The Man From the Clouds
J. Storer Clouston
Part 3 out of 4
before he knew the doctor was likely to appear. Into the smoking room
he went, shut the door carefully behind him, and made for the window. A
grey and windy prospect met his eyes, but they scarcely glanced at it.
Mr. Hobhouse had something else to think of. Twice or thrice he pulled
the blind up and down, and minutely examined the string and the little
"That blind certainly does not come down at a touch," he said to himself,
"and there is not a sign of its having been repaired within the last few
years. Therefore it did not drop accidentally six months ago."
That afternoon, as the weather had cleared somewhat, Dr. Rendall
proposed walking over to his cousin's house and presenting Mr. Hobhouse
to the laird and his daughter. This ordeal had to be undergone sooner or
later, so I decided I had better fall in with his suggestion and get it
over at once. Besides, it was an obvious part of my programme to make a
great deal of outdoor exercise a principal feature of Mr. Hobhouse's
cure, and I felt bound to agree at once with any proposal to take a
walk. We had taken the precaution, by the way, of telling the doctor
beforehand of my limp (caused by a motoring accident when I was at the
wheel in a condition I should not have been in) and assuring him that
the surgeon encouraged exercise to complete the cure. So off we set for
the "big house."
On the way the doctor gave his guest a certain amount of general
information concerning the people they were going to meet, but as Mr.
Hobhouse happened to know it already, it need not be chronicled here.
As the pair approached the weather beaten old mansion, looking now in
its true setting against the wintry sky, Thomas Sylvester became acutely
conscious of the return of a familiar sensation. It was, in fact,
precisely the sensation which one Roger Merton had enjoyed when waiting
for his cue to step from dim obscurity into the flare of the footlights
on the first night of a new drama. Would his old acquaintances accept Mr.
Hobhouse without question as an entire stranger? If he spied so much as
one suspicious questioning glance, his whole scheme was exploded.
We were shown into the drawing room, and to my great relief Mr. Rendall
was the first to appear, for I felt I could stand the scrutiny of Jean's
bright eyes a deal more readily if I had once got into the swing of talk
with her father. In his eye there was certainly no trace of question.
With his dry and formidable courtesy he greeted Mr. Hobhouse and in a
minute or two they were talking away in that friendly fashion which Mr.
Hobhouse was pleased to notice people fell into very readily with him.
And small wonder, for the creature was so grossly affable, and (if I say
it myself) so infernally plausible.
His great hobby, it appeared, was antiquarian research, and though he let
slip a few remarks that showed he was well versed in his subject, his
role, as usual, was that of the flatteringly eager enquirer. Needless to
say, his learning had been acquired by diligent application within the
last week, and that it had a very definite object behind it. The laird
had but a smattering of the subject, but being an intelligent, well-read
man, he was quite able to discuss Mr. Hobhouse's favourite pursuit, so
that when his daughter entered the room she found herself in an
atmosphere as little reminiscent of the mysterious stranger as it was
possible to create in the time.
All the same, it was an anxious moment when Jean's eyes first fell upon
him, and he heaved a deep sigh of relief when he saw not a spark of
recognition in them. On his part, Thomas Sylvester was scrupulously
careful to avoid the least resemblance to the conduct of the mysterious
Merton, even in the smallest point. There was no assurance, no tribute of
attention and consciousness of her presence, such as a girl as charming
as Miss Rendall has the right to expect from every man with an eye in his
head; and which I must confess the mysterious stranger used to pay her,
for all her dislike to him. Mr. Hobhouse of course was dreadfully polite,
but seemed a little shy of the sex, and after a few commonplaces on
either side, she turned to her cousin and he to his host.
Tea was brought in, and the party chatted away as amicably as any party
of four in the kingdom. Thomas had found his tea party legs by this time
and quite enjoyed the situation. Mr. Rendall impressed him much more
favourably than he had impressed Roger Merton. The grimness seemed to
fall off the man when one got him going in talk and a vein of kindliness
"I'm dashed if there seems to be anything suspicious in anybody this
time!" said Mr. Hobhouse to himself rather disconsolately.
He had hardly made this reflection when he happened to glance at Jean.
This as a matter of fact had happened several times previously. For one
thing she was looking a picture, and for another the alcoholic visitor
liked to reassure himself at intervals that she was still without shadow
of suspicion. And each time he had felt perfectly reassured.
But this time he was conscious of a sudden thrill of certainty that Miss
Rendall had been covertly studying him, and that now (though her eyes
turned away instantly) she had some new food for thought. Instantly he
asked for another cup of tea and blinked at her benignantly as their eyes
met. Did he actually read in hers confirmation of his first instinctive
feeling, or was it only a too quick imagination? Mr. Hobhouse wondered
Thereafter for some little time, as he talked with her father, he was
acutely aware that both she and the doctor were very silent, and when now
and then he glanced at her, she seemed to be thinking rather than
listening. And then, just as he was beginning to grow a trifle uneasy,
this phase seemed to pass away and the next time he looked at her she met
his glance with a faint smile. In fact she had smiled several times
before the doctor and his patient took their departure, and as they shook
hands at the end Thomas Sylvester was agreeably conscious of the kindest
look she had ever favoured him with. And finally when her father hoped
they might see their new acquaintance soon again, she joined him in
hoping, both with her words, and (it seemed to him) her eyes.
During the first part of their walk home, Mr. Hobhouse was very silent.
Going back over their call, while everything was fresh in his memory, he
had to confess that his prejudices against Mr. Rendall were ready to
vanish altogether if he were ready to let them. In fact the grim ironic
Mr. Rendall conversing with the suspicious stranger was an entirely
different person from the friendly Mr. Rendall who conversed with the
innocent-looking Thomas Sylvester Hobhouse. On the face of it this was
obviously to be explained by his suspicions of the stranger. But of what
did he suspect him? Of being a German spy, as he professed? Or of being
what he was? That was the whole point, and it seemed to me that getting
him arrested and removed was equally consistent with either alternative.
But what of his daughter, that slim, dangerously dainty piece of mystery?
Were her two changes of attitude in the course of this afternoon mere
mirages seen by an eye disordered by suspicion? They might be, but Mr.
Hobhouse was prepared to stake his davy that they were real. And what
then did they imply? Surely not that she suspected the truth. He could
not read them into that. That she was simply a coquette and for want of
more amusing game (such for instance as Mr. O'Brien) was prepared to have
a little flirtation with his successor? This was, somehow or other, not a
very agreeable solution, but I began to suspect it might be the true one.
In any case she was a puzzling factor, and the best course of action
seemed to me to be to avoid her society in the meanwhile, and to keep my
eyes wide open for possible trouble. I hardly thought there would be
trouble, but it were well to be on the lookout.
This being decided, the amiable Mr. Hobhouse started conversation with
the doctor, and gradually by gentle and circuitous methods led the talk,
via the war in general, to the part in the war played by these islands,
and to any interesting events that might have happened in them. He was
heading in his devious way for the visit of the suspicious stranger, but
at this point the doctor brought him in of his own accord.
"We had one most extraordinary thing happen in this place," said he.
"Nobody has got to the bottom of it yet."
"Really!" cried Mr. Hobhouse. "How very interesting! What was it?"
"Well," said the doctor, "one morning when I had that fellow O'Brien
staying with me, a young man walked into my house under the
impression--so he said--that it was my cousin's. Whether he told the
truth or not I've often wondered since. He had no cap, was buttoned up in
an oilskin coat (though I may say it was a fine morning) and talked with
a distinct foreign accent. I could swear it was German, but O'Brien, who
contradicted everything, stuck to it it was Russian. A lot he knew about
Russian! He was only in the house about five minutes, for when he
discovered his mistake--or what he said was his mistake--he went off. And
that is all I saw of him personally."
"But did he go to Mr. Rendall's then?"
The doctor nodded.
"He turned up there and spent two or three nights in the house. The chap
had the impudence of the devil. He said he had been landed from one of
our own cruisers and didn't want to be recognised as an officer, so would
they be kind enough to lend him a coat and let him lock his uniform coat
up in a drawer! He was in his oilskin all this time, you must remember. A
day or two later my cousins grew suspicious and opened that drawer. What
do you think they found?"
"Maps!" guessed Mr. Hobhouse.
"Nothing at all! He had never had a uniform coat. They promptly wired to
the Naval Authorities, locked him in his room meanwhile, and when
Commander Whiteclett appeared he arrested him and took him off."
"And who was he?"
The doctor turned to his guest with an expression of considerable
"The damned secrecy of these navy people is past belief! Do you know that
not even my cousins who caught the man for them were ever told a single
word about him! Whiteclett took him straight off to his drifter without
so much as saying good-bye--much less thank you--to my cousin Philip, and
that was the last of it!"
"Then you never learned who the fellow was?"
"He gave his name as Merton--George or was it Roger?--Merton. But you can
believe as much of that as you like."
"And did he land from a cruiser?"
"Not likely! But nobody was ever told how he did land. They found what
they said was a parachute, but it's my belief that was either a blind or
it was really some kind of collapsible boat. I never saw the thing
myself, and O'Brien, who did see it, having heard somebody say it was a
parachute, of course swore it was not."
"And did the man do nothing while he was on the island?"
"God knows what he may not have done! Naturally he told nobody what he
was after, and no one actually saw him doing anything, but there are
plenty of stories."
"What kind of stories?"
"Oh, the usual kind, that he was seen flashing lights on the shore and
carrying petrol tins. But you can believe as much of them as you like."
