This etext was produced by Edward White and proofed by Robert F. Jaffe and Kirsten Tozer.
BY JOHN BUCHAN
To W. P. Ker.
If the Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford has not forgotten the rock whence he was hewn, this simple story may give an hour of entertainment. I offer it to you because I think you have met my friend Dickson McCunn, and I dare to hope that you may even in your many sojournings in the Westlands have encountered one or other of the Gorbals Die-Hards. If you share my kindly feeling for Dickson, you will be interested in some facts which I have lately ascertained about his ancestry. In his veins there flows a portion of the redoubtable blood of the Nicol Jarvies. When the Bailie, you remember, returned from his journey to Rob Roy beyond the Highland Line, he espoused his housekeeper Mattie, “an honest man’s daughter and a near cousin o’ the Laird o’ Limmerfield.” The union was blessed with a son, who succeeded to the Bailie’s business and in due course begat daughters, one of whom married a certain Ebenezer McCunn, of whom there is record in the archives of the Hammermen of Glasgow. Ebenezer’s grandson, Peter by name, was Provost of Kirkintilloch, and his second son was the father of my hero by his marriage with Robina Dickson, oldest daughter of one Robert Dickson, a tenant-farmer in the Lennox. So there are coloured threads in Mr. McCunn’s pedigree, and, like the Bailie, he can count kin, should he wish, with Rob Roy himself through “the auld wife ayont the fire at Stuckavrallachan.”
Such as it is, I dedicate to you the story, and ask for no better verdict on it than that of that profound critic of life and literature, Mr. Huckleberry Finn, who observed of the Pilgrim’s Progress that he “considered the statements interesting, but tough.” J.B.
1. How a Retired Provision Merchant felt the Impulse of Spring.
2. Of Mr. John Heritage and the Difference in Points of View.
3. How Childe Roland and Another came to the Dark tower.
5. Of the Princess in the Tower.
6. How Mr. McCunn departed with Relief and returned with Resolution.
7. Sundry Doings in the Mirk.
8. How a Middle-aged Crusader accepted a Challenge.
9. The First Battle of the Cruives.
10. Deals with an Escape and a Journey.
11. Gravity out of Bed.
12. How Mr. McCunn committed an Assault upon an Ally.
13. The Coming of the Danish Brig.
14. The Second Battle of the Cruives.
15. The Gorbals Die-Hards go into Action.
16. In which a Princess leaves a Dark Tower and a Provision Merchant returns to his Family.
The girl came into the room with a darting movement like a swallow, looked round her with the same birdlike quickness, and then ran across the polished floor to where a young man sat on a sofa with one leg laid along it.
“I have saved you this dance, Quentin,” she said, pronouncing the name with a pretty staccato. “You must be lonely not dancing, so I will sit with you. What shall we talk about?”
The young man did not answer at once, for his gaze was held by her face. He had never dreamed that the gawky and rather plain little girl whom he had romped with long ago in Paris would grow into such a being. The clean delicate lines of her figure, the exquisite pure colouring of hair and skin, the charming young arrogance of the eyes–this was beauty, he reflected, a miracle, a revelation. Her virginal fineness and her dress, which was the tint of pale fire, gave her the air of a creature of ice and flame.
“About yourself, please, Saskia,” he said. “Are you happy now that you are a grown-up lady?”
“Happy!” Her voice had a thrill in it like music, frosty music. “The days are far too short. I grudge the hours when I must sleep. They say it is sad for me to make my debut in a time of war. But the world is very kind to me, and after all it is a victorious war for our Russia. And listen to me, Quentin. To-morrow I am to be allowed to begin nursing at the Alexander Hospital. What do you think of that?”
The time was January 1916, and the place a room in the great Nirski Palace. No hint of war, no breath from the snowy streets, entered that curious chamber where Prince Peter Nirski kept some of the chief of his famous treasures. It was notable for its lack of drapery and upholstering–only a sofa or two and a few fine rugs on the cedar floor. The walls were of a green marble veined like malachite, the ceiling was of darker marble inlaid with white intaglios. Scattered everywhere were tables and cabinets laden with celadon china, and carved jade, and ivories, and shimmering Persian and Rhodian vessels. In all the room there was scarcely anything of metal and no touch of gilding or bright colour. The light came from green alabaster censers, and the place swam in a cold green radiance like some cavern below the sea. The air was warm and scented, and though it was very quiet there, a hum of voices and the strains of dance music drifted to it from the pillared corridor in which could be seen the glare of lights from the great ballroom beyond.
The young man had a thin face with lines of suffering round the mouth and eyes. The warm room had given him a high colour, which increased his air of fragility. He felt a little choked by the place, which seemed to him for both body and mind a hot-house, though he knew very well that the Nirski Palace on this gala evening was in no way typical of the land or its masters. Only a week ago he had been eating black bread with its owner in a hut on the Volhynian front.
“You have become amazing, Saskia,” he said. “I won’t pay my old playfellow compliments; besides, you must be tired of them. I wish you happiness all the day long like a fairy-tale Princess. But a crock like me can’t do much to help you to it. The service seems to be the wrong way round, for here you are wasting your time talking to me.”
She put her hand on his. “Poor Quentin! Is the leg very bad?”
He laughed. “O, no. It’s mending famously. I’ll be able to get about without a stick in another month, and then you’ve got to teach me all the new dances.”
The jigging music of a two-step floated down the corridor. It made the young man’s brow contract, for it brought to him a vision of dead faces in the gloom of a November dusk. He had once had a friend who used to whistle that air, and he had seen him die in the Hollebeke mud. There was something macabre in the tune…. He was surely morbid this evening, for there seemed something macabre about the house, the room, the dancing, all Russia…. These last days he had suffered from a sense of calamity impending, of a dark curtain drawing down upon a splendid world. They didn’t agree with him at the Embassy, but he could not get rid of the notion.
The girl saw his sudden abstraction.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked. It had been her favourite question as a child.
“I was thinking that I rather wished you were still in Paris.”
“Because I think you would be safer.”
“Oh, what nonsense, Quentin dear! Where should I be safe if not in my own Russia, where I have friends–oh, so many, and tribes and tribes of relations? It is France and England that are unsafe with the German guns grumbling at their doors….My complaint is that my life is too cosseted and padded. I am too secure, and I do not want to be secure.”
The young man lifted a heavy casket from a table at his elbow. It was of dark green imperial jade, with a wonderfully carved lid. He took off the lid and picked up three small oddments of ivory–a priest with a beard, a tiny soldier, and a draught-ox. Putting the three in a triangle, he balanced the jade box on them.
“Look, Saskia! If you were living inside that box you would think it very secure. You would note the thickness of the walls and the hardness of the stone, and you would dream away in a peaceful green dusk. But all the time it would be held up by trifles–brittle trifles.”
She shook her head. “You do not understand. You cannot understand. We are a very old and strong people with roots deep, deep in the earth.”
“Please God you are right,” he said. “But, Saskia, you know that if I can ever serve you, you have only to command me. Now I can do no more for you than the mouse for the lion–at the beginning of the story. But the story had an end, you remember, and some day it may be in my power to help you. Promise to send for me.”
The girl laughed merrily. “The King of Spain’s daughter,” she quoted,
“Came to visit me,
And all for the love
Of my little nut-tree.”
The other laughed also, as a young man in the uniform of the Preobrajenski Guards approached to claim the girl. “Even a nut-tree may be a shelter in a storm,” he said.
“Of course I promise, Quentin,” she said. “Au revoir. Soon I will come and take you to supper, and we will talk of nothing but nut-trees.”
He watched the two leave the room, her gown glowing like a tongue of fire in that shadowy archway. Then he slowly rose to his feet, for he thought that for a little he would watch the dancing. Something moved beside him, and he turned in time to prevent the jade casket from crashing to the floor. Two of the supports had slipped.
He replaced the thing on its proper table and stood silent for a moment.
“The priest and the soldier gone, and only the beast of burden left. If I were inclined to be superstitious, I should call that a dashed bad omen.”
HOW A RETIRED PROVISION MERCHANT FELT THE IMPULSE OF SPRING
Mr. Dickson McCunn completed the polishing of his smooth cheeks with the towel, glanced appreciatively at their reflection in the looking-glass, and then permitted his eyes to stray out of the window. In the little garden lilacs were budding, and there was a gold line of daffodils beside the tiny greenhouse. Beyond the sooty wall a birch flaunted its new tassels, and the jackdaws were circling about the steeple of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk. A blackbird whistled from a thorn-bush, and Mr. McCunn was inspired to follow its example. He began a tolerable version of “Roy’s Wife of Aldivalloch.”
He felt singularly light-hearted, and the immediate cause was his safety razor. A week ago he had bought the thing in a sudden fit of enterprise, and now he shaved in five minutes, where before he had taken twenty, and no longer confronted his fellows, at least one day in three, with a countenance ludicrously mottled by sticking-plaster. Calculation revealed to him the fact that in his fifty-five years, having begun to shave at eighteen, he had wasted three thousand three hundred and seventy hours–or one hundred and forty days–or between four and five months–by his neglect of this admirable invention. Now he felt that he had stolen a march on Time. He had fallen heir, thus late, to a fortune in unpurchasable leisure.
He began to dress himself in the sombre clothes in which he had been accustomed for thirty-five years and more to go down to the shop in Mearns Street. And then a thought came to him which made him discard the grey-striped trousers, sit down on the edge of his bed, and muse.
Since Saturday the shop was a thing of the past. On Saturday at half-past eleven, to the accompaniment of a glass of dubious sherry, he had completed the arrangements by which the provision shop in Mearns Street, which had borne so long the legend of D. McCunn, together with the branches in Crossmyloof and the Shaws, became the property of a company, yclept the United Supply Stores, Limited. He had received in payment cash, debentures and preference shares, and his lawyers and his own acumen had acclaimed the bargain. But all the week-end he had been a little sad. It was the end of so old a song, and he knew no other tune to sing. He was comfortably off, healthy, free from any particular cares in life, but free too from any particular duties. “Will I be going to turn into a useless old man?” he asked himself.
But he had woke up this Monday to the sound of the blackbird, and the world, which had seemed rather empty twelve hours before, was now brisk and alluring. His prowess in quick shaving assured him of his youth. “I’m no’ that dead old,” he observed, as he sat on the edge of he bed, to his reflection in the big looking-glass.
