of his cage, working to set him free. Sound of singing came to him, the same sad voice he had always heard; but the sadness had a tinge of hope in it.

There was no doorway in the tower, but the narrow unglazed windows were built low to the ground. Through one of these he stepped and found himself in a high round room with walls lined in white marble.

The intermittent moonlight generated a soft ethereal light, showing the room bare of furniture except for a marble coffin set upon four squat legs in the middle of the room. The singing was but a breath of melody now, working through to his heart as incense works through the filigree of an eastern tomb.

He stood, hands clenched, face uplifted, waiting.

page 44

Gradually he began to feel lifted up, drawn into some strange, rare mood. He felt really happy for the first time in his life.

Then, without knowing whence she came, he was aware of a woman walking towards him over the white floor. Her head was held stiffly; her hands were folded across her breast as if she had just risen from her laying-out after death. But her lips were parted, and from them came the music that had lured him. As she floated closer she warmed into life. Her eyes opened and her hands fluttered apart. She looked at him, smiling with tenderness in her lovely dark eyes.

With their opening had come a brighter light into the room. Her face was broad at the brows, and tapering to a small delicately moulded chin. So like himself, she was, Marcus thought (for he had often gazed, questioning, into Granny Solley's old cracked mirror) it was like seeing himself transformed into an earthward-walking angel.

She touched his eyes, his lips, his cheeks, and with the cool caress he knew that it was for this he had lived through all the torturing, terrible years of childhood—this, the touch of these fingers which brought to him all tenderness, all understanding, all love.

She stopped her gentle singing and spoke to him. Her voice was like the brushing of a butterfly's wings against the coloured petals of his spirit.

“Son of my heart. Little son of my heart.”

He answered with a cry into which was poured all the stored passion of his life, all his yearning for beauty, all his surrender to proffered tenderness.

And now the clouds had covered the moon again and the light was dim. Only her lovely shining eyes gleamed brightly. Gently she took his hand and led him to the marble coffin. The lid lifted soundlessly under her light pressure. She stepped into the white cavity and drew him down with her. There he lay, cradled in her arms, utterly at peace until gradually, easily, like the folding in of flower petals with the passing of the sun, his spirit merged into eternal nothingness.

* * *

Granny Solley, coming back in the morning to her cottage, saw a group of men standing on the cliff, gazing down into the waters of the Gap. She passed them without greeting and went to the door of her home. Someone had told her a strange thing in the village.

“Marcus!” she called, “Marcus, lad!”

Her old cracked voice came back to her echoing and lonely. She went out and approached the group.

“Have any of ye seen aught of my foster-lad?”

One answered—“We're looking for him, Granny.”

“Not there! Not down there?” she wailed.

“Aye, down there.”

One of the dark strangers turned to her. She could hear the crisp anger in his voice. “See you how the bridge we built has beena wrecked!”

She turned to old Pedrin Mee. “Did it fall in the storm, Pedrin?”

“Maybe, and maybe not,” he said.

She covered her face with her hands and went keening into the house.

That day the men commenced to build another bridge. In three days it was completed. Stories were being flung about from mouth to mouth. Now it was said that treasure was hidden in the tower, the property of bandits or foreign nobles; now that it was a storehouse for Chinese pirates. They were all colourful stories that played on the awakened imagination of the villagers. And the dark strangers went amongst them with bright, gold-greedy eyes.

Only fear of crossing the Devil's Gap on such a slender structure prevented many from crossing to the island when the second bridge was lowered. But old Pedrin and a few stouter-hearted men went over with the strangers. They found entrance as Marcus had done, through the low windows. They found also the stark, high room with its one piece of furniture. This they crowded curiously round, their footsteps echoing hollowly on the stone floor. It was the tall dark stranger who traced with his finger the weather-worn inscription on the lid.

It was written in the language which he knew.

Ildred, the Beloved Of Her King died on giving birth to a son, for which cause he has been cast out and forgotten. God Rest Her Soul And His.

Beneath this was a memorial verse, its finely carved letters barely decipherable.

“No one shall know, sweet siren, where you lie,
The unchecked winds shall blow fresh tears on thee;
And on their wailing breath shall bring o'er seas to me
The memory of a love which cannot die.”

The two strangers looked at one another with remembrance dawning in their eyes. “Ildred,” one said, and nodded to the other. “That was her name. Ildred, the siren.”

They remembered how their country had been stirred by a scandal over the king's passion for a beautiful singer. They remembered, too, how she had died and nobody had known from what cause and where she had been buried. They had only known that the king was mad with grief. And now, lured by strange stories of a secret treasure-house, told by a drunken sailor on the Aegean coast, they had come, eager for gold, to page 45 find the answer to the old half-forgotten questions.

Here was no treasure-house, but the tomb of the mistress of a king.

But old, sad stories were dead fruit, and dreams of wealth are hard to relinquish. The men went prodding about the white cold room, tapping, pushing, stamping. Someone found presently a small iron ring embedded in a floor slab. With this the slab was lifted to reveal a flight of roughly hewn steps leading down into darkness. Through this darkness came the sound of water beating like a terrific pulse.

“That's the way the builder's came,” Pedrin grunted in satisfaction. “There's a low scoopedout cave at water level. They've worked up from there.”

Examination of these steps yielded nothing but an answer to the riddle of access. The men trooped back into the room. One of them had a fancy to lift the lid of the stone casket. “Valuables,” he said, “were sometimes buried with the dead.”

The stone lid was heavy, yielding reluctantly. When it was lifted, men of Tarken looked down into the white, death-smoothed face of Marcus Solley. He was lying beside a skeleton which was clothed in rich, mouldering clothes. The two strangers, crowding close, uttered an amazed cry. Now they knew what had puzzled them at first meeting. In the face of the dead boy they saw again the face of a woman, once lovely, once adored—the face of Ildred, beloved of her king.

(Rly. Publicity photo). The Rowsley super-continuous electric photo copying machine installed in the Railway Publicity Department's Plan Printing and Photography Division at Wellington.

(Rly. Publicity photo).
The Rowsley super-continuous electric photo copying machine installed in the Railway Publicity Department's Plan Printing and Photography Division at Wellington.

Honeymoons in Rome
(From our London Correspondent).

Italy affords an example of enterprise in the development of passenger salesmanship. As a start, the Italian State Railways introduced excursions at a reduction of 80 per cent, on the ordinary passenger fares. Then followed concessions to foreign visitors, under which, until April, 1934, tickets, valid for thirty days, are issued at 50 per cent, reduction from Italian frontier stations to Rome and back. The latest effort consists of fare-cuts aiming at attracting newlymarried couples to Rome. On production of the marriage certificate within a week of the ceremony, each couple can obtain return tickets to the Holy City at extraordinarily reduced fares. Having visited Rome on their honeymoon, it is anticipated large numbers of people will wish in later years to renew acquaintance with the place, and thus in course of time a valuable new passenger business will be built up.