"And have your cousins no theory? They apparently saw a good deal of
"My cousin Philip says frankly he is absolutely beaten by the whole
performance. Jean--well girls are rum things."
"What are Miss Rendall's views then?" I enquired.
"She is generally quick enough at guessing, and as fond of gossip as most
of her sex, but for some reason she keeps very quiet about it. It's my
belief she knows something. In fact I shouldn't be surprised if
Whiteclett had told her a little and sworn her to secrecy. Men do tell
women things sometimes, as I daresay you have noticed for yourself, Mr.
"What a very strange story!" murmured Mr. Hobhouse.
So this was the tale of my escapade as it was told in Ransay. The
doctor's manner of telling it was the best guarantee of his own good
faith I could wish, and I was ready now to dismiss the blind incident as
a misleading trifle. But O'Brien seemed to have gone out of his way to
throw doubt on every point raised,--and curiously enough to have always
offered a wrong solution. It might be sheer contrariness, but it stuck me
as odd. As to Miss Jean's silence, what did that mean? I resolved to keep
my eyes very wide open indeed.
By a fortunate chance Dr. Rendall was no expert in antiquarian matters,
and yet had sufficient respect for those who were to give them every
encouragement and make all allowances for any irregularity in their hours
caused thereby. Mr. Hobhouse possessed several very learned looking
volumes, such as "The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland," "The Windy
Isles in Early Celtic Times," "Ecclesiological Notes on Some of the
Islands of Scotland," and other tomes of that nature, and from these he
could quote whole paragraphs without so much as pausing for breath (in
fact he dared not pause, lest he forget). Mr. Hobhouse moreover talked in
his garrulous way of adding his own modest contribution to this
literature in the shape of a monograph on the antiquities of Ransay.
With this end in view it was therefore very natural that he should spend
much of his time rambling over the island, particularly along the coasts,
where he declared the early monuments he was especially interested in
were mostly to be found, and should even at times be detained by his
enthusiasm till darkness had fallen. It was also very natural that he
should wish to consult all the most ancient inhabitants, and should in
consequence seek out and interview every native over sixty years of age.
In short this hobby not only gave this enthusiastic gentleman a sound
pretext for being in the most out of the way places at the most unlikely
hours, but also for inspecting narrowly with his own eyes each white
bearded patriarch who might, or might not, have worn six months ago a
pair of tinted spectacles; which--to descend slightly in the literary
scale--accounts for the milk in the cocoanut.
All this of course was not only perceived by his guardian medical
attendant, but blessed with his strong approval, for nothing counteracts
the taste for liquor so effectually as another hobby. But what Thomas
Sylvester devoutly prayed the doctor did not see was his patient slipping
out of his window in the small hours of the morning, and from the roof of
an out-house just below, examining the shore through a night glass. In
February and March weather this was far too uncomfortable to last long or
to be repeated every night, and the shore was too far away to make it
very effective. Still, he did think he noticed a glimmer once or twice,
and each time his antiquarian expedition next day included certain
artless enquiries which might have thrown some light on the matter had
the answers been satisfactory. As a matter of fact, however, they never
were, and the extraordinary appearance of interest with which the
effusive gentleman listened to useless information reflected more credit
on his resolution than any one will ever realise.
I may add that the professional watchers in the island were not of course
in the secret of Mr. Hobhouse's identity, and therefore could not report
to him directly anything they might see or suspect. But if they did see
or suspect anything he would very quickly be informed through another
source. However Commander Whiteclett based no great hopes on the
possibility of catching our wily enemy out by means of a palpable man in
uniform, and Mr. H. had been instructed to act exactly as though he were
alone on the job.
One of his earliest expeditions was made to the site of a prehistoric
building in the near vicinity of the Scollays' farm. At least there was a
grassy knoll visible which Mr. H.'s expert eye at once pronounced to be
worthy of very careful inspection, and in order to confirm his theories
he decided to visit the farm to make enquiry as to any possible
traditions regarding it.
He passed round the knoll with this purpose, to discover that he was no
longer meditating alone. A familiar figure confronted him, with dark
staring eyes, gaping mouth, and stubby beard; my old friend Jock. For a
moment there returned that feeling of stage fright. Next to the
Rendalls, the Scollay household, and particularly Jock, had seen and
conversed most often with the mysterious Merton. Jock was only an idiot,
but where reason is lacking instinct is apt to be strong, and instinct
might distinguish an old acquaintance through all my disguise. Anyhow,
rightly or wrongly, I felt that this was another delicate moment.
"Good-day, my good fellow. Good-day to you!" said the friendly Mr.
Hobhouse. "A little better weather to-day!"
The surprise of the affable gentleman at getting only a grunt in reply,
his air of gradual comprehension, and then of friendly sympathy, were
acted for all they were worth. And to my vast relief, Jock showed no
glimmer of recognition of the young man with the revolver.
"Do you know who lives at that farm?" enquired Mr. Hobhouse speaking very
distinctly. "Tolly, you say? Oh, jolly? Yes, very jolly! Ha, ha!
Good-bye, my lad, good-bye to you!"
Jock's hoot of laughter was answered by Mr. Hobhouse's giggle, and they
set off down to the farm, the antiquary in front limping rather more
markedly than usual, and the idiot rambling behind.
The visit to the Scollays was a distinct success, so far as establishing
the personality of Mr. Thomas Sylvester Hobhouse went. At first they
looked at him with an obvious suspicion and replied to his questions
with a reticence that gave him a few uneasy moments. But in ten minutes
his indefatigable friendliness had conquered the household and he knew
that he was safe to visit that knoll whenever the fancy took him. Peter
senior told him a long story about the fairies who were seen dancing
round the knoll in his father's time, and though his family were
evidently a little distressed by his reference to anything so
unfashionable, and Jock hooted several times, their visitor exhibited the
liveliest interest and put the tale religiously down in his note book.
This was all that could be done at the moment; the establishment of a
perfectly harmless reputation and of a natural reason for visiting that
particular place at odd times. Mr. Hobhouse obtained permission to do a
little digging there if he desired it, and parted with the family on the
best of terms.
"Slow work!" he said to himself as he struck out for home, with his limp
rapidly vanishing. "But what the devil else can one do? What is there
definite to take hold of?"
That was the baffling feature of the business. As my cousin said, such
scent as there was had grown cold by this time, and one had to begin at
the beginning again. And so far there seemed to be no beginning. The
detectives of fiction might have found some clue to start a train of
logical and inevitable reasoning that led straight to the criminal, but
the detective of fact had utterly failed, and the brilliant young amateur
of fact was likewise completely at sea.
What good for instance had my visit to the Scollays done? I asked
myself. If they were innocent I had wasted my time. If they were guilty,
what had I discovered to bring it home to them? Absolutely nothing! And
the same with each inhabitant of that island whom I had seen. Some
cunning and powerful organisation was certainly at work, to the
detriment of my country, but the only point I had scored against them,
was that I had got into the place without their recognising me. At least
I presumed I had or I should scarcely still be alive to tell the
tale--unless they had grown either more merciful or more timid since I
was here last. And their continued immunity would scarcely be likely to
produce either of those effects.
The only specific thing I could think of looking for was the old man with
the tinted spectacles. So far I was well on the way to proving one thing
about him, and that the least satisfactory thing I could prove.
Apparently Bolton was right and no such person existed. Therefore I was
as far off catching him as ever, and had merely the added certainty that
my enemies were extremely resourceful and spared no trouble to make sure
of things when in doubt. However, I meant to go on looking till I had
exhausted all the old men in the place. I was about half way through them
by this time, so far as I could calculate.
Thus the winter days passed, growing longer but no warmer and no finer.
One would have had early touches of spring by this time in the South, but
here it was still winter undiluted. The violence and frequency of the
winds was amazing. Indeed I seldom remember having less than a stiff
breeze, and every now and then a full tearing howling gale would scour
the bare low-lying island till it seemed as if even the houses could
scarcely stand up to it much longer, while the sea would be one
bewildering chaos of breaking and subsiding crests, white against the
leaden furrows, surging on till they smashed into a continuous line of
foam along our iron coast.
How the wind howled and whistled round that melancholy mansion of the
doctor's! I forget who had built it, or why; some land agent or factor, I
think, who had once lived on the estate, but I know I frequently cursed
him. It stood up just high enough to catch the full force of every blast
that blew, and not quite high enough to get a really fine view. There was
too much bleak foreground, so that one got no value from the site
whatever so far as I could see. And, lord, it was draughty!
My only company was the doctor, and he was out most of the day. Even at
nights I began to find him a curiously moody companion. There were
moments when my suspicions revived again; he used to glance at me
furtively, leave the room mysteriously for half an hour at a time, and do
little more than grunt when he was spoken to. And then next day he would
be such a pleasant, sensible, downright sort of fellow that I could only
remember his simple telling of the tale of my own visit, and dismiss him
from my calculations.
And so life went on for some three weeks uneventfully enough for a
desperate and disguised adventurer. I received several letters from my
uncle, and I was thankful it had been arranged I should not answer them.
The dear man had evidently such a twopenny-coloured conception of the
hazardous life I was leading that a truthful recital of my adventures
might have brought him down in person to stir things up. But there was
nothing to stir; I could only wait.