It was not an old face. The sandy hair was a little thin on the top and a little grey at the temples, the figure was perhaps a little too full for youthful elegance, and an athlete would have censured the neck as too fleshy for perfect health. But the cheeks were rosy, the skin clear, and the pale eyes singularly childlike. They were a little weak, those eyes, and had some difficulty in looking for long at the same object, so that Mr. McCunn did not stare people in the face, and had, in consequence, at one time in his career acquired a perfectly undeserved reputation for cunning. He shaved clean, and looked uncommonly like a wise, plump schoolboy. As he gazed at his simulacrum he stopped whistling “Roy’s Wife” and let his countenance harden into a noble sternness. Then he laughed, and observed in the language of his youth that there was “life in the auld dowg yet.” In that moment the soul of Mr. McCunn conceived the Great Plan.
The first sign of it was that he swept all his business garments unceremoniously on to the floor. The next that he rootled at the bottom of a deep drawer and extracted a most disreputable tweed suit. It had once been what I believe is called a Lovat mixture, but was now a nondescript sub-fusc, with bright patches of colour like moss on whinstone. He regarded it lovingly, for it had been for twenty years his holiday wear, emerging annually for a hallowed month to be stained with salt and bleached with sun. He put it on, and stood shrouded in an odour of camphor. A pair of thick nailed boots and a flannel shirt and collar completed the equipment of the sportsman. He had another long look at himself in the glass, and then descended whistling to breakfast. This time the tune was “Macgregors’ Gathering,” and the sound of it stirred the grimy lips of a man outside who was delivering coals–himself a Macgregor–to follow suit. Mr McCunn was a very fountain of music that morning.
Tibby, the aged maid, had his newspaper and letters waiting by his plate, and a dish of ham and eggs frizzling near the fire. He fell to ravenously but still musingly, and he had reached the stage of scones and jam before he glanced at his correspondence. There was a letter from his wife now holidaying at the Neuk Hydropathic. She reported that her health was improving, and that she had met various people who had known somebody else whom she had once known herself. Mr. McCunn read the dutiful pages and smiled. “Mamma’s enjoying herself fine,” he observed to the teapot. He knew that for his wife the earthly paradise was a hydropathic, where she put on her afternoon dress and every jewel she possessed when she rose in the morning, ate large meals of which the novelty atoned for the nastiness, and collected an immense casual acquaintance, with whom she discussed ailments, ministers, sudden deaths, and the intricate genealogies of her class. For his part he rancorously hated hydropathics, having once spent a black week under the roof of one in his wife’s company. He detested the food, the Turkish baths (he had a passionate aversion to baring his body before strangers), the inability to find anything to do and the compulsion to endless small talk. A thought flitted over his mind which he was too loyal to formulate. Once he and his wife had had similar likings, but they had taken different roads since their child died. Janet! He saw again–he was never quite free from the sight–the solemn little white-frocked girl who had died long ago in the Spring.
It may have been the thought of the Neuk Hydropathic, or more likely the thin clean scent of the daffodils with which Tibby had decked the table, but long ere breakfast was finished the Great Plan had ceased to be an airy vision and become a sober well-masoned structure. Mr. McCunn–I may confess it at the start–was an incurable romantic.
He had had a humdrum life since the day when he had first entered his uncle’s shop with the hope of some day succeeding that honest grocer; and his feet had never strayed a yard from his sober rut. But his mind, like the Dying Gladiator’s, had been far away. As a boy he had voyaged among books, and they had given him a world where he could shape his career according to his whimsical fancy. Not that Mr. McCunn was what is known as a great reader. He read slowly and fastidiously, and sought in literature for one thing alone. Sir Walter Scott had been his first guide, but he read the novels not for their insight into human character or for their historical pageantry, but because they gave him material wherewith to construct fantastic journeys. It was the same with Dickens. A lit tavern, a stage-coach, post-horses, the clack of hoofs on a frosty road, went to his head like wine. He was a Jacobite not because he had any views on Divine Right, but because he had always before his eyes a picture of a knot of adventurers in cloaks, new landed from France among the western heather.
On this select basis he had built up his small library–Defoe, Hakluyt, Hazlitt and the essayists, Boswell, some indifferent romances, and a shelf of spirited poetry. His tastes became known, and he acquired a reputation for a scholarly habit. He was president of the Literary Society of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, and read to its members a variety of papers full of a gusto which rarely became critical. He had been three times chairman at Burns Anniversary dinners, and had delivered orations in eulogy of the national Bard; not because he greatly admired him–he thought him rather vulgar–but because he took Burns as an emblem of the un-Burns-like literature which he loved. Mr. McCunn was no scholar and was sublimely unconscious of background. He grew his flowers in his small garden-plot oblivious of their origin so long as they gave him the colour and scent he sought. Scent, I say, for he appreciated more than the mere picturesque. He had a passion for words and cadences, and would be haunted for weeks by a cunning phrase, savouring it as a connoisseur savours a vintage. Wherefore long ago, when he could ill afford it, he had purchased the Edinburgh Stevenson. They were the only large books on his shelves, for he had a liking for small volumes–things he could stuff into his pocket in that sudden journey which he loved to contemplate.
Only he had never taken it. The shop had tied him up for eleven months in the year, and the twelfth had always found him settled decorously with his wife in some seaside villa. He had not fretted, for he was content with dreams. He was always a little tired, too, when the holidays came, and his wife told him he was growing old. He consoled himself with tags from the more philosophic of his authors, but he scarcely needed consolation. For he had large stores of modest contentment.
But now something had happened. A spring morning and a safety razor had convinced him that he was still young. Since yesterday he was a man of a large leisure. Providence had done for him what he would never have done for himself. The rut in which he had travelled so long had given place to open country. He repeated to himself one of the quotations with which he had been wont to stir the literary young men at the Guthrie Memorial Kirk:
“What’s a man’s age? He must hurry more, that’s all; Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold: When we mind labour, then only, we’re too old– What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?
He would go journeying–who but he?–pleasantly.”
It sounds a trivial resolve, but it quickened Mr. McCunn to the depths of his being. A holiday, and alone! On foot, of course, for he must travel light. He would buckle on a pack after the approved fashion. He had the very thing in a drawer upstairs, which he had bought some years ago at a sale. That and a waterproof and a stick, and his outfit was complete. A book, too, and, as he lit his first pipe, he considered what it should be. Poetry, clearly, for it was the Spring, and besides poetry could be got in pleasantly small bulk. He stood before his bookshelves trying to select a volume, rejecting one after another as inapposite. Browning–Keats, Shelley–they seemed more suited for the hearth than for the roadside. He did not want anything Scots, for he was of opinion that Spring came more richly in England and that English people had a better notion of it. He was tempted by the Oxford Anthology, but was deterred by its thickness, for he did not possess the thin-paper edition. Finally he selected Izaak Walton. He had never fished in his life, but The Compleat Angler seemed to fit his mood. It was old and curious and learned and fragrant with the youth of things. He remembered its falling cadences, its country songs and wise meditations. Decidedly it was the right scrip for his pilgrimage.
Characteristically he thought last of where he was to go. Every bit of the world beyond his front door had its charms to the seeing eye. There seemed nothing common or unclean that fresh morning. Even a walk among coal-pits had its attractions….But since he had the right to choose, he lingered over it like an epicure. Not the Highlands, for Spring came late among their sour mosses. Some place where there were fields and woods and inns, somewhere, too, within call of the sea. It must not be too remote, for he had no time to waste on train journeys; nor too near, for he wanted a countryside untainted. Presently he thought of Carrick. A good green land, as he remembered it, with purposeful white roads and public-houses sacred to the memory of Burns; near the hills but yet lowland, and with a bright sea chafing on its shores. He decided on Carrick, found a map, and planned his journey.
Then he routed out his knapsack, packed it with a modest change of raiment, and sent out Tibby to buy chocolate and tobacco and to cash a cheque at the Strathclyde Bank. Till Tibby returned he occupied himself with delicious dreams….He saw himself daily growing browner and leaner, swinging along broad highways or wandering in bypaths. He pictured his seasons of ease, when he unslung his pack and smoked in some clump of lilacs by a burnside–he remembered a phrase of Stevenson’s somewhat like that. He would meet and talk with all sorts of folk; an exhilarating prospect, for Mr. McCunn loved his kind. There would be the evening hour before he reached his inn, when, pleasantly tired, he would top some ridge and see the welcoming lights of a little town. There would be the lamp-lit after-supper time when he would read and reflect, and the start in the gay morning, when tobacco tastes sweetest and even fifty-five seems young. It would be holiday of the purest, for no business now tugged at his coat-tails. He was beginning a new life, he told himself, when he could cultivate the seedling interests which had withered beneath the far-reaching shade of the shop. Was ever a man more fortunate or more free?
Tibby was told that he was going off for a week or two. No letters need be forwarded, for he would be constantly moving, but Mrs. McCunn at the Neuk Hydropathic would be kept informed of his whereabouts. Presently he stood on his doorstep, a stocky figure in ancient tweeds, with a bulging pack slung on his arm, and a stout hazel stick in his hand. A passer-by would have remarked an elderly shopkeeper bent apparently on a day in the country, a common little man on a prosaic errand. But the passer-by would have been wrong, for he could not see into the heart. The plump citizen was the eternal pilgrim; he was Jason, Ulysses, Eric the Red, Albuquerque, Cortez–starting out to discover new worlds.
Before he left Mr. McCunn had given Tibby a letter to post. That morning he had received an epistle from a benevolent acquaintance, one Mackintosh, regarding a group of urchins who called themselves the “Gorbals Die-Hards.” Behind the premises in Mearns Street lay a tract of slums, full of mischievous boys, with whom his staff waged truceless war. But lately there had started among them a kind of unauthorized and unofficial Boy Scouts, who, without uniform or badge or any kind of paraphernalia, followed the banner of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and subjected themselves to a rude discipline. They were far too poor to join an orthodox troop, but they faithfully copied what they believed to be the practices of more fortunate boys. Mr. McCunn had witnessed their pathetic parades, and had even passed the time of day with their leader, a red-haired savage called Dougal. The philanthropic Mackintosh had taken an interest in the gang and now desired subscriptions to send them to camp in the country.
Mr. McCunn, in his new exhilaration, felt that he could not deny to others what he proposed for himself. His last act before leaving was to send Mackintosh ten pounds.
