The Man From the Clouds
J. Storer Clouston
Part 2 out of 4
THE COAST PATROL
That evening we were all three sitting in the library (the same old-world
room into which I had first been shown), when a servant entered and gave
a message to Mr. Rendall. He rose and went out, leaving his daughter and
myself each apparently immersed in a book. She may genuinely have been,
but I was making the covers of mine a screen for inward debate. Had I
made a mere fool of myself and should I make a clean breast of everything
to my hosts? Or should I wait a little longer before deciding? I went on
thinking after the laird had left the room, and Miss Jean still kept her
eyes immovably on her page. I frankly confess I have never cut less ice
with any woman--especially one who decidedly attracted me.
In a few minutes her father returned and said to her:
"John Howiseon has cried off to-night. I must go myself."
She started up with a word of expostulation, but he merely smiled in his
grim way, nodded at her (not at me, I noticed) and was gone. With a
little sigh she sat down again and plunged into her book, but my
curiosity had been roused and in a moment I enquired,
"Is your father going out for long?"
Her concern seemed to have broken down her reticence
"All night," she said. "I wish he wouldn't!"
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"The coast patrol," said she.
"The coast patrol!" I exclaimed. "What's that?"
She seemed to look at me for an instant a little doubtfully before
"The Admiralty have asked all the Justices of Peace to have the coast
"Anybody they can get. We have the whole island mapped out into beats and
the different; farmers take it night about."
For the moment I only half believed her. Such an amateur way of keeping
watch and ward in such a vital area seemed hardly credible, but I learned
afterwards that in those early days of the war that was one of the things
which actually happened. Another fact also made me doubtful. On the night
I landed I had met no watchers.
"Who watches the shore up at the north end--near the Scollays'
farm?" I asked.
"Oh, Dr. Rendall and Mr. O'Brien look after that beat," said she.
In a flash my belief in my own adventure had begun to return. Either that
couple neglected their duty--or I had met one of the watchers!
"Do the doctor and Mr. O'Brien ever go out themselves--like your father
to-night?" I asked.
"Mr. O'Brien goes out pretty often, I believe."
I thought for a moment longer and then I jumped up.
"This seems the very job for an able-bodied young man," I said with a
laugh. "I'm going out to join the watchers!"
"You!" she exclaimed, springing up too.
I looked her straight in the eye.
"Why not me?" I enquired.
She said nothing for an instant, and then she remarked in quite a matter
of fact voice,
"Very well; if you are going, I'll come with you."
I could not resist parodying her.
"You!" I exclaimed.
But I got no smile in response.
"I'll be ready in five minutes," she said as she left the room.
"Now what the devil does this mean?" I said to myself.
Five minutes of course meant quarter of an hour, and then we sallied
forth into the night, she in a long tweed coat and I in my
"Which way do you want to go?" she asked.
"Suppose we work our way towards the north end," I suggested.
She said nothing more and we made our way by a track to the shore and
then turned toward the left. I had been filling my pipe and when we got
to the last stone wall, I stopped, bent under its shelter and struck a
match. My face was towards her and in the fraction of a second before
the first match blew out I caught a glimpse of something just visible in
the mouth of one of the big pockets of her tweed coat. It was the butt
end of a pistol.
I struck three more matches before I got my pipe alight and I contrived
to face her each time, but she had turned and kept her other side towards
me. When we resumed our walk I noticed that she consistently kept two or
three yards away from me.
"Just shooting distance!" I said to myself.
"By the way, what are we supposed to be looking for?" I enquired
"Chiefly periscopes, I think," said she.
I stopped short and gazed over the inky sea.
"Do they light them up for us?" I asked.
She laughed despite herself.
"That is what I've been wondering myself," said she.
This was her only sympathetic relapse, and to tell the truth I made no
further remarks worthy of being smiled at. That pistol kept me thinking.
That she had come out to watch me, and if necessary shoot me, seemed a
pretty obvious deduction, and much as I admired her nerve, it made
humorous conversation a trifle difficult.
On we walked, on and on for what seemed an interminable distance. It was
quite moonless and only a few stars twinkled here and there through a
veil of light clouds that had drifted up with the sunset. The grass
underfoot was black, the sea was nearly as dark, and the inland country
invisible. Once I remarked:
"It's a curious thing that we haven't met any of our fellow watchers."
"The beats are very long," she said, "and I'm afraid all the watchers
don't keep at their posts all the time."
"What; they take a nap now and then?"
She seemed as though she were going to agree, and then to change her
"Oh, we shall meet some one very soon. I think father is taking
But we met no one, and as we pursued our lonely way I began to think that
here was quite a possible reason for my not having come upon one of these
coast patrols two nights ago. Still, it was only a possible reason; the
other alternative remained.
And then, I know not how it was, but I began gradually to get a curious
impression that _something_ was in the air, _something_ was going to
happen. It is easy to say I only imagine now in the retrospect that I had
this feeling. But I noted the sensation clearly and positively at the
time. I strained my eyes, I looked this way and that, so strong did the
feeling become. Once I thought for a moment I heard soft footsteps
somewhere on the inland side and I stopped short then and listened, but
when I stopped I heard nothing.
It can only have been a few minutes after this that the figure at my side
(which had been so silent that I had almost forgotten it was a girl, and
a pretty girl too) stopped suddenly, and I stood still beside her.
"Do you hear anything?" she asked, and there seemed to be a little catch
in her breath.
I listened and shook my head. I could see that she was gazing intently
down at the beach.
"Do you see anything?" I asked in a voice instinctively hushed.
"No," she answered in the same low tone, "but I thought I heard
Again I strained my ears, and this time I distinctly did hear something;
it might have been a movement among the rocks below, or on the bank ahead
of us. She said nothing more but she seemed to be peering down into the
gloom that veiled the beach.
"I'll go down and see what it is," I said.
For an instant I thought she was going to demur, but she said nothing,
and with a bold air I stepped off the turf and began to make my way
down, first through loose boulders and then along a ledge below. I
confess frankly that I felt a trifle less bold than I looked, especially
when I discovered the hazardous nature of the going. I remember that the
sky began to seem lighter by contrast, but that the rocks were sheer
I must have been feeling my way along for some minutes, with a growing
sense of the futility of the performance, when I first heard the sharp
tinkle of a loose stone on rock. I turned towards the sound and heard it
again. Either three or four times I had heard it distinctly when I found
myself close to the grass again, only at this place there was a steep
little cliff, higher than my head, between it and me, instead of a slope
of boulders, so that any one on the bank above would be looking straight
down on to me. All this I can swear to.
And then when my shoulder was rubbing this low cliff face, I
thought--indeed I am sure--I heard something move above, and certainly
there was a sharp grating sound on the rock at my back; within an inch of
me, it seemed. I looked round quickly just in time to catch a glimpse of
something thin and curved and sinister passing upwards, against the
night sky. I did not see it descend again, but the next moment came the
sharp grating, close to my head this time, and once more the long curved
menace passed up, faintly visible against the sky.
I did not wait for it to descend again. That somebody was striking at
me from above and that I had better get out of the way seemed so
evident that I spent no further time in watching the operation. I
started from the cliff, my foot struck a patch of seaweed, and with a
half smothered "Damn!" I did the next few yards sliding seawards on my
side. A peculiarly hard ledge stopped my career and for a moment I lay
there wondering what bones were broken. By the time I had found there
were none, and scrambled to my feet, the sky line above the bank was
clear. Whoever had struck at me was gone and there was not even the
slightest sound, save the gurgling of the sea below. And then I
gingerly picked my way back.
I drew near the turf bank at the top and now again I stopped. Low voices
reached my ear distinctly and presently I spied two vague forms standing
close together. Before I moved again I had transferred something from my
hip pocket to my oilskin jacket and I kept my hand there too, closed upon
it and ready. Then I advanced.
"Is that you, Mr. Merton?" said a voice I knew.
"It is, Mr. Rendall," I answered drily.
"Did you see anybody?"
"No," I answered truthfully.
"We thought we heard a cry," said Miss Jean.
"I may have startled a sea gull," I suggested; and then I asked with a
sharpness in my voice I could not quite control, "Where did Mr. Rendall
"I told you I thought we should meet him," she answered, with a cool note
in her voice that countered mine.
"What a curious chance that we should all meet here!" I exclaimed.
"It is precisely what I expected," said she.
"Did you think then it was Mr. Rendall down among the rocks?" I enquired.
"No," she said, "and it wasn't."
"Oh," I replied in a tone which (if I achieved my intention) might have
meant anything--or nothing.
Her father had been standing perfectly silent during this bout, a
towering figure muffled in a heavy ulster and scarf, with the rim of his
hat turned down over his face. Now he spoke in his dry caustic way,
"Have you had enough exercise, Mr. Merton?"
"Quite, thank you."
"Then we can all go back together."
He turned and his daughter took his arm. I walked behind them--it seemed
on the whole safer, and I kept my hand in my pocket all the while.
