Dickson woke with a vague sense of irritation. As his recollections took form they produced a very unpleasant picture of Mr. John Heritage. The poet had loosened all his placid idols, so that they shook and rattled in the niches where they had been erstwhile so secure. Mr. McCunn had a mind of a singular candour, and was prepared most honestly at all times to revise his views. But by this iconoclast he had been only irritated and in no way convinced. "Sich poetry!" he muttered to himself as he shivered in his bath (a daily cold tub instead of his customary hot one on Saturday night being part of the discipline of his holiday). "And yon blethers about the working-man!" he ingeminated as he shaved. He breakfasted alone, having outstripped even the fishermen, and as he ate he arrived at conclusions. He had a great respect for youth, but a line must be drawn somewhere. "The man's a child," he decided, "and not like to grow up. The way he's besotted on everything daftlike, if it's only new. And he's no rightly young either—speaks like an auld dominie, whiles. And he's rather impident," he concluded, with memories of "Dogson.".... He was very clear that he never wanted to see him again; that was the reason of his early breakfast. Having clarified his mind by definitions, Dickson felt comforted. He paid his bill, took an affectionate farewell of the landlord, and at 7.30 precisely stepped out into the gleaming morning.
It was such a day as only a Scots April can show. The cobbled streets of Kirkmichael still shone with the night's rain, but the storm clouds had fled before a mild south wind, and the whole circumference of the sky was a delicate translucent blue. Homely breakfast smells came from the houses and delighted Mr. McCunn's nostrils; a squalling child was a pleasant reminder of an awakening world, the urban counterpart to the morning song of birds; even the sanitary cart seemed a picturesque vehicle. He bought his ration of buns and ginger biscuits at a baker's shop whence various ragamuffin boys were preparing to distribute the householders' bread, and took his way up the Gallows Hill to the Burgh Muir almost with regret at leaving so pleasant a habitation.
A chronicle of ripe vintages must pass lightly over small beer. I will not dwell on his leisurely progress in the bright weather, or on his luncheon in a coppice of young firs, or on his thoughts which had returned to the idyllic. I take up the narrative at about three o'clock in the afternoon, when he is revealed seated on a milestone examining his map. For he had come, all unwitting, to a turning of the ways, and his choice is the cause of this veracious history.
The place was high up on a bare moor, which showed a white lodge among pines, a white cottage in a green nook by a burnside, and no other marks of human dwelling. To his left, which was the east, the heather rose to a low ridge of hill, much scarred with peat-bogs, behind which appeared the blue shoulder of a considerable mountain. Before him the road was lost momentarily in the woods of a shooting-box, but reappeared at a great distance climbing a swell of upland which seemed to be the glacis of a jumble of bold summits. There was a pass there, the map told him, which led into Galloway. It was the road he had meant to follow, but as he sat on the milestone his purpose wavered. For there seemed greater attractions in the country which lay to the westward. Mr. McCunn, be it remembered, was not in search of brown heath and shaggy wood; he wanted greenery and the Spring.
Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flopping listless sails.
Something in the view caught and held his fancy. He conned his map, and made out the names. The peninsula was called the Cruives—an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that "cruives" had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind. The great house in the trees beyond—it must be a great house, for the map showed large policies—was Huntingtower.
The last name fascinated and almost decided him. He pictured an ancient keep by the sea, defended by converging rivers, which some old Comyn lord of Galloway had built to command the shore road, and from which he had sallied to hunt in his wild hills....He liked the way the moor dropped down to green meadows, and the mystery of the dark woods beyond. He wanted to explore the twin waters, and see how they entered that strange shimmering sea. The odd names, the odd cul-de-sac of a peninsula, powerfully attracted him. Why should he not spend a night there, for the map showed clearly that Dalquharter had an inn? He must decide promptly, for before him a side-road left the highway, and the signpost bore the legend, "Dalquharter and Huntingtower."
Mr. McCunn, being a cautious and pious man, took the omens. He tossed a penny—heads go on, tails turn aside. It fell tails.