OF MR. JOHN HERITAGE AND THE DIFFERENCE IN POINTS OF VIEW
Dickson McCunn was never to forget the first stage in that pilgrimage. A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class carriage at a little station whose name I have forgotten. In the village nearby he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits, to which he was partial, and followed by the shouts of urchins, who admired his pack–“Look at the auld man gaun to the schule”–he emerged into open country. The late April noon gleamed like a frosty morning, but the air, though tonic, was kind. The road ran over sweeps of moorland where curlews wailed, and into lowland pastures dotted with very white, very vocal lambs. The young grass had the warm fragrance of new milk. As he went he munched his buns, for he had resolved to have no plethoric midday meal, and presently he found the burnside nook of his fancy, and halted to smoke. On a patch of turf close to a grey stone bridge he had out his Walton and read the chapter on “The Chavender or Chub.” The collocation of words delighted him and inspired him to verse. “Lavender or Lub”–“Pavender or Pub”- “Gravender or Grub”–but the monosyllables proved too vulgar for poetry. Regretfully he desisted.
The rest of the road was as idyllic as the start. He would tramp steadily for a mile or so and then saunter, leaning over bridges to watch the trout in the pools, admiring from a dry-stone dyke the unsteady gambols of new-born lambs, kicking up dust from strips of moor-burn on the heather. Once by a fir-wood he was privileged to surprise three lunatic hares waltzing. His cheeks glowed with the sun; he moved in an atmosphere of pastoral, serene and contented. When the shadows began to lengthen he arrived at the village of Cloncae, where he proposed to lie. The inn looked dirty, but he found a decent widow, above whose door ran the legend in home-made lettering, “Mrs. brockie tea and Coffee,” and who was willing to give him quarters. There he supped handsomely off ham and eggs, and dipped into a work called Covenanting Worthies, which garnished a table decorated with sea-shells. At half-past nine precisely he retired to bed and unhesitating sleep.
Next morning he awoke to a changed world. The sky was grey and so low that his outlook was bounded by a cabbage garden, while a surly wind prophesied rain. It was chilly, too, and he had his breakfast beside the kitchen fire. Mrs. Brockie could not spare a capital letter for her surname on the signboard, but she exalted it in her talk. He heard of a multitude of Brockies, ascendant, descendant, and collateral, who seemed to be in a fair way to inherit the earth. Dickson listened sympathetically, and lingered by the fire. He felt stiff from yesterday’s exercise, and the edge was off his spirit.
The start was not quite what he had pictured. His pack seemed heavier, his boots tighter, and his pipe drew badly. The first miles were all uphill, with a wind tingling his ears, and no colours in the landscape but brown and grey. Suddenly he awoke to the fact that he was dismal, and thrust the notion behind him. He expanded his chest and drew in long draughts of air. He told himself that this sharp weather was better than sunshine. He remembered that all travellers in romances battled with mist and rain. Presently his body recovered comfort and vigour, and his mind worked itself into cheerfulness.
He overtook a party of tramps and fell into talk with them. He had always had a fancy for the class, though he had never known anything nearer it than city beggars. He pictured them as philosophic vagabonds, full of quaint turns of speech, unconscious Borrovians. With these samples his disillusionment was speedy. The party was made up of a ferret-faced man with a red nose, a draggle-tailed woman, and a child in a crazy perambulator. Their conversation was one-sided, for it immediately resolved itself into a whining chronicle of misfortunes and petitions for relief. It cost him half a crown to be rid of them.
The road was alive with tramps that day. The next one did the accosting. Hailing Mr. McCunn as “Guv’nor,” he asked to be told the way to Manchester. The objective seemed so enterprising that Dickson was impelled to ask questions, and heard, in what appeared to be in the accents of the Colonies, the tale of a career of unvarying calamity. There was nothing merry or philosophic about this adventurer. Nay, there was something menacing. He eyed his companion’s waterproof covetously, and declared that he had had one like it which had been stolen from him the day before. Had the place been lonely he might have contemplated highway robbery, but they were at the entrance to a village, and the sight of a public-house awoke his thirst. Dickson parted with him at the cost of sixpence for a drink.
He had no more company that morning except an aged stone-breaker whom he convoyed for half a mile. The stone-breaker also was soured with the world. He walked with a limp, which, he said, was due to an accident years before, when he had been run into by “ane of thae damned velocipeeds.” The word revived in Dickson memories of his youth, and he was prepared to be friendly. But the ancient would have none of it. He inquired morosely what he was after, and, on being told remarked that he might have learned more sense. “It’s a daft-like thing for an auld man like you to be traivellin’ the roads. Ye maun be ill-off for a job.” Questioned as to himself, he became, as the newspapers say, “reticent,” and having reached his bing of stones, turned rudely to his duties. “Awa’ hame wi’ ye,” were his parting words. “It’s idle scoondrels like you that maks wark for honest folk like me.”
The morning was not a success, but the strong air had given Dickson such an appetite that he resolved to break his rule, and, on reaching the little town of Kilchrist, he sought luncheon at the chief hotel. There he found that which revived his spirits. A solitary bagman shared the meal, who revealed the fact that he was in the grocery line. There followed a well-informed and most technical conversation. He was drawn to speak of the United Supply Stores, Limited, of their prospects and of their predecessor, Mr. McCunn, whom he knew well by repute but had never met. “Yon’s the clever one.” he observed. “I’ve always said there’s no longer head in the city of Glasgow than McCunn. An old-fashioned firm, but it has aye managed to keep up with the times. He’s just retired, they tell me, and in my opinion it’s a big loss to the provision trade….” Dickson’s heart glowed within him. Here was Romance; to be praised incognito; to enter a casual inn and find that fame had preceded him. He warmed to the bagman, insisted on giving him a liqueur and a cigar, and finally revealed himself. “I’m Dickson McCunn,” he said, “taking a bit holiday. If there’s anything I can do for you when I get back, just let me know.” With mutual esteem they parted.
He had need of all his good spirits, for he emerged into an unrelenting drizzle. The environs of Kilchrist are at the best unlovely, and in the wet they were as melancholy as a graveyard. But the encounter with the bagman had worked wonders with Dickson, and he strode lustily into the weather, his waterproof collar buttoned round his chin. The road climbed to a bare moor, where lagoons had formed in the ruts, and the mist showed on each side only a yard or two of soaking heather. Soon he was wet; presently every part of him–boots, body, and pack–was one vast sponge. The waterproof was not water-proof, and the rain penetrated to his most intimate garments. Little he cared. He felt lighter, younger, than on the idyllic previous day. He enjoyed the buffets of the storm, and one wet mile succeeded another to the accompaniment of Dickson’s shouts and laughter. There was no one abroad that afternoon, so he could talk aloud to himself and repeat his favourite poems. About five in the evening there presented himself at the Black Bull Inn at Kirkmichael a soaked, disreputable, but most cheerful traveller.
Now the Black Bull at Kirkmichael is one of the few very good inns left in the world. It is an old place and an hospitable, for it has been for generations a haunt of anglers, who above all other men understand comfort. There are always bright fires there, and hot water, and old soft leather armchairs, and an aroma of good food and good tobacco, and giant trout in glass cases, and pictures of Captain Barclay of Urie walking to London and Mr. Ramsay of Barnton winning a horse-race, and the three-volume edition of the Waverley Novels with many volumes missing, and indeed all those things which an inn should have. Also there used to be–there may still be- sound vintage claret in the cellars. The Black Bull expects its guests to arrive in every stage of dishevelment, and Dickson was received by a cordial landlord, who offered dry garments as a matter of course. The pack proved to have resisted the elements, and a suit of clothes and slippers were provided by the house. Dickson, after a glass of toddy, wallowed in a hot bath, which washed all the stiffness out of him. He had a fire in his bedroom, beside which he wrote the opening passages of that diary he had vowed to keep, descanting lyrically upon the joys of ill weather. At seven o’clock, warm and satisfied in soul, and with his body clad in raiment several sizes too large for it, he descended to dinner.
At one end of the long table in the dining-room sat a group of anglers. They looked jovial fellows, and Dickson would fain have joined them; but, having been fishing all day in the Lock o’ the Threshes, they were talking their own talk, and he feared that his admiration for Izaak Walton did not qualify him to butt into the erudite discussions of fishermen. The landlord seemed to think likewise, for he drew back a chair for him at the other end, where sat a young man absorbed in a book. Dickson gave him good evening, and got an abstracted reply. The young man supped the Black Bull’s excellent broth with one hand, and with the other turned the pages of his volume. A glance convinced Dickson that the work was French, a literature which did not interest him. He knew little of the tongue and suspected it of impropriety.
Another guest entered and took the chair opposite the bookish young man. He was also young–not more than thirty-three–and to Dickson’s eye was the kind of person he would have liked to resemble. He was tall and free from any superfluous flesh; his face was lean, fine-drawn, and deeply sunburnt, so that the hair above showed oddly pale; the hands were brown and beautifully shaped, but the forearm revealed by the loose cuffs of his shirt was as brawny as a blacksmith’s. He had rather pale blue eyes, which seemed to have looked much at the sun, and a small moustache the colour of ripe hay. His voice was low and pleasant, and he pronounced his words precisely, like a foreigner.
He was very ready to talk, but in defiance of Dr. Johnson’s warning, his talk was all questions. He wanted to know everything about the neighbourhood–who lived in what houses, what were the distances between the towns, what harbours would admit what class of vessel. Smiling agreeably, he put Dickson through a catechism to which he knew none of the answers. The landlord was called in, and proved more helpful. But on one matter he was fairly at a loss. The catechist asked about a house called Darkwater, and was met with a shake of the head. “I know no sic-like name in this countryside, sir,” and the catechist looked disappointed.
The literary young man said nothing, but ate trout abstractedly, one eye on his book. The fish had been caught by the anglers in the Loch o’ the Threshes, and phrases describing their capture floated from the other end of the table. The young man had a second helping, and then refused the excellent hill mutton that followed, contenting himself with cheese. Not so Dickson and the catechist. They ate everything that was set before them, topping up with a glass of port. Then the latter, who had been talking illuminatingly about Spain, rose, bowed, and left the table, leaving Dickson, who liked to linger over his meals, to the society of the ichthyophagous student.
He nodded towards the book. “Interesting?” he asked.
The young man shook his head and displayed the name on the cover. “Anatole France. I used to be crazy about him, but now he seems rather a back number.” Then he glanced towards the just-vacated chair. “Australian,” he said.
“How d’you know?”
“Can’t mistake them. There’s nothing else so lean and fine produced on the globe to-day. I was next door to them at Pozieres and saw them fight. Lord! Such men! Now and then you had a freak, but most looked like Phoebus Apollo.”