I had seen no one, it is true; I had heard no sound that could be sworn
to as made by a human being, the thing I saw so dimly might possibly not
have been a lethal weapon (and if it was a weapon, what in Heaven's name
could it be? I wondered); it might conceivably have been a large bird
some distance off, just as by a reverse illusion men are said to have
fired at bumble bees when grouse driving. Also, it was within the bounds
of possibility that the tinkling stones might not have been thrown down
by some one above in order to draw me under that face. Everything had
been so vague that all these alternatives were conceivable. But my own
mind was quite and finally determined now that my adventure with the
stranger on the shore had been no figment of my fancy, and I felt sure
moreover that _they_ had made up their minds about me and decided to act.
How and why they had come to such a definite conclusion despite all my
efforts to mislead them, beat me at first completely. And then I stopped
short and almost shouted "Idiot!"
I had addressed Miss Rendall at her own door in a German accent. Then I
had abruptly dropped it and through all my deliberate mystifications one
fact had been clear--that I spoke in the accents of an ordinary more or
less educated Englishman. The Rendalls clearly had the material for
coming to a conclusion, and now in their company I had all but ended my
days on earth.
Yet somehow or other now that I saw all this so clearly, I found myself
singularly reluctant to accept the logical conclusion that this gentleman
of good lineage and standing and this attractive high-spirited girl were
actually traitors of the basest sort, and murderous traitors too.
"Hang it, I may be wrong after all!" I said to myself. "I know I'm
young: I am told I'm rash; I have made a fool of myself periodically as
long as I've known myself, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt a
At the door Mr. Rendall left us to resume his conscientious patrol. I
said a brief and cool good-night to Jean, went up to my room and tumbled
straight into bed.
"In the morning I'll think things over," I decided.
A NEAR THING
Being an optimist has compensations. Indeed, it would need to have, for
no virtue has ever landed any one in more damnable scrapes than optimism
has landed me. But before the crash comes it does help to keep one happy.
Next morning, after that nasty night, I was singing in my bath and full
of wild hopes; the fact being that a new and consoling way of looking at
things had suggested itself in the very act of shaving.
"They are afraid of me!" I said to myself.
After a night's sleep the adventure by the shore had grown perhaps a
little blurred in some of its details. I wished I could see that curved
thing rising against the night sky a trifle more distinctly in my mind's
eye; so that I could take my oath in court it was a weapon. Still, I
remained perfectly assured I had been attacked, and the sustaining
conclusions I now drew were, firstly, that "they" (whoever they were; and
I tried to keep an open mind on that point) were so afraid of me that
they were ready to stick at nothing to lay me out; secondly, that they
were afraid to tackle me by day but had to choose a dark night and a
lonely place; and thirdly, that with such a splendid chance it must have
been nerves that made them bungle it.
"People in that state of mind will do something or other to give
themselves away," I thought hopefully.
In this confident state of mind I came down for breakfast. My host, I
found, was staying in bed after his night's vigil, and my hostess was
daintier and more inaccessible than ever. After breakfast I reflected for
a little over a pipe and then I asked her for a bit of lunch to put in my
pocket and told her I was going for a long walk. She got the lunch and
gave it to me without wasting a superfluous word, and off I set.
It was a breezy morning with a lot of thin cloud in the sky and a ruffled
sea; cool and stimulating; the very day for a walk. I followed the exact
route we took the night before, trying to identify such landmarks as
rises and falls in the ground and sharp curves in the shore and farms
close to the coast, but I found it was practically impossible; every
feature seemed so utterly altered in daylight. My object was to find the
spot where I had been attacked, and at last I had to be content with
knowing that it must have been one of three or four places where the
feature of a low cliff immediately under the turf was to be seen.
At one such place there was a long stretch of wall following the shore
line, which could have given shelter for any one to stalk me practically
from the start. At another I noticed a farm close by, and from this an
assailant could easily have slipped down to the beach and run back again.
At a third the configuration of the rocks was such that it would have
been simple for him to have waited below the bank till he heard us
coming, made a noise to bring me down, and then gone up above without
exposing himself against the sky. In fact one could draw no definite
conclusions at all.
Besides, there was the very distasteful alternative (and the more
plausible it seemed, the more distasteful it grew) that there might well
have been two people in it; one--who might have followed me, the stone
thrower; and the other--who might, for instance, have been patrolling the
shore from the opposite direction, the attacker.
Suspicious as I had felt at the moment, I shrank from this alternative,
and in justification I asked myself,
"Why didn't she use her pistol, and be done with it?"
But, on the other hand, it was a most extraordinary coincidence that her
father should have passed that spot certainly within three or four
minutes previously, and that he should have seen no sign of my enemy. So
far as I could remember the length of time I had spent groping among the
rocks, it was just possible for Mr. Rendall to pass by and for the other
man then to begin his work of decoying me, but certainly it was an
And finally there was a last alternative: that I might have been mistaken
in thinking I was actually assailed and instead of that--But what
other conceivable explanation could there be? I tried hard but could
think of none.
With the flame of optimism burning now somewhat low, I kept on following
the shore till I was well past the scenes of both my night adventures and
had come to the little sandy bay with the huddle of low grey farm
buildings just clear of the tide. I found Peter senior painting his boat
on the shore and hailed him cheerfully with the same old guttural accent.
"Painting your boat, I see," said I.
He gave me a long look and one word.
"Ay," said he, and went on painting.
It struck me at once that he was even more wary and more reticent than
before, but I was determined to extract some information.
"I have been guarding you against the Germans! Last night I patrolled
your coast!" I informed him with great enthusiasm.
He looked at me rather curiously, I thought.
"Did ye see anything?" he enquired.
"I thought I did, but ach! how can one be sure in the dark?"
"It's no easy," he agreed.
"Then you have tried too, my friend?"
"Ay," he admitted, splashing on the paint.
"Were any of your family patrolling last night?"
"No," said he curtly.
"Who was guarding this part here?" I asked.
"I dinna ken."
I wondered, but I saw that there was not much more to be learned here. He
had denied that any of his household were out, for what that was worth,
and at that I bade him good morning and turned back.
I fell to walking more and more slowly and at last I stopped and decided
to accompany my thoughts with a little lunch. The boundary wall at this
point ran close to the edge of the rocks and was rather higher than
usual. I thought for a moment of sitting down and lunching under its lee,
and then I noticed that it was very loosely built of large beach boulders
and that the off shore breeze was whistling through it like a sieve; so I
decided to descend to the sheltered beach and lunch there. That decision
saved my life.
I clambered down, chose a rock to sit behind, and was just putting my
hand in my pocket for my packet of sandwiches, when "Crack!"--something
whistled close to my head and smacked against a ledge behind me. "Crack!"
again, and the smack this time resounded from the rock beside me. At the
third "Crack!" I was flat on my face behind that rock and my hand was in
another pocket. It brought out something more to the point than
I had a pretty good idea by this time where the shots were coming from
and I risked a quick rise of my head to make quite sure. I just had time
to see a flash through one of the holes in the wall and down went my head
again as a bullet smacked once more upon the ledge behind. Yet another
shot followed and seemed to miss everything, for I heard no sound of lead
on stone, and then up went my head and hand together and I was covering
that bit of wall with my own revolver. I saw that my enemy was no very
dead shot and I meant to risk his fire and snap at the flash through the
wall. I knew I could get quite near enough his peep hole to startle him,
and after I had sprinkled the near neighbourhood of that aperture for
five or six seconds I thought it probably odds against his keeping his
head sufficiently to do much aiming. To be quite candid I must confess
that it was a soothing sensation to feel I was the better man with a gun,
and that I should have been in a proper fright if it had been the other
way about. One hears a good deal of discussion on the quality of courage
nowadays, and there is my own small contribution.
The seconds passed, my finger on the trigger and my eyes glued to the
largest crevice I could spy in that wall, but there was never another
flash or crack. And then it suddenly struck me that the man might be
moving down the wall to get a shot at me from another angle. As usual I
acted on impulse, and this time I think correctly. Scarcely had the
thought struck me than I was up and rushing forward to the shelter of the
grass bank where the rocks began. There, quite safe but rather cramped, I
crept along parallel to the wall for about a hundred yards. And then I
jumped up, charged the wall, and brought half of it down as I hurled
myself over. As my feet touched the ground I looked in both directions,
very nearly simultaneously, and saw--nothing.
Whether in that first instant I was more disappointed or relieved, I
should be afraid to say, but as soon as I had had a few seconds to think,
my one feeling was disgust that the fellow had given me the slip. I took
to my heels and ran along that wall first in one direction and then in
the other, but there was not a sign of a living creature. And the
sickening thing was that by this time he might have done one of several
things--headed away from the shore at top speed as soon as he ceased
firing, in which case he would be far enough by now, or lain down in one
of the several fields of corn near by, or crossed the wall further along
and hidden among the rocks; and it was quite impossible to guess which. I
pondered over the problem for a few moments and then decided that as it
was perfectly hopeless to search the corn or the beach I would risk it
and hasten inland on the off chance of getting a clue, so I chose a grass
field and set off across it at a trot.
The ground rose for about fifty yards and then fell sharply, and as I
topped this rise I came right on to a familiar figure. It was my friend
Jock and he seemed unusually excited; almost, in fact, intelligent.
"Stranger!" he gabbled, pointing in the direction I was going. "Jock seen
I followed his dirty finger and a couple of hundred yards or so ahead I
spied a figure strolling along a by road, rather ostentatiously
strolling, it seemed to me.
"Thank you, Jock," said I, "you're a good man! Here's your half crown!"
