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THE MAN FROM THE CLOUDS
J. STORER CLOUSTON
I In the Clouds
II The Man on the Shore
III Alone Again
IV The Suspicious Stranger
V The Doctor’s House
VI A Petticoat
VII At the Mansion House
IX An Ally
X The Coast Patrol
XI A Near Thing
XII The Key Turned
XIII On the Drifter
XIV My Cousin’s Letter
I An Idea
II A Little Dinner
III The Alcoholic Patient
IV The Test
VI The Spectacled Man
VII A Reminiscence
VIII H.M.S. _Uruguay_
IX Bolton on the Track
X Where the Clue Led
XI An Eye-Opener
XII The Confidant
XIII Jean’s Guesses
XIV The Pocket Book
XV Part of the Truth
XVI Tracked Down
XVII The Rest of the Truth
XVIII The Frosty Road
XIX Our Morning Call
THE MAN FROM THE CLOUDS
IN THE CLOUDS
“My God,” said Rutherford, “the cable has broken!”
In an instant I was craning over the side of the basket. Five hundred feet, 700 feet, 1000 feet, 2000 feet below us, the cruiser that had been our only link with the world of man was diminishing so swiftly that, as far as I remember, she had shrunk to the smallness of a tug and then vanished into the haze before I even answered him.
“Anything to be done?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said he.
It had been growing steadily more misty even down near the water, and now as the released balloon shot up into an altitude of five, ten, and presently twelve thousand feet, everything in Heaven and earth disappeared except that white and clammy fog. By a simultaneous impulse he lit a cigarette and I a pipe, and I remember very plainly wondering whether he felt any touch of that self-conscious defiance of fate and deliberate intention to do the coolest thing possible, which I am free to confess I felt myself. Probably not; Rutherford was the real Navy and I but a zig-zag ringed R.N.V.R. amateur. Still, the spirit of the Navy is infectious and I made a fair attempt to keep his stout heart company.
“What _ought_ to happen to a thing like this?” I enquired.
“If this wind holds we might conceivably make a landing somewhere–with extraordinary luck.”
“On the other side?”
He nodded and I reflected.
It was towards the end of August, 1914. We were somewhere about the middle of the North Sea when the observation balloon was sent up, and I had persuaded Rutherford to take me up with him in the basket. Five minutes ago I had been telling myself I was the luckiest R.N.V.R. Sub-Lieutenant in the Navy; and then suddenly the appalling thing happened. I may not give away any naval secrets, but everybody knows, I presume, that towed balloons are sometimes used at sea, and it is pretty obvious that certain accidents are liable to happen to them. In this case the most obvious of all accidents happened; the cable snapped, and there we were heading, as far as I could judge, for the stars that twinkle over the German coast. At least, our aneroid showed that we were going upwards faster than any bird could rise, and the west wind was blowing straight for the mouth of the Elbe when we last felt it–for, of course, in a free balloon one ceases to feel wind altogether.
Neither of us spoke for some time, and then a thought struck me suddenly and I asked:–
“Did you notice what o’clock it was when we broke loose?”
“I’m taking the time,” said he, “and assuming the twenty knot breeze holds, we might risk a drop about six o’clock.”
“A drop” meant jumping into space and trusting one’s parachute to do its business properly. I felt a sudden tightening inside me as I thought of that dive into the void, but I asked calmly enough:
“And assuming the breeze doesn’t hold?”
“Oh, it will hold all right; it will rise if anything,” said he.
We had only been shipmates for a week (that being the extent of my nautical experience), but I had learned enough about Rutherford in that time to know that he was one of the most positive and self-confident men breathing. One had to make allowance for this; still, that is the kind of company one wants in an involuntary balloon expedition across the North Sea through a dense fog.
“And where are we likely to come down?” I enquired.
“We might make the German coast as far south as Borkum or one of the other islands, or we might land somewhere as far north as Holstein.”
“Not Holland or Denmark?”
He shook his head positively, “No such luck.”
Though this was a trifle depressing, it was comforting to feel that one was with a man who knew his way about the air so thoroughly. I looked at our map, judged the wind, and decided that he was probably right. The chances of fetching a neutral country seemed very slender. Curiously enough the chances of never reaching any country at all had passed out of my calculations for the moment. Rutherford was so perfectly assured.
“And what’s the programme when we do land?” I asked.
“Well, we’ve got to get out of the place as quickly as possible. That’s pretty evident.”
“You know the lingo, don’t you?”
“Well enough not to be spotted as a foreigner?”
“I almost think so.”
“First thing I ever heard to the credit of the diplomatic service!” he laughed. “Well, you’ll have to pitch a yarn of some kind if we fall in with any of the natives. Of course we’ll try and avoid ’em if we can, and work across country either for Denmark or Holland by compass.”
“Have you got a compass?” I asked.
“Damn!” he exclaimed, and for a few moments a frown settled on his bull dog face. Then it cleared again and he said, “After all we’ll have to move about by night and the stars will do just as well.”
He was never much of a talker and after this he fell absolutely silent and I was left to my thoughts. Though I had fortunately put on plenty of extra clothes for the ascent, I began to feel chilly up at that altitude enshrouded in that cold white mist, and I don’t mind admitting that my thoughts gradually became a little more serious than (to be quite honest) they usually are. I hardly think Rutherford, with all his virtues, had much imagination. I have a good deal–a little too much at times–and several other possible endings to our voyage besides a safe landing and triumphant escape began to present themselves. Two especially I had to steel my thoughts against continually–a descent with a parachute that declined to open, whether on to German or any other soil, or else a splash and then a brief struggle in the cold North Sea. I am no great swimmer and it would be soon over.
And so the hours slowly passed; always the same mist and generally the same silence. Occasionally we talked a little, and then for a long space our voices would cease and there would be utter and absolute quiet,–not the smallest sound of any sort or kind. We had been silent for a long, long time and I had done quite as much thinking as was good for my nerves, when Rutherford suddenly exclaimed,
“We are over land!”
He was looking over the edge of the basket, and instantly I was staring into space on my side. There was certainly nothing to see but mist.
“I can smell land,” said he, “and I heard something just now.”
“At this height!” I exclaimed.
“We are down to well under six thousand feet,” said he.
I wanted to be convinced, but this was more than I could believe.
“The smell must be devilish strong,” I observed. “And I’m afraid I must have a cold in my head. Besides, it’s only five-thirty.”
As I have said, poor Rutherford was the most positive fellow in the world. He stuck to it that we were over land, but I managed to persuade him to wait a little longer to make sure. He waited half an hour and when he spoke then I could see that his mind was made up.
“We are falling pretty rapidly,” said he, “and personally I’d sooner take my chance in a parachute than stick in this basket till we bump. If one is going to try a drop, the great thing is to see that it’s a long drop. Parachutes don’t always open as quick as they’re intended to. At any moment we may begin to fall suddenly, so I’m going overboard now.”
My own career has hitherto failed to convince my friends that prudence is my besetting virtue, but whether it was the sobering effect of those long hours of chilly thinking, or whether my good angel came to my rescue, I know not; anyhow I shook my head as firmly as he nodded his.
“We have only been going the minimum time you allowed for making land,” I argued, “and quite possibly the breeze may have dropped a bit. Honestly I haven’t heard a sound or smelt a smell that faintly suggested land underneath, and we can still drop a lot more and have room to take to the parachutes. Let’s wait till we get down to one thousand feet.”
“You do as you please,” said he. “I’m going over.”
“And I’m not going yet,” said I.
We looked at one another in silence for a moment, and then he held out his hand.
“Well, good-bye and good luck!” said he.
“Wait a little bit longer!” I implored him.
“My dear Merton,” he said, “I feel it in my bones that we’ve been going a lot faster than we calculated. In fact I _know_ we have! One gets an instinct for that sort of thing, and also one gets a sort of general idea when to cut the basket and jump. I tell you we’ve been over land for the last half hour. Come on, old chap, I honestly advise you to jump too.”
I almost yielded, but some instinct seemed to hold me back. The thought that he might think I was deserting him, the suspicion that he suspected I was a little afraid of the drop, nearly drove me over the edge of the basket with him. I felt a brute for hanging back, but in my heart I felt just as certain he was jumping too soon as he felt that I was waiting too long. So I shook his hand, and over he went; I had one glimpse of something dark below me, and then the mist swallowed him up. Rutherford was gone, and I may as well say now that not a sign of him was ever seen again.
If you want to know what loneliness–real horrifying loneliness–is like, I know no better recipe than drifting through a fog in a balloon, with your only companion gone, and not the faintest belief in your heart that you are within a hundred miles of any square inch of earth. I almost think the fact that the balloon was steadily sinking and that sooner or later I should have to leap from it too was the one thing that kept my spirits anyways up to the mark. The prospect of even the most desperate action was better than interminably facing that clammy void.
Though the chance of making land seemed to me infinitesimally remote by this time, yet in case I had such almost inconceivable luck, it was well to make some preparations for having a run for my money in an enemy country. I took off my uniform coat, transferring everything I wanted to keep from its pockets to those of my oilskin. I then put this on and buttoned it up, and of course I took off my cap.