Dickson gazed with a new respect at his neighbour, for he had not associated him with battle-fields. During the war he had been a fervent patriot, but, though he had never heard a shot himself, so many of his friends’ sons and nephews, not to mention cousins of his own, had seen service, that he had come to regard the experience as commonplace. Lions in Africa and bandits in Mexico seemed to him novel and romantic things, but not trenches and airplanes which were the whole world’s property. But he could scarcely fit his neighbour into even his haziest picture of war. The young man was tall and a little round-shouldered; he had short-sighted, rather prominent brown eyes, untidy black hair and dark eyebrows which came near to meeting. He wore a knickerbocker suit of bluish-grey tweed, a pale blue shirt, a pale blue collar, and a dark blue tie–a symphony of colour which seemed too elaborately considered to be quite natural. Dickson had set him down as an artist or a newspaper correspondent, objects to him of lively interest. But now the classification must be reconsidered.
“So you were in the war,” he said encouragingly.
“Four blasted years,” was the savage reply. “And I never want to hear the name of the beastly thing again.”
“You said he was an Australian,” said Dickson, casting back. “But I thought Australians had a queer accent, like the English.”
“They’ve all kind of accents, but you can never mistake their voice. It’s got the sun in it. Canadians have got grinding ice in theirs, and Virginians have got butter. So have the Irish. In Britain there are no voices, only speaking-tubes. It isn’t safe to judge men by their accent only. You yourself I take to be Scotch, but for all I know you may be a senator from Chicago or a Boer General.”
“I’m from Glasgow. My name’s Dickson McCunn.” He had a faint hope that the announcement might affect the other as it had affected the bagman at Kilchrist.
“Golly, what a name!” exclaimed the young man rudely.
Dickson was nettled. “It’s very old Highland,” he said. “It means the son of a dog.”
“Which–Christian name or surname?” Then the young man appeared to think he had gone too far, for he smiled pleasantly. “And a very good name too. Mine is prosaic by comparison. They call me John Heritage.”
“That,” said Dickson, mollified, “is like a name out of a book. With that name by rights you should be a poet.”
Gloom settled on the young man’s countenance. “It’s a dashed sight too poetic. It’s like Edwin Arnold and Alfred Austin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Great poets have vulgar monosyllables for names, like Keats. The new Shakespeare when he comes along will probably be called Grubb or Jubber, if he isn’t Jones. With a name like yours I might have a chance. You should be the poet.”
“I’m very fond of reading,” said Dickson modestly.
A slow smile crumpled Mr. Heritage’s face. “There’s a fire in the smoking-room,” he observed as he rose. “We’d better bag the armchairs before these fishing louts take them.” Dickson followed obediently. This was the kind of chance acquaintance for whom he had hoped, and he was prepared to make the most of him.
The fire burned bright in the little dusky smoking-room, lighted by one oil-lamp. Mr. Heritage flung himself into a chair, stretched his long legs, and lit a pipe.
“You like reading?” he asked. “What sort? Any use for poetry?”
“Plenty,” said Dickson. “I’ve aye been fond of learning it up and repeating it to myself when I had nothing to do. In church and waiting on trains, like. It used to be Tennyson, but now it’s more Browning. I can say a lot of Browning.”
The other screwed his face into an expression of disgust. “I know the stuff. ‘Damask cheeks and dewy sister eyelids.’ Or else the Ercles vein–‘God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world.’ No good, Mr. McCunn. All back numbers. Poetry’s not a thing of pretty round phrases or noisy invocations. It’s life itself, with the tang of the raw world in it–not a sweetmeat for middle-class women in parlours.”
“Are you a poet, Mr. Heritage?”
“No, Dogson, I’m a paper-maker.”
This was a new view to Mr. McCunn. “I just once knew a paper-maker,” he observed reflectively, “They called him Tosh. He drank a bit.”
“Well, I don’t drink,” said the other. “I’m a paper-maker, but that’s for my bread and butter. Some day for my own sake I may be a poet.”
“Have you published anything?”
The eager admiration in Dickson’s tone gratified Mr. Heritage. He drew from his pocket a slim book. “My firstfruits,” he said, rather shyly.
Dickson received it with reverence. It was a small volume in grey paper boards with a white label on the back, and it was lettered: WHORLS-JOHN HERITAGE’S BOOK. He turned the pages and read a little. “It’s a nice wee book,” he observed at length.
“Good God, if you call it nice, I must have failed pretty badly,” was the irritated answer.
Dickson read more deeply and was puzzled. It seemed worse than the worst of Browning to understand. He found one poem about a garden entitled “Revue.” “Crimson and resonant clangs the dawn,” said the poet. Then he went on to describe noonday:
“Sunflowers, tall Grenadiers, ogle the roses’ short-skirted ballet. The fumes of dark sweet wine hidden in frail petals Madden the drunkard bees.”
This seemed to him an odd way to look at things, and he boggled over a phrase about an “epicene lily.” Then came evening: “The painted gauze of the stars flutters in a fold of twilight crape,” sang Mr. Heritage; and again, “The moon’s pale leprosy sloughs the fields.”
Dickson turned to other verses which apparently enshrined the writer’s memory of the trenches. They were largely compounded of oaths, and rather horrible, lingering lovingly over sights and smells which every one is aware of, but most people contrive to forget. He did not like them. Finally he skimmed a poem about a lady who turned into a bird. The evolution was described with intimate anatomical details which scared the honest reader.
He kept his eyes on the book, for he did not know what to say. The trick seemed to be to describe nature in metaphors mostly drawn from music-halls and haberdashers’ shops, and, when at a loss, to fall to cursing. He thought it frankly very bad, and he laboured to find words which would combine politeness and honesty.
“Well?” said the poet.
“There’s a lot of fine things here, but–but the lines don’t just seem to scan very well.”
Mr. Heritage laughed. “Now I can place you exactly. You like the meek rhyme and the conventional epithet. Well, I don’t. The world has passed beyond that prettiness. You want the moon described as a Huntress or a gold disc or a flower–I say it’s oftener like a beer barrel or a cheese. You want a wealth of jolly words and real things ruled out as unfit for poetry. I say there’s nothing unfit for poetry. Nothing, Dogson! Poetry’s everywhere, and the real thing is commoner among drabs and pot-houses and rubbish-heaps than in your Sunday parlours. The poet’s business is to distil it out of rottenness, and show that it is all one spirit, the thing that keeps the stars in their place….I wanted to call my book ‘Drains,’ for drains are sheer poetry carrying off the excess and discards of human life to make the fields green and the corn ripen. But the publishers kicked. So I called it ‘Whorls,’ to express my view of the exquisite involution of all things. Poetry is the fourth dimension of the soul….Well, let’s hear about your taste in prose.”
Mr. McCunn was much bewildered, and a little inclined to be cross. He disliked being called Dogson, which seemed to him an abuse of his etymological confidences. But his habit of politeness held.
He explained rather haltingly his preferences in prose.
Mr. Heritage listened with wrinkled brows.
“You’re even deeper in the mud than I thought,” he remarked. “You live in a world of painted laths and shadows. All this passion for the picturesque! Trash, my dear man, like a schoolgirl’s novelette heroes. You make up romances about gipsies and sailors, and the blackguards they call pioneers, but you know nothing about them. If you did, you would find they had none of the gilt and gloss you imagine. But the great things they have got in common with all humanity you ignore. It’s like–it’s like sentimentalising about a pancake because it looked like a buttercup, and all the while not knowing that it was good to eat.”
At that moment the Australian entered the room to get a light for his pipe. He wore a motor-cyclist’s overalls and appeared to be about to take the road. He bade them good night, and it seemed to Dickson that his face, seen in the glow of the fire, was drawn and anxious, unlike that of the agreeable companion at dinner.
“There,” said Mr. Heritage, nodding after the departing figure. “I dare say you have been telling yourself stories about that chap–life in the bush, stockriding and the rest of it. But probably he’s a bank-clerk from Melbourne….Your romanticism is one vast self-delusion, and it blinds your eye to the real thing. We have got to clear it out, and with it all the damnable humbug of the Kelt.”
Mr. McCunn, who spelt the word with a soft “C,” was puzzled. “I thought a kelt was a kind of a no-weel fish,” he interposed.
But the other, in the flood-tide of his argument, ignored the interruption. “That’s the value of the war,” he went on. “It has burst up all the old conventions, and we’ve got to finish the destruction before we can build. It is the same with literature and religion, and society and politics. At them with the axe, say I. I have no use for priests and pedants. I’ve no use for upper classes and middle classes. There’s only one class that matters, the plain man, the workers, who live close to life.”
“The place for you,” said Dickson dryly, “is in Russia among the Bolsheviks.”
Mr. Heritage approved. “They are doing a great work in their own fashion. We needn’t imitate all their methods–they’re a trifle crude and have too many Jews among them–but they’ve got hold of the right end of the stick. They seek truth and reality.”
Mr. McCunn was slowly being roused.
“What brings you wandering hereaways?” he asked.
“Exercise,” was the answer. “I’ve been kept pretty closely tied up all winter. And I want leisure and quiet to think over things.”
“Well, there’s one subject you might turn your attention to. You’ll have been educated like a gentleman?”
“Nine wasted years–five at Harrow, four at Cambridge.”
“See here, then. You’re daft about the working-class and have no use for any other. But what in the name of goodness do you know about working-men?… I come out of them myself, and have lived next door to them all my days. Take them one way and another, they’re a decent sort, good and bad like the rest of us. But there’s a wheen daft folk that would set them up as models–close to truth and reality, says you. It’s sheer ignorance, for you’re about as well acquaint with the working-man as with King Solomon. You say I make up fine stories about tinklers and sailor-men because I know nothing about them. That’s maybe true. But you’re at the same job yourself. You ideelise the working man, you and your kind, because you’re ignorant. You say that he’s seeking for truth, when he’s only looking for a drink and a rise in wages. You tell me he’s near reality, but I tell you that his notion of reality is often just a short working day and looking on at a footba’-match on Saturday…. And when you run down what you call the middle-classes that do three-quarters of the world’s work and keep the machine going and the working-man in a job, then I tell you you’re talking havers. Havers!”
Mr. McCunn, having delivered his defence of the bourgeoisie, rose abruptly and went to bed. He felt jarred and irritated. His innocent little private domain had been badly trampled by this stray bull of a poet. But as he lay in bed, before blowing out his candle, he had recourse to Walton, and found a passage on which, as on a pillow, he went peacefully to sleep:
“As I left this place, and entered into the next field, a second pleasure entertained me; ’twas a handsome milkmaid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be, as too many men too often do; but she cast away all care, and sang like a nightingale; her voice was good, and the ditty fitted for it; it was the smooth song that was made by Kit Marlow now at least fifty years ago. And the milkmaid’s mother sung an answer to it, which was made by Sir Walter Raleigh in his younger days. They were old-fashioned poetry, but choicely good; I think much better than the strong lines that are now in fashion in this critical age.”