THE SPECTACLED MAN
It was, I remember, on a rare day of bright, still, frosty weather, that
Mr. Hobhouse returned a little late for the doctor's mid-day dinner. The
garrulous creature was looking thoughtful and, as it were, subdued;
wanting a dram, no doubt, thought any who chanced to spy him in this
unusual condition. But as he opened the front door he became his foolish
self instantaneously. The sound of a strange voice had reached him
"Let me introduce Captain Whiteclett--Mr. Hobhouse," said the doctor,
He and the stranger had already begun dinner, and Commander Whiteclett
rose and bowed politely. Mr. Hobhouse bowed still more politely and
having the advantage of being at the doctor's back for the moment, was
able to embellish his low obeisance with several curious facial
expressions. The Commander at the same moment was attacked with a sharp
bout of coughing, but presently recovering, the meal proceeded very
It appeared that Commander Whiteclett was visiting the island in the
course of a tour of inspection, and having some acquaintance with the
doctor had dropped in for lunch. He seemed pleased to meet Mr. Hobhouse
and was as affable as naval officers always are, though every now and
then it might have been noticed by a very close observer that after
meeting that gentleman's eye, he showed a tendency to stare suddenly
out of the window for several moments. Mr. Hobhouse on his part was in
his most gushing humour, and in fact chatted almost continuously
through the meal.
As they passed out of the dining room ahead of the doctor, the two guests
exchanged a whisper, and about quarter of an hour later Mr. Hobhouse
declared that he must set forth and resume his antiquarian researches,
and effusively bade the Commander good-bye. Thereupon the Commander said
he also must be off and wondered in which direction his fellow guest was
walking. It chanced that they were both going the same way and so they
"Well, you ridiculous looking dipsomaniac, how do you like water for
dinner?" enquired the Commander when they were safely out of earshot.
"It lies cold on the tummy," said I, "and if you've brought a
"I have," said my cousin, "but wait a bit till there are no
witnesses. And by the way, old chap, I must tell you that you're a
d----d good actor."
"My photograph has appeared in the _Tatler_" I confessed.
"And what news?" he asked.
"Up till this morning I should have said 'none.' My dear Jack, it has
been the most hopelessly baffling business you can possibly imagine. I
think I am quite a success as an alcoholic patient, and also accepted by
this time as the typical harmless antiquary. So I am able to wander all
over the place and talk to everybody, but there has been nothing to take
hold of! I have seen no sign of anything happening--" I caught his eye
and asked quickly, "Has anything happened?"
"Signalling night before last and a submarine seen yesterday that we
suspect of having been here."
"Under my nose!" I groaned. "A fat lot of good I am!"
"My dear chap, you can't possibly watch the whole coast all night and
every night. This time the signals were seen from the sea as a matter of
fact. But you can note the night, and also the hour, which was 2:45 a.m.,
G.M.T., as near as I can make out from the report. By the way, you had
better set your watch by mine now while we remember. Possibly you may be
able to discover who was out at that hour night before last."
"I may, but it's a thousand to one against it. Give me a thousand
such chances, and I'll get him! That's just about how it seems to
work out so far."
"Haven't you got any new ideas?"
"Without new evidence, what new ideas can one get? And I only got my
first piece of evidence this morning. In fact, I haven't had time to
think it over yet."
"Let's hear it," said my cousin keenly.
"I have been on the track of that old boy with spectacles, as being the
only definite thing to look for so far. I did what Bolton did--went to
see every old man in the place, and this morning I polished off the last
of them and came to the same conclusion as he did. There is no such old
gentleman on the island. But there _was_ one, for a short time one
morning; and he was a fake like Thomas Sylvester Hobhouse; and this
morning I've heard of some one else who saw him!"
"By Gad!" exclaimed my cousin. "That sounds like the beginning of
"Only the beginning, I'm afraid. This morning I interview my last old
man--to find of course he wasn't the fellow I was after. I interviewed
him on the usual subject--ancient traditions of the island, and from that
we passed on to the latest tradition, the legend of the mysterious
visitor last August. He told me all about it, with many embellishments.
However he was shrewd enough not to believe all he heard, and to show me
what absurd stories are put about, he informed me that his own small
grand-daughter, aged six, had declared that she had seen the mysterious
visitor, only she described him as having a white beard and funny
spectacles. I asked him exactly where this phenomenon had been observed,
and by Jingo, Jack, it was at the very place I met him; only when she saw
him he had left the road and was hurrying down to the sea. She described
him as running, which finally demolished her reputation for truthfulness,
for as her grandfather observed, men of his age don't run. But that was
my friend right enough!"
"Heading for the sea?"
"For the beach, I take it. You see you can pop over the edge almost
anywhere along that shore, and get out of sight among the rocks in a
moment. I presume he squatted down there, pocketed his spectacles and
beard, took off his disreputable overcoat, and either hid it or possibly
pinned up the skirts and put it on under his other coat, and walked off
looking like--well, that's the rub, what did he look like then? And
that's just where I seem no forrader."
"Still, this is something."
"Yes, and I suppose we ought to deduce something more from the episode.
I've already concluded that the high piping voice he used might well
have concealed an accent, and I've also decided from what I've heard of
the local language since that he hadn't the native intonation."
"And he headed for the beach," added my cousin. "Therefore he certainly
did not come from any house in the near neighbourhood."
"That puts the doctor's house out of court, if you're right. But he may
possibly have thought it better not to do his dressing up at home."
"I see you've still got you knife into O'Brien!" laughed my cousin. "But
I think my notion is the likeliest--"
He broke off suddenly and we instinctively moved a pace further apart. A
figure had appeared round a turn of the road just ahead of us, a trim,
dainty figure, delightful to see in such a place, but a little
disconcerting to see so suddenly and so close to us. It was Jean Rendall,
looking her best, but not, it seemed to me, quite in the right place.
Had she noticed anything? There was not a sign of it in her greeting. She
gave us both one of her quick smiles, and as Jack pulled up to speak to
her, she stopped too, and in talking to him, I noticed afresh how full of
expression those neatly chiselled, rather petite, features became when
she talked, and what a charming little air of knowing her way about the
world she had. Young though she was, I could see in her very clearly
either a valuable friend or a dangerous enemy--and what an easy girl to
fall in love with, had circumstances been very different!
Jack explained in a very natural off-hand manner how he came to be in Mr.
Hobhouse's company, and Mr. Hobhouse corroborated his statement in his
own effusive way. And then as we parted, she threw her smile full on that
gentleman, and asked,
"Why haven't you been to see us again, Mr. Hobhouse? Do come to
tea one day!"
Mr. Hobhouse gabbled a polite but slightly, evasive reply, and we
"Do you mean to say," demanded my cousin, "that you have only been to see
this delectable lady once?"
"That's all," I admitted.
"What's the reason? It isn't very like our methods, Roger."
"It isn't," I admitted again. "But then you see what with pestilential
weather and all these antiquarian visits to pay, my available time has
been pretty well occupied."
"But that house is one to keep a particular eye on."
"That house has got a pair of particularly bright eyes in it. On my one
visit there I felt a little too like walking on the edge of a precipice
to wish to repeat the experience often. If that girl suspects me, Jack,
and _if_ she isn't the right sort, we are dished."
"Oh, dash it. I can't believe she's mixed up in this business!" he
declared. "Of course one mustn't trust anybody; still, that doesn't
prevent your going to tea with her. In fact what you really ought to be
doing is making love to her--so long as you keep your head."
"I am handicapped," I pointed out, "by drunken habits, a beard, and
Mother Beagle's Beautiful Black Dye. No, Jack, I do not see orange
blossom this trip."
"Apart from these romantic dreams," persisted my cousin, "she is far more
likely to be inquisitive about you if you never go near the house. In
fact I could see it in her eye to-day."
"Well," I said, "I'll call to-morrow and dispel her interest in me."
Since my talk with the doctor, his theory about Jean Rendall had crossed
my mind occasionally, and improbable as it was, I thought I might as
well test it.
"By the way," I asked, "did you by any chance ever speak to Miss Rendall
about my last visit to the island?"
His look of surprise was a sufficient answer in itself.
"Speak to her of your adventure? Not a word at any time! Why?"
"The doctor has an idea that she knows more than she says, and that you
may have told her something."
"I knew it was," I assured him.
And so that possibility was finally eliminated.
We thought it wiser that our ways should part some little distance
from the pier.
"Good-luck, old chap," said he, shaking my hand. "Keep playing the game
you're at and don't worry about trying to keep a lookout at nights.
That's being done already, and though I don't believe the fellows are
much use--not with such crafty devils against them--you can't do anything
to help 'em. Getting out at night is too risky, and you're too far away
at the house. Your game is to work it from the other end. Sooner or later
they are absolutely bound to give you a clue."
His spirit and my little discovery of the morning sent me back in a
distinctly more hopeful mood.
Next day I set out in the early afternoon to pay my call. The fine
weather still held, bright sunshine with a nip in the air and the road
underfoot firm with frost, and I strode along in a wonderfully confident
mood, all things considered. For to tell the truth, I had been funking
this visit. Instinctively I did not trust myself with Miss Jean Rendall.
If she had any suspicions and if she turned on to me the art of her sex
and the charms of her particular self, I was well aware that Thomas
Sylvester would have a bad time of it. In fact I really dared not answer
for the fellow's nerve. He being both critical and susceptible, a girl
with Jean's distinctive aroma was dangerous company with a job of this
kind on hand. And playing the whisky-enfeebled fool in a dirty black
beard ceased entirely to amuse me when the other party was Miss Rendall.