And then I smoked another pipe and watched the aneroid and tried not to think at all, till with a start I realised we were considerably less than a thousand feet above–the land or the sea? Heaven knew which, but we were falling fast and there was no more time to lose. I hitched the parachute on to my leg, got on the edge of the basket, and then–well, I all but funked it. I remember my last thought was a horrible simile of a man jumping off a tree with a rope round his neck, and then somehow or other I forced myself to let go.
Concerning the next few seconds I can give no statistics, whether as to height or pace. I only know that when I first became conscious of anything, I was drifting like a snow flake down through the mist, and that I could fill several pages with my thoughts in the course of that drift. It seemed to me that there was hardly an incident in my life which didn’t fly through my brain like a cinema being worked at lightning speed. Some of the most vivid incidents were the last three balls of the over in which I topped the century in the ‘Varsity match, my interview with my poor dear uncle when I broke the news that I had to face the official receiver and chuck the diplomatic service, and the first night of “Bill’s All Right” when I made my début on the stage. A brilliant career! And very swiftly reviewed, for just as I had reached the theatrical episodes, there was an extraordinary change in the light, and my thoughts very abruptly shifted from my past misdemeanours.
It had been evening when I dropped from the clouds, but the mist kept the light very white though rather dim. Now a sudden blackness seemed to rise up underneath my descending feet, and at the same moment the mist thinned out till I could see for a space all round below me. This space was green and almost before I realised what the greenness meant I was sitting in a field of clover.
THE MAN ON THE SHORE
The breeze that had been driving the balloon along high overhead was evidently an upper current only, for it was almost quite still in that clover field. What between the falling of evening and the thin mist, my vision was limited to a radius of about a quarter of a mile or so, but I can assure you I studied that visible space more intently than I have ever studied anything in my life. It seemed to be an almost flat country I had landed in, all cultivated but very bare. I was within fifty yards or so of a low rough stone wall, and on the further side of that lay a field of corn. On every other side other fields faded into the evening and the mist, and that was all there was to be seen. I saw no sign of a house, or of a tree, or of a hedgerow, and I heard not a sound but the cry of a distant sea bird.
In the gay days when I was attaché at Berlin I had acquired a fair general acquaintance with Germany, and I instantly put down the place I had landed in as some part of the flat wind-swept country not far from the North Sea coast. In fact the crying seagull suggested that the shore was fairly close at hand. This so exactly fitted in with our calculations that I made up my mind definitely and at once to start with it as a working hypothesis and behave accordingly.
But how precisely was one to behave accordingly? In which direction should I turn? What should I aim at? Should I look for a house or a native and trust to my German still being up to its old high water mark, or should I lie low for the night? I simply stood and wondered for some minutes, and then I decided on one prompt and immediate deed. The parachute must be hidden, so far as that countryside was capable of hiding anything.
I packed it up as neatly as I could, and then started for the low wall. My first steps on the firm ground with its soft mat of clover and grasses gave me an extraordinary sensation of pleasure. Merely to be alive and on the earth again seemed to leave nothing to wish for. Close to the wall a peewee rose suddenly from my feet and flapped off into the dusk with one melancholy cry after another. “Peewee! Peewee!” I shall never hear that sound without thinking of that lonesome misty field. I stopped and looked round me anxiously, but not a living thing besides had been disturbed, and presently I was stowing the parachute away in a bed of high rank grass and docken just under the wall.
Then I stood still and listened again. Once more a distant sea bird cried and I decided to make for the sound on the chance of finding the coast line and getting at least one bearing. I followed the line of the wall, crossed another low wall and another field of thin rough grass, and then I realised that I was almost on the brink of the sea. The wash of the swell on rocks met my ear and the dull misty green of the land faded into the misty grey of wide waters.
I stepped over yet another of those low tumbledown walls and now I was on the crisp short grass that fringes coasts, with rocks before me and the sea quite visible about thirty feet below. So I had just made land and no more! Poor Rutherford; I guessed his fate at once.
A little aimlessly I set out to the left. Somehow or other I had got it into my head that I was nearer the Dutch than the Danish border and my idea was to head for a neutral country. The coast line swung inland round a cove and at the same time dipped sharply, and hardly had I turned to follow it when a figure seemed to spring up out of the dip.
Whether the man had been squatting down, or whether it was the slope of the ground that suddenly revealed him, I know not, but there he was not ten paces away. I could see that he wore an oilskin and sou’wester and judged him at once as a fisherman.
“Good evening!” I cried genially in my best German. “It’s a fine night!”
“Good evening!” said he, also in German and quite involuntarily it seemed, for the next instant he spoke again in a very different key, and _in English_.
“My God! Are you insane?” he said in a low intense voice and with a distinct trace of guttural accent. “Don’t speak German here! Have you no other language? Don’t you speak English?”
I don’t know whether you could have literally knocked me down with a feather, but a stout feather would certainly have come pretty near doing it. I simply gaped at him.
Again he spoke; this time in German, but almost in a whisper.
“Do not speak German here so loudly! Do you not know any English?”
A dim perception of the almost incredible truth began to dawn on me and I did my best to grapple with the situation. I had to account for my astonished stare; that was the first thought that flashed through my head.
“Of course I speak English,” I said, and by the favour of Heaven I found myself instinctively saying those words in the very accents of the German waiter in “Bill’s All Right” (my first offence on the professional stage), “but I thought you were Hans Eckstein. I could hardly believe my own eyes!”
“Hans Eckstein? Who is he?” demanded my new acquaintance, and I was pleased to observe no suspicion in his voice, merely a little astonishment.
“A friend,” I answered glibly, “one of us.”
He looked at me for a moment, very narrowly, and in those seconds of silence I began to realise more exactly what must have happened. The upper current of air had been blowing _westwards_–not eastwards as the wind blew on the surface. The good land under my feet was assuredly not Germany; almost certainly it must be part of my own blessed native island, or why this insistence on my speaking English, rather than, say, Dutch or Danish? And then the man I was speaking to, what must he obviously be? There was only one answer possible.
I may add that I had the presence of mind not to stare blankly at him while I thought these thoughts. I let him do the staring while I fished my pipe out of my oilskin pocket and began to fill it.
“So!” he murmured, and I thought he seemed satisfied enough, especially as he asked with manifest curiosity but without any apparent suspicion in his voice, “And how did you get here?”
Yet when I looked up from my pipe-filling to answer him I could almost swear that he had done something to make his features less visible–pulled his sou’wester further down and sunk his chin into the high collar of his oilskin, it certainly seemed to me. As I had gathered a very insufficient impression of him before, this was a little provoking. Still, I told myself that our acquaintance was only beginning. How to ripen it–that was the problem. I tried the effect of merely winking and saying with a cool, knowing air:
“The usual way. Do you have to ask?”
He looked sharply up and down the rocks and out to sea and I saw instantly what was in his mind.
“Impossible! There was no signal. I have been looking out all the time,” said he.
I merely laughed.
“How else do you think I could have come?”
“So!” he murmured again, and then he asked a curious question.
“Do you know if there are many sheep on this island?”
So I had landed on an island! That was the first and chief deduction I drew from this enquiry. The second was that the man’s English must be a little weak. Obviously he meant something rather different from what he said.
“Sheep?” I said with a laugh. “No, my friend, I have something else to do than count sheep.”
Again he looked at me for a moment, his face now almost completely hidden by the peak of his sou’wester. If by any chance he were still doubting me the best thing seemed to be a touch of candour and an appeal he could scarcely resist.
“See here,” I said, lowering my voice, “I want to stop in this island to-night. In fact those are my orders. Now where can you find me a safe place?”
He lowered his voice too. In fact he seemed to reciprocate my confidence very satisfactorily.
“We must be very careful. I must see that the coast is clear first. Just you sit and wait here for ten minutes. I will be back.”
He nodded at me to enforce his injunctions and added as he turned away,
“Keep sitting down. Mind that!”
I sat down, finished filling my pipe, lit it, and waited. And as I waited I frankly confess I fairly hugged myself. Never before was there such a bit of luck, thought I. That that vagabond balloon should actually bring its passenger back to his native land instead of dropping him in the sea or landing him in Germany was fortunate almost beyond belief, but that he should then stumble on a German spy and actually convince the man that he was a confederate and lead him straight into the net already spreading for him, surely showed that after a considerable run of ill luck (and, I must confess, ill guidance), the passenger had suddenly become Fortune’s prime favourite. Several very eligible and commodious castles were constructed in the night air by that lonely shore as I sat and smoked.
And then I heard a cautious but distinct whistle, and up I jumped and looked all round me. There was no one to be seen, but the sound came from the right–the way I had come, and I set off through the thickening dusk in that direction. But the odd thing was that I walked considerably further than the sound of the whistle could have carried and never a sign of human being or of house did I see–nothing but that desolate grassy sea-board and the faintly gleaming waters.
I stopped and began to wonder, and then I heard the whistle again. It was still ahead of me, so on I walked and once more the same thing occurred. This time I paused for at least another ten minutes, but nobody appeared and nothing whatever happened. There I was, utterly alone once more, with the land growing black and the sea dim and not a sound now even from the sea gulls.
“The man has suspected me!” I said to myself.
It was an unpleasant conclusion, but the more carefully I thought over every little circumstance the more certain I felt it was the true one. To begin with, there was the way in which he kept his face concealed after the first few sentences we exchanged. Then there was that curious question about the sheep. It must have been a password–I saw that now, and I could have kicked myself for not seeing it sooner. Of course I had no idea of the proper answer, but I might at least have replied with some equally cryptic sentence and tried to bluff him into thinking I was using a different code. As it was, I had made it perfectly obvious that I had missed the point absolutely.