He knew as soon as he had taken three steps down the side-road that he was doing something momentous, and the exhilaration of enterprise stole into his soul. It occurred to him that this was the kind of landscape that he had always especially hankered after, and had made pictures of when he had a longing for the country on him—a wooded cape between streams, with meadows inland and then a long lift of heather. He had the same feeling of expectancy, of something most interesting and curious on the eve of happening, that he had had long ago when he waited on the curtain rising at his first play. His spirits soared like the lark, and he took to singing. If only the inn at Dalquharter were snug and empty, this was going to be a day in ten thousand. Thus mirthfully he swung down the rough grass-grown road, past the railway, till he came to a point where heath began to merge in pasture, and dry-stone walls split the moor into fields. Suddenly his pace slackened and song died on his lips. For, approaching from the right by a tributary path was the Poet.
Mr. Heritage saw him afar off and waved a friendly hand. In spite of his chagrin Dickson could not but confess that he had misjudged his critic. Striding with long steps over the heather, his jacket open to the wind, his face a-glow and his capless head like a whin-bush for disorder, he cut a more wholesome figure than in the smoking-room the night before. He seemed to be in a companionable mood, for he brandished his stick and shouted greetings.
"Well met!" he cried; "I was hoping to fall in with you again. You must have thought me a pretty fair cub last night."
"I did that," was the dry answer.
"Well, I want to apologize. God knows what made me treat you to a university-extension lecture. I may not agree with you, but every man's entitled to his own views, and it was dashed poor form for me to start jawing you."
Mr. McCunn had no gift of nursing anger, and was very susceptible to apologies.
"That's all right," he murmured. "Don't mention it. I'm wondering what brought you down here, for it's off the road."
"Caprice. Pure caprice. I liked the look of this butt-end of nowhere."
"Same here. I've aye thought there was something terrible nice about a wee cape with a village at the neck of it and a burn each side."
"Now that's interesting," said Mr. Heritage. "You're obsessed by a particular type of landscape. Ever read Freud?"
Dickson shook his head.
"Well, you've got an odd complex somewhere. I wonder where the key lies. Cape—woods—two rivers—moor behind. Ever been in love, Dogson?"
Mr. McCunn was startled. "Love" was a word rarely mentioned in his circle except on death-beds, "I've been a married man for thirty years," he said hurriedly.
"That won't do. It should have been a hopeless affair-the last sight of the lady on a spur of coast with water on three sides—that kind of thing, you know, or it might have happened to an ancestor.... But you don't look the kind of breed for hopeless attachments. More likely some scoundrelly old Dogson long ago found sanctuary in this sort of place. Do you dream about it?"
"Well, I do. The queer thing is that I've got the same prepossession as you. As soon as I spotted this Cruives place on the map this morning, I saw it was what I was after. When I came in sight of it I almost shouted. I don't very often dream but when I do that's the place I frequent. Odd, isn't it?"
Mr. McCunn was deeply interested at this unexpected revelation of romance. "Maybe it's being in love," he daringly observed.
The Poet demurred. "No. I'm not a connoisseur of obvious sentiment. That explanation might fit your case, but not mine. I'm pretty certain there's something hideous at the back of my complex—some grim old business tucked away back in the ages. For though I'm attracted by the place, I'm frightened too!"
There seemed no room for fear in the delicate landscape now opening before them. In front, in groves of birch and rowan, smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green "loaning," on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it. These last Mr. Heritage regarded with disapproval.
"Some infernal trippers!" he murmured. "Or Boy Scouts. They desecrate everything. Why can't the tuncanitus popellus keep away from a paradise like this!" Dickson, a democrat who felt nothing incongruous in the presence of other holiday-makers, was meditating a sharp rejoinder, when Mr. Heritage's tone changed.
"Ye gods! What a village!" he cried, as they turned a corner. There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office—only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend "The Cruives Inn."