However, this morning Mr. Hobhouse felt braver, and stepped out briskly,
resolved to do his bit.
As he approached the house, the front door opened and the very lady
herself appeared. She carried a stick and was evidently setting forth
on a walk.
"This is very nice of you to come so soon, Mr. Hobhouse," she said. "I am
glad I hadn't gone further before you appeared."
"Oh, but don't let me stop you, Miss Rendall," said Mr. Hobhouse
anxiously. "Really, I can't allow it; no, no, really not. You mustn't
turn back, indeed you mustn't! Perhaps I shall find Mr. Rendall at home."
"I was only going for a walk to nowhere in particular." She looked at
him with an irresistible mixture of coyness and frankness and
suggested, "Would you care to come for a little walk too? It's far too
early for tea."
What could the poor gentleman do? He gushed over the suggestion of
course, and accepted it.
"I was going to walk down to the shore," she said. "Will that suit you?"
Mr. Hobhouse assured her that anywhere would suit him; he had no choice
at all: anywhere, everywhere, nowhere would be all the same to him.
As they walked side by side down towards the sea, he was suddenly struck
with the sense of being in a familiar situation, of a repetition of
something that had happened before. And then he realised that this was
actually the walk that the same girl and a young man Merton had taken on
a memorable August night. He noted through his glasses the very wall
behind which he had lit his pipe when the flare of his match revealed the
butt end of a pistol, and presently they were following the same winding
way above the beach.
This did not serve to make the playing of his part any the easier. It
filled him in fact with a continual fear of giving himself away by doing
something he had done before. It was really a most irrational fear; but
there it was. Under the circumstances his sustained babble and blink were
But what gave him a more excusable cause for apprehension was Miss
Rendall's own attitude. That there was something on her mind, something
behind her words, he felt morally certain. She spoke in the most natural
way and on the most commonplace topics, but there were frequent silences
and it was during those he felt that without looking directly at him,
she was watching him. And once or twice he got it into his head that she
was a little puzzled and uncertain, though whether it was about what to
think or what to do, he had no conception. He told himself that all this
was only his own morbid imagination. Still, it made that walk an
uncomfortable ordeal and seldom did actor have to work harder to keep
his end up.
Luckily however the man had the virtue of impudence and not only did
he manage to entertain the lady with a garrulous account of his
antiquarian researches (reasoning acutely that women are seldom experts
in such matters), but he even ventured to broach a delicate subject for
his own ends.
"The gentleman who--er--resided with Dr. Rendall last summer was not, I
believe, very interested in antiquities," he observed. "Did you know him,
Miss Rendall? Mr. O'Brien was his name, I believe."
"Yes," she said, "I knew Mr. O'Brien."
There was certainly no trace of any feeling, whether of like or dislike,
in her voice.
"Not a very pleasant fellow, I believe," Mr. Hobhouse went on. "At least
I should judge not; I should gather not. But I trust he wasn't a friend
of yours, Miss Rendall?"
"Not a particular friend. But why do you think he was unpleasant?"
"Oh, only from Dr. Rendall's references to him--only from that, I assure
you," said Mr. Hobhouse with propitiating eagerness.
"Really?" said she, her eyes opening.
There was no doubt that this information genuinely surprised her.
"I thought they seemed great friends," she added.
"Oh, they may have been--they may have been. I may be doing Mr. O'Brien
an injustice. Possibly I misunderstood your relative--quite possibly."
She was silent for a little while after this, and Mr. Hobhouse too ceased
chatting. He was eyeing the shore line very curiously and trying to piece
together his recollections of it.
"I think perhaps we have gone far enough now," said she, and for a minute
or two they stood still; and a very distinct sense of being in a familiar
situation was borne in upon her companion.
And then all at once she exclaimed,
"Do you hear anything?"
I started and stared at her. For the moment I had ceased to be Mr.
Hobhouse, so straight had I been carried back to that night six months
ago. Those were her very words, and if I were not much mistaken this was
the very place. I nearly answered as I had answered before, but was just
able to check myself. And then she broke the spell by laughing.
"It's only the sea! But it sounded so funny and hollow."
There was indeed a low gurgle just audible, as if the waves were
breaking into some cave. It struck me that she must have singularly
sharp ears to have noticed it. We stood there for a minute or two
longer, and then she asked,
"Do you see any ancient remains, Mr. Hobhouse?"
It was not in fact ancient remains that the eye glasses were looking at,
but I jumped at the chance of making sure of my bearings, and with an
appearance of great eagerness told her that there seemed to be something
decidedly interesting in the appearance of the rocks at that place.
"I can wait for a moment if you'd like to look at them nearer," she said.
"This is luck!" I said to myself as I scrambled down. "I believe I've
found the actual place."
A few minutes exploration left no doubt in my mind. I found the very
cliff face under which I had been decoyed and was able to clear up one
point. A man above could easily have struck at me with some implement,
say, six feet long. I shut my eyes and pictured that curved mystery,
and then in a flash I had it: a scythe blade tied to a pole! If I
could find a scythe blade fastened to a pole, or a blade and pole
separate, I should not be far off the end of my quest. The next moment
I smiled at my own optimism when I realised what a house to house hunt
that would imply. Still, I saw a fresh possibility and came back
silently thanking my guide.
Conversation was rather easier coming back, perhaps because I felt in
higher spirits and could play my absurd part with more gusto. Still, the
girl remained a little disquieting. She was now in a very smiling and
friendly mood, and a man who blinked through gold rimmed glasses and
giggled through a dyed beard ought to have felt exceedingly flattered.
But now I was saying to myself that for a girl of fastidious taste she
was really too nice to such a fellow. And then I remembered that O'Brien
had a black beard too, and the thought struck me,
"Can she have such pleasant recollections of black beards that I am
providing her with reminiscent romance?"
I think it was just as this idea occurred to me that she roused me very
sharply from my meditations.
"I suppose you have heard of the mysterious man who appeared here last
summer?" she enquired.
It took Mr. Hobhouse all this time to adjust himself to this question,
but I think he managed it not unsuccessfully.
"The--ah? Oh, yes, oh, yes. The doctor told me the story. Most
mysterious--most mysterious! What do you make of it yourself, Miss
"Did the doctor tell you that I once walked with him along this very
shore? It was at night too, and he was armed with a pistol!"
A single stare of astonishment was fortunately able to cover two
emotions. My own was expressed in the thought, "What the devil is she
driving at now?" Mr. Hobhouse's was expressed otherwise.
"You don't say so! God bless me; what a risk to run! He didn't--er--shoot
at you, I hope?"
"No," she said, "he seemed pretty harmless."
"Ah, but you shouldn't run such risks, my dear young lady; you really
shouldn't! Now I remember a young lady whom I used to know--" And
thereupon Mr. Hobhouse launched into an improbable anecdote which tried
his inventive powers considerably. However, he was able to make it, and
the comments thereupon lasted till they were back at the house.
The fact was that my hardihood was not quite sufficient to stand a
conversation about my own self behind my own back. It might have been
amusing, and it might have been instructive, but it would certainly have
been embarrassing. However the incident served to reassure me that
whatever she suspected me of (and I could not get that sense of being
watched out of my head), it was not the correct suspicion. Had she
guessed the truth I could see no point at all in her reminiscence of the
mysterious stranger, unless it were sheer pointless mischief, and she did
not seem a pointless lady. Besides, when I glanced at myself in the
drawing room mirror, I said to myself, "Who could possibly guess!"
After that walk, tea and a talk with her father were unexciting
episodes. She kept very much in the background, but when we parted I
seemed to note again that flicker of a very alluring smile.
"Can it be that she has a morbid taste for inebriates?" I wondered. "One
has heard of women with curiously diseased fancies. Or perhaps she has
simply a passion for reforming them. One of those smiles for every sober
hour would be a distinct inducement to behave!"
But this was not business and as I walked home I turned my thoughts
sternly to that scythe blade.
As I neared my bleak sanatorium I said to myself,
"If only something would happen!"
Week after week spent within those walls or in wandering over this
limited space of muddy roads and sodden fields, with nothing to show for
it, was an unexhilarating prospect. Perhaps the recollection of the
comfortable house and the pleasant company I had just left accentuated
this feeling, and the swift disappearance of our glimpse of crispness and
sunshine did nothing to raise the heart. In that low-lying isle one got
the most extraordinary views of the weather and could see storms
approaching when they were still leagues away, and portents of rain or
wind hours ahead of their coming. This evening the frost had vanished,
the sun was sinking into a grey-blue bank, little filaments of wind
clouds were reaching all over the sky, and a stiff chilly breeze was
already blowing in from the sea.
"We are going to have a change," I thought.
And we were indeed going to have a change; and of more than weather.
Those storm clouds were blowing up the something I wanted to happen,
though how promptly would I have changed my wish had I but guessed! But
Fate had loosed that nor'west gale and there was no stopping the order of
In the night I remember waking once or twice to hear the wind shouting
down the chimney, and to feel very snug in bed. When I got up it was
still blowing a full gale, and looking out of my window I could just
catch a glimpse of the masts and funnels of a large steamer which seemed
to be lying under the lee side of the island for shelter. What she was
precisely I could not see enough of her to say, nor when we met at
breakfast, did the doctor know more about her.