HOW CHILDE ROLAND AND ANOTHER CAME TO THE DARK TOWER
Dickson woke with a vague sense of irritation. As his recollections took form they produced a very unpleasant picture of Mr. John Heritage. The poet had loosened all his placid idols, so that they shook and rattled in the niches where they had been erstwhile so secure. Mr. McCunn had a mind of a singular candour, and was prepared most honestly at all times to revise his views. But by this iconoclast he had been only irritated and in no way convinced. “Sich poetry!” he muttered to himself as he shivered in his bath (a daily cold tub instead of his customary hot one on Saturday night being part of the discipline of his holiday). “And yon blethers about the working-man!” he ingeminated as he shaved. He breakfasted alone, having outstripped even the fishermen, and as he ate he arrived at conclusions. He had a great respect for youth, but a line must be drawn somewhere. “The man’s a child,” he decided, “and not like to grow up. The way he’s besotted on everything daftlike, if it’s only new. And he’s no rightly young either–speaks like an auld dominie, whiles. And he’s rather impident,” he concluded, with memories of “Dogson.”…. He was very clear that he never wanted to see him again; that was the reason of his early breakfast. Having clarified his mind by definitions, Dickson felt comforted. He paid his bill, took an affectionate farewell of the landlord, and at 7.30 precisely stepped out into the gleaming morning.
It was such a day as only a Scots April can show. The cobbled streets of Kirkmichael still shone with the night’s rain, but the storm clouds had fled before a mild south wind, and the whole circumference of the sky was a delicate translucent blue. Homely breakfast smells came from the houses and delighted Mr. McCunn’s nostrils; a squalling child was a pleasant reminder of an awakening world, the urban counterpart to the morning song of birds; even the sanitary cart seemed a picturesque vehicle. He bought his ration of buns and ginger biscuits at a baker’s shop whence various ragamuffin boys were preparing to distribute the householders’ bread, and took his way up the Gallows Hill to the Burgh Muir almost with regret at leaving so pleasant a habitation.
A chronicle of ripe vintages must pass lightly over small beer. I will not dwell on his leisurely progress in the bright weather, or on his luncheon in a coppice of young firs, or on his thoughts which had returned to the idyllic. I take up the narrative at about three o’clock in the afternoon, when he is revealed seated on a milestone examining his map. For he had come, all unwitting, to a turning of the ways, and his choice is the cause of this veracious history.
The place was high up on a bare moor, which showed a white lodge among pines, a white cottage in a green nook by a burnside, and no other marks of human dwelling. To his left, which was the east, the heather rose to a low ridge of hill, much scarred with peat-bogs, behind which appeared the blue shoulder of a considerable mountain. Before him the road was lost momentarily in the woods of a shooting-box, but reappeared at a great distance climbing a swell of upland which seemed to be the glacis of a jumble of bold summits. There was a pass there, the map told him, which led into Galloway. It was the road he had meant to follow, but as he sat on the milestone his purpose wavered. For there seemed greater attractions in the country which lay to the westward. Mr. McCunn, be it remembered, was not in search of brown heath and shaggy wood; he wanted greenery and the Spring.
Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flopping listless sails.
Something in the view caught and held his fancy. He conned his map, and made out the names. The peninsula was called the Cruives–an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that “cruives” had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind. The great house in the trees beyond–it must be a great house, for the map showed large policies–was Huntingtower.
The last name fascinated and almost decided him. He pictured an ancient keep by the sea, defended by converging rivers, which some old Comyn lord of Galloway had built to command the shore road, and from which he had sallied to hunt in his wild hills….He liked the way the moor dropped down to green meadows, and the mystery of the dark woods beyond. He wanted to explore the twin waters, and see how they entered that strange shimmering sea. The odd names, the odd cul-de-sac of a peninsula, powerfully attracted him. Why should he not spend a night there, for the map showed clearly that Dalquharter had an inn? He must decide promptly, for before him a side-road left the highway, and the signpost bore the legend, “Dalquharter and Huntingtower.”
Mr. McCunn, being a cautious and pious man, took the omens. He tossed a penny–heads go on, tails turn aside. It fell tails.
He knew as soon as he had taken three steps down the side-road that he was doing something momentous, and the exhilaration of enterprise stole into his soul. It occurred to him that this was the kind of landscape that he had always especially hankered after, and had made pictures of when he had a longing for the country on him–a wooded cape between streams, with meadows inland and then a long lift of heather. He had the same feeling of expectancy, of something most interesting and curious on the eve of happening, that he had had long ago when he waited on the curtain rising at his first play. His spirits soared like the lark, and he took to singing. If only the inn at Dalquharter were snug and empty, this was going to be a day in ten thousand. Thus mirthfully he swung down the rough grass-grown road, past the railway, till he came to a point where heath began to merge in pasture, and dry-stone walls split the moor into fields. Suddenly his pace slackened and song died on his lips. For, approaching from the right by a tributary path was the Poet.
Mr. Heritage saw him afar off and waved a friendly hand. In spite of his chagrin Dickson could not but confess that he had misjudged his critic. Striding with long steps over the heather, his jacket open to the wind, his face a-glow and his capless head like a whin-bush for disorder, he cut a more wholesome figure than in the smoking-room the night before. He seemed to be in a companionable mood, for he brandished his stick and shouted greetings.
“Well met!” he cried; “I was hoping to fall in with you again. You must have thought me a pretty fair cub last night.”
“I did that,” was the dry answer.
“Well, I want to apologize. God knows what made me treat you to a university-extension lecture. I may not agree with you, but every man’s entitled to his own views, and it was dashed poor form for me to start jawing you.”
Mr. McCunn had no gift of nursing anger, and was very susceptible to apologies.
“That’s all right,” he murmured. “Don’t mention it. I’m wondering what brought you down here, for it’s off the road.”
“Caprice. Pure caprice. I liked the look of this butt-end of nowhere.”
“Same here. I’ve aye thought there was something terrible nice about a wee cape with a village at the neck of it and a burn each side.”
“Now that’s interesting,” said Mr. Heritage. “You’re obsessed by a particular type of landscape. Ever read Freud?”
Dickson shook his head.
“Well, you’ve got an odd complex somewhere. I wonder where the key lies. Cape–woods–two rivers–moor behind. Ever been in love, Dogson?”
Mr. McCunn was startled. “Love” was a word rarely mentioned in his circle except on death-beds, “I’ve been a married man for thirty years,” he said hurriedly.
“That won’t do. It should have been a hopeless affair-the last sight of the lady on a spur of coast with water on three sides–that kind of thing, you know, or it might have happened to an ancestor…. But you don’t look the kind of breed for hopeless attachments. More likely some scoundrelly old Dogson long ago found sanctuary in this sort of place. Do you dream about it?”
“Well, I do. The queer thing is that I’ve got the same prepossession as you. As soon as I spotted this Cruives place on the map this morning, I saw it was what I was after. When I came in sight of it I almost shouted. I don’t very often dream but when I do that’s the place I frequent. Odd, isn’t it?”
Mr. McCunn was deeply interested at this unexpected revelation of romance. “Maybe it’s being in love,” he daringly observed.
The Poet demurred. “No. I’m not a connoisseur of obvious sentiment. That explanation might fit your case, but not mine. I’m pretty certain there’s something hideous at the back of MY complex–some grim old business tucked away back in the ages. For though I’m attracted by the place, I’m frightened too!”
There seemed no room for fear in the delicate landscape now opening before them. In front, in groves of birch and rowan, smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green “loaning,” on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it. These last Mr. Heritage regarded with disapproval.
“Some infernal trippers!” he murmured. “Or Boy Scouts. They desecrate everything. Why can’t the TUNICATUS POPELLUS keep away from a paradise like this!” Dickson, a democrat who felt nothing incongruous in the presence of other holiday-makers, was meditating a sharp rejoinder, when Mr. Heritage’s tone changed.
“Ye gods! What a village!” he cried, as they turned a corner. There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office–only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend “The Cruives Inn.”
The Poet became lyrical. “At last!” he cried. “The village of my dreams! Not a sign of commerce! No church or school or beastly recreation hall! Nothing but these divine little cottages and an ancient pub! Dogson, I warn you, I’m going to have the devil of a tea.” And he declaimed:
“Thou shalt hear a song
After a while which Gods may listen to; But place the flask upon the board and wait Until the stranger hath allayed his thirst, For poets, grasshoppers, and nightingales Sing cheerily but when the throat is moist.”
Dickson, too, longed with sensual gusto for tea. But, as they drew nearer, the inn lost its hospitable look. The cobbles of the yard were weedy, as if rarely visited by traffic, a pane in a window was broken, and the blinds hung tattered. The garden was a wilderness, and the doorstep had not been scoured for weeks. But the place had a landlord, for he had seen them approach and was waiting at the door to meet them.
He was a big man in his shirt sleeves, wearing old riding breeches unbuttoned at the knees, and thick ploughman’s boots. He had no leggings, and his fleshy calves were imperfectly covered with woollen socks. His face was large and pale, his neck bulged, and he had a gross unshaven jowl. He was a type familiar to students of society; not the innkeeper, which is a thing consistent with good breeding and all the refinements; a type not unknown in the House of Lords, especially among recent creations, common enough in the House of Commons and the City of London, and by no means infrequent in the governing circles of Labour; the type known to the discerning as the Licensed Victualler.
His face was wrinkled in official smiles, and he gave the travellers a hearty good afternoon.
“Can we stop here for the night?” Dickson asked.
The landlord looked sharply at him, and then replied to Mr. Heritage. His expression passed from official bonhomie to official contrition.
“Impossible, gentlemen. Quite impossible….Ye couldn’t have come at a worse time. I’ve only been here a fortnight myself, and we haven’t got right shaken down yet. Even then I might have made shift to do with ye, but the fact is we’ve illness in the house, and I’m fair at my wits’ end. It breaks my heart to turn gentlemen away and me that keen to get the business started. But there it is!” He spat vigorously as if to emphasize the desperation of his quandary.
The man was clearly Scots, but his native speech was overlaid with something alien, something which might have been acquired in America or in going down to the sea in ships. He hitched his breeches, too, with a nautical air.