The Poet became lyrical. "At last!" he cried. "The village of my dreams! Not a sign of commerce! No church or school or beastly recreation hall! Nothing but these divine little cottages and an ancient pub! Dogson, I warn you, I'm going to have the devil of a tea." And he declaimed:
"Thou shalt hear a song
After a while which Gods may listen to;
But place the flask upon the board and wait
Until the stranger hath allayed his thirst,
For poets, grasshoppers, and nightingales
Sing cheerily but when the throat is moist."
Dickson, too, longed with sensual gusto for tea. But, as they drew nearer, the inn lost its hospitable look. The cobbles of the yard were weedy, as if rarely visited by traffic, a pane in a window was broken, and the blinds hung tattered. The garden was a wilderness, and the doorstep had not been scoured for weeks. But the place had a landlord, for he had seen them approach and was waiting at the door to meet them.
He was a big man in his shirt sleeves, wearing old riding breeches unbuttoned at the knees, and thick ploughman's boots. He had no leggings, and his fleshy calves were imperfectly covered with woollen socks. His face was large and pale, his neck bulged, and he had a gross unshaven jowl. He was a type familiar to students of society; not the innkeeper, which is a thing consistent with good breeding and all the refinements; a type not unknown in the House of Lords, especially among recent creations, common enough in the House of Commons and the City of London, and by no means infrequent in the governing circles of Labour; the type known to the discerning as the Licensed Victualler.
His face was wrinkled in official smiles, and he gave the travellers a hearty good afternoon.
"Can we stop here for the night?" Dickson asked.
The landlord looked sharply at him, and then replied to Mr. Heritage. His expression passed from official bonhomie to official contrition.
"Impossible, gentlemen. Quite impossible.... Ye couldn't have come at a worse time. I've only been here a fortnight myself, and we haven't got right shaken down yet. Even then I might have made shift to do with ye, but the fact is we've illness in the house, and I'm fair at my wits' end. It breaks my heart to turn gentlemen away and me that keen to get the business started. But there it is!" He spat vigorously as if to emphasize the desperation of his quandary.
The man was clearly Scots, but his native speech was overlaid with something alien, something which might have been acquired in America or in going down to the sea in ships. He hitched his breeches, too, with a nautical air.
"Is there nowhere else we can put up?" Dickson asked.
"Not in this one-horse place. Just a wheen auld wives that packed thegether they haven't room for an extra hen. But it's grand weather, and it's not above seven miles to Auchenlochan. Say the word and I'll yoke the horse and drive ye there."
"Thank you. We prefer to walk," said Mr. Heritage. Dickson would have tarried to inquire after the illness in the house, but his companion hurried him off. Once he looked back, and saw the landlord still on the doorstep gazing after them.
"That fellow's a swine," said Mr. Heritage sourly. "I wouldn't trust my neck in his pot-house. Now, Dogson, I'm hanged if I'm going to leave this place. We'll find a corner in the village somehow. Besides, I'm determined on tea."
The little street slept in the clear pure light of an early April evening. Blue shadows lay on the white road, and a delicate aroma of cooking tantalized hungry nostrils. The near meadows shone like pale gold against the dark lift of the moor. A light wind had begun to blow from the west and carried the faintest tang of salt. The village at that hour was pure Paradise, and Dickson was of the Poet's opinion. At all costs they must spend the night there.
They selected a cottage whiter and neater than the others, which stood at a corner, where a narrow lane turned southward. Its thatched roof had been lately repaired, and starched curtains of a dazzling whiteness decorated the small, closely-shut windows. Likewise it had a green door and a polished brass knocker.
Tacitly the duty of envoy was entrusted to Mr. McCunn. Leaving the other at the gate, he advanced up the little path lined with quartz stones, and politely but firmly dropped the brass knocker. He must have been observed, for ere the noise had ceased the door opened, and an elderly woman stood before him. She had a sharply-cut face, the rudiments of a beard, big spectacles on her nose, and an old-fashioned lace cap on her smooth white hair. A little grim she looked at first sight, because of her thin lips and roman nose, but her mild curious eyes corrected the impression and gave the envoy confidence.