Like many a storm that springs up very suddenly, this one began to
subside as fast, and in the course of the morning I set out to have a
closer look at the strange ship. Quarter of an hour's walk in that
direction told me all I wanted to know about her. In fact I recognised
her as no stranger at all but an old acquaintance, H.M.S. _Uruguay_, a
great lump of an ex-liner once running to South American ports with a
band in the saloon at nights. Now, painted grey, with the white ensign
flying over her, and some hundreds of blue jackets and a formidable
complement of six inch guns aboard, she was one of those auxiliary
cruisers which have been doing so many odd jobs and getting through so
much dirty, risky, arduous work during this war.
What had brought her under the lee of Ransay I could but guess; some
engine trouble and that gale on top of it most probably, but there she
was, and there were the islanders standing at each door gazing at her. I
gazed too for a while and then came back to our early dinner.
Going out again in the afternoon, the affable Mr. Hobhouse was passing
the time of day with a couple of petty officers within five minutes, and
as he continued his walk he saw that, whatever was the reason, H.M.S.
_Uruguay_ was not going to leave immediately. The wind had now fallen to
a stiff breeze, and as she lay under the shelter of the island, shore
leave had evidently been given to a number of the men. First at one farm
and then at another he could spy parties of blue jackets buying butter
and eggs, poultry and cheeses, everything fresh from the land they could
get. It was cheerful to see them again, and yet one uncomfortable thought
did cross my mind as I looked at their great grey ship anchored there.
"What a sitting target for a submarine!" I said to myself. "Pray Heaven
no submarine turns up here to-day!"
I had gone out to the bare northern headland and was heading home again
for tea when I happened to see on the road a small knot of these blue
jackets, just parting from a couple of countrymen. This pair turned
towards me and in a moment I recognised my acquaintances Peter Scollay
junior and Jock. Mr. Hobhouse had visited their house several times by
now and was on the most friendly terms with the family.
"Good-day, Peter!" he cried as he passed them. "Have you been taking your
brother to look at the ship?"
For some reason Peter stared at him in an odd way, and Jock burst into
one of his loudest laughs. Peter seemed to mumble something which Mr.
Hobhouse failed to catch, and then when they had passed, he could see him
To be laughed at without knowing the reason why is always irritating,
even to one of Mr. Hobhouse's exceptionally amiable temperament, and it
had the effect of suddenly sharpening his critical faculties. A thing
struck him that had never happened to strike him before. What was that
great strapping Scollay fellow doing at home on a small croft where he
was quite superfluous, when his country needed every man? And why did
the lout stare and then laugh? Considering what a vigilant eye was
watching him behind Mr. Hobhouse's glasses, it seemed to me unwise as
well as rude.
In a moment I passed the blue jackets, who were distributing some
purchases among their party before they set out for their ship, and I
saw a possible excuse for Peter's amusement, though it seemed a poor
one. The men were carrying a couple of baskets of eggs, two or three
large cheeses, a parcel which probably contained butter, and one or two
poultry. Presumably the pair had been selling them some of this
assortment, and perhaps my suggestion that they had been merely
sight-seeing struck them as humorous. It argued a poor sense of humour;
still, there was one possibility.
Once more the amiable Mr. Hobhouse showed his friendly spirit by
addressing a few kindly words to the good fellows (that was what he
called them, as being the phrase most suited to his foolish appearance),
and in his artless way he was able to gather that he had been correct in
supposing that Peter and Jock had been amongst their purveyors.
Unfortunately he had not the foresight to enquire particularly which of
the articles those two had purveyed. But I wonder very much whether any
possible reader of this account, given what I knew up to this point, can
honestly say that he would have put that question?
Well, I got home and sat down to high tea with Dr. Rendall, and of course
he began to talk of the _Uruguay's_ visit. Even if nothing else had
happened afterwards, such an event would have given Ransay food for
several days' conversation.
"We are probably eating our last eggs and our last butter for the next
week to come," he said with a laugh. "These sailors have cleared the
island out, from all I can hear. They've even been to this house and
got what they could, and I believe they practically cleaned out my
"Really?" said Mr. Hobhouse. "Really indeed? Ha, ha! Do you know I found
even the Scollays selling them things."
"Oh, I expect every one has been making hay while the sun shines," said
He had had one of his moody attacks so lately as the day before, but he
had quite recovered his good humour by now, and in fact was in an extra
jovial mood that evening. We sat up till about half-past ten, and then
went up to our bedrooms.
I had reached the stage of pyjamas and was just opening my window for the
night when the dreadful thing happened. Suddenly the whole island seemed
to be illuminated. I turned my eyes instinctively to the place where the
_Uruguay_ lay, and there high into the heavens mounted a blinding pillar
of flame. The wind was still blowing pretty fresh away from me and
towards the ship, but even against it the roar that followed shook every
window and door in the house. The pillar of flame vanished the next
instant, but high in the air fire-balls seemed to linger for some
minutes. And then the pillar of smoke rose up. It rose and rose, swift
and gigantic, growing all the while greater and more terrible in girth,
till at last when it was some hundreds of feet high it slowly stretched
out at the top until it looked like some huge evil tree seen in a
And there I stood at the window and stared. And there on the spot where
H.M.S. _Uruguay_ with her crew of hundreds and all her complement of
officers (largely R.N.R. and R.N.V.R. men like myself) had lain, stood
that gigantic pillar of smoke. Then all at once I realised that
everything living in that ship and most of her inanimate self was
represented now only by that foul column.
I heard the doctor's door open and his voice say: "Mr. Hobhouse!
I had presence of mind to clap my glasses hurriedly on my nose, before I
rushed into the passage.
"What has happened? Is that the ship gone, do you think?" he asked in a
I noticed that he seemed a man with a good control over his feelings. I
had mine, too, pretty well in hand, but to play the absurd Thomas
Hobhouse at such a moment was more than I cared to do. I preferred to
show a little of what I felt and get away from him on that excuse. So I
stammered something, and then we looked at one another for a moment, and
I hurriedly went back to my room.
BOLTON ON THE TEACK
"Only one survivor."
The doctor looked into my room about eight o'clock next morning to give
me this brief bulletin. At breakfast he told me he had been out most of
the night, but there had only been that single case for him. A boat from
the island had picked a solitary living seaman out of the scum of oil,
blackened by it like a negro and without a stitch of clothing. Some of
the dead had been found, but not in a condition to be discussed, and of
course many fragments of debris. And now a number of patrol boats were on
the scene, he had handed over his patient to a naval doctor, and that was
all the news of the tragedy up till eight o'clock.
I knew that John Whiteclett would certainly be in one of the patrol
boats, and I spent the morning in looking out for him. Thus by an
apparent accident when the Commander did land about noon he very soon
walked into Mr. Hobhouse. My cousin's face was grave and set, and there
being no witnesses, neither of us luckily had to act.
"Well, Jack?" I said.
"Did you see it happen?" he demanded.
"I happened to be at my window."
"Tell me what you saw," said he.
I told him and he nodded at intervals.
"Just what a couple of other witnesses have told me," he said.
"Submarines?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"The odds against a torpedo sending a ship straight up like that are
enormous. And one would have heard two explosions--which nobody did.
Besides, the one man who was picked up has luckily been able to talk a
little already. I am certain there was no torpedo attack."
"She simply blew up then?"
"That was it."
"Accident or design?"
"God knows! Perhaps no one else ever will. It may have merely been the
ammunition. As you know, that has happened before now. But it's a very
curious coincidence that it should have happened off Ransay, knowing what
we know. I hear a lot of the men were ashore buying things. I wonder what
they brought aboard with them!"
"I can tell you what one lot brought: eggs, poultry, cheeses, and a large
parcel in newspaper which I took to be butter. But that was only one
party I happened to see. They were all over the island."
He thought in silence for a few moments, and then he glanced at
"Look here, old chap," he said, "I'm afraid I must be getting off again
now. Walk back with me as far as it's safe and I'll tell you something
that you must know. We can discuss the evidence later, when a little more
has been collected. The point that concerns you is that Bolton has been
sent for again."
"The devil he has! Do I retire then?"
"Not at all. You see nobody in these parts is in the Hobhouse secret, so
they sent for Bolton at once to make his own kind of enquiries while we
make ours. You of course go on making yours in your own way just the
same. All the same I think it would be tactful to stand aside--with your
eyes open of course--while Bolton is on the job."
"Tactful," I agreed, "but a little annoying."
"Well, Roger, it can't be helped, I'm afraid. I'm not the boss here and
the man is on his way now as fast as he can travel. And now what about
telling him who you really are? I've been thinking it over, and if you
are agreeable I think I ought to."
I saw that this meant that he had decided he was going to, so I
"If you think it best, certainly tell him. Only swear him to secrecy."
"Certainly. And I'm sure the man himself will see the point in that. But
you see if I didn't tell him who you really were, he'd very likely put
you down as a suspicious character and recommend your removal."
"You're quite right," I agreed.
"Besides what you know may help him, and it would be a dog in the manger
kind of game to keep back anything, now that he has taken up the
"Right again. Well, I'll keep my nose out of the business till Bolton has
had his innings."
"Good man!" said Jack. "Well, we'd better separate now. Good luck to
I trust I am not of an unduly jealous disposition, but being thus asked
to take a back seat just as something really definite had happened was a
strain on my philosophy. The tragedy of the _Uruguay_ might not have
anything to do with the secret agency in the island--though I felt in my
bones it had, and Mr. Bolton might come and go and leave me possibly with
a little information to help my own quest. Still, it was annoying.
