'Half ower, half ower frae Aberdour...'
They say that the King of Scotland will never touch wine.
He is an old man now, and those who whisper about him in the kitchens and the halls of his kingdom say that he was not always this way; he is not now as he was when he was young. This is true. He did not always shrink from the sight of a goblet; he did not always sit up on long sleepless nights in his tower, looking out over the sea; he did not always walk in fear.
But the sea is not as it was then, either—as it seemed to a fool who knew nothing whatsoever of those deep waters. In his youth, when he travelled that way, he used sometimes to climb to the top of the Berwick Law and look down across the land, surveying his kingdom, and it was only natural in one placed as he was to think that the wide expanse of blue water on the other side was no less under his command. The gentle and beguiling waves would shimmer silver in the pale light of dawn, and the bright midday sun sparkled and danced on deepest blue. In the evening, when he descended the hill to return to his fireside and his feather bed, the water used to look as dark and as lovely as good wine...
He knows the sea better now. Now it is a terror and a thing of dread to him, but he cannot turn from it, and even in his high tower above the waves he is not safe.
They say—in the kitchens and the halls—that the King of Scotland is mad.
He can never turn away from the sea, and he can never be free of what it brings to him.
They are with him by day and by night. In his sleep they haunt him, and dreams are no escape; in the daylight he can hardly see the faces or hear the voices of those around him, for the living seem less real than the dead. They torment him: they must take their revenge for the death to which he doomed them, unknowing, unthinking, and he is driven almost to madness by them.
The sailors—crowding round his seat, following him as he walks, the putrid salt smell of them all around him—cry out at him in anger. They call him coward, traitor, murderer—each name one he has earned thirty times over. By now he has got to know them one from another, as he did not when he sent them to their deaths, and particular faces return to him each time. There is the young boy who appears to him gripping a ghostly ship's helm in his white hands; and the grey-faced man with drenched hair clinging in thick strands to his neck, who asks him, again and again in a voice like the swell of waves above the deep water, why he did not heed the moon's warning. He cannot answer. He tried, in the beginning, but he has long since learnt that there is no answer they will hear—there is no answer he can give them.
After the sailors appears another figure, trailing the tattered sleeves of what was once a fine gown. The princess of Norway, she for whose sake the voyage was made, stares at him with a silent reproach that cuts deeper than the sailors' curses. She takes him by the arm, salt water running down over his hands, and asks him why he betrayed her so cruelly. At last she turns from him in anger, because he cannot answer her. (Her father sent him a letter afterwards, speaking of his grief at the tragic accident. He does not know that the man who was to have married his daughter murdered her instead).
Sir Patrick Spens does not shout or curse or reproach him. He is always solemn and sad, and the king can barely stand to look at the pain in his drowned eyes. 'I did my duty to you,' he says, every time, 'to the end. You did none of yours. How can you answer my loyalty?'
'I did not know,' pleads the king. 'I did not know...'
And, each time he tries to defend himself thus, the ghost of Sir Patrick Spens shakes his head slowly. 'It was your duty to know,' he says. 'How could I who understood what you asked speak against the orders of my king?'
And his king does not answer.
He was drinking wine, the day he first heard Sir Patrick's name—wine as dark and deep as the sea beneath the new moon. The knight who sat at his right hand leaned over and spoke to him, and the wine in his goblet shone as red as blood.
That knight knew no more of the meaning of his words than the king did. As red as blood they were. Each time the king saw him after that fateful day, he looked older, greyer, more careworn, as though some great horror was on him. And the smell of salt all around him...
The knight is long dead now. They drove him to despair, and he is gone to them.
The king was drinking wine when he first heard Sir Patrick's name, and the sea was as dark and deep as wine on the day he stood atop his high tower at Dunfermline and watched the ship sail out along the firth, out into the open sea. Dark and lowering clouds gathered above it, and the distant specks of gannets, shining white against the clouds, flew as if they were fleeing something. He thought that perhaps there would be foul weather; but Sir Patrick Spens, a good sailor and a noble man, obeyed the word of his king and would not be daunted.
Now he walks on the black sands of Aberdour and watches where the gulls and the gannets still fly out over the water, dark and deep; and he watches beneath the water, where half over to Norway they lie, and are not at peace. He will never again drink wine. Their unquiet spirits will not leave him; and if he touches the sea, if he touches the wine, they will come up out of the waters for the last time and drag him back down with them, to join them in the deaths that he ordained.