The flood almost runs out in the late summer afternoon. A dinghy negotiates seaweed-grown, swell-caressed rocks. Moss-topped, wet shining stone organ pipes reflect seagulls’ cries. The dinghy tacks, the evening sun yellows its sails depicted against the dark cave washed by a rushing surf.
There is no-one aboard. Independently as a living creature the little boat drops its sails and comes to anchor in Fingal’s Cave. The ground tackle holds behind a suitcase-shaped rock. The ebb starts to run, causing the boat to sway behind its anchor chain.
Two clicks echo between the cave walls harshly framing the narrow creek, the boat perfectly keeping clear. Down below, the rock starts moving to a new sound that gradually turns into a crisp, whispering, humming melody. Low strings swirl around, blending into far away winds and rolling timpani. Outside the cave, gulls cannot help dancing to the music that slowly grows into a symphony. The dinghy’s elegant dance is caressed by the sunset. Eventually it weighs anchor; the music dies as the little boat sets sail.
The evening lights the lazy ocean. The dinghy’s sails blend into the blue sky as an anchor light sparkles before any star. All by itself the boat moors alongside the waiting steamer where a young man looks out to the Hebrides.
“Are you coming, Felix? Dinner is ready.”
“Yes, Fanny… I think I’m going to write a new piece…”
“A new piece?” his sister asks when they sit down at the candlelit messroom table.
“An overture, for large orchestra, singing like the surf, the wind, the gulls… I thought I could hear it from afar, from the little island ahead.”
“Is that what it’s called? Oh, well, it must be Staffa then.”
The steward, serving the soup just now, addresses the young man. “Did you hear Fingal sing?” he asks in a conspiratory tone.
“The same. The story goes, that a cave on Staffa was once the residence of a mythical hero. He was a very musical man, as all Kelts are. Nobody ever met him, but some people say his music brings ships to life.”
“You can say that again!” the engine driver groans. “Whenever that engine of ours won’t work, nothing in the world can make it go. Next time it runs as nice and easy as ever. It’s just one big mystery!” he adds, crushing his cutlery with his big hands as the steamy haggis caresses his nostrils…
That night, Felix doesn’t sleep a wink. This is just the chance of a lifetime to take a look in Fingal’s cave. The more the story told at the table runs around in his head, the more his musical inspiration takes over his mind.
At last the sun rises over Scotland. Felix beats the morning watch to the deck, joining a sailor in the dinghy to head for Staffa. The cave is now one big black hole.
Reading from a music sheet Felix hums the opening bars of his Hebrides Overture as he has named the piece. Its haunting melody smoothly follows the swell that makes the little boat surf from time to time. Still, no matter how it tacks and jibes, the island doesn’t seem to come any closer. It is as if the dinghy is afraid of running aground or being caught in a sweeping tide.
“I don’t know, mr. Mendelssohn,” says the apprentice at his tiller, “Fingal doesn’t seem to like company.”
The words barely spoken, a fierce gust tips the boat over. Felix almost loses grip of his music sheet. The overcast sky covers the sea in a damp shade of grey. Staffa is no more than just a faint blur. What matters most, is that the steamer is out of sight astern, as is Felix’s companion. Not being much of a sailor, Felix was too much absorbed in the object of his quest to pay attention to what the apprentice was doing.
The gale keeps building, the dinghy tosses and turns… ending up with a false jibe. Felix is swept overboard, luckily without any injury. Instantly caught in a tidal race, he sinks into a huge swell, gets swallowed by whirling streams… yet he doesn’t drown as something, or someone, gently takes him by the hand. Hovering over the Hebrides, unhampered by the gale a voice sings softly and clearly to a beautiful melody, but not his overture… Felix hears a new song, sung by an albatross… occasionally dipping into the waves, the bird seems to give him the kiss of life, then soars on wings of song… only now does he lose his conscience… to wake up in his bunk aboard the steamer.
Fanny looks worried, but seeing his eyes open up her face clears as the sunrise lights the day. “Oh, Felix… what happened?”
“Don’t know… oh, wait a minute, I was swept overboard… the sailor, where is the sailor?”
“I’m so sorry… gone with the dinghy…”
“Is he… how then did I come back to the ship?”
“Don’t know, I was asleep… the steward, you know, the one that told the story about Staffa, he says you were rescued by an albatross, claiming the bird was singing ever so pretty, he never heard anything like it.”
“He’s right…” Felix faints, sinking back into his pillow. Fanny smiles, her brother talks in his fever… but he’ll be OK.