I dropped to a walk now and by the time the stranger and I met I think I
looked about as cool as he did. It was Mr. O'Brien, as I had guessed at
the first glance.
"Been for a walk?" he enquired.
"Having a stroll along the shore," said I.
He started a little and looked at me hard.
"Hullo!" said he, "I could have sworn you talked like a foreigner the
last and first time I had the honour of meeting you. Were we both sober,
do you think?"
I in turn looked at the man keenly. If his surprise was not genuine, it
was as good a bit of acting as I ever saw, on or off the stage, and it
was exactly the most disarming thing he could possibly say. Indeed it
turned the tables on me completely and it was I who was now left in the
position of having something awkward to explain away.
"It must have been the weather," I said lightly, "I'm never drunk
"And be damned if I get the chance at any time of day! You've heard of my
sad complaint, eh?"
"No," said I, "I'm afraid I haven't. Nothing infectious?"
He gave one of his unpleasant hoots of laughter.
"Lord, you think I'm a respectable member of society then? Good for you,
keep on thinking it--but you'll have to keep away from my friends!"
"It takes me all my time to keep clear of my own," said I.
His narrow eyes seemed to approve of me.
"You're not Irish?" he enquired.
"No; I've enough to answer for without that."
"You ought to be," said he. "You've got some wit. Damn the English, and
double-damn the Scotch! Well we're evidently both going in the other
direction, so good-bye to you!"
What was I to make of this? What was to be thought of the whole morning's
adventure? Only one thing was perfectly clear to me: that I had a very
dangerous, very determined, and very artful enemy in this island--or,
almost certainly, several enemies, and that instead of the hunter I had
become the hunted. They might fear me but they certainly did not fear to
attack me whether by day or night. Had I sat down behind that
trellis-like wall as I intended, I shivered a little to think of my fate.
I should have been shot at twelve inches range, and that would have been
the end of my spy hunt. I began to realise that it was much longer odds
on my being dead within the next forty-eight hours than on my getting on
the traces of that oilskinned man.
And then as I was walking back thinking these none too cheery thoughts,
something put the parachute into my head. I had not thought of it before
since the first night when I hid it. It took me a little time to get my
bearings, but I found my way to the clover field at last and then made
for the low wall with the bed of rank grass and docken leaves beneath it.
I hunted up that wall and down that wall, but never a sign of the
parachute was there.
"That is how they've bowled me out!" I said to myself. "They have heard
by this time of the missing balloon; then they found the parachute, saw
that the dates coincided, and spotted me!"
THE KEY TURNED
When I got back I felt very little inclined for society. I passed through
the hall as quietly as I could, went straight up to my room, and heaved a
sigh of relief when the door was safely shut behind me. Perhaps my
adventures had been following a little too quickly on the heels of one
another; anyhow it was quiet which I craved at that moment. It was a
reposeful room, scented with honeysuckle, and for a few minutes I enjoyed
an unwonted sensation of peace; and then my eyes chanced to fall on the
chest of drawers. I stared for a moment and then bent over the lock of
the upper drawer, that drawer which concealed the mythical uniform coat
with the important mythical papers in the pocket.
There could not be a shadow of doubt as to what had happened. The lock
had been taken off and put in again since I last saw it. And now of
course my hosts knew as well as I did that no uniform coat had ever lain
there, and consequently that their guest had never worn one.
I had meant to slack, but this situation obviously required some thinking
over, so I lit a pipe, threw myself down on the bed, and began.
"Bowled out again!" I thought. "At the rate the wickets are going down,
the innings must be dashed near over. They've found out my German accent
was a fake, they've discovered the parachute and know I neither landed
from a British cruiser nor a German submarine, and now they know that I
lied about that coat.
"And what is my own score? By Gad, I don't honestly think I've made a
single run! I have no idea whether these discoveries have been made by
people in league with one another, who pool their knowledge, or whether
my enemies only know part of all this, and if so which part. However,
that matters less since they know enough to shoot at sight.
"Furthermore, I don't know which of them are my enemies, or how many
there are, or in fact any dashed thing about them. Therefore--"
At that point I fell fast asleep. My late night, the long morning in that
stirring air, and the excitement of two missed-by-a-hair's-breath
murders, had trundled me out again. The last wicket was down and the
innings over as I slept. The one bit of luck I did have was not setting
the bed on fire with my pipe.
It was about three o'clock when I went up to my room. It was 6-10 when I
was awakened by a sharp click. I opened my eyes stupidly and looked all
round the room. There was absolutely nothing to be seen there. Then with
a strong presentiment I jumped up and tried to open the door. It was as I
suspected. I was locked in.
My hand went to my hip pocket and found my revolver all right. They had
not ventured to try and get at that. Then I began to wonder why the key
had not been turned sooner.
"Something has just happened to make them lock the door," I thought, and
thereupon I went to the window and looked out.
My room faced right down the island, the north shore to the right--the
scene of all my adventures, the sheltered south shore to the left.
Craning my head to the left I could just spy a small vessel of the
trawler or drifter type lying close inshore. She seemed to be flying a
white flag--it might have been the white ensign at the distance. And then
I got a glimpse of three or four figures walking towards the house, and
one of these wore a white cap.
"Now we shan't be long!" I said to myself. "But what the dickens does it
About ten long minutes passed before I heard voices and footsteps on the
stairs. The lock clicked again, the door opened, and there stood a
square-shouldered man in dark blue, with three gold rings on his sleeve
and a familiarly firm mouth and pair of steady eyes. For an instant I
could scarcely believe my own eyes, and then I knew that it actually
was--of all people--my own cousin. Commander John P. N. Whiteclett, R.N.,
whom I had last heard of two years before the war when he was on the East
Indies Station. And behind him I caught a glimpse of Jean Rendall. There
may have been others, but all I was conscious of was her eager face, the
eyes brighter than ever, and the lips a little parted in tense
My cousin Jack spoke first.
"Good Lord, _you_ of all people, Roger!"
"My dear Jack!" I cried, and then I checked myself and shut that door.
"Well," said my cousin, with more candour than politeness, "I always
thought you would end in gaol, Roger, and you've had a dashed near squeak
this time, let me tell you. What new form of lunacy have you bust out
into?" His eye fell on my revolver. "And what are you doing with that
thing? If it's going to be suicide, let me fetch in a witness before you
begin. I hate being found alone with a body."
"Is that your ship?" I demanded.
"She's one of 'em. I'm boss of a few dozen of these floating palaces at
present. In fact we're a patrol and I've caught you red-handed on my own
beat, and what I want to know is what the devil are you doing on it? Not
trying to elope with that little bit of fluff, I hope, because I can
assure you she doesn't love you in the least, Roger."
"You mean well, old thing," I said, "but you've guessed wrong as usual,
Jack. Take me to your ship, for the Lord's sake, and I'll tell you the
whole yarn there."
"These good people probably expect a bit of explanation," he suggested.
"The Rendalls? Not yet! Wait till you've heard everything yourself. Tell
'em then if you like--but I don't think you will."
He looked at me curiously.
"Well," said he, "let's be off then. Don't you even want to say
"I'll send them a Christmas card," I said.
"What, after all the trouble they've taken to round you up?"
"Do you mean to say they sent for you?"
"Rather! Urgent wire."
The prospect of facing my grim host and his disdainful daughter struck me
forcibly as less pleasing than ever.
"Come on!" I said. "I'm going to bolt!"
We went downstairs and out of the front door like a couple of burglars.
The Commander did not appear to relish this performance particularly, but
I went first and he had to keep pace with me.
At the door we found the escort provided for me, and very surprised they
looked as they followed us to see their Commander so unaccountably
intimate with his captive; but fortunately there was no sign of the laird
or his daughter. I looked round me and felt sure I saw a well known slip
of a figure standing against the weather beaten wall of the old mansion,
gazing after us--with what sensations? I wondered very much.
"When did they wire for you?" I asked.
"Somewhere round about mid-day."
"And what did they say?"
"'They'?" repeated my cousin. "Why drag in the fair Miss Rendall? Her
father did the wiring. At least I presume so."
"Assuming he did, what did he say?"
"Suspicious stranger come to Ransay--gave incorrect account of
himself--that was the gist of it. Oh, he used the word 'urgent' I
"Incorrect account? That was probably after they had picked the lock of
my drawer and had something to go upon."
Again my cousin looked at me curiously.
"This sounds interesting," he said, and quickened his stride.
We reached a little unfrequented pier and jumped into the drifter's boat.
Sitting in the stern I looked over my shoulder with very mixed feeling at
the receding shores of the island of Ransay. It had baffled me, made a
fool of me, nearly murdered me; but after all it had saved my life when
the odds were a million to one against me, and it had crowded into that
life the four most exciting days and nights I had ever spent.
ON THE DRIFTER
My cousin led me into the small deck house that served as his cabin when
he was aboard. Through the windows we could see the afternoon gradually
fading into evening, and the western sky turn crimson as we ploughed our
way up winding sounds between the low-lying isles.
He produced a flask and a couple of bottles of soda water, lit his pipe,
saw that door and windows were safely closed, and leaned over the table.
"Now," said he, "how the devil did you get to this place? That's the
first question. They told me some yarn about a parachute, which I take it
was really a hair net or a lobster pot--"
"It wasn't," I interrupted, "it was a parachute and I landed in it.