“Is there nowhere else we can put up?” Dickson asked.
“Not in this one-horse place. Just a wheen auld wives that packed thegether they haven’t room for an extra hen. But it’s grand weather, and it’s not above seven miles to Auchenlochan. Say the word and I’ll yoke the horse and drive ye there.”
“Thank you. We prefer to walk,” said Mr. Heritage. Dickson would have tarried to inquire after the illness in the house, but his companion hurried him off. Once he looked back, and saw the landlord still on the doorstep gazing after them.
“That fellow’s a swine,” said Mr. Heritage sourly. “I wouldn’t trust my neck in his pot-house. Now, Dogson, I’m hanged if I’m going to leave this place. We’ll find a corner in the village somehow. Besides, I’m determined on tea.”
The little street slept in the clear pure light of an early April evening. Blue shadows lay on the white road, and a delicate aroma of cooking tantalized hungry nostrils. The near meadows shone like pale gold against the dark lift of the moor. A light wind had begun to blow from the west and carried the faintest tang of salt. The village at that hour was pure Paradise, and Dickson was of the Poet’s opinion. At all costs they must spend the night there.
They selected a cottage whiter and neater than the others, which stood at a corner, where a narrow lane turned southward. Its thatched roof had been lately repaired, and starched curtains of a dazzling whiteness decorated the small, closely-shut windows. Likewise it had a green door and a polished brass knocker.
Tacitly the duty of envoy was entrusted to Mr. McCunn. Leaving the other at the gate, he advanced up the little path lined with quartz stones, and politely but firmly dropped the brass knocker. He must have been observed, for ere the noise had ceased the door opened, and an elderly woman stood before him. She had a sharply-cut face, the rudiments of a beard, big spectacles on her nose, and an old-fashioned lace cap on her smooth white hair. A little grim she looked at first sight, because of her thin lips and roman nose, but her mild curious eyes corrected the impression and gave the envoy confidence.
“Good afternoon, mistress,” he said, broadening his voice to something more rustical than his normal Glasgow speech. “Me and my friend are paying our first visit here, and we’re terrible taken up with the place. We would like to bide the night, but the inn is no’ taking folk. Is there any chance, think you, of a bed here?”
“I’ll no tell ye a lee,” said the woman. “There’s twae guid beds in the loft. But I dinna tak’ lodgers and I dinna want to be bothered wi’ ye. I’m an auld wumman and no’ as stoot as I was. Ye’d better try doun the street. Eppie Home micht tak’ ye.”
Dickson wore his most ingratiating smile. “But, mistress, Eppie Home’s house is no’ yours. We’ve taken a tremendous fancy to this bit. Can you no’ manage to put up with us for the one night? We’re quiet auld-fashioned folk and we’ll no’ trouble you much. Just our tea and maybe an egg to it, and a bowl of porridge in the morning.”
The woman seemed to relent. “Whaur’s your freend?” she asked, peering over her spectacles towards the garden gate. The waiting Mr. Heritage, seeing he eyes moving in his direction, took off his cap with a brave gesture and advanced. “Glorious weather, madam,” he declared.
“English,” whispered Dickson to the woman, in explanation.
She examined the Poet’s neat clothes and Mr. McCunn’s homely garments, and apparently found them reassuring. “Come in,” she said shortly. “I see ye’re wilfu’ folk and I’ll hae to dae my best for ye.”
A quarter of an hour later the two travellers, having been introduced to two spotless beds in the loft, and having washed luxuriously at the pump in the back yard, were seated in Mrs. Morran’s kitchen before a meal which fulfilled their wildest dreams. She had been baking that morning, so there were white scones and barley scones, and oaten farles, and russet pancakes. There were three boiled eggs for each of them; there was a segment of an immense currant cake (“a present from my guid brither last Hogmanay”); there was skim milk cheese; there were several kinds of jam, and there was a pot of dark-gold heather honey. “Try hinny and aitcake,” said their hostess. “My man used to say he never fund onything as guid in a’ his days.”
Presently they heard her story. Her name was Morran, and she had been a widow these ten years. Of her family her son was in South Africa, one daughter a lady’s-maid in London, and the other married to a schoolmaster in Kyle. The son had been in France fighting, and had come safely through. He had spent a month or two with her before his return, and, she feared, had found it dull. “There’s no’ a man body in the place. Naething but auld wives.”
That was what the innkeeper had told them. Mr. McCunn inquired concerning the inn.
“There’s new folk just came. What’s this they ca’ them?–Robson- Dobson–aye, Dobson. What far wad they no’ tak’ ye in? Does the man think he’s a laird to refuse folk that gait?”
“He said he had illness in the house.”
Mrs. Morran meditated. “Whae in the world can be lyin’ there? The man bides his lane. He got a lassie frae Auchenlochan to cook, but she and her box gaed off in the post-cairt yestreen. I doot he tell’t ye a lee, though it’s no for me to juidge him. I’ve never spoken a word to ane o’ thae new folk.”
Dickson inquired about the “new folk.”
“They’re a’ now come in the last three weeks, and there’s no’ a man o’ the auld stock left. John Blackstocks at the Wast Lodge dee’d o’ pneumony last back-end, and auld Simon Tappie at the Gairdens flitted to Maybole a year come Mairtinmas. There’s naebody at the Gairdens noo, but there’s a man come to the Wast Lodge, a blackavised body wi’ a face like bend-leather. Tam Robison used to bide at the South Lodge, but Tam got killed about Mesopotamy, and his wife took the bairns to her guidsire up at the Garpleheid. I seen the man that’s in the South Lodge gaun up the street when I was finishin’ my denner–a shilpit body and a lameter, but he hirples as fast as ither folk run. He’s no’ bonny to look at.. I canna think what the factor’s ettlin’ at to let sic ill-faured chiels come about the toun.”
Their hostess was rapidly rising in Dickson’s esteem. She sat very straight in her chair, eating with the careful gentility of a bird, and primming her thin lips after every mouthful of tea.
“Wha bides in the Big House?” he asked. “Huntingtower is the name, isn’t it?”
“When I was a lassie they ca’ed it Dalquharter Hoose, and Huntingtower was the auld rickle o’ stanes at the sea-end. But naething wad serve the last laird’s father but he maun change the name, for he was clean daft about what they ca’ antickities. Ye speir whae bides in the Hoose? Naebody, since the young laird dee’d. It’s standin’ cauld and lanely and steikit, and it aince the cheeriest dwallin’ in a’ Carrick.”
Mrs. Morran’s tone grew tragic. “It’s a queer warld wi’out the auld gentry. My faither and my guidsire and his faither afore him served the Kennedys, and my man Dauvit Morran was gemkeeper to them, and afore I mairried I was ane o’ the table-maids. They were kind folk, the Kennedys, and, like a’ the rale gentry, maist mindfu’ o’ them that served them. Sic merry nichts I’ve seen in the auld Hoose, at Hallowe’en and Hogmanay, and at the servants’ balls and the waddin’s o’ the young leddies! But the laird bode to waste his siller in stane and lime, and hadna that much to leave to his bairns. And now they’re a’ scattered or deid.”
Her grave face wore the tenderness which comes from affectionate reminiscence.
“There was never sic a laddie as young Maister Quentin. No’ a week gaed by but he was in here, cryin’, ‘Phemie Morran, I’ve come till my tea!’ Fine he likit my treacle scones, puir man. There wasna ane in the countryside sae bauld a rider at the hunt, or sic a skeely fisher. And he was clever at his books tae, a graund scholar, they said, and ettlin’ at bein’ what they ca’ a dipplemat, But that’ a’ bye wi’.”
“Quentin Kennedy–the fellow in the Tins?” Heritage asked. “I saw him in Rome when he was with the Mission.”
“I dinna ken. He was a brave sodger, but he wasna long fechtin’ in France till he got a bullet in his breist. Syne we heard tell o’ him in far awa’ bits like Russia; and syne cam’ the end o’ the war and we lookit to see him back, fishin’ the waters and ridin’ like Jehu as in the auld days. But wae’s me! It wasna permitted. The next news we got, the puir laddie was deid o’ influenzy and buried somewhere about France. The wanchancy bullet maun have weakened his chest, nae doot. So that’s the end o’ the guid stock o’ Kennedy o’ Huntingtower, whae hae been great folk sin’ the time o’ Robert Bruce. And noo the Hoose is shut up till the lawyers can get somebody sae far left to himsel’ as to tak’ it on lease, and in thae dear days it’s no’ just onybody that wants a muckle castle.”
“Who are the lawyers?” Dickson asked.
“Glendonan and Speirs in Embro. But they never look near the place, and Maister Loudon in Auchenlochan does the factorin’. He’s let the public an’ filled the twae lodges, and he’ll be thinkin’ nae doot that he’s done eneuch.”
Mrs. Morran had poured some hot water into the big slop-bowl, and had begun the operation known as “synding out” the cups. It was a hint that the meal was over, and Dickson and Heritage rose from the table. Followed by an injunction to be back for supper “on the chap o’ nine,” they strolled out into the evening. Two hours of some sort of daylight remained, and the travellers had that impulse to activity which comes to all men who, after a day of exercise and emptiness, are stayed with a satisfying tea.
“You should be happy, Dogson,” said the Poet. “Here we have all the materials for your blessed romance–old mansion, extinct family, village deserted of men, and an innkeeper whom I suspect of being a villain. I feel almost a convert to your nonsense myself. We’ll have a look at the House.”
They turned down the road which ran north by the park wall, past the inn, which looked more abandoned than ever, till they came to an entrance which was clearly the West Lodge. It had once been a pretty, modish cottage, with a thatched roof and dormer windows, but now it was badly in need of repair. A window-pane was broken and stuffed with a sack, the posts of the porch were giving inwards, and the thatch was crumbling under the attentions of a colony of starlings. The great iron gates were rusty, and on the coat of arms above them the gilding was patchy and tarnished. Apparently the gates were locked, and even the side wicket failed to open to Heritage’s vigorous shaking. Inside a weedy drive disappeared among ragged rhododendrons.
The noise brought a man to the lodge door. He was a sturdy fellow in a suit of black clothes which had not been made for him. He might have been a butler EN DESHABILLE, but for the presence of a pair of field boots into which he had tucked the ends of his trousers. The curious thing about him was his face, which was decorated with features so tiny as to give the impression of a monstrous child. Each in itself was well enough formed, but eyes, nose, mouth, chin were of a smallness curiously out of proportion to the head and body. Such an anomaly might have been redeemed by the expression; good-humour would have invested it with an air of agreeable farce. But there was no friendliness in the man’s face. It was set like a judge’s in a stony impassiveness.
