"You'll do nothing of the kind," said Dickson. "You're coming home to your supper. It was to be on the chap of nine."
"I'm going back to that place."
The man was clearly demented and must be humoured. "Well, you must wait till the morn's morning. It's very near dark now, and those are two ugly customers wandering about yonder. You'd better sleep the night on it."
Mr. Heritage seemed to be persuaded. He suffered himself to be led up the now dusky slopes to the gate where the road from the village ended. He walked listlessly like a man engaged in painful reflection. Once only he broke the silence.
"You heard the singing?" he asked.
Dickson was a very poor hand at a lie. "I heard something," he admitted.
"You heard a girl's voice singing?"
"It sounded like that," was the admission. "But I'm thinking it might have been a seagull."
"You're a fool," said the Poet rudely.
The return was a melancholy business, compared to the bright speed of the outward journey. Dickson's mind was a chaos of feelings, all of them unpleasant. He had run up against something which he violently, blindly detested, and the trouble was that he could not tell why. It was all perfectly absurd, for why on earth should an ugly house, some overgrown trees, and a couple of ill-favoured servants so malignly affect him? Yet this was the fact; he had strayed out of Arcady into a sphere that filled him with revolt and a nameless fear. Never in his experience had he felt like this, this foolish childish panic which took all the colour and zest out of life. He tried to laugh at himself but failed. Heritage, stumbling along by his side, effectually crushed his effort to discover humour in the situation. Some exhalation from that infernal place had driven the Poet mad. And then that voice singing! A seagull, he had said. More like a nightingale, he reflected—a bird which in the flesh he had never met.
Mrs. Morran had the lamp lit and a fire burning in her cheerful kitchen. The sight of it somewhat restored Dickson's equanimity, and to his surprise he found that he had an appetite for supper. There was new milk, thick with cream, and most of the dainties which had appeared at tea, supplemented by a noble dish of shimmering "potted-head." The hostess did not share their meal, being engaged in some duties in the little cubby-hole known as the back kitchen.
Heritage drank a glass of milk but would not touch food.
"I called this place Paradise four hours ago," he said. "So it is, but I fancy it is next door to Hell. There is something devilish going on inside that park wall, and I mean to get to the bottom of it."
"Hoots! Nonsense!" Dickson replied with affected cheerfulness. "To-morrow you and me will take the road for Auchenlochan. We needn't trouble ourselves about an ugly old house and a wheen impident lodge-keepers."
"To-morrow I'm going to get inside the place. Don't come unless you like, but it's no use arguing with me. My mind is made up."
Heritage cleared a space on the table and spread out a section of a large-scale Ordnance map.
"I must clear my head about the topography, the same as if this were a battle-ground. Look here, Dogson.... The road past the inn that we went by to-night runs north and south." He tore a page from a note-book and proceeded to make a rough sketch.... "One end we know abuts on the Laver glen, and the other stops at the South Lodge. Inside the wall which follows the road is a long belt of plantation- -mostly beeches and ash—then to the west a kind of park, and beyond that the lawns of the house. Strips of plantation with avenues between follow the north and south sides of the park. On the sea side of the House are the stables and what looks like a walled garden, and beyond them what seems to be open ground with an old dovecot marked, and the ruins of Huntingtower keep. Beyond that there is more open ground, till you come to the cliffs of the cape. Have you got that?... It looks possible from the contouring to get on to the sea cliffs by following the Laver, for all that side is broken up into ravines....But look at the other side—the Garple glen. It's evidently a deep-cut gully, and at the bottom it opens out into a little harbour. There's deep water there, you observe. Now the House on the south side—the Garple side—is built fairly close to the edge of the cliffs. Is that all clear in your head? We can't reconnoitre unless we've got a working notion of the lie of the land."
Dickson was about to protest that he had no intention of reconnoitring, when a hubbub arose in the back kitchen. Mrs. Morran's voice was heard in shrill protest.
"Ye ill laddie! Eh—ye—ill—laddie! [crescendo] Makin' a hash o' my back door wi' your dirty feet! What are ye slinkin' roond here for, when I tell't ye this mornin' that I wad sell ye nae mair scones till ye paid for the last lot? Ye're a wheen thievin' hungry callants, and if there were a polisman in the place I'd gie ye in chairge.... What's that ye say? Ye're no' wantin' meat? Ye want to speak to the gentlemen that's bidin' here? Ye ken the auld ane, says you? I believe it's a muckle lee, but there's the gentlemen to answer ye theirsels."
Mrs. Morran, brandishing a dishclout dramatically, flung open the door, and with a vigorous push propelled into the kitchen a singular figure.
It was a stunted boy, who from his face might have been fifteen years old, but had the stature of a child of twelve. He had a thatch of fiery red hair above a pale freckled countenance. His nose was snub, his eyes a sulky grey-green, and his wide mouth disclosed large and damaged teeth. But remarkable as was his visage, his clothing was still stranger. On his head was the regulation Boy Scout hat, but it was several sizes too big, and was squashed down upon his immense red ears. He wore a very ancient khaki shirt, which had once belonged to a full-grown soldier, and the spacious sleeves were rolled up at the shoulders and tied with string, revealing a pair of skinny arms. Round his middle hung what was meant to be a kilt—a kilt of home manufacture, which may once have been a tablecloth, for its bold pattern suggested no known clan tartan. He had a massive belt, in which was stuck a broken gully-knife, and round his neck was knotted the remnant of what had once been a silk bandanna. His legs and feet were bare, blue, scratched, and very dirty, and this toes had the prehensile look common to monkeys and small boys who summer and winter go bootless. In his hand was a long ash-pole, new cut from some coppice.