Do you mean to say you hadn't heard of my disappearance in a
"What!" he exclaimed. "Are you the same Merton? I noticed the name of
course, but do you mean to tell me they're giving away R.N. V.R.
commissions as promiscuously as all that?"
"They give 'em to the pick of young England's manhood," I assured him.
"The idea is to make the Navy into a real live force, capable of
originality and enterprise."
"They've struck the originality all right," he admitted, "but, Lord, the
time that will be wasted court-martialling you fellows! However, let's
hear the whole yarn from the beginning."
I began at the snapping of the cable and told him my adventures
faithfully down to the moment when he unlocked my bedroom door. He only
interrupted once or twice to get some point or other clear, and then when
I had finished he leaned back and looked at me hard across the table.
"Roger," he said, "I've known you long enough and well enough to know
that you are not a deliberate liar, but I hope you'll forgive my saying
that this is a damned tough bullet to chew."
"It sounds a tall order," I admitted, "but it's true."
He filled his pipe thoughtfully.
"I may as well tell you," he said in a moment, "that I am not at present
a very credulous person. From the moment this blessed war began and I got
this job, I have done little else than investigate spy legends, and I
have come to the deliberate conclusion that there is either a lot more
imagination in the world than any one has ever dreamt of, or that
mankind are chronic and inveterate liars. I haven't yet had the luck to
find one single true bill in any story I've investigated."
"Your luck has turned now, Jack."
"Possibly," he said slowly, "and mind you, Roger, there's no doubt
whatever that a devilish secret service system exists; or that it's being
used against us for all it's worth. Secret petrol bases for their
submarines, secret signallying from the shore, mine-laying by so-called
neutral ships; all that sort of thing is going on under our noses. I've
got several very shrewd suspicions and hope to bring off one or two
little discoveries not a thousand miles from this very spot. In fact, if
you had pitched on any one of three or four other islands for the scene
of your tale, or if what you'd seen had been just a little different I
wouldn't have questioned a word of your story. But Ransay is not one of
the suspected islands, and your friend in oilskins doesn't fit into
anything I happen to have heard from other sources."
"Look here," I said, "what's the good of being cousins if we aren't
candid? Do you or don't you believe me?"
John Whiteclett looked at me very steadily and spoke in his most
"I believe that you believe every word of it. But I know you're an
imaginative fellow and I can see for myself already that at least three
quarters of your yarn can be explained away very easily."
"Well, my dear fellow, just look at things for a moment from the point of
view of a perfectly innocent and loyal inhabitant of Ransay--the Rendalls
for instance. You appear on their shores absolutely mysteriously in the
dead of night, you admit yourself you lay yourself out to behave like a
thinly disguised Hun--d----d thinly too, apparently! You blow in from
nowhere on the doctor and talk with a German accent. You blow in on the
laird, begin talking with an accent and then drop it. You pitch him a
cock and bull yarn about being landed from a cruiser and wanting to hide
your uniform coat and so on. You conduct yourself like a criminal in
church and wander out at night. Naturally the Rendalls--and everybody
else--eye you strangely to your face and try to find out a little more
behind your back. Do you see?"
"There's something certainly in all this," I had to admit.
"Then they find your parachute--"
"Who found it?"
"I haven't asked that yet; but I shall of course. Anyhow it was found,
and as evidently you had hid it. One point discovered against you. Then
the Rendalls decide on stronger measures--and very rightly too, I think.
They open your drawer and find you never had a uniform coat at all. Most
wisely they then wire to me, and to keep you from bolting, lock you in
"Dash it," said I, "I seem at least to have succeeded in providing them
with a devilish good excuse for every blessed thing they did!"
"I don't honestly think you have left yourself with any grounds whatever
for suspecting the Rendalls of anything."
"On the other hand, sending for you and having me arrested would be an
excellent way of getting rid of me when they were certain who I was--or
"And who did they make apparently certain you were not? A British
officer! That was the natural conclusion when they opened that drawer.
No, no, the Rendalls come out of it all right. Then let's take the
doctor. He looks at you suspiciously--as well he might."
"Before I spoke!" I interjected.
"And do you flatter yourself that your appearance, without a cap and in a
buttoned-up oilskin on a fine day, was reassuring?"
"But the blind?"
"Did you never see a blind come down with a run by mistake? There's a
blind in my smoking room at home that comes down like that whenever you
touch it. There's nothing against the doctor either--so far anyhow."
"And his friend O'Brien?"
"Ah, that's a different story. Mind you, you have shown me not a shred of
evidence against the fellow. Still, what's he doing there? That's a thing
I'm going to find out within the next four and twenty hours. But you
can't prove that he _did_ anything, and you can't suspect a man of
treason just because you don't like his looks. There are possibly
prejudiced people who don't like ours."
"Wait till you see him."
"I shall," said my cousin with an emphasis that hardly seemed to mean
what I meant. "As for the Scollay family--nothing against them whatever,
except that they live at a lonely spot on the shore, which I should say
was rather their misfortune than their fault."
"And the old boy on the road, who, Miss Rendall declared, doesn't exist?"
"How long did you give her to run over all the inhabitants of the island?
Did she look up a list of them, or a rent roll or anything?"
"No," I admitted. "Still, she seemed very positive, and she lives in the
place and must know everybody. If she fibbed, that's certainly
suspicious. If she was correct, then I met some one in disguise."
"Well," said he with an indulgent and extremely irritating smile, "I
shall enquire about that old gentleman too. But, frankly, I've no doubt
whatever that Miss Rendall simply forgot him when you asked her."
"All the characters seem cleared except mine," I remarked.
"Wait a bit, old chap. Now we'll come to the really suspicious things
that you actually did see. First, the man on the shore."
"Can't he be explained away?"
"Possibly," said Jack imperturbably, "but he needs a good deal more
explaining. You admit you became a bit light-headed soon afterwards."
"I've thought of that explanation myself, but it won't wash when he or
one of his friends went for me on the shore."
"Are you dead certain anybody did try to go for you? You admit you
"I saw that curved thing--like a scimitar."
"But who on earth would be using a scimitar in these islands? And what a
futile way to use it--jabbing down at you from overhead!"
"The point of it hit the rock hard enough."
"You had only the sound to go by."
"That's all," I admitted.
"And you heard that in the dark." He shook his head, "My dear fellow! I
know you are telling me honestly what you _think_ happened, but to be
He broke off and shook his head again.
"Well," said I, "that's explained away very happily. What I saw was only
something else and what I heard was something else too. You put the
alternatives so clearly, Jack, that one can't help being convinced. And
what about the shooting affair? I only heard a thingumabob and saw a
what-you-may-call-it, I suppose?"
"My dear Roger, I only want to test the alternatives and see what _can't_
be explained away. Have you ever been under fire before?"
"No, but I've seen pictures of it in the illustrated papers."
"Dash it, be serious!" said he. "You have no doubt whatever that somebody
blazed either at you or at something else from behind that wall?"
"Or at something else? What do you mean?"
"There weren't any duck about, or anything of that kind? I've known a
wild shot blaze both barrels within six inches of my own head and explain
he had never noticed me."
"I was rather too preoccupied to notice whether there were any duck there
when he began," said I, "but unless they were deaf duck there certainly
wouldn't be any left after he'd loosed off his first bullet. Besides one
doesn't usually shoot duck with bullets."
"One might with a rook rifle."
"I admit that one might; also that a very excitable person might go on
shooting after the duck had gone. But do you really mean to tell me,
Jack, that that explanation satisfies you?"
"I don't say that it does absolutely, and I quite admit that the
weakness of my explanations is that your story requires three of them;
none being perfectly satisfactory. However, it comes to this, that we
have narrowed the field down to three incidents that want a bit of
explanation. Everything else points as much one way as the other."
"To your being mistaken for a spy yourself."
A horried thought struck me. It was so horrid that it took a little pluck
to get it out.
"In that case, supposing some patriotic individual had tried first to
stab and then to shoot me, for his country's sake?"
"By Jove!" exclaimed my cousin and gazed thoughtfully into space for a
bit. Then he said, "That's possible, but it's a tall order too; and it
leaves out the man on the shore."
I was visited by another horrid thought.
"He might have been spy hunting!"
"Well, in that case we can easily get on to his tracks. There will be no
point in his denying it. But would the conversation fit that theory?"
I thought for a moment and then said with heart-felt relief,
"No, it couldn't possibly."
My cousin fell silent and stared into the thickening dusk. Then he looked
round with a start and said,
"We're nearly in."
We both went out on deck and saw at the head of the bay before us houses
and lights on shore and a church tower against the evening sky.
"Well, Roger," said he, "I'll go into this business very carefully and
make the most thorough enquiry. Don't think I'm not keen on getting at
the bottom of it. You've got to get off at once and rejoin your ship
I said I must.
"I tell you what I'll do," he went on; "of course we've got to lie very
low about this sort of thing, but I feel I owe you some account of what
happens. I'll write and let you know as soon as I have finished my
John Whiteclett was the best of fellows, shrewd and level-headed and a
first class officer, but somehow or other I felt small confidence in his
getting the better of the cunning foe on Ransay. However, it was all that
could be done now. My own part was finished and I had to confess I had
MY COUSIN'S LETTER
Three weeks later I received this letter from my cousin:
"My dear Roger,
"As I promised I am sending you a chit to tell you the result of our
enquiry into the Ransay mystery. Of course you will understand that this
is strictly for your own eye and mustn't be talked about.