“May we walk up to the House?” Heritage asked. “We are here for a night and should like to have a look at it.”
The man advanced a step. He had either a bad cold, or a voice comparable in size to his features.
“There’s no entrance here,” he said huskily. “I have strict orders.”
“Oh, come now,” said Heritage. “It can do nobody any harm if you let us in for half an hour.”
The man advanced another step.
“You shall not come in. Go away from here. Go away, I tell you. It is private.” The words spoken by the small mouth in the small voice had a kind of childish ferocity.
The travellers turned their back on him and continued their way.
“Sich a curmudgeon!” Dickson commented. His face had flushed, for he was susceptible to rudeness. “Did you notice? That man’s a foreigner.”
“He’s a brute,” said Heritage. “But I’m not going to be done in by that class of lad. There can be no gates on the sea side, so we’ll work round that way, for I won’t sleep till I’ve seen the place.”
Presently the trees grew thinner, and the road plunged through thickets of hazel till it came to a sudden stop in a field. There the cover ceased wholly, and below them lay the glen of the Laver. Steep green banks descended to a stream which swept in coils of gold into the eye of the sunset. A little farther down the channel broadened, the slopes fell back a little, and a tongue of glittering sea ran up to meet the hill waters. The Laver is a gentle stream after it leaves its cradle heights, a stream of clear pools and long bright shallows, winding by moorland steadings and upland meadows; but in its last half-mile it goes mad, and imitates its childhood when it tumbled over granite shelves. Down in that green place the crystal water gushed and frolicked as if determined on one hour of rapturous life before joining the sedater sea.
Heritage flung himself on the turf.
“This is a good place! Ye gods, what a good place! Dogson, aren’t you glad you came? I think everything’s bewitched to-night. That village is bewitched, and that old woman’s tea. Good white magic! And that foul innkeeper and that brigand at the gate. Black magic! And now here is the home of all enchantment–‘island valley of Avilion’–‘waters that listen for lovers’–all the rest of it!”
Dickson observed and marvelled.
“I can’t make you out, Mr. Heritage. You were saying last night you were a great democrat, and yet you were objecting to yon laddies camping on the moor. And you very near bit the neb off me when I said I liked Tennyson. And now…” Mr. McCunn’s command of language was inadequate to describe the transformation.
“You’re a precise, pragmatical Scot,” was the answer. “Hang it, man, don’t remind me that I’m inconsistent. I’ve a poet’s licence to play the fool, and if you don’t understand me, I don’t in the least understand myself. All I know is that I’m feeling young and jolly, and that it’s the Spring.”
Mr. Heritage was assuredly in a strange mood. He began to whistle with a far-away look in his eye.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked suddenly.
Dickson, who could not detect any tune, said “No.”
“It’s an aria from a Russian opera that came out just before the war. I’ve forgotten the name of the fellow who wrote it. Jolly thing, isn’t it? I always remind myself of it when I’m in this mood, for it is linked with the greatest experience of my life. You said, I think, that you had never been in love?”
Dickson replied in the native fashion. “Have you?” he asked.
“I have, and I am–been for two years. I was down with my battalion on the Italian front early in 1918, and because I could speak the language they hoicked me out and sent me to Rome on a liaison job. It was Easter time and fine weather, and, being glad to get out of the trenches, I was pretty well pleased with myself and enjoying life….In the place where I stayed there was a girl. She was a Russian, a princess of a great family, but a refugee, and of course as poor as sin….I remember how badly dressed she was among all the well-to-do Romans. But, my God, what a beauty! There was never anything in the world like her…. She was little more than a child, and she used to sing that air in the morning as she went down the stairs….They sent me back to the front before I had a chance of getting to know her, but she used to give me little timid good mornings, and her voice and eyes were like an angel’s….I’m over my head in love, but it’s hopeless, quite hopeless. I shall never see her again.”
“I’m sure I’m honoured by your confidence,” said Dickson reverently.
The Poet, who seemed to draw exhilaration from the memory of his sorrows, arose and fetched him a clout on the back. “Don’t talk of confidence, as if you were a reporter,” he said. “What about that House? If we’re to see it before the dark comes we’d better hustle.”
The green slopes on their left, as they ran seaward, were clothed towards their summit with a tangle of broom and light scrub. The two forced their way through it, and found to their surprise that on this side there were no defences of the Huntingtower demesne. Along the crest ran a path which had once been gravelled and trimmed. Beyond, through a thicket of laurels and rhododendrons, they came on a long unkempt aisle of grass, which seemed to be one of those side avenues often found in connection with old Scots dwellings. Keeping along this they reached a grove of beech and holly through which showed a dim shape of masonry. By a common impulse they moved stealthily, crouching in cover, till at the far side of the wood they found a sunk fence and looked over an acre or two of what had once been lawn and flower-beds to the front of the mansion.
The outline of the building was clearly silhouetted against the glowing west, but since they were looking at the east face the detail was all in shadow. But, dim as it was, the sight was enough to give Dickson the surprise of his life. He had expected something old and baronial. But this was new, raw and new, not twenty years built. Some madness had prompted its creator to set up a replica of a Tudor house in a countryside where the thing was unheard of. All the tricks were there–oriel windows, lozenged panes, high twisted chimney stacks; the very stone was red, as if to imitate the mellow brick of some ancient Kentish manor. It was new, but it was also decaying. The creepers had fallen from the walls, the pilasters on the terrace were tumbling down, lichen and moss were on the doorsteps. Shuttered, silent, abandoned, it stood like a harsh memento mori of human hopes.
Dickson had never before been affected by an inanimate thing with so strong a sense of disquiet. He had pictured an old stone tower on a bright headland; he found instead this raw thing among trees. The decadence of the brand-new repels as something against nature, and this new thing was decadent. But there was a mysterious life in it, for though not a chimney smoked, it seemed to enshrine a personality and to wear a sinister aura. He felt a lively distaste, which was almost fear. He wanted to get far away from it as fast as possible. The sun, now sinking very low, sent up rays which kindled the crests of a group of firs to the left of the front door.
He had the absurd fancy that they were torches flaming before a bier.
It was well that the two had moved quietly and kept in shadow. Footsteps fell on their ears, on the path which threaded the lawn just beyond the sunk-fence. It was the keeper of the West Lodge and he carried something on his back, but both that and his face were indistinct in the half-light.
Other footsteps were heard, coming from the other side of the lawn. A man’s shod feet rang on the stone of a flagged path, and from their irregular fall it was plain that he was lame. The two men met near the door, and spoke together. Then they separated, and moved one down each side of the house. To the two watchers they had the air of a patrol, or of warders pacing the corridors of a prison.
“Let’s get out of this,” said Dickson, and turned to go.
The air had the curious stillness which precedes the moment of sunset, when the birds of day have stopped their noises and the sounds of night have not begun. But suddenly in the silence fell notes of music. They seemed to come from the house, a voice singing softly but with great beauty and clearness.
Dickson halted in his steps. The tune, whatever it was, was like a fresh wind to blow aside his depression. The house no longer looked sepulchral. He saw that the two men had hurried back from their patrol, had met and exchanged some message, and made off again as if alarmed by the music. Then he noticed his companion….
Heritage was on one knee with his face rapt and listening. He got to his feet and appeared to be about to make for the House. Dickson caught him by the arm and dragged him into the bushes, and he followed unresistingly, like a man in a dream. They ploughed through the thicket, recrossed the grass avenue, and scrambled down the hillside to the banks of the stream.
Then for the first time Dickson observed that his companion’s face was very white, and that sweat stood on his temples. Heritage lay down and lapped up water like a dog. Then he turned a wild eye on the other.
“I am going back,” he said. “That is the voice of the girl I saw in Rome, and it is singing her song!”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” said Dickson. “You’re coming home to your supper. It was to be on the chap of nine.”
“I’m going back to that place.”
The man was clearly demented and must be humoured. “Well, you must wait till the morn’s morning. It’s very near dark now, and those are two ugly customers wandering about yonder. You’d better sleep the night on it.”
Mr. Heritage seemed to be persuaded. He suffered himself to be led up the now dusky slopes to the gate where the road from the village ended. He walked listlessly like a man engaged in painful reflection. Once only he broke the silence.
“You heard the singing?” he asked.
Dickson was a very poor hand at a lie. “I heard something,” he admitted.
“You heard a girl’s voice singing?”
“It sounded like that,” was the admission. “But I’m thinking it might have been a seagull.”
“You’re a fool,” said the Poet rudely.
The return was a melancholy business, compared to the bright speed of the outward journey. Dickson’s mind was a chaos of feelings, all of them unpleasant. He had run up against something which he violently, blindly detested, and the trouble was that he could not tell why. It was all perfectly absurd, for why on earth should an ugly house, some overgrown trees, and a couple of ill-favoured servants so malignly affect him? Yet this was the fact; he had strayed out of Arcady into a sphere that filled him with revolt and a nameless fear. Never in his experience had he felt like this, this foolish childish panic which took all the colour and zest out of life. He tried to laugh at himself but failed. Heritage, stumbling along by his side, effectually crushed his effort to discover humour in the situation. Some exhalation from that infernal place had driven the Poet mad. And then that voice singing! A seagull, he had said. More like a nightingale, he reflected–a bird which in the flesh he had never met.
Mrs. Morran had the lamp lit and a fire burning in her cheerful kitchen. The sight of it somewhat restored Dickson’s equanimity, and to his surprise he found that he had an appetite for supper. There was new milk, thick with cream, and most of the dainties which had appeared at tea, supplemented by a noble dish of shimmering “potted-head.” The hostess did not share their meal, being engaged in some duties in the little cubby-hole known as the back kitchen.
Heritage drank a glass of milk but would not touch food.
“I called this place Paradise four hours ago,” he said. “So it is, but I fancy it is next door to Hell. There is something devilish going on inside that park wall, and I mean to get to the bottom of it.”
“Hoots! Nonsense!” Dickson replied with affected cheerfulness. “To-morrow you and me will take the road for Auchenlochan. We needn’t trouble ourselves about an ugly old house and a wheen impident lodge-keepers.”
“To-morrow I’m going to get inside the place. Don’t come unless you like, but it’s no use arguing with me. My mind is made up.”
Heritage cleared a space on the table and spread out a section of a large-scale Ordnance map.