Finally there was his conduct in slipping away and leaving me stranded like this. Surely it was the very last trick to play on an accomplice. In fact it settled the matter. But why then did he whistle–and, moreover, whistle twice?
For a few minutes I was utterly puzzled, and then an explanation flashed upon me. He wished to lead me in this particular direction! And why? Evidently because he himself was living or hiding in the other. I tried to put myself in his shoes and think what I would do myself, and if I had had the wit to think of it, that would obviously be the soundest thing. So obvious did it seem to me that I decided to set to work on that assumption.
First of all I walked a little further to see if I could test this theory, and in a minute or two I saw dimly ahead of me houses near the beach. I stopped and thought again. Could it possibly be that this was the refuge he was providing and that he did not suspect me after all?
“In that case,” I said to myself, “would any man in his senses use such a vague and misleading method of conducting a friend, especially when a mistake might be–and probably would be–fatal to his schemes? Obviously not!”
On the other hand, these houses fitted excellently into the theory that he wanted me to take shelter there simply because they were well removed from his own lair.
“And then what’s the fellow doing himself all this time?” I thought. “Evidently scuttling back in the opposite direction!”
So back I turned and set out on a very cheerless and solitary walk. There was no sense of immediate action ahead now, no anticipation of any further excitement this night, and, the more I came to think of it, not one chance in a thousand of stumbling upon the man again even though I were really heading towards him.
As I walked along that dark shore, I tried to think out all the possibilities of the situation.
“Is the man living on this island?” (assuming it is an island, and as the sheep weren’t real sheep it may not be a real island) I asked myself. “Or has he simply landed from a submarine or some other enemy craft, and by this time is hurrying off again?”
I recalled our conversation, especially his words when I said I had arrived in “the usual way.” “Impossible! There was no signal. I have been looking out all the time,” he had answered. Surely that implied he was living here on shore, and indeed his very presence alone by himself and his whole attitude and behaviour were consistent only with that theory.
“What conclusions has he come to about me?” was my next question, and as I debated this problem my spirits began to rise a little.
“Hang it, he must be puzzled!” I said to myself confidently, and I do think justly. “For supposing I were on his job in Germany and an entire stranger suddenly sprang up out of nowhere, hailed me in excellent English, and then (even if he didn’t know the particular riddle I used as pass-word) conducted himself like a confederate, made no attempt to arrest me or interfere with me, and spoke German with a distinct English accent, what would I think?”
I debated the answer for some minutes and then it came to me involuntarily and inevitably.
“I’d be dashed if I’d know what to think! And that’s just exactly the hole this fellow must be in. I may be a fellow Hun and I may be an enemy, and he has got to make up his mind which. So far I’m quite certain he hasn’t enough evidence either way.”
The obvious corollary to this was that he must be presented with evidence which would make him think me a fellow Hun. Of course this assumed that he would have some means of getting news of my doings and my movements and forming conclusions from what he heard. But I thought it a pretty safe assumption to make. Confederates the man must have, and he would certainly tell them of the mysterious stranger, and the whole gang as certainly would make it their business to learn everything about me.
“What would a fellow Hun do in my place?” I said to myself. “Knowing the breed as I do, he would certainly overdo the patriotic John Bull business, he would be a little too polite to everybody, and he would eat like a hog.”
This then should be my role, and I may as well confess honestly that the last item appealed to me particularly. I kept on smoking till my head reeled in the hope of forgetting my hunger, but between pipes I felt ready to chew my oilskin. Of course I should also keep up a touch of the German waiter accent, and if this programme failed to lead either to my arrest or to my friend coming to my rescue, I felt that my reputation both as an ex-diplomatist and a rising young actor would be seriously tarnished.
And then all at once a light seemed to be extinguished in my brain. I ceased to be able to think any longer and my knees felt shaky as I walked. It was the reaction after what had really been a pretty long strain of one kind and another. Looking back, it seems now inevitable enough, but at the time I felt desperately ashamed of myself. Perhaps I might have been able to pull myself together had I chanced to fall in with that oilskinned figure again, but I thought at the moment I had become utterly useless and I felt inclined to throw myself down on the grass and go to sleep and forget everything. In fact I very soon should have, when I saw at last some farm buildings close ahead. They stood on the edge of a small cove and the ground dipped down to them so that they were not against the sky line, and I had nearly walked straight into the wall of an out-house before I saw a sign of them.
And then I remember rather hazily knocking at a door and presently finding myself in a low kitchen with a peat fire burning on an open hearth and what seemed to be dozens of people sitting round it. I probably counted each of them three or four times over.
They gave me a huge bowl of milk and a pile of oat cakes and cheese, and the one item of my programme I carried out faithfully was to eat like a famished animal. I believe I put some sort of an accent into the few words I murmured, but most of the time my mouth was too full for much conversation. I know that I never attempted any explanation of how I got there, and that night nobody asked me, and I certainly postponed the patriotic John Bull business.
When I finished my supper I felt better, but still a little dazed. There now seemed to be fewer in the family, but my eyes must still have been multiplying them for I thought there were three or four rather pretty girls, presumably daughters, with high pink cheeks, when there actually turned out next morning to be only two; and two poor idiots, presumably sons, with unpleasant stares and stubbly beards and open mouths, when daylight revealed only one. In fact the father of the household and his wife were the only people I counted accurately.
And then I remember being led to the barn, and seeing a vast pile of soft hay and throwing myself into the midst of it; and there my recollections of that day end. I actually had not even enquired into what part of the world I had dropped.
THE SUSPICIOUS STRANGER
There seem to be two distinct kinds of dreamers; to judge at least from their confessions next morning. There is the superior kind which dreams a condensed novel and remembers it distinctly to retail at breakfast, and there is the inferior kind which only carries away a vague impression of having vaguely striven to stride out and escape from some nebulous horror, or of trying to purchase a pound of golf balls at a counter which would persist in turning into a couple of parallel bars or a roll-top writing desk. Personally I belong to the inferior species, and I cannot even swear that I really had a dream at all that night. I only know that when I woke up at last I found that my oilskin was unbuttoned and thrown back, whereas I thought I had gone to sleep with it buttoned up; and that when I noticed this, I then began to have a confused memory of a dream wherein I was seized by some one or something and struggled violently to free myself.
I sat up in my bed of straw and looked round me. The sunshine was streaming through a small window and under the door, but the door was closed, the bar was very still and quite empty save for my own presence, and the crowing of a cock and the clucking of hens were at first the only sounds that reached me from outside. Then I became conscious of a soft and regular “swish,” rising and falling constantly and perpetually, and I remembered the sea close at hand, and a shiver of gratitude ran through me to think how narrowly I had escaped having that heaving surface fathoms over my head.
I have often wished since that I had lain there for a little while and tried to remember the dream, and whether I had actually gone to sleep with my oilskin buttoned, while the circumstances, such as they were, were fresh in my memory. When I thought of them afterwards I could swear to nothing and finally concluded the whole thing was probably fancy.
But if by any chance it were not, then evidently _some one_ had tried to search me in the night, and who would it be likely to be but my vanished acquaintance on the shore, or his confederates? And in that case one of them must have been lurking very close at hand. However, when I tried to piece my recollections together afterwards it was too late to make anything of them at all.
I only know for certain that I missed nothing from my pockets, and that as a matter of fact I had actually carried nothing in them that would have given me away–so far at least as I could judge.
These, as I say, were my subsequent reflections. What I did at the time was not to think about the matter any further, but jump up, open the barn door and walk out into the sunshine. It was now about ten o’clock on a flawless August morning, and not easily shall I forget the picture of that blue sea gently heaving far out to a bright horizon, and the semi-circle of white sand fringing the little cove, and the glimpse of green and smiling inland country, and the group of low grey farm buildings just out of reach of the wash of the waves. Whatever part of the world it might be, I felt entirely satisfied with it.
I stood for a few minutes gazing absently out to sea, and rehearsing in my mind my plan of campaign. My voice, manners and conduct must be such that if by some stroke of luck I actually fell in with my friend of last night or one of his confederates they would assume I was a friend and at least give me a nod, wink, password, or something to test me–and I vowed I would overlook nothing suspicious this time.
If, however, as was unfortunately far more likely, I met mere honest folk, they would quickly spread the news that a suspicious stranger was in the neighbourhood, and surely the report would reach at least one of the gang (for I confidently assumed a gang), and they would make it their business to seek me out. Finally I decided I had no time to waste, for several reasons. Through the clucking hens I strolled across to the dwelling house and there in the kitchen I found the mother, one of the pink-cheeked daughters, and the idiot son. They set about getting me some breakfast, and a few minutes later in came the father and another son, a strapping fellow not in the least resembling the idiot, and shortly afterwards appeared the other daughter.
I gave them my proper name, Roger Merton, since it was just the sort of ultra English name which a disguised Hun would adopt, and I learned that theirs was Scollay:–Peter Scollay, the father, Mrs. Scollay, Peter, the younger, Maggie, and Jane; besides Jock, the idiot. I was excessively affable, and they were not openly cool, but I noticed with satisfaction that they were far from demonstrative, with the marked exception of Jock who burst into several very loud and friendly laughs on extremely small provocation. He was horrid to look at, but I could not help feeling rather friendly towards the only member of the household who exhibited a glimpse of geniality, even though I was doing my level best to chill them.