"Well, I wanted to leave no stone unturned to get at the bottom of the
affair so we got up a pukka detective from London, a man named Bolton,
said to be a first class fellow at the job. He spent a solid week in the
island and seems to have poked his nose into pretty nearly every house
and spoken to pretty nearly every inhabitant from the laird down. Taking
a tip from your tale he posed as a cattle dealer (which is precisely what
he looks like) and of course he never let on that he knew of your
existence--or mine either.
"The result of his enquiries is, firstly--nothing proved against anybody
and no evidence of anything fishy going on in the place. This last point
confirms my own experience, for, as I told you, I haven't yet been able
to associate this particular island with any of the suspicious ongoings
which undoubtedly are happening.
"Secondly, your friend O'Brien turns out to be a gentleman with a failing
for liquor who was sent up by his relations in Ireland about six months
ago to live under Dr. Rendall's charge, there being no pubs in
Ransay--and many in the island he came from. I find that it is by no
means unusual to send thirsty souls to publess isles, and beyond the fact
that O'Brien came up very 'convanient' for this war and is pretty free
with his tongue on the subject of England's sins and shortcomings, there
is really nothing positive against the man. However we are running no
risks, and as we are God and Destiny rolled into one in these islands, we
gave Mr. O'Brien his marching orders and by this time he has presumably
either secured a drink at last or his friends have shut him up in some
teetotal paradise a little further from the scene of war.
"Bolton's opinion is that O'Brien was without doubt the man who fired at
you, looking to the type of gentleman he is, and the fact that you ran
into him immediately afterwards, and especially the fact that he actually
does possess an old rook rifle. He thinks he may have done it out of
sheer Irish deviltry, you offering so convenient a target, just as they
pot landlords in his own happy country. A man can hardly have drunk as
heavily as he must have done without upsetting his brain a bit, and this
theory seems to me not at all unlikely.
"Bolton thinks it hardly conceivable that O'B. can have had any
deliberate idea of getting rid of you, since it is certain that he wasn't
the man in oilskins you met the night you landed--or rather, dropped. He
can't have been _because he doesn't know a word of German_. We ought to
have thought of that clue ourselves. Bolton was on to it at once and
points out that it puts out of court the whole inhabitants of the island
except Miss Rendall who has a pretty good school-girl's knowledge of
German, and her father who has been abroad a lot and knows a bit of the
language. And apart from all other considerations, the man in oilskins
can't have been either of them owing to their height. Miss R. is too
short and Mr. R. too tall.
"Assuming therefore that you weren't a bit light-headed or anything of
that kind (which, I am bound to say, Bolton thinks quite a likely
explanation), the man you met _must_ have landed from a submarine and
gone away again in her. Bolton feels positive on this point, and I must
say I agree with him.
"The only remaining difficulty is the attack on the shore. Here Bolton
takes exactly the same line as I did when I questioned you. He thinks
that as you didn't actually see anybody, and as what you think you saw
and heard are so vague and indefinite and so difficult to fit into any
known method of murder, one can't really draw any conclusions, and he
quotes various cases he has known of people who fancied they were struck
or seized or fired at in the dark, when actually there was some other
"By the way, as to the old gentleman with tinted spectacles who asked for
a match, Bolton made enquiries of a number of people about the old men in
the island, and he even took the trouble to interview them all. None have
tinted spectacles and all deny having spoken with you. I am afraid that
this discovery made him a bit sceptical about some of the other
incidents. However he went into the whole thing very carefully indeed and
I think we can all feel satisfied that with the departure of Mr. O'Brien
the possibility of trouble within the island has been eliminated. Of
course the Lord only knows who may not land in the place by night, and
they may quite possibly have squared one or two of the natives to show a
light, or to keep their eyes shut, or help them in one way or another.
But that's rather a different story.
"I am sorry I have nothing better to satisfy your dramatic soul, but hang
it, a fellow who flies from the middle of the North Sea in a balloon and
then drops through a fog and hits an island a few miles square, and
afterwards gets mistaken for a spy, and shot at and finally arrested,
oughtn't to complain!
"Good luck to you. Keep out of balloons and don't part with that
And there for the present--and perhaps for ever--the story ends. I sat
down straight off and began to write out this full, true, and particular
account of the whole adventure, partly to keep my memory of everything
fresh, and partly because it strikes me as not half a bad yarn in itself.
Now that I have finished the job I must say that whether or no it will
convince anybody else, it makes me feel more certain than ever that more
has been going on in that island than met Mr. Bolton's eye.
Professional detectives are no doubt very useful men at jobs they are
accustomed to and when pitted against the ordinary criminal. But these
war problems are quite new, and utterly different even from the German
secret service machinations in time of peace. And the men they are
opposed to are very extraordinary criminals indeed; they are a highly
trained, scientific force, as much a wing of the German fighting forces
as their air service or their submarines.
What chance has a man who looks like a cattle-dealer against these
experts, especially when he is only in action for a week and starts with
the assumption that the few invaluable facts given him are mostly works
of imagination? Possibly he may have fluked upon the remedy by removing
O'Brien, and if the island of Ransay gives no more trouble for the rest
of this war, it will certainly look as though he had. But in that case he
will have been uncommon lucky, because he seems to me to have overlooked
or dismissed practically everything significant.
Take, for instance, the actual words used by my oilskinned friend. They
most distinctly implied that he was living on shore. Take the incident of
the blind, which may perhaps have been, as John Whiteclett says, an
every-day accident, but which certainly happened in the house where the
one man they do suspect was living, and would certainly involve the
doctor if it were not a mere accident. Look at my security while I was
humbugging them by my suspicious conduct, and then the unscrupulous and
quickly repeated attempts to get rid of me after two things had
happened--my dropping of my accent at the Rendalls and the discovery of
the parachute. Take that night on the shore when Miss Rendall escorted me
armed with a pistol and her father joined her at the very place and the
very time when the attack was made on me. As to its being an imaginary
attack, my last doubts dissipated when I was fired at next day.
Then as to the idea of Mr. O'Brien trying to shoot duck, or suddenly
being inspired by high-spirited homicidal mania, I simply decline to
accept such absurd interpretations. I am not in the least sure it was
he, to begin with. I feel convinced that more than one man is in it,
and which conspirator took which part, who can say on the little
evidence one has?
Again, take Mr. Bolton's brilliant idea of enquiring who could speak
German. How did he enquire? Probably asked them! Is he a German scholar
himself? The odds are a thousand to one against it. Or take the
mysterious old man with the tinted spectacles. His appearance by that
roadside and subsequent disappearance into space is one of the oddest
features of the case. I have no doubt at all now that the wax match
enquiry was the beginning of a series of questions and answers which
would have proved me a fellow conspirator if I had only known them. They
probably became doubly suspicious of me from that moment and only waited
to make quite sure before going all out to kill me. And yet, Bolton by
coolly assuming I was a liar or a dreamer missed the entire significance
of the incident.
But when it comes to asking myself honestly which people precisely I
suspect, and how I propose to separate the incidents which (I freely
admit) are perfectly consistent with the theory that I was genuinely
suspected myself, from the incidents which cannot be explained on those
grounds, and work out a water-tight case against anybody in particular, I
must confess that I am fairly beaten. I know that I don't want to suspect
that girl, though she did treat me like a member of a lower race and
scored off me badly at the end; and I do want to suspect O'Brien. By the
way, was he a real drunkard? I rather begin to wonder.
And that is the very unsatisfactory end of the matter so far.
I wish I had said that I felt sure my cousin's letter was not the last of
the business on Ransay. One would like to be the only correct prophet
this war has produced. It was not the end by any manner of means, as I
learned within two days of finishing that last chapter. I wrote it, and
the two or three before it, in the convalescent hospital at Winterdean
Hall, finishing it, I remember, on a Wednesday; and I picked up the scent
again on the very Friday following.
I had been laid out in an insignificant North Sea scrap, but though the
scrap was small the wounds were unpleasant and I was still rather glad to
lie easy in a moveable summerhouse on the terrace. I was well on the mend
but had walked a little too far that morning and there I lay stretched
half asleep in a deck chair, out of the wind and basking in the sun. It
was the end of the first week in February, but the day was mild as milk
and in my overcoat I felt positively hot. Rooks were cawing over the
winter woodlands below the terrace, a faint, restful line of blue hills
rose far away beyond, and a gorgeous peacock was strolling sedately on
the lawn. I was utterly content to lie there and doze, when I heard a
"Right! I see where he is, thank you," it said.
"Jack Whiteclett!" I said to myself.
It was always pleasant to see Jack, but at that moment a bore to be
disturbed. Little did I guess how thorough and final that disturbance was
going to be.
He appeared in the open door of my shelter, keen eyes, blue serge, three
rings, and all complete. I expected a jibe at my beard, but evidently I
struck him too sorry and object for mirth.
"Well, old chap," said he, "you've earned a rest and I'm glad to see
you're taking it."
This from Jack was subtily flattering and I did my best to look the
"Where did they get you?" he asked.