At the same time, my cousin's arguments were absolutely sound and I saw
perfectly that it would have been both foolish and ungenerous to play
Hobhouse with the man. So I went back and picked up a novel and tried to
dismiss the whole business from my mind in the meantime.
For the next twenty-four hours the island was full of gruesome stories
and the wildest rumours, but for most of the time Mr. Hobhouse stayed at
home and finished his novel. It was on the evening of the day after the
tragedy, when the doctor and he were sitting over the smoking room fire,
lighting their pipes after tea, that the bell rang. "Hallo, who's that at
this hour?" said the doctor.
I heard a heavy footstep in the passage, and guessed, but the only
announcement was that a gentleman wished to see Dr. Rendall. He was out
of the room for a long time, nearly an hour by the clock, and when he
came back his manner was serious and a little apologetic.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Hobhouse," said he, "and I assure you
there is nothing to worry about, but the fact is a detective is here and
wants to have a word with you."
"A detective!" exclaimed Mr. Hobhouse nervously. "You don't say so? Dear
me, what can he want me for!"
"He's a man Bolton," said the doctor, "the very man who came up about six
months ago under the name of Thompson and gave himself out as a cattle
dealer. By Jove, I can see now what he came for! But anyhow it's about
the _Uruguay_ business this time and he is interviewing everybody, and if
you don't mind, he'd like a few words with you."
I went into the dining room and saw for the first time my rival. He was
a big, sturdy, red-faced man, with a plain bluff manner, an ideal
dealer; but his were shrewd and keen. In fact once I had looked into
them I put him down as a better man than I had fancied. We exchanged a
conventional word on either side, and then both of us instinctively
glanced at the door.
"Better speak quietly, Mr. Merton," said he.
I nodded and said with a smile: "So you are not here as a dealer this
time, Mr. Bolton?"
"No," said he, "I want to get straight to business, and there's too much
humbug and waste of time if one has to talk cattle for half an hour
first. Besides, after what has just happened they'd be quite sharp enough
here to tumble to the game. Anyhow, the people I want to get at would be,
and there's no point in humbugging the others."
"Well," I said, "you know what I'm here for, and though I'm sorry to say
I haven't been able to pick up much so far, anything I have picked up is
at your service."
"Much obliged, Mr. Merton," said he. "We're like a couple of terriers
after the same rat, and as long as we get him that's all that matters.
You've had your go and now I'm going to have a little go."
He laughed genially, but it was clear enough that when he said two
terriers, he meant one terrier at a time, and I accepted the
"Right you are," I said. "I'll take a breather while you go in and finish
him off. Only of course if you want me to lend a hand, here I am, with
nothing else to do."
He seemed distinctly relieved by this declaration and grew more friendly
"Well now to come to business," he said. "I must tell you frankly in the
first place, Mr. Merton, that there were some things in your story last
time you were here that I didn't know just how much to believe in. The
most truthful people sometimes imagine the queerest things. If you'd had
my experience, Mr. Merton, you'd feel just the same about a tale like
yours. But now I know you and know what's been happening here, and
particularly what's happened yesterday, it's a different story. Do you
mind just telling me in your own words about what you saw last time and
anything you've noticed this trip?"
My opinion of Mr. Bolton's shrewdness continued to rise as I noticed his
close attention to my tale and how much to the point his questions were.
Every now and then he stopped me while he made a jotting in a fat little
brown leather pocket book, and at the end he observed.
"Well, Mr. Merton, it's a queer case but I daresay I may be able to
throw a bit of light on things before I've done."
I wondered very much, and from the look on his face I do not believe for
a moment that he saw a single blink of light at that time.
"And now," said he, "coming to this explosion, I don't want to hear
anything more about the flames and smoke and such like. All that is for
the Navy people. It doesn't come under the head of my department, Mr.
Merton; but this buying of stuff ashore and taking parcels aboard the
ship, that does come under it. In fact that's what I'm up here to
investigate, for it's pretty clear even to a man like me that knows
nothing of ships that any one on this island couldn't swim out and hold a
match to a ship o' war and blow her up that way! If it _was_ done from
here, it must have been by one of those parcels."
"Obviously," I agreed. "And I also agree that it's for the experts to
decide whether a bomb could be slipped into a paper parcel of butter or a
large cheese, or anything else they bought; and for you simply to find
out exactly what was bought and who sold it."
"A paper parcel of butter and a large cheese," he repeated. "Did you
happen to see any of those things being sold yourself?"
"I happened to pass some blue jackets who had just bought them."
He made me tell him exactly the circumstances of my seeing the men and
my passing Peter and Jock previously; precisely in fact as I have told it
in this account. He thought for a few moments in silence after I had
finished and then asked me if I knew definitely of any other people who
had sold anything to the sailors.
"I happen to know for certain of Dr. Rendall and his cousin Mr. Philip
Rendall--or rather Mr. Philip Rendall's farmer, but from all I saw and
all I heard I fancy the difficulty will be to find a house that did not
He nodded thoughtfully.
"That's exactly the difficulty," he said, and then he rose and held out
his hand. "Goodnight, Mr. Merton, I'm much obliged to you and I'll
promise you to make an excuse for looking you up very soon again and
letting you know how I am getting on. By the way, you had better tell the
doctor I was much interested in your account of how the explosion
happened. That will account for my calling again."
"I must have detective instincts myself," I smiled. "I had already
thought of the same lie."
In fact it came in very handy no later than Mr. Bolton's departure that
night. The doctor wondered very much what the detective had to say to his
patient that took him so long to tell, and his curiosity was satisfied as
WHERE THE CLUE LED
I saw nothing of Bolton next day, nor as a matter of fact did I expect
to. Indeed, when he called for me on the morning after, it was a good
deal sooner than I had counted on. The doctor was out, so no fable was
necessary, and I took him into the smoking room and offered him an
"Well, Mr. Bolton, any news?" I enquired.
He remained standing, and shook his head at the chair.
"I've no time to sit down," he said, "but I thought I'd just look in as
There was a note in his voice that made me look at him sharply.
"Have you discovered anything?" I asked.
He nodded his head slowly.
"Not very much, Mr. Merton, but something."
Yet there seem to be a hint of jubilation in his eye.
"Won't you tell the other terrier?"
His face relaxed a little and for a moment I half thought he was going
to confide in me, and then he said,
"It's a little too soon to say much. But I'm on the track of something, I
don't mind admitting; something pretty surprising too, if it's the right
track. Possibly I may be able to tell you more to-night. Could you come
out this evening with me if I needed you?"
"Well," he said, moving towards the door, "any time after dark I may look
in--if this leads to anything."
"Even if it doesn't, look in and put me out of suspense, like a good
fellow-'tec,' Mr. Bolton."
He smiled again. Evidently he was decidedly pleased with himself
"All right, Mr. Merton. I'll do that much for you."
Just before I opened the door for him I had one last shot.
"Won't you even give me a hint, Mr. Bolton?"
He looked at me for a moment, and then said in a low voice (for we were
near the door),
"There's some one in this island who hasn't lived in it all their
life--not by any means. I've found that out."
He nodded significantly at me, but his lips closed tight again and I saw
there was no more to be got out of him, so I wished him luck and returned
to my chair to think.
Whether excitement at the prospect of actually reaching the crisis of
this adventure that very night, or chagrin at seeing the problem which
had eluded me solved straight off by this great drover of a fellow was my
uppermost feeling, I should be afraid to say. I know both were strongly
mingled and for a few minutes it never even occurred to me to question
whether the man really was within sight of a solution. And then I began
Who was this mysterious person who had not lived all "their" life on the
island? He had concealed, probably deliberately, "their" sex. And was it
then a fact of which I myself was unaware? Bolton said he had found it
out. But it might be no news to me. I thought of several people, a woman
and at least two men, who had certainly lived a considerable part of
their lives out of the island. But there was no use speculating with the
test so near at hand.
All the same I felt so restless that I should have gone out to walk it
off there and then had it not been for the fear that I might chance to
follow in Bolton's tracks and lead him to think I was doing it
deliberately. At all costs I wanted him to see that I was playing the
game (as I was playing it), so I waited till after our early dinner and
then set off.
I well remember the day, a nasty raw specimen of March weather, not
exactly raining, but trying to all the time, and altogether grey and
dismal. The spring ploughing was proceeding apace, and as the fields grew
brown, there was less and less trace of colour left in the landscape. In
fact it was a day when something evil could scarcely help happening; or
at least it seems so looking back.
I walked briskly to keep the chill out, following the winding road, but
so wrapt in my thoughts that I hardly noticed where I was going till I
found myself passing from the metalled highway on to the rough track that
led one beyond the last of the farms out to the desolate stretch of
country at the nor' west end of the island. At both sides, and especially
on the north, the rocks rose here till they became genuine cliffs, not
very high, but rugged and broken, with little hollows dipping down
through them here and there and giving scrambling access to small coves.
I kept along near this northern cliff line, still thinking all the while,
until with a start and a quickening of my heart I became abruptly
conscious of a figure fifty yards or so ahead.
I had a sudden dim recollection; he seemed disturbingly familiar, and
then in a moment I recognised Jock, though why the sight of Jock should
rouse a disturbing thought was more than I could say. When I saw him he
was close to one of those little dips, but whether he had been down at
the shore or not, I could not say, for up to that instant I had been
quite inattentive. But in any case Jock was such a chronic aimless
wanderer that his appearance anywhere never surprised his acquaintances.