As for the others, Peter Scollay the senior was a big tawny-bearded fellow, undeniably handsome despite one small defect. His eyes were a trifle too hard and cautious, and in one of them was a distinct cast. Curiously enough, his wife also had a slight cast, and so it was not surprising to see a trace of this in Peter junior and his red-cheeked sisters. Jock, however, seemed to have been endowed with imbecility instead of a cast. Apart from him, they were all good-looking, despite the family defect; and they were all very reticent this morning. I seemed indeed to trace the father’s wariness as well as the cast in each pair of eyes that furtively studied me.
“And your very beautiful island,” I enquired, in guttural accents that would have made me flee for the police instantly, had I been in their shoes, “so pleasantly situated in the sea–what is its name?”
They looked a little astonished, as well they might, and then in dry accents the father replied, “Ransay.”
“Ransay?” I repeated, and then all at once I realised where I was. Ransay was one of the northern isles of that not unknown archipelago which at the present moment it is safer to leave unnamed. Or perhaps for purposes of reference one may call it The Windy Isles. Somewhere in the same archipelago, twenty or thirty miles to the south’ard, was a particularly important naval base and I began to realise what I had stumbled up against.
In those early days of the war one heard a great many tales of spies and spying, but many of them were so palpably absurd and there was as yet such a total lack of evidence to support any one of them, that I–like a good many other people–felt sceptical of the whole thing. The distinguished General in German pay, the well known member of the Cabinet in hourly communication with the Kaiser, the group of German strategists working in the cellars of a West End London mansion, and all the rest of the early legends had made even the very moderately sensible extremely chary of believing anything we heard. But I thought very hard and seriously now. A real spy–seen and heard–actually living in the Isle of Ransay, in the back premises, so to speak, of that all important base, with Heaven only knew what means of the information concerning matters to the south’ard, and in immediate touch with any marauders who might tap gently at the back door on a dark night; here was something to sober even a bankrupt ex-light-comedian.
I kept my mouth very full while I thought these thoughts and conscientiously made the typical German chewing noise, and by the time my lips were cleared for action again a beaming smile enwreathed them.
“Do you have many ships which pass this way?” I enquired.
The question was a great success. Jock laughed with vacant glee and the rest of the family exchanged glances.
“No’ very many,” said Mr. Scollay warily.
Now I decided to give them the John Bull turn.
“No German ships I am sure!” I cried through a mouthful of porridge. “They are cowards! They will not venture _here_–no fears! They fear our brave sailors too much! Aha! We know that, eh?”
They agreed as coldly as I could wish. Evidently I was producing a thoroughly bad impression. At the same time nobody broke into whispered German, or made any comment that could conceivably be taken for a pass-word. I thought I would try giving them one myself.
“Are there many sheep in this island?” I asked.
Jock emitted another blast of genial laughter and Mr. Scollay as cautiously as ever replied,
“A good few.”
But there was no sign of any secret understanding of my words, and reluctantly I began to come to the conclusion that neither my friend of last night nor any of his confederates were here. It is true that the position of the house fitted my theory, and that its lonely situation on the very edge of the sea was ideal, and quite possibly these people might know more than they ought, they might in fact be abettors of treason and concealers of traitors, but that they were not the principals seemed evident enough.
Still, in any event it seemed to me of prime importance to disseminate a report of a suspicious stranger as widely and quickly as possible, so I selected the middle of another mouthful as the moment of enquiring.
“This pretty farm, my friend, does it belong to you?”
“No,” said my host, “the island a’ belongs to Mr. Rendall.”
“So!” said I. “And this Mr. Rendall, where does he live–in London?”
“Not him!” said Mr. Scollay, “he bides in Ransay.”
I pricked up my ears at this, and my spy-hunt seemed suddenly a much more promising venture. Some of the difficulties of playing a lone hand had already become apparent. But with some one I could confide in, some one who would know everybody in the island and a good deal about them, and who could advise and abet me, it seemed heavy odds against my vanished friend evading me for long.
“I think perhaps I ought to pay my respects to Mr. Rendall,” I said in a doubtful ruminating way, as though I were debating whether it were quite a safe move.
“You’ll find him at home,” was all the comment my host made.
But now that there was a prospect of losing their suspicious visitor, the family all at once set about extracting some information regarding the manner of his arrival in their midst.
“You’ll no have been long in Ransay?” began my hostess.
“Oh no, just a short time,” I beamed.
“You’ll not have come by the boat,” pronounced my host.
“Not _the_ boat, but surely I must have come by _a_ boat!” I smiled. “I cannot swim from Aberdeen!”
I don’t know exactly why I mentioned Aberdeen, but it seemed to have a distinctly sedative effect.
“You’ll not be a dealer?” enquired my host.
Here was a simple solution thrust into my hand. For a moment I thought of confessing I actually was a dealer and had got too drunk last night to remember how I arrived. But then I feared the tale might sound too credible and the reports of a suspicious stranger be stifled at their birth.
“Well,” I said, “I do deal in some things.”
I could see that suspicion had revived and I thought it better to leave it at that, and be off. With a little difficulty I made my hosts take payment for my night’s lodging, and then asked for directions to the laird’s mansion.
“You’ll no can miss it,” said Mr. Scollay.
“It’s the big house. Just keep along the road and you’ll see it afore you.”
So off I set through this unknown isle, still hatless and buttoned up in my oilskin, but smoking a peculiarly soothing pipe and thoroughly enjoying my adventure. The prospect of an ally ahead was delightfully cheering.
“Provided Mr. Rendall isn’t an utter ass, we ought to have these fellows sitting!” I said to myself.
THE DOCTOR’S HOUSE
The rough road from the shore kept gently mounting and I soon stood high enough to get a very good general idea of the island of Ransay. It was a green, low-lying, undulating fragment of the world, set that morning in a sea of sapphire blue, open to the horizon on the one hand and strewn with sister isles on the other. The Scollay’s house stood near the northwest end, and beyond it there seemed to be little save sea-turf and rocks, but in the direction I was walking one small green farm followed another for what I guessed to be four or five miles, and from side to side perhaps a couple of miles or less. There was only one rise in the land that could be called a hill, and that only by courtesy; elsewhere nothing but green undulations with a small reedy loch or two tucked away in their gentle folds.
Far to the southward, on other isles, higher hills, brown and blue, broke the horizon, but apart from these one saw nothing but a green and blue plain lying beneath an immensity of white and blue sky. With sea birds hovering and crying and larks mounting and singing over this, and the sun shining, and a northwest breeze that tasted like dry champagne, and myriads of wild flowers, yellow, blue, white, red, pink, and purple, underfoot, I felt almost too light-hearted. In fact I actually started singing, and only stopped when I bethought me that it was a trifle inconsistent with the character of a man slinking about in fear of his life, looking for a fellow miscreant to befriend him.
But it was quite impossible not to feel elated. Now that I realised the limited size of the place and its open surface, it was obvious that no man could lurk there unknown to the inhabitants. He must live in a house and pass for one of themselves. It seemed then impossible to believe (especially with an ally in prospect) that a spy whom I had actually seen and talked with (and knew moreover to have a foreign accent) could escape my clutches. And, apart from patriotic motives, of what a lift that would give to my tarnished character!
“Let me recall the fellow carefully,” said I to myself, “and get his face and voice well into my head against our next meeting.”
I tried to reconstruct our first meeting exactly as it had happened, to see again that dark figure rise in my path, and look into the face beneath the sou’wester. I shall not say precisely that this endeavour shook my confidence, but it certainly made me realise that I should have to set to work very warily to trap the man, for the harder I tried to see in my mind’s eye that face distinctly, the less distinct it grew. I could certainly swear to a moustache, and I felt pretty sure there was a beard as well, but not absolutely certain. He was of middle height, say between 5 feet 6, and 5 feet 10; but that was a fairly wide margin. In fact all I could positively swear to was that he was neither an obviously tall nor an obviously short man.
As to his build, he seemed thick-set and sturdy, but then who does not in an oilskin coat? It would take a very slight figure indeed to look slender in an oilskin. So here again I could only say that he was neither a remarkably stout man nor a remarkably thin man. And this was really all I could swear to in the matter of his outward appearance; though I told myself confidently enough that if I actually fell in with him again I should recognise him fast enough.
“He can’t disguise his voice anyhow,” I said to myself.
And then here again I began to realise a small difficulty; though nothing, it seemed to me very serious. After his first involuntary reply to me in German, the man had spoken in low, half-whispered tones. In ordinary conversation, especially if he were on his guard, he would speak quite differently. But could he eradicate his distinct touch of foreign accent? No; I thought decidedly that was beyond him.
I was so immersed in my thoughts that I had become quite oblivious to everything outside them. Beyond the fact that I had struck a hard macadamed road and was striding down it, I realised nothing else, till of a sudden I looked up and noticed a large house close before me, and at that I stopped dead and awoke from my reverie.