"In my beard," said I, "left side of the jaw. Also right ankle and a
souvenir under the ribs."
"Still a little, but improving."
"The beard is quite becoming," he observed.
"Look at it well then while you have the chance for they say they'll let
me shave it in a week."
"You're well on the mend then?"
"Thank the Lord."
"Then I needn't give you any more sympathy. Congratulations instead."
"On getting a bit of Blighty?"
"On getting a bit of ribbon."
I opened my eyes, for this was the first I had heard of it.
"It isn't out yet," said he, "but I believe it's to be your doom.
Somebody has presumably bribed some one at the Admiralty. Uncle Francis
tipped me the wink. You've evidently quite made your peace there, Roger,
so congratulations again."
This hint of a decoration was gratifying enough, and to hear, on top of
it, his assurance that my dear old uncle had really opened his heart
again nearly upset me disgracefully. I was evidently still a little
weaker than I realised. However, Jack was tact itself and the talk turned
to every-day matters.
He had been sitting beside me for some little time discussing the war,
the world, and the devil, before it began to strike me as quite
remarkably kind, even for so good a fellow as Jack Whiteclett, to come so
far out of his way to look me up. His own wife was at Portsmouth last I
heard of her, all his other interests were in London, and yet here he
was looking up a cousin in a hospital a couple of hundred miles away from
"By the way, how long have you got?" I asked.
I sat up in my deck chair.
"Only a week! I say this is extraordinarily good of you to come down here
and see me."
"Oh, I wanted to see how heroes bear their wounds," he smiled, but I felt
certain there was something more left unsaid.
"Jack, old chap, what's up? I see in your eye there's something else."
He hesitated a moment and then said,
"There was, but I'm not going to bother you with it now. I didn't know
how fit you might be."
Naturally I made him go on.
"Would it worry you if I were to yarn a little about that adventure of
yours in Ransay?" he asked.
"Worry me! I've been thinking of little else since I came to this restful
place. In fact I've been finishing off a full, true, and particular
account of the adventure. Any further news?"
His mouth grew compressed and a frown settled over his eyes.
"Nothing definite, except that the infernal island has been worrying me a
lot lately. You were quite right, Roger, and I withdraw my last doubt
with many apologies. Something is very far wrong in that place.
Submarines have been seen for certain two or three times, and signals on
shore, and the devil knows all what. But we can't find a clue or a trace
of anything to lay our hands on!"
"And all this is since O'Brien left?"
"Yes. If he were in it you were quite right in suspecting a gang. If he
wasn't, then the fellow, or fellows, are still there. I am quite certain
now, Roger, that you were absolutely right. Some one is actually living
in that comparatively small island, and working a lot of mischief, and we
haven't even the foggiest notion who to suspect."
"Have you applied to Mr. Bolton?" I asked a little maliciously.
"Damn Mr. Bolton! The fellow botched the whole business. He lost the
scent while it was still warm, and now it's as cold as mutton and one has
to begin all over again! I wanted badly to have a yarn with you about it,
Roger. You may have some ideas. Bolton had none and I have none."
"Are you allowed to tell me exactly what has been seen?"
"I am not allowed, but I can tell you, if you won't repeat anything."
And so I may not go into particulars in this narrative. However, that
makes no difference, for beyond indicating that the northwest end, out
by the Scollays' farm, and the barren uninhabited tip of the island
beyond, was the danger zone, these particulars gave no clue and suggested
no fresh idea. Of course they naturally suggested people living in that
vicinity, and yet this was far from inevitable because that coast was the
best for the enemy's purpose, and his friend or friends on shore might
come some considerable distance to get in touch with him. In fact, it
would be a pretty obvious precaution to live as far from the scene of
actual operations as possible; though equally obviously it would be a
less convenient arrangement.
As for the precautions which Whiteclett was able to take, all that I am
permitted to say about them is that, instead of the amateur coast patrol
arrangement in vogue when I was there, a few men from a certain unit were
put on to the job instead. But my cousin had no control over this, and as
he alone realised--in fact, could realise--the peculiar danger on this
particular island. The number of men spared for Ransay was very small
(you could count them on one hand with something over) and they were but
ordinary honest members of this unit at that--not experts at the game.
Consequently he was a little doubtful whether the safeguard was any
better than before.
Well, we talked the whole thing over and over again, and I honestly
could suggest nothing to add to what I had told him before. And then I
"Have you yourself seen no cause whatever to suspect any one? Nothing
happened--even a very little thing?"
He began to shake his head, and then said,
"Well, there was just one thing that made me suspicious for a moment, but
then I came to the conclusion that my suspicious wouldn't hold water. A
short time ago Dr. Rendall came in to see me and begged for leave to keep
another drunk--what he called an alcoholic patient. He said he had heard
of a man whose friends wanted to send him up to him, and offered to give
me all sorts of guarantees of his honesty, et cetera, et cetera. I
gathered that the doctor must be pretty hard up and this patient would
make all the difference to him. In fact he practically told me so."
"Of course you said no?"
"I was sympathetic but told him I was afraid it was no good. I didn't
want to seem too sharp with him, just in case he might be a wrong 'un and
would be the better of a little show of guilelessness. Of course I let
him know later he couldn't have the fellow. But honestly, Roger, I can't
think there was really anything suspicious in his request. In the first
place the trouble is going on without his inebriate. In the second
place, the request would be too bareface if he meant mischief."
"Still," I said, "it shows the man is hard up. Suppose he has been
"In that case we must also suppose he has fallen and pocketed a bribe;
and then he wouldn't be hard up any more."
"One doesn't know his difficulties. He might require a lot to cover them,
and be in need of a fresh cheque now. And there's one thing, Jack, that
has made me wonder sometimes. He is a cut above the ordinary local doctor
in such a place. What's he doing there?"
"Well," said my cousin after a moment's thought, "the problem in my mind
always comes back to this, that we are never likely to get much forrader
until we can station a spy of our own in the place to watch what's going
on. And how can one possibly manage that without giving away who the
watcher is? If they know who he is, he will find out nothing, and
probably have his throat cut. That's the difficulty."
I said nothing for a moment. A brilliant idea was beginning to dawn
upon my mind.
"Nothing to suggest?" he asked.
"I suppose," I said, thinking hard, "that if you had wanted to, you could
have let Dr. Rendall have that man?"
My cousin stared at me.
"I shouldn't take the responsibility myself, but I daresay if I were
lunatic enough to back him up, the powers that be might agree."
"Jack!" I exclaimed, "I'll be the alcoholic patient!"
For a moment I thought my cousin's eyes were going to start out of his
head. Then they subsided and a grin began to steal over his face instead.
"By Gad!" he murmured.
"I'm the very man for the job! I've actually spoken to at least one of
the gang in that island, apart from the old chap with spectacles. I know
the ropes, so far as they are knowable. In fact I've a kind of
prescriptive right to the job."
"I quite admit that you have; also that I'd sooner have you there than
anyone else. Looking back, I think you had a most sporting try last time,
and I must say it seems to me that only some devilish bit of bad luck
prevented you from bringing it off. Though what actually the bit of bad
luck was has often puzzled me. But then," he added, "you aren't the
fellow he wants."
"One drunk is as good as another so long as he pays the fee."
"But supposing, for the sake of argument, he had some reason for wanting
this other man. Would he take you in that case?"
"He must or he'd give himself away!"
"True for you, Roger. But how are we going to open negotiations without
arousing suspicion? One might as well face all the difficulties."
"Oh, we can easily fix that up," said I. "My guardians will write and say
they have heard of his excellent system, et cetera, and have hopes of
making arrangements with the naval authorities, and so on. There will be
no difficulty at all so far as that part goes."
"But, my dear chap, when you'd got there they'd spot you."
"With this beard--dyed black?" I cried, as inspiration trod on
inspiration's heels. "And a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, and this
limp--which will hide even my walk, and a complete change of clothes;
who will spot me? Remember I was only there for a very few days six
"I only spoke in my natural voice to the two Rendalls; never to the
doctor; in fact I've only met him once."
"But his cousins saw a good deal of you."
"I haven't been on the stage for nothing," I assured him. "I'll change my
voice very little, not enough to make it difficult to keep up--throw in a
lisp or something of that kind. You can trust me to do the thing
My cousin looked at me carefully.
"Yes," he admitted, "I think you are changed enough already to puzzle
'em; and with your beard dyed black--by the way, don't forget to dye
your hair too, old chap!--and glasses, et cetera, by jingo I do believe
"Now the thing is how to get permission: first, leave for me, and second,
leave to land an alcoholic on the island. What about Uncle Francis--could
he pull any strings for us? And will he if he can?"
"The very man!" said Jack, "if he really will take the thing up. He's in
it with the best kind of big-wig for our purpose. And I rather think the
idea might appeal to his sense of humour. Anyhow, I'll see him to-night
when I get back to town, and failing him I'll try some one else."
And that was the abrupt end of those restful days, dozing in a deck chair
listening to the cawing rooks at Winterdean Hall Convalescent Hospital.
A LITTLE DINNER
On the Tuesday evening, just four days later, I hobbled up the steps of
my Uncle's club and put the same question I had so often put before to
the same sleek benignant hall porter.
"Sir Francis Merton?"