Evidently he recognised the harmless eccentric Mr. Hobhouse quickly
enough, for he broke into a shambling trot and came towards me with an
unusual air of eagerness.
"Stones!" he cried as he came up to me. "Jock knows stones!"
"Stones?" said I genially. "Dear me, Jock, this is great news. Are these
the stones?" and I pointed to the rocks all about us.
"Stones here!" cried Jock pointing eagerly across towards the other side
of the promontory, and catching me by the arm in a friendly way.
I had never seen the creature so excited before and for a moment could
make neither head nor tail of it. And then I remembered. On my last visit
to the knoll near the Scollays', Jock had been watching me, and by way of
playing my part thoroughly I had affected a vast interest in certain
large slabs of stone showing here and there through the grass. Looking at
stones was the last thing I was keen about this afternoon, but there was
simply no resisting Jock. With the air of a pleased child he led me in
the way he wished me to go, only letting go my arm when he saw I really
meant to inspect his stones.
"This is an unusual exhibition for Jock," I thought, but in the
character of Mr. Hobhouse there was nothing for it but pretending high
gratification and going where he led me.
The promontory was about a third of a mile across at this point and when
we had made this journey, my intelligent guide triumphantly pointed out a
few ordinary boulders at the end of it. They were large, it is true, but
there their merits ended. However, I examined them with every appearance
of pleasure, thanked Jock effusively and even gave him a sixpence, and at
last bade him good-day and started for home.
It had been a queer little episode, and had I been in my usual
clue-hunting humour I should no doubt have dissected it carefully--and
then abused myself for being a fanciful fool. But this afternoon I had
too much else to think of and the incident passed out of my mind in
At tea I prepared the doctor for the possibility of my going out at night
by a long-winded, babbling, and entirely fictitious account of Bolton's
morning call, from which it appeared that Mr. Bolton was so interested in
Mr. Hobhouse's account of how he saw the ship blow up that he would
probably call in the evening to verify certain particulars and might even
want Mr. Hobhouse to come with him to the house where he was lodging.
And then after tea I smoked and read and waited.
Darkness was beginning to fall when we finished tea that night and the
lamps were lit when we went into the smoking room. At any moment the
summons might come, and yet eight o'clock struck, and nine, and ten, and
I even induced the doctor to sit up till after eleven, but still there
was no sign of Bolton. And then at last I said some severe things to
myself about the man, and we went to bed.
Next morning was equally chilly and dismal, and after the doctor went
out to visit a case, I sat over the fire resolved to stay there till Mr.
Bolton came and explained himself. I stayed there all morning, but he
never came, and no more did Dr. Rendall. Our dinner hour approached and
passed, and at last I sat down and had my meal alone. I had just
finished when I heard the front door open sharply and the doctor's step
in the passage. It struck me instantly as curiously quick for him. He
entered the dining room and I saw at once that something was very much
"Bolton has been murdered," he said abruptly. "His body has just been
found in the sea."
I leapt to my feet and stared at him. "Drowned?" I gasped.
"No, he was shot first with a pistol at close quarters. I've just been
examining the body."
"Where was it found?"
"Away right at the very North end."
Yesterday's episode rushed into my mind.
"At the very end?"
"It wasn't by any chance as much as half a mile on this side?"
He stared at me curiously and I remembered that this was certainly an odd
enquiry, and also that Mr. Hobhouse was speaking very concisely.
"No," he said. "Why do you ask?"
I took refuge in an ultra-Hobhousian explanation of how I had been there
myself a few days ago, and it had struck me as a very murderous looking
place, and then I asked,
"Is anything more known, doctor?"
"No," he answered, and then added abruptly and with unusual energy,
"This is absolutely damnable!"
He walked out of the room again as he spoke, and I was left to my
thoughts. I went into the smoking room but forgot to light my pipe. With
my head in my hands I bent over the fire and tried in the first place to
grasp this second tragedy, and then to piece things together and see some
sequence in them.
That Bolton had really been on the right scent now seemed highly
probable, though as he made no concealment of his business, it was
possible that an agency which had tried to murder me, defied all efforts
to check it for months, and to all seeming had lately blown up a cruiser,
might get rid of him simply on general principles. Still, the working
hypothesis must be that he had got on to their track. And, oh, if he had
only told me what he had discovered! But that secret had died with him,
and now once more one must begin all over again.
Yet this time I had secured one significant-looking starting point. The
coincidence of Jock's appearance out at that lonely place more or less
about the time when the murder must have taken place, and his leading me
away in another direction from that in which I was heading, was certainly
suggestive. The creature had exhibited more appearance of intelligence
than I had given him credit for, and might he not then be used by some
one who knew him well and had strong influence over him, to play such a
simple part as he had acted? Supposing he were with such a person and
that person saw me coming and did not wish me to spy him, how easy it
would be to say, "Go, Jock, and show that gentleman stones over there!"
As to whom to suspect of having such influence over him, that was easy
enough. I recalled young Peter Scollay's stare and laugh when I suggested
that they were going to look at the ship, and it sounded to me now a very
And yet the more I thought over all this, the more objections I saw. In
the first place the body was not found where I had seen Jock. True, it
might have been moved if the murderer had been wily and suspicious enough
to think that the simple Mr. Hobhouse was capable of connecting the
harmless episode of the stones with his gruesome work, though even that
seemed to imply more than was likely; but a more formidable difficulty
was the evidence of educated cunning in every crime committed or
attempted by that hand. For "that hand" I decided I must certainly
substitute "those hands." I had always thought there was more than one in
it, and now I felt surer of this than ever.
With the back of my head, as they say, I heard Dr. Rendall go into dinner
and then come out again into the hall, and then I heard him, instead of
coming into the smoking room, open and shut the front door. He had
evidently gone out again and I was not sorry to be left alone.
A little later, in the same absent-minded way, I heard the front door
bell faintly ring and I only woke out of my reverie when the smoking room
"Dr. Rendall is out, I hear," said a voice that made me jump up very
It was Jean Rendall, delightful to look at as ever, but with a new
expression on her face. If she was not anxious, and very keenly anxious
too, about something, I was much mistaken.
Unwillingly I resumed the role of Thomas Hobhouse and informed her
nervously that the doctor had gone out, I knew not where.
She said nothing for a moment, but still lingered. Then she said,
"What a dreadful thing about poor Mr. Bolton!"
"Dreadful!" agreed Mr. Hobhouse. "Terrible! Dreadful! Terrible!"
"Did my cousin tell you much about it?"
"Oh, no, not much, very little. He was upset, very much upset, I
"Everybody is," she said, and then added, "I should think you must be,
There seemed to be an odd note in her voice set up a vague chain
of disquieting emotions, but Mr. Hobhouse answered in the same
tone as before:
"Oh, yes, I am distressed; dreadfully distressed."
Again she was silent, but still she lingered.
"I am going to walk home again," she said suddenly. "Would you care to
walk a little way with me?"
At that moment I wanted my own company and had a certain shrinking from
hers; so the voice of Mr. Hobhouse bleated something about having caught
a slight chill.
"Please come a little way," she said. "I want to speak to you
There was a note of appeal in her voice which would have taken a stouter
man than Thomas Hobhouse to resist. Besides, he felt exceedingly curious.
Her whole manner during the interview in fact roused a very strong
sensation of curiosity.
He got his hat and his coat (Mr. Hobhouse always wore a topcoat) and they
crunched their way down the knobbly drive and passed out into the road,
neither saying a word. And then Mr. Hobhouse got the most rousing
eye-opener of his career, or of Roger Merton's either. She turned to him
and said quietly,
"I hope you are taking care of your own life, Mr. Merton."
A second or two passed before I was able to answer at all, and even then
my first remark was not in the least worthy of the occasion; but it
expressed precisely what was in my mind.
"How the--how on earth did you find me out?"
She smiled a little, but her manner was anxious still.
"I haven't lived all my life in Ransay," she said. "I have even been to
London and to quite a good many London theatres. In fact I've seen you
act before, Mr. Merton."
"What an extraordinary way to be found out!" I thought, and aloud I said,
"But my name isn't on the programme in Ransay."
"It was, when you were last here, you must remember," said she.
I looked at her for a moment, and she at me, and in that exchange of
glances I decided emphatically that there was no sign of evil in those
eyes. Anyhow, I stood to lose nothing if I got her confidence, and my
own could be withheld or not as I saw fit.
"We might as well be frank," I said. "How exactly did you come to spot
Again she smiled, and each time she smiled straight at me like that, I
confess frankly I grew less cautious.
"Do you remember when Captain Whiteclett came to arrest you, your
bed-room door was open gust for a minute?"
I did remember now and recalled her face outside and its very
"I heard him call you 'Roger' and saw that you knew each other well, and
then of course I knew we had been utterly wrong in thinking you a--"
She paused and I finished the sentence for her.
"Well, are you honestly surprised? You did do some most extraordinary
things, Mr. Merton! I only began to get the least idea of what you were
about some time afterwards."
"And what idea did you get then? And how did you get it?"
"It was when we began to hear of the bad name our island was getting.
_Then_ I guessed you must have been trying to investigate and catch the
traitor--and I had gone and interfered--and even locked you up!"
"It was you, then?"
"Well, father, of course, approved, but I locked the door. And after I
had found out the truth, I could have murdered myself! But why did you
puzzle us so?"
Her charm and sincerity and animation almost made me tell her there and
then, but I had just enough hold of myself to ask instead,
"But this doesn't explain how you came to find me out this time?"