That it was Mr. Rendall’s mansion I never doubted. I saw now that it was not a really big house, but it was large compared with the small farm houses, and its utterly bare situation and the way in which it was set on a slight rise in the ground made it seem obviously the “big hoose” I was looking for. But somehow or other at the sight of it my spirits were instantly damped. Indeed I never saw a chillier, less inviting looking habitation, or one that seemed to repel confidence in it more subtly.
The road ran straight at it and then curved round the low wall that bounded the domains. And these domains consisted of absolutely nothing more than a rough grass paddock with a short straight drive leading from an open and dilapidated iron gate in the wall just where the curve began. There was no ivy, or any sort of creeper on the walls, but, instead, a sort of grey-green damp hue, broken only by a very few staring windows. I passed through that dilapidated gate with no temptation at all to sing.
The drive was covered with an infamous species of large pebble, so uncomfortable to walk on that I chose the grass at the side and I only stepped on to this apology for gravel when I was quite close to the house; approaching the front of it, I may say, at an angle. My footsteps made a noise like a cart and horse, and instantly down went the blind of the nearest window of the ground floor.
I stopped dead instinctively and looked at this bleak mansion narrowly. At the angle from which I had approached the front, I could see the blind go down quite plainly, but it was impossible to get even a glimpse into the room behind it.
“What the devil!” I murmured.
And then I told myself that I was really getting too suspicious. It must be a lady’s bed-room obviously. The ground floor near the front door seemed an odd place for such an apartment. Still, one never knows what a lady’s fancy may be. In any case there was nothing to be achieved by standing there staring, so I resumed my resounding progress across the pebbles.
I was at the front door and just going to ring, when round the corner of the house, right ahead of me, appeared a gentleman, and my spirits fell still further. I can’t exactly say that his was a face I disliked, but it was decidedly not one I took to. He had eyes set somewhat close together, a well trimmed short black beard, and an expression in which I seemed to read impudence and certainly read suspicion. He stopped at the sight of me and looked me up and down at least as curiously as I studied him. Only I trust I conducted my inspection less obviously.
“Mr. Rendall?” I enquired, and though I had come here meaning to confide in him, I found myself instinctively putting in a touch of accent; not with a wet brush as I did for the Scollays’ benefit, still I threw in a little, and, as I say, quite without intending it.
Curiously enough I saw his face clear the moment I spoke.
“Oh,” said he, with an air of relief, “it’s the doctor you’re wanting, is it? Well, he’s at home. Come in.”
So the laird was a doctor? Of which sort, I wondered; medical, theological, or what?
“I’m Mr. O’Brien,” added my new acquaintance as he opened the front door for me. “You’re quite sure it’s not me you’re wanting?”
I had noticed more than a trace of accent in his own voice when he spoke, and there was no doubt now what it was; a very palpable Irish brogue. As he asked this question he looked at me with a curious mixture of humour and defiance. It seemed to me that the humour was assumed and the defiance genuine, but that may have been simply because the man impressed me unfavourably.
“No,” I replied with a continental bow, “I am not so fortunate.”
And then suddenly a thought flashed across me. Ought I to have answered in a very different key? But we were in the hall now and the next moment another gentleman appeared.
“Here’s Dr. Rendall,” said Mr. O’Brien, and I bowed again.
“My name is Mr. Roger Merton,” I explained. “I have taken the liberty of calling upon you.”
“Come into my study, Mr. Merton,” said Dr. Rendall.
He spoke in a friendly enough voice, but if there was not a trace of suspicion in his eye too, I am greatly mistaken. And in both cases it seemed to me that it was suspicion tinged with apprehension, rather than the suspicion I was so deliberately cultivating. Indeed, I had not intended to cultivate any suspicion at all in this house, but fortunately (I think) I simply acted automatically.
Taking him altogether, Dr. Rendall was a decidedly more prepossessing looking man than O’Brien. In fact he was rather good-looking, with grey hair and moustache, face of a deep bronze-red hue and very blue eyes. He was well set up, and quite well dressed too in rough tweeds, and the only thing against him was that look in his eye as we exchanged our first sentences.
My wits were very wide awake by this time; I carried a picture of the outside of the house distinctly in my head as we turned out of the hall, and when we entered the study I knew it for the room where the blind had shut down.
“Is Mrs. Rendall at home?” I enquired.
“There are no ladies in this house, but just the doctor and me!” said he.
So no modest matron or maid had pulled the blind down. It had been Dr. Rendall’s study blind, whipped down obviously by the doctor himself the instant he heard a strange footstep, and now raised again. Why had it been dropped? What had it hidden? In the look of the room itself there was not a suggestion of an answer to either question. It was just an ordinary man’s study, a cross between a smoking room and a library, a much more comfortable room than the outside of that house promised. Yet people do not suddenly pull down blinds in the middle of the forenoon for no reason at all.
For a moment I thought of a passage at arms with a pretty housemaid as a solution. But it would obviously have been much quicker and simpler for any other party to flee the room than to make for the window and lower the blind. No; something had to be done which took a few minutes to do. I thought instantly of one possibility–the folding up or putting away of maps or plans. No doubt there were several other possibilities, but there seemed the best of reasons for not giving these worthy gentlemen my confidence. In fact quite a different course of action suggested itself.
Transfixing the doctor suddenly with a significant eye, I demanded in rather a low voice, “Are there many sheep in this island?” I still think it was a shot well worth risking, but to be quite candid it failed to come off. At least it did not come off entirely. Both the gentlemen certainly looked a little startled, but all Dr. Rendall did was to stare at me very hard, while O’Brien exclaimed.
“Faith, he’s a dealer!”
But again I refused the proffered explanation, even though it was quite evidently the easiest way of accounting for myself.
“No,” said I, “but I am very greatly interested in your beautiful island, Dr. Rendall. What a convenient spot to own!”
I still threw a touch of significance into my remark–especially on the word “convenient”–but this time I got a wholly unexpected answer.
“But I am sorry to say I don’t own it,” said the doctor. “I am afraid you must be mistaking me for my cousin, Philip Rendall. He’s the laird; I’m only the doctor.”
“The damned doctor,” added Mr. O’Brien with a grin.
I began to apologise, but O’Brien who was by this time in capital spirits, interrupted me with,
“Faith, you needn’t apologise, Mr. Merton. As long as you’re not one of my damned relations I’m delighted to see you, and the doctor here is always pining for a fresh face. He’s getting sick of mine!”
This remark seemed to have a spice of malice behind it, and the doctor certainly frowned, but I was so anxious to seize this opportunity of putting a question or two that I did not stop to wonder what was implied; not, at least, till afterwards.
“I suppose you have little society in this charming island?” I suggested.
O’Brien was certainly ready enough to give me exactly the information I was after.
“There are just four civilised houses in the whole place, counting this,” said he. “There’s the laird’s–and saving the dear doctor’s presence I must say his cousin is a damned queer fish, besides being as poor as he’s cranky, and there are the two ministers, only one’s away and the other’s as dry as my own throat’s getting. What do you say to a drink, doctor?”
He grinned at Dr. Rendall with a malicious significance I could make nothing of. I could see that it perturbed the doctor, who answered in evident embarrassment,
“If Mr. Merton would care for a glass of lemonade”
A hoot of laughter interrupted him. It reminded me of Jock, except that Mr. O’Brien’s laugh had such a flavour of ill-nature. The man might or might not be what I suspected, but he was indubitably objectionable.
“No, thank you,” I answered him. “I set out to call on Mr. Rendall and the time is passing.”
“Damned pleasantly in our society, eh?” put in O’Brien with the same sardonic laugh.
They both saw me to the door, and we said good-bye, without enthusiasm on the doctor’s part, with a grin on Mr. O’Brien’s, and with very mixed emotions on my own.
I was very thankful to get out of that depressing house and away from Mr. O’Brien’s laugh, and yet hardly was I on the high road again before I was blaming myself for not having lingered longer and pursued my investigations there a little further.
The other “Civilised” households in the island apparently numbered only three. Now, if my spy were working single handed he might conceivably be some better educated farmer who had lived abroad and turned traitor, but it seemed to me most unlikely that he should have no confederates, and it was scarcely possible for two or three men of that particular type to be gathered in so small a community. Brains and education seemed implied in every step of the dangerous game they were playing. Therefore it was only common sense to suspect one at least of these “civilised” houses, unless they could all manifestly clear their characters. Anyhow it were foolishness to neglect this consideration.
And what had I discovered already? A couple of men living by themselves in a criminal looking mansion, who hurriedly pulled down blinds, looked both suspicious and apprehensive at the sight of a stranger, and made odd innuendoes and allusions in their conversation. Why hadn’t I stayed on and pursued my investigations? Well, because the moment I discovered I was in the wrong house, my insistent idea was to push on to Mr. Rendall’s and consult with him about the whole situation. But now I began to reconsider this decision very seriously.
I was out of sight by this time in a secluded part of the road, where it ran through a dip in the ground, with the head of one of those little reedy lochs only a yard or two away, and a bright glimpse of the sea beyond. The marshy shores were a perfect blaze of yellow wild flowers and it looked so jolly that I sat down on the water’s edge and began to think things over.
First I thought Mr. O’Brien over. Middle height, a beard, and an Irish brogue. Could the German accent have been put on to conceal the brogue? Looking to what I was doing myself, why not? Then I thought Dr. Rendall over. Also middle height, a moustache, and no particular accent. But then again, if I put on an accent, why not he? Then I thought over what I had learned of the laird. A cousin of the doctor’s, a “damned queer fish,” almost the only associate of this couple, and hard up. Ought I to go straight off and confide in him?