"Good afternoon, mistress," he said, broadening his voice to something more rustical than his normal Glasgow speech. "Me and my friend are paying our first visit here, and we're terrible taken up with the place. We would like to bide the night, but the inn is no' taking folk. Is there any chance, think you, of a bed here?"
"I'll no tell ye a lee," said the woman. "There's twae guid beds in the loft. But I dinna tak' lodgers and I dinna want to be bothered wi' ye. I'm an auld wumman and no' as stoot as I was. Ye'd better try doun the street. Eppie Home micht tak' ye."
Dickson wore his most ingratiating smile. "But, mistress, Eppie Home's house is no' yours. We've taken a tremendous fancy to this bit. Can you no' manage to put up with us for the one night? We're quiet auld-fashioned folk and we'll no' trouble you much. Just our tea and maybe an egg to it, and a bowl of porridge in the morning."
The woman seemed to relent. "Whaur's your freend?" she asked, peering over her spectacles towards the garden gate. The waiting Mr. Heritage, seeing he eyes moving in his direction, took off his cap with a brave gesture and advanced. "Glorious weather, madam," he declared.
"English," whispered Dickson to the woman, in explanation.
She examined the Poet's neat clothes and Mr. McCunn's homely garments, and apparently found them reassuring. "Come in," she said shortly. "I see ye're wilfu' folk and I'll hae to dae my best for ye."
A quarter of an hour later the two travellers, having been introduced to two spotless beds in the loft, and having washed luxuriously at the pump in the back yard, were seated in Mrs. Morran's kitchen before a meal which fulfilled their wildest dreams. She had been baking that morning, so there were white scones and barley scones, and oaten farles, and russet pancakes. There were three boiled eggs for each of them; there was a segment of an immense currant cake ("a present from my guid brither last Hogmanay"); there was skim milk cheese; there were several kinds of jam, and there was a pot of dark-gold heather honey. "Try hinny and aitcake," said their hostess. "My man used to say he never fund onything as guid in a' his days."
Presently they heard her story. Her name was Morran, and she had been a widow these ten years. Of her family her son was in South Africa, one daughter a lady's-maid in London, and the other married to a schoolmaster in Kyle. The son had been in France fighting, and had come safely through. He had spent a month or two with her before his return, and, she feared, had found it dull. "There's no' a man body in the place. Naething but auld wives."
That was what the innkeeper had told them. Mr. McCunn inquired concerning the inn.
"There's new folk just came. What's this they ca' them?—Robson—Dobson—aye, Dobson. What far wad they no' tak' ye in? Does the man think he's a laird to refuse folk that gait?"
"He said he had illness in the house."
Mrs. Morran meditated. "Whae in the world can be lyin' there? The man bides his lane. He got a lassie frae Auchenlochan to cook, but she and her box gaed off in the post-cairt yestreen. I doot he tell't ye a lee, though it's no for me to juidge him. I've never spoken a word to ane o' thae new folk."
Dickson inquired about the "new folk."
"They're a' now come in the last three weeks, and there's no' a man o' the auld stock left. John Blackstocks at the Wast Lodge dee'd o' pneumony last back-end, and auld Simon Tappie at the Gairdens flitted to Maybole a year come Mairtinmas. There's naebody at the Gairdens noo, but there's a man come to the Wast Lodge, a blackavised body wi' a face like bend-leather. Tam Robison used to bide at the South Lodge, but Tam got killed about Mesopotamy, and his wife took the bairns to her guidsire up at the Garpleheid. I seen the man that's in the South Lodge gaun up the street when I was finishin' my denner—a shilpit body and a lameter, but he hirples as fast as ither folk run. He's no' bonny to look at.. I canna think what the factor's ettlin' at to let sic ill-faured chiels come about the toun."
Their hostess was rapidly rising in Dickson's esteem. She sat very straight in her chair, eating with the careful gentility of a bird, and primming her thin lips after every mouthful of tea.
"Wha bides in the Big House?" he asked. "Huntingtower is the name, isn't it?"