"Well in a way it does; for I knew then that Roger Merton was your real
name and then I remembered where I had heard it before, and I knew you
were the same person. When you called as Mr. Hobhouse that first day I
hadn't the least suspicion to begin with, and then suddenly you began to
"With this beard!"
"Well, your face isn't all hidden by your beard and I thought I
recognised the other bits. If I hadn't known you were an actor--"
"A pretty bad one, it appears," I interposed.
"Oh, no, indeed, you were simply splendid! You still kept me puzzled and
only half certain even after I had met you and Captain Whiteclett
walking together and noticed you move apart when you saw me. In fact I
wasn't sure till that walk along the shore. I arranged that to make
"You arranged it!" I exclaimed. "The deuce you did, Miss Rendall!"
She laughed defiantly.
"I was dying to make sure! So when I saw you coming towards the house, I
rushed into my things and went out to meet you. I thought if I could take
you the same walk as we had been before, you could hardly help doing
something to give yourself away. And at last you did!"
"May I ask what my relapse was?"
"When I got you to the same place as last time and said the same thing,
I noticed you jump. And then you did really rather give yourself away
when I asked you if you wanted to look at the rocks, and you jumped at
the chance. I know nothing about antiquities--not even as much as you
do, Mr. Merton--"
"Hit me again!" I laughed.
"Oh, but it was very clever of you to pretend to be so learned!" she
hastened to say. "Still, I did know that there are no antiquities below
high water mark, so I knew you just wanted to inspect the place where
something happened to you before."
"Where what happened?" I enquired.
"That's what I want you to tell me! Oh, if you only knew how I've died to
know what happened that night!"
"How do you know anything happened?"
"I guessed," she said.
This may not sound convincing on paper, but it did as she said it. I was
almost ready, in fact, to swear by Jean Rendall now.
"And so you made sure of Thomas Hobhouse!" I said. "But why then didn't
you unmask him at once?"
"Oh, but it wasn't my business to! Of course I had guessed what you were
"Trying to rid our island of traitors of course! I had interfered with
you once, but I wasn't going to do it again. In fact I tried to reassure
you by talking of my walk with Mr. Merton."
"Miss Rendall," I said, "I am a child at this game. You did reassure
me. I have been as clay in your hands. But tell me one thing more. Why
on earth did you come out with me on that first walk--armed with that
"Oh, you saw it then!" she exclaimed.
"I almost smelt the slow match! But why did you do it?"
"Well, you know what I thought you were then, and there was no one else
to go with you."
"Then you actually went out with a spy at night to keep an eye on
him--and shoot him if he spied?"
"I should probably have missed!" she laughed.
I was quite ready to swear by Jean Rendall now. Talk of pluck! I never
heard of a more fearless performance!
"Please understand, Mr. Merton," she went on earnestly, "that I should
never have dreamt of letting you know that I had recognised you--I
haven't even told father, I assure you!--only when I heard of this
dreadful death of Mr. Bolton--"
She paused and glanced at me, half apologetically, half beseechingly,
"Well?" I said.
"Well, I realised the danger you were in supposing anybody else
guessed. And I thought I'd come and speak to you. I'm afraid I
sometimes act on impulse."
"So do I," I confessed. "In fact I'm going to act on impulse now. Do you
care to hear some bits of the story you don't know?"
Her eyes absolutely danced.
"Oh, I'd love to! I've been longing--dying to know the rest of it!
I've guessed and guessed, but I haven't been able to make any sense
out of things!"
I remembered my uncle's injunctions distinctly. I also remembered my
cousin's cautions and my own good resolutions. A woman, of all things, I
was to beware of; but I knew I was perfectly safe to throw overboard the
whole collection of cautions: and already I had a strong suspicion I
should be far from a loser by it. Miss Rendall seemed, in fact, to have
distinctly more natural capacity for detective work than I had, judging
by her performances so far.
So I plunged straight into the tale of my first landing on Ransay and my
adventure with the oilskinned man on the shore, and may I always have as
attentive an audience when I tell a story.
"So there is actually a German who dares to live on Ransay!" she
exclaimed, her cheeks flushing a little.
"A man whom I certainly took to be a German--a man who talks German
She fell very thoughtful and presently repeated,
"Middle-sized--with a beard--and dark eyes?"
"Yes," I said confidently; for somehow or other I began to feel
singularly sure of these features.
"Of course I know who you suspect," she said, looking up suddenly. "And
you had him removed from the island afterwards."
"You mean O'Brien? Yes, I did suspect him--though, mind you, I had
nothing to go on. Do you know if he talked German?"
"He once told me he did, but I never heard him, and I didn't
"One couldn't believe half he said, and I don't think he intended one to.
He was very Irish. But I don't believe he was the man."
"Why not?" I asked again.
"Oh, just because I don't. And what happened next?"
I told her of my night at the Scollays' and my plan for trapping the
spies. My self-respect as a criminal catcher was distinctly soothed to
hear her hearty approval of this scheme.
"It was awfully ingenious," she said decidedly. "I can't imagine a better
plan, and you did it so well that you took us all in completely. I
suppose you felt you had to count us among the suspicious characters, but
what a pity you hadn't confided in father or me as it happened! We would
have done everything we could to help you. I'd have loved to spread
dreadful rumours about you!"
"I'm sure you would," I said, "but as things turned out, and in the light
of what has happened since, I believe you saved my life by arresting me."
She turned on me and asked breathlessly.
"Did they guess who you really were? Did they try to do anything to you?"
"Merely murder me, as they murdered poor Bolton. The first attempt was
made that night on the shore."
I saw her lips parting as I neared the end of telling her that story, and
the instant I finished she cried,
"Of course you thought it was father!"
I did my best to shuffle out, but she was a hopeless person to try
"It was quite natural you should," she said, "but I can tell you
something now that throws some light on things. Next morning I heard that
a man had been calling for you after dinner and was told that you had
gone out with me. And the funny thing was that the maid didn't know him
by sight, or know his voice. He kept his face rather hidden, she said,
and talked in a low voice. Of course it simply increased our suspicions
of you. But that was how they knew where you were! And that was the man
who tried to kill you."
"And who'd have done it for certain if he had found me at home that
night," I added.
I must frankly confess that this little incident made me feel
uncomfortable. The audacity of the steps my enemies took, their
remorseless thoroughness, the extraordinary completeness with which they
covered their tracks, their appearances from nowhere and disappearances
into space, were particularly nasty to contemplate with Bolton's fate so
fresh in my mind.
"They are pretty thorough," I said.
She seemed to divine the thoughts behind this remark.
"But they haven't suspected you yet," she said reassuringly, "and they
mustn't! And now, tell me some more, Mr. Merton."
So I went on telling her more:--about the man with spectacles, the
shooting episode, every single thing in fact I could remember. As we
neared the house we walked more and more slowly, but my tale was barely
finished when we got there.
"You'll come in, won't you?" she said. "I know father is out, so we can
go on talking."
She saw me hesitate and her colour faintly rose.
"You do trust me now, surely!" she said.
"All the way, Miss Rendall. But these devils may be on to my track at any
moment, and if they suspect you are in my confidence--"
"What nonsense!" she cried, "if there's any risk I _want_ to share it.
For the credit of our island these people have got to be hunted down, and
I'd like them to know I'm hunting them! Besides, there's rather a nice
cake for tea; you must come in."
And in we went.
"Come into father's room and then you can smoke," said Jean.
It was the same pleasant, well-remembered room into which she had shown
me that day when I first made her acquaintance, and as I followed her in
now it struck me forcibly that I had taken the wrong turning that August
morning. If I had taken these people into my confidence then, I should at
least have started on the right road. Better than ever I realised what
tricks my instincts play me. Or perhaps it may be my efforts to regulate
them by the light of what I am pleased to call my reason that produce
such unhappy results.
"I am wondering how they found you out," she began. "It seems so
mysterious that they should have suddenly started to try and murder you
like that. They must have felt quite positive--and what made them feel
"Did you or your father say anything to anybody about my voice; that I
didn't seem to have so much accent as I had at first, or anything of
"Not a word," she said positively. "Father is the most uncommunicative of
people, and I have inherited some of his closeness."
"Your servants?" I suggested.
"They are Ransay girls, and one foreign accent is the same as another to
them," she laughed.
"Then it must have been finding the parachute. I always thought that
gave me away."
"But it wasn't found till Monday morning, after we had been for
"It might have been found by these people sooner."
"It might," she admitted without much conviction. "But still--who did you
see or speak to apart from us and Dr. Rendall and Mr. O'Brien?"
"The Scollays," I said, "and several farmers I happened to meet; but
always with a most suspicious accent. Oh, and there was one incident I
forgot to mention. On the Sunday afternoon I was doing a little fancy
shooting with my revolver down on the beach when Jock turned up. You know
Jock the idiot?"
"Well," she said, but her attention had evidently been caught by my first
words. "You were doing fancy shooting," she repeated. "Are you a very
"Quite useful," I admitted with becoming modesty. "That afternoon I was
rather above myself."
"Then," she cried, "you were seen, and that's why the man stopped
firing at you as soon as you aimed at him! He knew he would be hit if
he went on!"
I opened my eyes a little and smiled.
"That is a flattering solution," I said, "but if I may venture to say so,
it seems rather a bold inference."
"I'm certain it's right," she said confidently. "Did you speak to Jock?"
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