“Not to begin with anyhow!” I said to myself, and up I jumped and continued my walk.
About a hundred yards further on I rounded a corner and came upon a very miserable figure. He was an old, old man with tinted spectacles and a long white beard, and the raggedest overcoat I ever saw, and he was sitting on the grass with his feet in the ditch apparently doing nothing but simply sitting still. As I approached he peered at me as though he were more than half blind and then in an extraordinary thin, high, piping voice he said,
“A fine day, mister!”
This time I did the Teutonic bully. It went horribly against the grain to strafe such a miserable object, but with no one looking on I thought that the kind of Hun I was supposed to be would probably treat a worm like this to a touch of the All-Highest.
“Be dashed and damned to you!” I growled.
The old boy started perceptibly, and in rather an eager voice he asked,
“Have you got a wax match, mister?”
“Wax match? No, and be confounded!” said I.
For the next quarter of a mile or so I felt too ashamed of myself and too contrite to think much about what the old fellow had said, and then suddenly it began to strike me that a _wax_ match was rather a curious thing to ask for. A match was natural enough, but why need it be wax?
And then I stopped, wheeled round, and walked back. I told myself that I was growing absurd and getting passwords on the brain. Still, there seemed no harm in exchanging a few more remarks with the old man.
But when I reached the same spot on the road he was gone. There were one or two small houses not far away and it was quite possible he had reached them by now, especially if he wanted his match badly; though it would mean moving a little faster than I had given him credit for. Or he might be lying down out of sight having a nap, and as the day was warm and he had apparently nothing better to do, that seemed a very possible solution. Anyhow, there was no sign of him, and if there had been, I told myself he would probably have proved to be merely the island patriarch with a senile fancy for wax vestas, so I resumed my journey to the “big house.”
As I topped another rise I got the best view I had yet seen of the lie of the island. A group of larger buildings on another hillock, still well over a mile ahead, was evidently the mansion at last. Behind me I saw the doctor’s house and noted with a nod unto myself that it stood distinctly in the northwest district of the island. It was no long walk from that bleak habitation to the Scollays’ on the shore.
And now I addressed myself to a delicate question. If I were going to keep up the part of suspicious stranger at the Rendall’s, at all events to begin with, what account of my arrival should I give? It must be a tale plausible enough to keep them in doubt, for unless the laird himself were actually up to his neck in treason (and though I was prepared for anything by this time, there were limits to the assumptions I ventured to make), he would certainly wire either to the police or the naval authorities and I should immediately become a mere spectator. In fact, I would probably not be allowed even to stay and look on.
And this was not mere selfish desire for glory and excitement. I was quite capable of seeing that my tale might not convince older and wiser people as thoroughly as it convinced myself. In fact I felt a strong presentiment that I should merely be put down as a brilliant liar and the spy hunt would come to an end–_with the spy still in the island_. That was where I still do think I was justified in playing the hand myself.
But what tale could I tell? The truth–that I had dropped out of a balloon? Who would believe it for an instant unless I produced the hidden parachute? And if I unearthed the parachute the whole island would know in a couple of hours and the people I was after would also be convinced. And it would not be a conviction that I was a fellow Hun.
And then I chanced to turn my head and I had an inspiration. About five miles out to sea I saw a ship, quite distinctly enough to spot her as a cruiser of much the same type as the ship I had soared out of yesterday. I filled in the details of the inspiration as I walked and when at last I saw her head away into the far distance the final touch was given.
When I drew near the house the road showed a tendency to meander, and as I was getting pretty hungry and counted on luncheon with the laird, be he patriot or traitor, I left the highway and followed a path across a clover field. Though the house and its farm were so near, and I could see half a dozen other homesteads not far away, yet there was not a living soul in sight, or any sound save from the peewees and the gulls. I don’t know how to convey the impression of out-of-the-worldness and back-of-beyondness produced by this sense of silence and space, and by the look of the house and its whole surroundings. The path sloped up to it through a grass paddock, rather like the approach to the doctor’s house, only this grass was short and well-tended and there were one or two flower beds before the door and ivy on one of the walls (where the wind was least destructive); and though the mansion was weather-beaten and plain and grey, it had nothing of the bleak and chilly aspect of the other house. It simply looked as though it had lived a long and stormy life and had now gone to sleep.
At one side stretched a high-walled garden with the tops of a few stunted trees just showing their heads, and close at the back of the place one could see a collection of farm buildings, very like the mansion architecturally, only greyer and more weathered. A fairly steep roof, crow-stepped gables, rough-cast walls, and rather small windows seemed to my untutored eye to be the chief features of the whole stone gathering.
“Somebody very primitive obviously lives here,” I said to myself as I pulled the bell.
Out it came bodily in my hand, so I carefully pushed it back, and tried a large brass knocker instead, a massive affair that looked as though it had once been part of a shipwreck. I knocked once, I knocked twice, I knocked thrice, and then the door opened and I enjoyed a fresh sensation.
Instead of the prehistoric being I had expected, a girl stood in the open door looking at me out of a quite remarkably bright pair of eyes–disconcertingly bright in fact. She was dressed in the very smartest and most-up-to-date country kit; short tweed skirt of a pleasing greenish hue, stockings to match, brown brogued shoes, and a blouse that might have come from Paris. Her hair was dressed as fashionably as the rest of her, and her face was of precisely the kind I had least expected to see, rather thin with neatly chiselled features and delicate eye-brows, and an entirely sophisticated expression. There was no doubt she was decidedly pretty, and quite delightfully fresh and trim looking. But her eyes were her best feature. As I looked straight into them for an instant I could scarcely bring myself to play the part I had arranged. They seemed as though they would be a little difficult to deceive.
However, thank Heaven I have lived down most of the virtues that embarrass the young. I had lied before, been found out, and lived through it; so I clicked my heels together, bowed, and enquired,
“Is Master Rindall in?”
(My accent wasn’t really quite as bad as that, but I should have to invent fresh vowels to illustrate what it actually sounded like.)
I had expected some slight symptoms of alarm, but she answered with perfect composure and in a voice that matched the hair and blouse,
“Yes, he is. Will you come in?”
I bowed again and entered the mansion of Mr. Rendall.
AT THE MANSION HOUSE
As I followed the girl through the hall, a man’s voice asked,
“Is that O’Brien?”
“No,” she said, “it’s some one to see you, father.”
She showed me into a room and closed the door, and in the course of the next few minutes I came to one or two pretty obvious conclusions. She was clearly Mr. Rendall’s daughter, and they were equally clearly in the habit of receiving visits at odd times from Mr. O’Brien; in fact they evidently concluded it was he, or Miss Rendall herself would scarcely have opened the door to me. Also, her reply might be taken as implying that if Mr. O’Brien had been the visitor, it would not have been her father he had come to see. But whether or no this were the true interpretation, I so thoroughly disliked and suspected O’Brien that any suggestion of intimacy was alone enough to make me glad I had started on the defensive.
“Otherwise,” said I to myself, “what a charming girl to find in such a place!”
However, I reminded myself that I had not come here to be charmed, and proceeded next to take stock of the room.
It was not large, but pleasantly proportioned, low in the ceiling, and pervaded with a delicate yet distinct flavour of the past, I found myself instinctively wondering how one could reproduce this particular flavour on the stage; no armour or tapestry or any of the usual antique paraphernalia to be allowed, for beyond the thick walls and rather small windows, it was so difficult to lay one’s finger on any one specific thing that palpably suggested age. Finally I decided that it was impossible to re-create such an atmosphere. It was compounded of stillness within and the glimpses of primeval quiet without, of a touch of comfortable shabbiness, of plenty of elderly books, and of a faint odour of the dampness of centuries mingled with the scent of honeysuckle. My suspicions were suddenly lulled, and with that prompt decision which has landed me in and pulled me out of so many holes, I decided to drop my German accent. That the charming Miss Rendall might miss it, and wonder what had become of it, was (I must confess) a reflection which did not occur to me till afterwards.
Just as I had come to this decision, in walked the laird, and in two minutes I had come to another decision, which was to adhere to the plan of campaign I had thought of as I walked, in so far as keeping my business to myself was concerned. My first impression of Mr. Rendall was of height, and a certain quiet, formidable quality. He was grey-haired, with a close-clipped grizzled moustache, loose clothes as though he had shrunk a little in girth, and the unmistakable air of a man who had seen considerably more of the world than the island of Ransay. He received me quite politely and hospitably, but with every moment that passed I grew more acutely conscious of something deterrent behind his courtesy. A sense of a strong personality in the background, not actually hostile as yet, but ironic and critical, set me instinctively and instantly on guard. Not that I actually suspected the man; but to take him straightway into my confidence was simply impossible. A man of another temperament might have done so–and quite possibly have been right; but his effect on me was like tapping a limpet.
I gave him my name and then I said in a quiet confidential way,
“Forgive this intrusion, Mr. Rendall, but the fact is my ship has evidently been called away.”
I glanced towards the window, and following my look he could see the smoke of the cruiser just visible on the horizon. He gave a little nod but said nothing.
“I was landed last night on a certain piece of business,” I went on, “and it is no part of that business to make myself conspicuous, and so I have taken the liberty of coming to your house.”