"When I was a lassie they ca'ed it Dalquharter Hoose, and Huntingtower was the auld rickle o' stanes at the sea-end. But naething wad serve the last laird's father but he maun change the name, for he was clean daft about what they ca' antickities. Ye speir whae bides in the Hoose? Naebody, since the young laird dee'd. It's standin' cauld and lanely and steikit, and it aince the cheeriest dwallin' in a' Carrick."
Mrs. Morran's tone grew tragic. "It's a queer warld wi'out the auld gentry. My faither and my guidsire and his faither afore him served the Kennedys, and my man Dauvit Morran was gemkeeper to them, and afore I mairried I was ane o' the table-maids. They were kind folk, the Kennedys, and, like a' the rale gentry, maist mindfu' o' them that served them. Sic merry nichts I've seen in the auld Hoose, at Hallowe'en and Hogmanay, and at the servants' balls and the waddin's o' the young leddies! But the laird bode to waste his siller in stane and lime, and hadna that much to leave to his bairns. And now they're a' scattered or deid."
Her grave face wore the tenderness which comes from affectionate reminiscence.
"There was never sic a laddie as young Maister Quentin. No' a week gaed by but he was in here, cryin', 'Phemie Morran, I've come till my tea!' Fine he likit my treacle scones, puir man. There wasna ane in the countryside sae bauld a rider at the hunt, or sic a skeely fisher. And he was clever at his books tae, a graund scholar, they said, and ettlin' at bein' what they ca' a dipplemat, But that' a' bye wi'."
"Quentin Kennedy—the fellow in the Tins?" Heritage asked. "I saw him in Rome when he was with the Mission."
"I dinna ken. He was a brave sodger, but he wasna long fechtin' in France till he got a bullet in his breist. Syne we heard tell o' him in far awa' bits like Russia; and syne cam' the end o' the war and we lookit to see him back, fishin' the waters and ridin' like Jehu as in the auld days. But wae's me! It wasna permitted. The next news we got, the puir laddie was deid o' influenzy and buried somewhere about France. The wanchancy bullet maun have weakened his chest, nae doot. So that's the end o' the guid stock o' Kennedy o' Huntingtower, whae hae been great folk sin' the time o' Robert Bruce. And noo the Hoose is shut up till the lawyers can get somebody sae far left to himsel' as to tak' it on lease, and in thae dear days it's no' just onybody that wants a muckle castle."
"Who are the lawyers?" Dickson asked.
"Glendonan and Speirs in Embro. But they never look near the place, and Maister Loudon in Auchenlochan does the factorin'. He's let the public an' filled the twae lodges, and he'll be thinkin' nae doot that he's done eneuch."
Mrs. Morran had poured some hot water into the big slop-bowl, and had begun the operation known as "synding out" the cups. It was a hint that the meal was over, and Dickson and Heritage rose from the table. Followed by an injunction to be back for supper "on the chap o' nine," they strolled out into the evening. Two hours of some sort of daylight remained, and the travellers had that impulse to activity which comes to all men who, after a day of exercise and emptiness, are stayed with a satisfying tea.
"You should be happy, Dogson," said the Poet. "Here we have all the materials for your blessed romance—old mansion, extinct family, village deserted of men, and an innkeeper whom I suspect of being a villain. I feel almost a convert to your nonsense myself. We'll have a look at the House."
They turned down the road which ran north by the park wall, past the inn, which looked more abandoned than ever, till they came to an entrance which was clearly the West Lodge. It had once been a pretty, modish cottage, with a thatched roof and dormer windows, but now it was badly in need of repair. A window-pane was broken and stuffed with a sack, the posts of the porch were giving inwards, and the thatch was crumbling under the attentions of a colony of starlings. The great iron gates were rusty, and on the coat of arms above them the gilding was patchy and tarnished.
Apparently the gates were locked, and even the side wicket failed to open to Heritage's vigorous shaking. Inside a weedy drive disappeared among ragged rhododendrons.