He was as benignant as ever, but he handed me over to an attractive war
worker with a detached air that showed he was quite unconscious of ever
having seen me before. For an instant I was chilled, and then I realised
the happiness of the omen. If my beard alone so changed me, there would
be no fear of recognition when art had reinforced nature.
The only other guest had already arrived:--Commander John Whiteclett. My
uncle was talking to him confidentially before the fire, and at the sight
of that familiar upstanding figure with the dominating nose above the
determined mouth and the fresh complexion and snow-white hair and genial
eyes, all just the same as ever, I felt a sudden sense of confidence in
the issue of my adventure. With such an ally at my back, the chances of
failure seemed almost negligible.
"Well, Roger," he cried in his bluff strong voice (though I noticed it
was discreetly lowered while there was any one within earshot), "I hear
you've taken to liquor so badly that your friends have got to remove you
from society! We always did think it would come to something of this
kind; eh, Jack?"
"He always was a bad egg, sir," said my cousin. "I don't mind betting he
hasn't brushed his beard."
"And that limp!" added Sir Francis. "Gad, I believe he's been kicked
downstairs by an indignant husband!"
However, he pressed my arm as he laughed, and it was not a
"I can't shave owing to my shaky hand," I explained, "and the limp is
port in the big toe."
"Port?" exclaimed my uncle. "No, no, my dear fellow, it's whisky
poisoning you suffer from. You began in secret in your sixteenth year and
have been a trouble to your friends since you were twenty-one. However,
I've got all the particulars written out for you, and mind you get 'em
into your head and don't contradict yourself or me when you go to live
with that doctor fellow."
Jack winked at me from the shelter of our respected uncle's back and I
hid a responsive smile. With all his virtues, Sir Francis Merton had
never been fond of playing second fiddle, and this masterful seizure of
our scheme and dictation of all the details was exceedingly
characteristic. At the same time he was as shrewd as he was peremptory
and I felt satisfied his details would be sound.
"It's all right so long as he doesn't insist on disguising himself too
and coming with me," I whispered to Jack as we went into dinner.
"What I'm afraid of is that he'll go _instead_ of you!" said Jack. "I
never saw him keener about an idea."
We dined at a corner table whence we could see at once if any one
approached too near, and I think my uncle must have arranged that neither
of the nearest tables should he occupied; so he was able to get to work
with the soup.
"I've arranged everything, Roger," he said, "you are on furlough so long
as this job lasts. No questions will be asked and you'll have a free
hand. Only of course Jack will always keep an eye on you, and I shall be
able to advise both of you according to circumstances."
Jack winked again hurriedly, and said with as much deference as though he
were speaking to an Admiral,
"That's very good of you, sir. I shall keep you in touch with the
situation, for I take it it will be safer for Roger not to write more
letters than necessary."
I glanced my thanks at him, and our Uncle, after frowning for a moment
dubiously, agreed that he feared he must be content with hearing from the
"But there will be no harm in my writing to you, Roger, now and
then," he added.
"No harm at all," I agreed.
"Well then," continued our host, "we come to the specific arrangements.
Only two persons at the Admiralty know of this scheme, but they are quite
powerful enough to get you into this island of yours all right. Of course
people who happen to hear of it may open their eyes a bit and talk of the
slackness of our Naval Authorities, and it will do no harm, Jack, if you
damn them a bit yourself--confidentially, you know, in case any one asks
you how the devil this drunken fellow here has got into the place."
"If I simply give 'em my candid opinion of the drunken fellow's
character," said Jack, "no one will dream for an instant we're supposed
to be friends."
"They may guess we're near relations however, old fellow," I suggested.
Sir Francis guffawed.
"I wonder if Roger will be as witty after a few weeks teetotal diet?" he
chuckled. "Mind you, Roger, you've got to play the game properly. No
bringing a flask in your baggage or any humbug of that sort!"
"Don't you think an occasional relapse would add a touch of realism?" I
"Oh, if you can find liquor in the place, relapse by all means, so long
as you don't give yourself away in your cups. But you've got to arrive
without bottle, flask, or cup in your possession."
"It might be rather a happy touch, sir, if I were to go round sponging
My uncle's earnestness was delightful. At this suggestion he put on his
spectacles, and drew a paper from his pocket.
"Let me see," said he. "Here are a few directions given me by my own
doctor, Sir James Macpherson. I had to give him some inkling of what I
was after, but he is sworn to secrecy. Hum--No, Roger, you are trying
religiously to cure yourself, and only very occasionally must the craving
so far overcome you that you actually endeavour to secure alcoholic
refreshment, as Sir James calls it. No promiscuous sponging, my boy, but
a sponge now and then at considerable intervals might be advisable."
There was an interval of general conversation while one course succeeded
another, and then Sir Francis resumed his instructions.
"With the help of a few tips from Sir James and my friends at the
Admiralty, I have worked out the scheme very carefully, and I must beg
you to get every detail most firmly into your head, Roger. Mind you,
these poisonous fellows won't hesitate to stick a knife or a bullet into
you, if they have the least suspicion of you. You know that as well as I
do, and I don't want you to go and throw your life away, my boy."
I felt half inclined to smile, and half to do something more sentimental.
He was such a dictatorial boss, and yet such a dear old fellow.
"I assure you I set more value on my life even than my friends
do," I said.
"Well then get these instructions off by heart--and don't forget one of
them! I'll give you the paper to take away with you to-night, but
meanwhile here are the principal points. In the first place, your name is
Hobhouse--Thomas Sylvester Hobhouse."
I saw he was very pleased with this selection and asked tactfully,
"How did you manage to choose such excellent names, Uncle Francis?"
"I chose one name from the Red Book, another from the Peerage, and
another from the Clerical Directory, so that one gets--er--a more natural
and lifelike combination in that way; and yet avoids a real name. I think
Thomas came from the Clerical directory--or was it the Peerage? Well, no
matter, that's your name."
"And my occupation?"
"None: it saves prevarication and confusion. You've always been
an idle dog, Roger, so I think 'a gentleman of no occupation' will
be a sufficiently correct description. You are very well connected
by the way."
"I am aware of it," I said, with a polite bow to my uncle and cousin.
But my uncle had grown too serious to appreciate such small change of
"Your relatives," he continued, "are in such high positions that they are
entitled to ask Dr. Rendall not to make any indiscreet enquiries of his
patient regarding his family, and also to appeal with success to a
certain influential gentleman in the Government for permission to dump
you in these prohibited islands. You, of course, know nothing of these
steps. You have just recovered from a severe attack of _delirium
"My dear uncle!" I gasped, "is that Sir James's idea?"
"It is putting into definite terms what he obviously suggested. Under
those circumstances you naturally know nothing of what your friends have
been doing on your behalf. Dr. Rendall being informed of all these facts
will of course refrain from putting awkward questions, the answers to
which you might forget, even if I composed them for you."
"And how did my relatives hear of Dr. Rendall and the island of Ransay?"
"I have thought over that point very carefully, Roger, and I think the
best plan will be to take Sir James a little more into my confidence and
get him to write a personal letter to Dr. Rendall. He will do it if I
assure him it is for his country's sake, and his name will lull all
My cousin and I thoroughly agreed with this last suggestion. In fact we
found little fault with any part of the programme dictated to us, except
the _delirium tremens_. Even Jack, though he itched to see me thus
labelled, agreed with me that a less definite form of drunkenness would
be safer, and finally Sir Francis decided to substitute "an alcoholic
As for the rest of my instructions, I made one or two mental
reservations. For instance, if Dr. Rendall himself was mixed up in the
affair, he would scarcely refrain from putting questions to find out all
about his guest; but I felt I need scarcely trouble my worthy uncle to
compose the replies before hand.
I remember that little dinner very vividly. As it chanced it was my one
glimpse of the old life of town and clubland and everything that goes
with evening dress, seen just for that brief evening between months of
mine-dodging and blizzard-facing in the North Sea followed by a hospital
bed, and the lonely tempestuous isle of Ransay. The white napery, the
gleam of glasses, the shaded electric lamps, the blazing fire, and the
lofty soft-carpeted room left an impression that stayed with me for
many a month to come. And in an easy chair after dinner, smoking the
special cigar that my uncle conscientiously recommended and sipping the
ancient cognac he advised, I should have been perfectly willing to
listen to him had he suggested pushing me into a soft shore billet and
letting some other poor devil grow a beard and hunt for spies in
northern gales instead.
But he was not that sort of uncle.
"It's the chance of your life, Roger," he said. "By Gad, I wish I were
young enough to take on the job myself. But you'll do the family credit
I'm sure--if you only remember that this business requires discretion and
caution quite as much as daring and resource!"
"Hear, hear!" said Jack. "Put that in your pipe and smoke it
"Whatever you do, don't trust one living soul in that place! The
unlikeliest person may prove to be up to the neck in the business."
"Or only up to the ankles, yet they may give you away to some one else,"
added my cousin.
"And _à propos_ of ankles," said my uncle, who was a confirmed bachelor,
"Beware of women most of all! Never trust a secret to a woman,
"There are none to confide in," I assured him, "except Miss Rendall--and
she is one of the suspected; whatever Jack's gallantry may say."
"My gallantry is a thing of the past," said Jack, "I suspect everybody in
that d----d place. And I'd advise you to do the same."