“You wish to wait here till your ship returns?” he enquired.
“I thought perhaps you might know of some lodging where I might remain quietly.”
He smiled slightly.
“You had better stay here. There is no other lodging.”
I began to thank him, but he cut me short.
“It is Hobson’s choice,” said he, “and my house is not overcrowded at present. Have you lunched?”
“I am afraid I haven’t.”
“Come and join us. My daughter and I had just sat down.”
He moved towards the door.
“I have no luggage,” I said.
“I can lend you what you want.”
I thanked him again, and said brazenly,
“May I ask for the loan of a coat. I am anxious not to exhibit my uniform coat in the island if I can help it.”
I thought he looked a trifle surprised (it must be remembered that all this time I was in a buttoned-up oilskin), but he merely nodded again and led me upstairs to a pleasant bed-room with a low ceiling and some heavy old-fashioned mahogany furniture. There he left me and in a moment returned with a brush and comb and a tweed coat.
I had noticed that in one of the drawers there was a key, and as I took the coat I said,
“I hope you won’t think me unduly cautious if I lock my uniform coat up in one of these drawers. There are certain papers in the pockets which I am bound to be careful of.”
Again I fancied I caught a brief look of surprise, but it must have been very brief, for his face was as inscrutable as ever as he answered,
“Do exactly as you like.”
A maid came with a jug of hot water and then I was alone.
“I wonder if the man believes me?” I said to himself. “Things are going a little too dashed smoothly!”
However, there was nothing for it now but playing the game out. I first took the precaution of suddenly and quietly opening the door. There was nobody at the key hole, so I took off my oilskin and put on the tweed coat, and then locked up the top drawer and put the key in my pocket. Hardly necessary to say that drawer remained as empty as the others.
“I call that either a very neat dodge, or a devilish silly one,” I said to myself. “And which it is depends entirely on the results.”
As I brushed my hair I thanked my stars I was fair, for a shave was now long overdue.
“What a pirate I’d look if I were a brunette!” I thought, and as it was, the recollection of dainty Miss Rendall made me determined to borrow a razor forthwith.
I foresaw that lunch would be a function demanding considerable tact. Seeing that I had decided, rightly or wrongly (and the Lord knew which!), not to trust these people, they had to be kept in a nice equilibrium betwixt doubt and confidence. To persuade them too thoroughly that they were entertaining a genuine British naval officer would be fatal if they were treasonably inclined, and a serious mistake if they were not, for then they might reassure the other islanders and my gang would go to earth, not to be dug up again in a hurry. On the other hand, to have them too suspicious would be all right if they were treasonable, but would probably end my adventure if they were honest.
The line I selected was a blend of mystery regarding my business, breezy chat on non-committal topics, and an occasional oddity of conduct, such as might have been caused by a guilty conscience or a harmless strain of eccentricity (and I left them to make their choice).
Here are a few choice excerpts from our conversation, which I happen to remember more or less verbatim.
_Myself (chattily):_ “Delightful air you have in your island! Like champagne–or perhaps in these parts I ought to say like whisky and soda.”
_Mr. Rendall (somewhat drily_): “We do happen to be acquainted with champagne.”
_Miss Rendall (smiling pleasantly as she ate_): “We probably don’t look as though we were, father. Mr. Merton’s metaphor was safer.”
_Myself (feeling rather an ass, but outwardly gay):_ “I meant no reflection on your cellar, Miss Rendall. I was merely aiming at local colour.”
At this point I fell abruptly silent, the laugh, as it were, frozen on my lips. I gazed at my plate and then glanced furtively at my host (I was giving them their choice). The next fragment of conversation which I remember ran somewhat thus:–
_Myself (leading up deliberately to the test question):_ “There’s one thing I envy the natives of this happy island. What a wonderful show of wild flowers they have! Do they make good grazing?”
_Mr. Rendall (again drily_): “If one happens to have ruminant tastes, I believe they are edible.”
_Miss Rendall (brightly, but evidently unkindly):_ “Mr. Merton was probably thinking chiefly of the ruminant natives.”
_Myself (keeping sternly to the point):_ “I was thinking chiefly of sheep.” _(With a direct and steady look at the laird.)_ “Are there many sheep on this island?”
_Mr. Rendall (quite calmly):_ “A good many. Are you anxious for statistics?”
_Myself (concealing my disappointment under a brave smile):_ “Oh no. Please don’t mistake me for an intelligent enquirer.”
I turned the brave smile on to Miss Rendall. She smiled back very slightly. In her face I seemed to read a trace of scepticism; as if she did not quite agree with my modest estimate of myself, but at the same time thought none the better of me. I would have given a good deal to know exactly what was in her mind. Did she suspect something? And if so, what?
I had one more shot. It was an inspiration which came to me at the end of lunch when my host offered me a cigar.
“Matches?” he observed, pushing a box towards me.
Again I looked at him hard and asked,
“Have you such a thing as a _wax_ match?”
His eyebrows rose slightly.
“If you prefer to light a cigar with a wax match I daresay I can find one.”
“If Mr. Merton doesn’t mind waiting for half an hour perhaps I might discover a box in the store room,” said Miss Rendall, and she added demurely, “beside the champagne.”
My only consolation was that I was making an idiot of myself in a good cause.
I said good-night early that evening and did a heap of thinking in my bed-room. Nothing that seems to me now to be worth recording had been said or done since luncheon. I went for a solitary walk in the afternoon, as much to carry out the part of one with some business in the isle as for any other reason. It is true I actually did do some business in the way of accosting a few inhabitants and trying tactfully to convey a suspicious impression. None of them, however, had seemed in the least likely to belong to the gang I was after, and the sheep and wax match conundrums had left them cold. I was the less concerned at this since I had realised that the day was Saturday. To-morrow in church I meant to take stock of the islanders–and give them a chance of taking stock of me.
That night my thoughts ran chiefly on my host and hostess. I had learnt a few more facts about them and these I now put together to see what picture they suggested. In the first place, the Rendalls were an ancient family in these parts and had owned their property for some centuries. As all my prejudices ran in favour of old families, old port, and old furniture, this was so far reassuring.
On the other hand, Mr. Rendall had apparently lived much abroad but he dropped no hint as to whether he had sojourned in foreign parts for reasons of pleasure, health, or business. In fact he was close as a clam on the subject, and, indeed, on every other subject. Add to this that I had heard he was hard up, that he had no wife to look after him, and that he evidently took a caustic rather than an enthusiastic view of life, and in my present state of mind there seemed a _prima facie_ case for suspicion. Anyhow he was a man to be watched.
As to his daughter, I had learned that her name was Jean, that she had been to school at a somewhat select seminary which I chanced to have heard of, and that she had finished her education a couple of years ago in Switzerland.
“Nothing very suspicious in all that,” I thought. “Still, what is this surprising apparition doing in this out of the way island? ‘Looking after my father,’ she’d say. But why look after him here instead of some more amusing place. Perhaps because they are hard up. On the other hand, perhaps not.”
Then I thought over the pair simply as one thought of any new acquaintances before war was dreamt of, and I am bound to say they came out of the ordeal very creditably. He was well born, well bred, and very far from a fool. She was–well, I don’t mind confessing that that night I considered her charming, in spite of the pretty obvious fact that she was not at all charmed with me. Or if she was, she concealed her feelings admirably. She had a good enough excuse, either way; whether she were honest and thought me a traitor, or whether she were treacherous and thought me honest. Besides, I had not yet shaved.
So I forgave Miss Jean her prejudice and reflected on her attractions. I changed my mind about them later, as will appear, but that first evening she seemed to me a most piquant and dainty young lady. Slim, trim, and demure, with eyes like stars (I borrow the metaphor unblushingly), and a pleasant spice of mischief in her tongue, and a touch of the devil very carefully and properly hidden away; that was my first impression of Miss Jean Rendall.
And then I turned in, and slept that night without a dream.
Sunday was another gorgeous day. The breeze had almost quite died away, the sea glimmered through a heat haze, and the colours of the wild flowers were brighter than any palette. I came down shaved, but found Miss Rendall still cool, and her father as inaccessible as ever.
“Anyhow,” I consoled myself by reflecting, “I have eliminated my bristles as a cause for my unpopularity. They have something else on their minds!”
The laird lent me a felt hat and as the hour of noon drew nigh we set off for the parish kirk. There was another church in the island (as in every self-respecting Scottish parish, I believe), but by the greatest good luck the rival minister was away and the congregations were assembled together. I gathered afterwards that this happy result was partly due to the hope of seeing the laird’s mysterious guest, and that several very prickly theological scruples were swallowed by divers of the other congregation. At all events the church was crowded and I had the chance I wanted.
As we approached the kirk I thought I had never seen a plainer, more primitive little building even in a Scottish kirkyard; no spire, no ornament, nothing but grey roughcast walls (what they call in Scotland “harled”) and a roof of small yellowish flagstones, set in a bed of mingled nettles and tombstones. Amid the tombstones stood the congregation, all in black and staring steadfastly at the mysterious stranger, while over the door a plaintive little bell creaked and clanged.