The noise brought a man to the lodge door. He was a sturdy fellow in a suit of black clothes which had not been made for him. He might have been a butler en deshabille', but for the presence of a pair of field boots into which he had tucked the ends of his trousers. The curious thing about him was his face, which was decorated with features so tiny as to give the impression of a monstrous child. Each in itself was well enough formed, but eyes, nose, mouth, chin were of a smallness curiously out of proportion to the head and body. Such an anomaly might have been redeemed by the expression; good-humour would have invested it with an air of agreeable farce. But there was no friendliness in the man's face. It was set like a judge's in a stony impassiveness.
"May we walk up to the House?" Heritage asked. "We are here for a night and should like to have a look at it."
The man advanced a step. He had either a bad cold, or a voice comparable in size to his features.
"There's no entrance here," he said huskily. "I have strict orders."
"Oh, come now," said Heritage. "It can do nobody any harm if you let us in for half an hour."
The man advanced another step.
"You shall not come in. Go away from here. Go away, I tell you. It is private." The words spoken by the small mouth in the small voice had a kind of childish ferocity.
The travellers turned their back on him and continued their way.
"Sich a curmudgeon!" Dickson commented. His face had flushed, for he was susceptible to rudeness. "Did you notice? That man's a foreigner."
"He's a brute," said Heritage. "But I'm not going to be done in by that class of lad. There can be no gates on the sea side, so we'll work round that way, for I won't sleep till I've seen the place."
Presently the trees grew thinner, and the road plunged through thickets of hazel till it came to a sudden stop in a field. There the cover ceased wholly, and below them lay the glen of the Laver. Steep green banks descended to a stream which swept in coils of gold into the eye of the sunset. A little farther down the channel broadened, the slopes fell back a little, and a tongue of glittering sea ran up to meet the hill waters. The Laver is a gentle stream after it leaves its cradle heights, a stream of clear pools and long bright shallows, winding by moorland steadings and upland meadows; but in its last half-mile it goes mad, and imitates its childhood when it tumbled over granite shelves. Down in that green place the crystal water gushed and frolicked as if determined on one hour of rapturous life before joining the sedater sea.
Heritage flung himself on the turf.
"This is a good place! Ye gods, what a good place! Dogson, aren't you glad you came? I think everything's bewitched to-night. That village is bewitched, and that old woman's tea. Good white magic! And that foul innkeeper and that brigand at the gate. Black magic! And now here is the home of all enchantment—'island valley of Avilion'—'waters that listen for lovers'—all the rest of it!"
Dickson observed and marvelled.
"I can't make you out, Mr. Heritage. You were saying last night you were a great democrat, and yet you were objecting to yon laddies camping on the moor. And you very near bit the neb off me when I said I liked Tennyson. And now..." Mr. McCunn's command of language was inadequate to describe the transformation.
"You're a precise, pragmatical Scot," was the answer. "Hang it, man, don't remind me that I'm inconsistent. I've a poet's licence to play the fool, and if you don't understand me, I don't in the least understand myself. All I know is that I'm feeling young and jolly, and that it's the Spring."
Mr. Heritage was assuredly in a strange mood. He began to whistle with a far-away look in his eye.
"Do you know what that is?" he asked suddenly.
Dickson, who could not detect any tune, said "No."
"It's an aria from a Russian opera that came out just before the war. I've forgotten the name of the fellow who wrote it. Jolly thing, isn't it? I always remind myself of it when I'm in this mood, for it is linked with the greatest experience of my life. You said, I think, that you had never been in love?"
Dickson replied in the native fashion. "Have you?" he asked.
"I have, and I am—been for two years. I was down with my battalion on the Italian front early in 1918, and because I could speak the language they hoicked me out and sent me to Rome on a liaison job. It was Easter time and fine weather, and, being glad to get out of the trenches, I was pretty well pleased with myself and enjoying life.... In the place where I stayed there was a girl. She was a Russian, a princess of a great family, but a refugee, and of course as poor as sin.... I remember how badly dressed she was among all the well-to-do Romans. But, my God, what a beauty! There was never anything in the world like her.... She was little more than a child, and she used to sing that air in the morning as she went down the stairs.... They sent me back to the front before I had a chance of getting to know her, but she used to give me little timid good mornings, and her voice and eyes were like an angel's.... I'm over my head in love, but it's hopeless, quite hopeless. I shall never see her again."