“I must clear my head about the topography, the same as if this were a battle-ground. Look here, Dogson…. The road past the inn that we went by to-night runs north and south.” He tore a page from a note-book and proceeded to make a rough sketch…. “One end we know abuts on the Laver glen, and the other stops at the South Lodge. Inside the wall which follows the road is a long belt of plantation- -mostly beeches and ash–then to the west a kind of park, and beyond that the lawns of the house. Strips of plantation with avenues between follow the north and south sides of the park. On the sea side of the House are the stables and what looks like a walled garden, and beyond them what seems to be open ground with an old dovecot marked, and the ruins of Huntingtower keep. Beyond that there is more open ground, till you come to the cliffs of the cape. Have you got that?…It looks possible from the contouring to get on to the sea cliffs by following the Laver, for all that side is broken up into ravines….But look at the other side–the Garple glen. It’s evidently a deep-cut gully, and at the bottom it opens out into a little harbour. There’s deep water there, you observe. Now the House on the south side–the Garple side–is built fairly close to the edge of the cliffs. Is that all clear in your head? We can’t reconnoitre unless we’ve got a working notion of the lie of the land.”
Dickson was about to protest that he had no intention of reconnoitring, when a hubbub arose in the back kitchen. Mrs. Morran’s voice was heard in shrill protest.
“Ye ill laddie! Eh–ye–ill–laddie! (crescendo) Makin’ a hash o’ my back door wi’ your dirty feet! What are ye slinkin’ roond here for, when I tell’t ye this mornin’ that I wad sell ye nae mair scones till ye paid for the last lot? Ye’re a wheen thievin’ hungry callants, and if there were a polisman in the place I’d gie ye in chairge….What’s that ye say? Ye’re no’ wantin’ meat? Ye want to speak to the gentlemen that’s bidin’ here? Ye ken the auld ane, says you? I believe it’s a muckle lee, but there’s the gentlemen to answer ye theirsels.”
Mrs. Morran, brandishing a dishclout dramatically, flung open the door, and with a vigorous push propelled into the kitchen a singular figure.
It was a stunted boy, who from his face might have been fifteen years old, but had the stature of a child of twelve. He had a thatch of fiery red hair above a pale freckled countenance. His nose was snub, his eyes a sulky grey-green, and his wide mouth disclosed large and damaged teeth. But remarkable as was his visage, his clothing was still stranger. On his head was the regulation Boy Scout hat, but it was several sizes too big, and was squashed down upon his immense red ears. He wore a very ancient khaki shirt, which had once belonged to a full-grown soldier, and the spacious sleeves were rolled up at the shoulders and tied with string, revealing a pair of skinny arms. Round his middle hung what was meant to be a kilt–a kilt of home manufacture, which may once have been a tablecloth, for its bold pattern suggested no known clan tartan. He had a massive belt, in which was stuck a broken gully-knife, and round his neck was knotted the remnant of what had once been a silk bandanna. His legs and feet were bare, blue, scratched, and very dirty, and this toes had the prehensile look common to monkeys and small boys who summer and winter go bootless. In his hand was a long ash-pole, new cut from some coppice.
The apparition stood glum and lowering on the kitchen floor. As Dickson stared at it he recalled Mearns Street and the band of irregular Boy Scouts who paraded to the roll of tin cans. Before him stood Dougal, Chieftain of the Gorbals Die-Hards. Suddenly he remembered the philanthropic Mackintosh, and his own subscription of ten pounds to the camp fund. It pleased him to find the rascals here, for in the unpleasant affairs on the verge of which he felt himself they were a comforting reminder of the peace of home.
“I’m glad to see you, Dougal,” he said pleasantly. “How are you all getting on?” And then, with a vague reminiscence of the Scouts’ code–“Have you been minding to perform a good deed every day?”
The Chieftain’s brow darkened.
“‘Good Deeds!'” he repeated bitterly. “I tell ye I’m fair wore out wi’ good deeds. Yon man Mackintosh tell’t me this was going to be a grand holiday. Holiday! Govey Dick! It’s been like a Setterday night in Main Street–a’ fechtin’, fechtin’.”
No collocation of letters could reproduce Dougal’s accent, and I will not attempt it. There was a touch of Irish in it, a spice of music-hall patter, as well as the odd lilt of the Glasgow vernacular. He was strong in vowels, but the consonants, especially the letter “t,” were only aspirations.
“Sit down and let’s hear about things,” said Dickson.
The boy turned his head to the still open back door, where Mrs. Morran could be heard at her labours. He stepped across and shut it. “I’m no’ wantin’ that auld wife to hear,” he said. Then he squatted down on the patchwork rug by the hearth, and warmed his blue-black shins. Looking into the glow of the fire, he observed, “I seen you two up by the Big Hoose the night.”
“The devil you did,” said Heritage, roused to a sudden attention. “And where were you?”
“Seven feet from your head, up a tree. It’s my chief hidy-hole, and Gosh! I need one, for Lean’s after me wi’ a gun. He had a shot at me two days syne.”
Dickson exclaimed, and Dougal with morose pride showed a rent in his kilt. “If I had had on breeks, he’d ha’ got me.”
“Who’s Lean?” Heritage asked.
“The man wi’ the black coat. The other–the lame one–they ca’ Spittal.”
“How d’you know?”
“I’ve listened to them crackin’ thegither.”
“But what for did the man want to shoot at you?” asked the scandalized Dickson.
“What for? Because they’re frightened to death o’ onybody going near their auld Hoose. They’re a pair of deevils, worse nor any Red Indian, but for a’ that they’re sweatin’ wi’ fright. What for? says you. Because they’re hiding a Secret. I knew it as soon as I seen the man Lean’s face. I once seen the same kind o’ scoondrel at the Picters. When he opened his mouth to swear, I kenned he was a foreigner, like the lads down at the Broomielaw. That looked black, but I hadn’t got at the worst of it. Then he loosed off at me wi’ his gun.”
“Were you not feared?” said Dickson.
“Ay, I was feared. But ye’ll no’ choke off the Gorbals Die-Hards wi’ a gun. We held a meetin’ round the camp fire, and we resolved to get to the bottom o’ the business. Me bein’ their Chief, it was my duty to make what they ca’ a reckonissince, for that was the dangerous job. So a’ this day I’ve been going on my belly about thae policies. I’ve found out some queer things.”
Heritage had risen and was staring down at the small squatting figure.
“What have you found out? Quick. Tell me at once.” His voice was sharp and excited.
“Bide a wee,” said the unwinking Dougal. “I’m no’ going to let ye into this business till I ken that ye’ll help. It’s a far bigger job than I thought. There’s more in it than Lean and Spittal. There’s the big man that keeps the public–Dobson, they ca’ him. He’s a Namerican, which looks bad. And there’s two-three tinklers campin’ down in the Garple Dean. They’re in it, for Dobson was colloguin’ wi’ them a’ mornin’. When I seen ye, I thought ye were more o’ the gang, till I mindit that one o’ ye was auld McCunn that has the shop in Mearns Street. I seen that ye didna’ like the look o’ Lean, and I followed ye here, for I was thinkin’ I needit help.”
Heritage plucked Dougal by the shoulder and lifted him to his feet.
“For God’s sake, boy,” he cried, “tell us what you know!”
“Will ye help?”
“Of course, you little fool.”
“Then swear,” said the ritualist. From a grimy wallet he extracted a limp little volume which proved to be a damaged copy of a work entitled Sacred Songs and Solos. “Here! Take that in your right hand and put your left hand on my pole, and say after me. ‘I swear no’ to blab what is telled me in secret, and to be swift and sure in obeyin’ orders, s’help me God!’ Syne kiss the bookie.”
Dickson at first refused, declaring that it was all havers, but Heritage’s docility persuaded him to follow suit. The two were sworn.
“Now,” said Heritage.
Dougal squatted again on the hearth-rug, and gathered the eyes of his audience. He was enjoying himself.
“This day,” he said slowly, “I got inside the Hoose.”
“Stout fellow,” said Heritage; “and what did you find there?”
“I got inside that Hoose, but it wasn’t once or twice I tried. I found a corner where I was out o’ sight o’ anybody unless they had come there seekin’ me, and I sklimmed up a rone pipe, but a’ the windies were lockit and I verra near broke my neck. Syne I tried the roof, and a sore sklim I had, but when I got there there were no skylights. At the end I got in by the coal-hole. That’s why ye’re maybe thinkin’ I’m no’ very clean.”
Heritage’s patience was nearly exhausted.
“I don’t want to hear how you got in. What did you find, you little devil?”
“Inside the Hoose,” said Dougal slowly (and there was a melancholy sense of anti-climax in his voice, as of one who had hoped to speak of gold and jewels and armed men)–“inside that Hoose there’s nothing but two women.”
Heritage sat down before him with a stern face.
“Describe them,” he commanded.
“One o’ them is dead auld, as auld as the wife here. She didn’t look to me very right in the head.”
“And the other?”
“Oh, just a lassie.”
“What was she like?”
Dougal seemed to be searching for adequate words. “She is…” he began. Then a popular song gave him inspiration. “She’s pure as the lully in the dell!”
In no way discomposed by Heritage’s fierce interrogatory air, he continued: “She’s either foreign or English, for she couldn’t understand what I said, and I could make nothing o’ her clippit tongue. But I could see she had been greetin’. She looked feared, yet kind o’ determined. I speired if I could do anything for her, and when she got my meaning she was terrible anxious to ken if I had seen a man- -a big man, she said, wi’ a yellow beard. She didn’t seem to ken his name, or else she wouldna’ tell me. The auld wife was mortal feared, and was aye speakin’ in a foreign langwidge. I seen at once that what frightened them was Lean and his friends, and I was just starting to speir about them when there came a sound like a man walkin’ along the passage. She was for hidin’ me in behind a sofy, but I wasn’t going to be trapped like that, so I got out by the other door and down the kitchen stairs and into the coal-hole. Gosh, it was a near thing!”
The boy was on his feet. “I must be off to the camp to give out the orders for the morn. I’m going back to that Hoose, for it’s a fight atween the Gorbals Die-Hards and the scoondrels that are frightenin’ thae women. The question is, Are ye comin’ with me? Mind, ye’ve sworn. But if ye’re no, I’m going mysel’, though I’ll no’ deny I’d be glad o’ company. You anyway–” he added, nodding at Heritage. “Maybe auld McCunn wouldn’t get through the coal-hole.”
“You’re an impident laddie,’ said the outraged Dickson. “It’s no’ likely we’re coming with you. Breaking into other folks’ houses!