We entered the little church and I shall never forget my surprise. It was the year 1914 without; it became the year 1514 (or perhaps some centuries earlier still) within. On one side two minute windows pierced a wall quite four feet thick. The other wall was broken only by a great empty niche whence an image once adored had vanished. It is true there were now pews, but they were not of yesterday–square boxes where people sat and faced in four directions, and the odour of damp bibles smelt prehistoric.
The bell ceased clanging, the people trooped in and filled the boxes, and presently there uprose in the pulpit a grim venerable man in black. By this time my better feelings were under control and I studied this figure critically. He represented one of those four “civilised” and suspect houses. One was untenanted, two I had now visited, and the fourth I was now almost ready to discharge with a cleared character. Outwardly at least this sedate divine suggested nothing but the austerer virtues.
For two hours the minister prayed, the minister read and the minister preached to us; at intervals we were allowed to sing, and abused the privilege shockingly; and all the time I studied that congregation. I recognised the Scollay family, Peter elder, Peter younger, Mrs. Scollay, the two rosy daughters, and even poor Jock. The three or four people I had spoken to in the afternoon were all there too. In fact I saw every one I had consciously met before in that island, with three exceptions. The doctor and O’Brien were not in church, and narrowly though I looked, I saw no sign of the ancient with tinted spectacles and a taste for wax matches.
I very soon was made aware that there was no fear of myself going unobserved. At one time or another I caught every eye in that congregation rivetted on me, and it only remained for me to give the proper impression to carry away with them.
As I was unable to see myself as others saw me, I cannot say precisely what effect I produced, but if a habit of looking suddenly and guiltily at the floor when I caught a hard staring eye, a conspicuous difficulty in following the order of the service and knowing what book to be picked up and whether to kneel, sit, or stand, and peculiarly unpleasant shake which I introduced into my top note–if all these manifestations failed to convey the impression that I was a very suspicious person indeed, well, all I can say is that they ought to have done so, and that that congregation must have been singularly deficient in the proper kind of imagination. Of course I could hardly expect a sympathetic signal to be actually made in church, but I did hope my performance would surely bear fruit before many hours had passed.
At last the service ended, the commons crowded out, and the laird and his daughter rose in their wake and greeted the minister on their way to the door. I noticed that they did not introduce me, and also that the Reverend Mr. Mackenzie regarded me–over Miss Rendall’s shoulder–with a sternly suspicious glance. Evidently he had heard ill of me already, and hope burned higher. If the minister had heard dark rumours, surely the spies had! Or anyhow they would when that congregation had all reached their homes (if they were not among the congregation themselves).
We passed again through many eyes in the kirkyard, and then the Rev. Mr. Mackenzie and the laird walked together for a short way and I found myself alone with Miss Jean.
“I didn’t see Dr. Rendall or Mr. O’Brien in church,” I remarked.
“They very seldom come to church,” said she.
“I gather that Mr. O’Brien is visiting the doctor,” I observed.
“Yes,” said she, in a tone that promised little further information.
“Has he been staying with him long?” I preserved.
“For some time.”
“Old friends, I suppose.”
She did not seem to hear me, and I gave it up–in the meanwhile; but to myself I said complacently,
“Some mystery here!”
Presently I remarked,
“There was another face I didn’t see–the island patriarch.”
She looked at me quickly.
“The patriarch–who do you mean?”
“An old gentleman with a white beard, tinted spectacles, and overcoat somewhat the worse for wear. He hailed me on the road yesterday and asked for a match. I imagine he must live somewhere near the doctor’s house.”
She looked very thoughtful for a moment and then said:
“There is no one in the island with tinted spectacles, and nobody in the least like that living anywhere near Dr. Rendall’s.”
I looked at her sharply.
“Are you quite sure?”
She seemed to think again for a moment and then said:
I had something to think about on my way home to lunch.
After lunch I set out by myself with pretty high hopes. It seemed to me inconceivable that men (or even one man for the sake of argument, though I felt sure there must be more), who were lurking here on the business this gang were engaged upon, would actually take no steps one way or the other to deal with a stranger who knew of their existence, and who to all seeming was one of their own kidney. I flattered myself by this time that every report they could have heard and every observation they might have made must incline them to the view that it was their duty to get in touch with me again. And now I proposed to take a solitary ramble along the very shore where I had stumbled upon my oil-skinned friend, and give them a chance of getting in touch.
It was an afternoon of sunshine and gleaming seas. At first the air was redolent of clover, and then–as I drew near the shore–of seaware. On this day of rest there was hardly any one to be seen about, so that a quiet meeting by the beach could be simply arranged. Only a meeting implies two, and though I walked right along the coast till I got within a stone’s throw of the Scollays’ farm I remained as solitary as when I started.
I turned back and slowly retraced my steps for a mile or so, my hopes fading and my perplexity increasing.
“What ought I to have done that I haven’t done?” I asked myself. “And what have I done that I oughtn’t to?”
I paused and sat down on the crisp sea turf with a rough stone wall to landward, and below me the shelving rocks and the glassy ocean, and it was then the idea struck me that I might do something to attract attention to my presence. A thoughtful aunt had presented me with a revolver when I got my commission, and as anything to do with hitting things, from cricket balls to pheasants, has always amused me, I used to carry it in my hip pocket regardless of chaff (one happily inspired wag dubbed me “jolly Roger”). I took it out now, descended to the beach, set up a stone as a mark, and proceeded to combine business with pleasure by doing a little fancy shooting. The thing made just enough noise to attract anybody fairly near at hand without scandalising the inhabitants, and as I chanced to be in good form I quite enjoyed myself.
I had just brought off a pretty sequence of snap shots and was thinking regretfully that in one of the happy lands which still encouraged the duel I should be a much more respected member of society, when I suddenly realised that I had a spectator of my prowess. He was standing on the turf above me, a little indistinct owing to the wall at his back, and for an instant my heart leapt and I thought I had met the friend I was seeking at last. And then I saw that it was only poor Jock.
I waved to him and he came scrambling down to the beach, his mouth wide open as usual and wreathed in smiles. As he approached a wild thought struck me. He was bearded, thickset, and of medium height. Wrap him in an oilskin, and there you were! I mention all my inspirations to show that I really did cover the ground pretty thoroughly in that blessed island. It is true that the conduct of my oil-skinned acquaintance was scarcely that of a congenital idiot; still, I was resolved to leave no stone unturned.
“Shoots, shoots!” he babbled in his curious thick voice. “Jock heard shoots!”
I looked at him fixedly and in a serious voice replied in a German accent you could have cut with a knife,
“I vant to know zomezing about sheeps, Herr Jock, not about shoots. How many sheeps are zere in zis island, eh?”
Did I see a gleam of intelligence for an instant in Jock’s eye? I cannot honestly say. I only know that he looked not unnaturally surprised, and then thickly answered what sounded like “A hundred and six.” Anyhow it was nothing that seemed to illuminate the subject very brightly.
“And how many wax matches?” I enquired.
Jock hooted with laughter. He sounded so cheerful, that I perforce laughed too, and then I gazed at him sombrely.
“Jock,” I said, “you are a fraud and a disappointment.”
He laughed again, and then all at once a much more sensible idea struck me. He was not a very promising ally, but he might prove better than none at all.
“Jock,” said I, “I am a stranger.”
He nodded and seemed to understand.
“Have you seen any other strangers in this island of yours?” I asked.
He seemed a little confused.
“No, no,” he began, and then altered it into “Yes, yes.”
Which did he mean, or did he mean anything at all.
“A man in an oilskin coat, with a moustache on his lip–here,” I went on, touching my own lip. “Who goes out at night and walks along the shore; have you seen any one like that?”
Again he seemed to look intelligent, but he only shook his head vaguely.
“Well,” I said, “if you do see any one like that let me know, and you will see some more shoots. Also I shall give you this.”
I held up a new half crown and he laughed so joyfully that I began to have a faint hope he might prove of some use after all.
And yet when I had left him and resumed my walk back to the Rendalls’ house, my spirits were not very high. As an ally Jock did not impress me with a feeling of great confidence, while his failure to recognise my description of the oil-skinned man depressed me unreasonably. I told myself that the opinion of the parish idiot on the subject of strangers was of small value. Besides, quite likely the oilskinned man would not be a stranger to the people in the neighbourhood. They might know him familiarly as a prosperous farmer or a hardy fisherman–or as their own doctor or their doctor’s guest, or–no, he could not be their laird for Mr. Rendall was too tall. In short my talk with Jock had proved nothing one way or the other.
And yet my whole failure to come upon any trace of the gang in spite of all my ingenuity did set me thinking. Could it possibly be that my entire adventure had been an hallucination? I confessed frankly to myself that I have a pretty lively imagination, and I recalled vividly how I had almost collapsed on my way to the Scollays under the strain of an intense reaction, how my brain had whirled, and how I peopled the farm kitchen with full thrice the number of persons actually assembled. I had been conscious of all that, but supposing my brain had actually begun to whirl half an hour sooner, before I had become conscious of it? Might I not have imagined my whole mysterious adventure?
It was a nasty thought, for in that case what a superfluous fool I had made of myself since! But I faced it manfully, and sternly asked myself what the opinion of the average hard-headed, soberly reasoning man would be, if he were given the facts and requested to pronounce his verdict on them. What would be my own verdict if I were told such a yarn? Would I swallow it without demur?
“Be hanged if I would!” I said candidly.
By the time I got back to the big house, I had very nearly ceased to believe in the tale myself.