"Everybody!" echoed Sir Francis. "And confide in no one."
The evening came to an end at last, and with a sigh I left that
comfortable smoking room. As I passed out into the hall, however, my
uncle took my arm and made one brief but comforting speech in my ear.
"Don't worry about money matters, Roger, old fellow. Of course I'm paying
the doctor's fee, and if you ever need anything more just let me know. If
you bring this off--"
He did not finish his sentence but pressed my arm and gave me a nod
and a smile.
THE ALCOHOLIC PATIENT
On a raw grey February morning Mr. Thomas Sylvester Hobhouse bade a
polite farewell to the medical gentlemen who had escorted him thus far,
and stepped aboard the little steamer sailing from a certain small and
ancient port out into the northern isles of that archipelago. This
medical escort was a typical instance of my uncle's relentless
thoroughness. He was not in the secret, and so all the way from Euston to
those remote islands I had to endure the ordeal of sitting under the eye
of a conscientious middle-aged gentleman with a strong Yorkshire accent
and but one idea in his head:--to keep in readiness to seize me at each
station in case I leapt out of the carriage and headed for the
refreshment rooms. We parted, I think, with equal relief on either side.
Under a heavy sky and a chilly wind we steamed through divers waterways,
touched at divers islands, and shipped and unshipped many cattle. At
last, when it had turned afternoon and the wind was beginning to feel wet
as well as chilly, Thomas Sylvester stepped ashore on the modest pier at
Ransay. Already he had noted from the deck his prospective host, pipe in
mouth and hands in his knickerbocker pockets among a small knot of
inhabitants, but to his relief there were no other familiar faces.
"Let me be firmly established as Mr. Hobhouse, the doctor's new paying
guest, before they look at me too closely!" he said to himself.
In the doctor's blue eyes there was not a sign of recognition or
suspicion. I noticed again his habit of glancing at one askance which had
raised my ready suspicions last time we had met, but apart from that his
greeting was cordial and pleasant enough.
"I've only got an open trap, Mr. Hobhouse," he said, "and it's a three
mile drive. I hope you have got a warm coat."
Mr. Hobhouse, I may mention, was a gentleman with an extremely polite,
nervously effusive manner, who always agreed with everybody and blinked a
little as he looked at them with apologetic friendliness through his
gold-rimmed glasses. Those who have seen that sprightly comedy "Heels Up"
may perhaps remember the not unsuccessful character of Sir Douglas
Jenkinson Bart (played by Mr. Roger Merton). Mr. Thomas Sylvester
Hobhouse would have reminded them of Sir Douglas forcibly.
"Oh yes, doctor, a beautifully warm coat; you needn't worry about me at
all. I shall be very comfortable--very comfortable indeed, thank you,"
Mr. Hobhouse assured him.
Dr. Rendall eyed his patient again, and there seemed to be a gleam of
satisfaction in his glance, as though this were the kind of polite,
acquiescent gentleman he liked.
There was a weary delay in getting my baggage out of the hold, and the
February afternoon had grown greyer by the time we started in the
doctor's pony trap. As the road was heavy with mud and covered with
patches of loose metal every here and there, those three miles proved the
longest I have ever driven. By this time the wind was sweeping clouds of
fine rain into our faces, and seen through this driving vapour the island
looked another place from the Ransay of summer time. The flowers were
gone, and the corn, and even the greenness of the grass, which now was of
a pale yellowish-olive hue; and I thought that a nakeder, more
inhospitable looking spot surely man had never visited.
Under such circumstances we talked little; the doctor only making a
remark now and then in a dutiful way, and Mr. Hobhouse effusively
agreeing with him. That gentleman was quite content to postpone his
enquiries until he had got a little warmer and drier, and at times he
even felt acute anxiety lest the bleak house that loomed ahead, visible
afar over the treeless country, was actually moving away from them. They
seemed to approach it so slowly.
Evening was near at hand when Mr. Hobhouse entered his teetotal haven,
and his effusiveness was quite sincere as he rubbed his hands over a
blazing fire in the doctor's smoking room, and still sincerer when he
faced an excellent high tea.
The conversation naturally turned on the war, and Thomas Sylvester showed
an anxiety to learn his host's opinions and an enthusiastic agreement
with each one of them that seemed to please the doctor. He became more
and more talkative and genial, but though his guest mentally went through
his words with a tooth-comb as he uttered them, he had to confess at the
end of a chatty hour that the doctor exhibited neither any special
knowledge of military and naval affairs, nor any lack of zeal for the
cause of his country.
"No treason so far!" said Thomas to himself.
Then with what he flattered himself was the art which conceals art, Mr.
Hobhouse brought the conversation round to the subject of the doctor
himself and his household. He enthusiastically assured his host that each
arrangement he mentioned was the best imaginable--from the doctor's being
a bachelor to his having no hot water laid on in the bathroom but large
cans brought when necessary. And presently he blinked more amiably than
ever and enquired,
"And do you often have--er--guests, doctor; guests such as myself?"
The doctor's geniality seemed suddenly to contract a little.
"Occasionally," he said briefly.
"Quite so," agreed Mr. Hobhouse. "Too often would be a great nuisance.
Occasionally--yes, yes, that must be much pleasanter. Just when you feel
inclined; I see. And I hope you get decent fellows as a rule, doctor. It
would be very unpleasant otherwise."
"It is," said Dr. Rendall with distinct emphasis.
"I trust _I_ won't be a nuisance," said Mr. Hobhouse anxiously.
"Oh, no, no," said the doctor hurriedly, "I was thinking of--"
He broke off, and his amiable guest tactfully changed the subject. A
little later, with what he hoped was equal tact, he returned to it again.
Assuring the doctor of his anxiety to give no trouble, he said,
"I'll do just as the last fellow did. You just put me into his shoes,
doctor, and then you'll always know where you are."
There was no doubt about the oddness of the glance which Dr. Rendall shot
at his guest this time. His answer was a murmur that might have meant
anything. Mr. Hobhouse innocently rattled on.
"I presume he fitted into your ways all right and so will I if you tell
me first what--er--you did mention his name--or didn't you?"
"O'Brien," said the doctor.
"O'Brien?" repeated Mr. Hobhouse with a distinct air of distaste for so
mild a gentleman.
The doctor looked at him quickly.
"Do you know him?" he asked sharply.
"Oh, no, no! Oh dear me, no! It's only that I have a very foolish and
very stupid prejudice against Irishmen--as I presume he was."
Mr. Hobhouse laughed pleasantly, and inwardly he laughed still more
pleasantly, for his shot came off.
"So have I," agreed the doctor, and there was no doubt that he was
Mr. Hobhouse decided that he had probed the matter sufficiently for the
present, and with what he was now beginning to consider his usual tact he
changed the subject.
Before they parted that night he could not resist one touch of art
despite the counsels of Sir Francis.
"Before we go to bed, doctor," he said, with his most ingratiating smile,
"do you think one little drop would do us any harm? I feel as though I
might have a little cold coming on--"
But the doctor was shaking his head, kindly but firmly.
"Well, well, better not; I quite agree with you, doctor," gushed his
guest. "Good-night, doctor. Good-night!"
"I wonder if the doctor ever had such a blinkin' ass in his house
before!" said the amiable gentleman to himself as he shut his bed-room
door behind him.
Looking at myself in the glass with a kind of chastened complacence, I
decided that the man who could perceive in Mr. Hobhouse any reminiscence
of the mysterious young stranger of six months ago would have a
singularly piercing eye. At the same time it was a sobering experience to
gaze at that black-bearded gentleman, with his hair parted in the middle
and brushed low down over his forehead, and his foolish looking
pince-nezs, and reflect that there was no artificial difference between
him and the vanished Roger Merton save those eye-glasses and a little
hair dye. That was my own face, and my own hair, and, I presumed, my own
natural latent idiocy blinking behind those glasses. I turned away from
the mirror with mingled feelings.
As the hour was not late (early to bed being part of the cure), I put on
my dressing gown and sat down to smoke and chew the cud of my evening's
conversation with Dr. Rendall. The more I saw of him, the more favourably
on the whole the man impressed me. He was a gentleman and seemed a good
fellow. Being a bachelor with outdoor tastes and an easygoing
disposition, it was not at all impossible to understand his choosing the
estate of his family to settle down on, isolated though it was. Certainly
one could not honestly charge it against him as a suspicious
By far the most interesting discovery was his obvious dislike to Mr.
O'Brien. Not once but several times he had shown it in the course of our
talk. He conveyed the suggestion moreover that the man had oppressed him
in some way and that it was a relief to have got rid of him. In view of
the fact that he had been so anxious to secure another resident patient,
this seemed a little odd, and a theory began to take shape in my mind.
Supposing O'Brien had in some way induced the doctor unwillingly to abet
a treasonable scheme, that would account for his feelings very well,
especially looking to O'Brien's unpleasing personality. But on the other
hand, events had made it clear that treason was going on without O'Brien,
so how could the doctor have got clear of it? And if he were still in it,
this theory of his relations to his late patient was manifestly weak.
"To bed!" said Thomas Sylvester to himself, after an hour of these
reflections. "You are theorizing too soon."
In the morning he was up betimes and downstairs a good ten minutes
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