"I'm sure I'm honoured by your confidence," said Dickson reverently.
The Poet, who seemed to draw exhilaration from the memory of his sorrows, arose and fetched him a clout on the back. "Don't talk of confidence, as if you were a reporter," he said. "What about that House? If we're to see it before the dark comes we'd better hustle."
The green slopes on their left, as they ran seaward, were clothed towards their summit with a tangle of broom and light scrub. The two forced their way through it, and found to their surprise that on this side there were no defences of the Huntingtower demesne. Along the crest ran a path which had once been gravelled and trimmed. Beyond, through a thicket of laurels and rhododendrons, they came on a long unkempt aisle of grass, which seemed to be one of those side avenues often found in connection with old Scots dwellings. Keeping along this they reached a grove of beech and holly through which showed a dim shape of masonry. By a common impulse they moved stealthily, crouching in cover, till at the far side of the wood they found a sunk fence and looked over an acre or two of what had once been lawn and flower-beds to the front of the mansion.
The outline of the building was clearly silhouetted against the glowing west, but since they were looking at the east face the detail was all in shadow. But, dim as it was, the sight was enough to give Dickson the surprise of his life. He had expected something old and baronial. But this was new, raw and new, not twenty years built. Some madness had prompted its creator to set up a replica of a Tudor house in a countryside where the thing was unheard of. All the tricks were there—oriel windows, lozenged panes, high twisted chimney stacks; the very stone was red, as if to imitate the mellow brick of some ancient Kentish manor. It was new, but it was also decaying. The creepers had fallen from the walls, the pilasters on the terrace were tumbling down, lichen and moss were on the doorsteps. Shuttered, silent, abandoned, it stood like a harsh memento mori of human hopes.
Dickson had never before been affected by an inanimate thing with so strong a sense of disquiet. He had pictured an old stone tower on a bright headland; he found instead this raw thing among trees. The decadence of the brand-new repels as something against nature, and this new thing was decadent. But there was a mysterious life in it, for though not a chimney smoked, it seemed to enshrine a personality and to wear a sinister aura. He felt a lively distaste, which was almost fear. He wanted to get far away from it as fast as possible. The sun, now sinking very low, sent up rays which kindled the crests of a group of firs to the left of the front door.
He had the absurd fancy that they were torches flaming before a bier.
It was well that the two had moved quietly and kept in shadow. Footsteps fell on their ears, on the path which threaded the lawn just beyond the sunk-fence. It was the keeper of the West Lodge and he carried something on his back, but both that and his face were indistinct in the half-light.
Other footsteps were heard, coming from the other side of the lawn. A man's shod feet rang on the stone of a flagged path, and from their irregular fall it was plain that he was lame. The two men met near the door, and spoke together. Then they separated, and moved one down each side of the house. To the two watchers they had the air of a patrol, or of warders pacing the corridors of a prison.
"Let's get out of this," said Dickson, and turned to go.
The air had the curious stillness which precedes the moment of sunset, when the birds of day have stopped their noises and the sounds of night have not begun. But suddenly in the silence fell notes of music. They seemed to come from the house, a voice singing softly but with great beauty and clearness.
Dickson halted in his steps. The tune, whatever it was, was like a fresh wind to blow aside his depression. The house no longer looked sepulchral. He saw that the two men had hurried back from their patrol, had met and exchanged some message, and made off again as if alarmed by the music. Then he noticed his companion....
Heritage was on one knee with his face rapt and listening. He got to his feet and appeared to be about to make for the House. Dickson caught him by the arm and dragged him into the bushes, and he followed unresistingly, like a man in a dream. They ploughed through the thicket, recrossed the grass avenue, and scrambled down the hillside to the banks of the stream.
Then for the first time Dickson observed that his companion's face was very white, and that sweat stood on his temples. Heritage lay down and lapped up water like a dog. Then he turned a wild eye on the other.
"I am going back," he said. "That is the voice of the girl I saw in Rome, and it is singing her song!"