The apparition stood glum and lowering on the kitchen floor. As Dickson stared at it he recalled Mearns Street and the band of irregular Boy Scouts who paraded to the roll of tin cans. Before him stood Dougal, Chieftain of the Gorbals Die-Hards. Suddenly he remembered the philanthropic Mackintosh, and his own subscription of ten pounds to the camp fund. It pleased him to find the rascals here, for in the unpleasant affairs on the verge of which he felt himself they were a comforting reminder of the peace of home.
"I'm glad to see you, Dougal," he said pleasantly. "How are you all getting on?" And then, with a vague reminiscence of the Scouts' code—"Have you been minding to perform a good deed every day?"
The Chieftain's brow darkened.
"'Good Deeds!'" he repeated bitterly. "I tell ye I'm fair wore out wi' good deeds. Yon man Mackintosh tell't me this was going to be a grand holiday. Holiday! Govey Dick! It's been like a Setterday night in Main Street—a' fechtin', fechtin'."
No collocation of letters could reproduce Dougal's accent, and I will not attempt it. There was a touch of Irish in it, a spice of music-hall patter, as well as the odd lilt of the Glasgow vernacular. He was strong in vowels, but the consonants, especially the letter "t," were only aspirations.
"Sit down and let's hear about things," said Dickson.
The boy turned his head to the still open back door, where Mrs. Morran could be heard at her labours. He stepped across and shut it. "I'm no' wantin' that auld wife to hear," he said. Then he squatted down on the patchwork rug by the hearth, and warmed his blue-black shins. Looking into the glow of the fire, he observed, "I seen you two up by the Big Hoose the night."
"The devil you did," said Heritage, roused to a sudden attention. "And where were you?"
"Seven feet from your head, up a tree. It's my chief hidy-hole, and Gosh! I need one, for Lean's after me wi' a gun. He had a shot at me two days syne."
Dickson exclaimed, and Dougal with morose pride showed a rent in his kilt. "If I had had on breeks, he'd ha' got me."
"Who's Lean?" Heritage asked.
"The man wi' the black coat. The other—the lame one—they ca' Spittal."
"How d'you know?"
"I've listened to them crackin' thegither."
"But what for did the man want to shoot at you?" asked the scandalized Dickson.
"What for? Because they're frightened to death o' onybody going near their auld Hoose. They're a pair of deevils, worse nor any Red Indian, but for a' that they're sweatin' wi' fright. What for? says you. Because they're hiding a Secret. I knew it as soon as I seen the man Lean's face. I once seen the same kind o' scoondrel at the Picters. When he opened his mouth to swear, I kenned he was a foreigner, like the lads down at the Broomielaw. That looked black, but I hadn't got at the worst of it. Then he loosed off at me wi' his gun."
"Were you not feared?" said Dickson.
"Ay, I was feared. But ye'll no' choke off the Gorbals Die-Hards wi' a gun. We held a meetin' round the camp fire, and we resolved to get to the bottom o' the business. Me bein' their Chief, it was my duty to make what they ca' a reckonissince, for that was the dangerous job. So a' this day I've been going on my belly about thae policies. I've found out some queer things."
Heritage had risen and was staring down at the small squatting figure.
"What have you found out? Quick. Tell me at once." His voice was sharp and excited.
"Bide a wee," said the unwinking Dougal. "I'm no' going to let ye into this business till I ken that ye'll help. It's a far bigger job than I thought. There's more in it than Lean and Spittal. There's the big man that keeps the public—Dobson, they ca' him. He's a Namerican, which looks bad. And there's two-three tinklers campin' down in the Garple Dean. They're in it, for Dobson was colloguin' wi' them a' mornin'. When I seen ye, I thought ye were more o' the gang, till I mindit that one o' ye was auld McCunn that has the shop in Mearns Street. I seen that ye didna' like the look o' Lean, and I followed ye here, for I was thinkin' I needit help."
Heritage plucked Dougal by the shoulder and lifted him to his feet.
"For God's sake, boy," he cried, "tell us what you know!"
"Will ye help?"
"Of course, you little fool."
"Then swear," said the ritualist. From a grimy wallet he extracted a limp little volume which proved to be a damaged copy of a work entitled Sacred Songs and Solos. "Here! Take that in your right hand and put your left hand on my pole, and say after me. 'I swear no' to blab what is telled me in secret, and to be swift and sure in obeyin' orders, s'help me God!' Syne kiss the bookie."
Dickson at first refused, declaring that it was all havers, but Heritage's docility persuaded him to follow suit. The two were sworn.
"Now," said Heritage.
Dougal squatted again on the hearth-rug, and gathered the eyes of his audience. He was enjoying himself.
"This day," he said slowly, "I got inside the Hoose."
"Stout fellow," said Heritage; "and what did you find there?"
"I got inside that Hoose, but it wasn't once or twice I tried. I found a corner where I was out o' sight o' anybody unless they had come there seekin' me, and I sklimmed up a rone pipe, but a' the windies were lockit and I verra near broke my neck. Syne I tried the roof, and a sore sklim I had, but when I got there there were no skylights. At the end I got in by the coal-hole. That's why ye're maybe thinkin' I'm no' very clean."
Heritage's patience was nearly exhausted.
"I don't want to hear how you got in. What did you find, you little devil?"
"Inside the Hoose," said Dougal slowly (and there was a melancholy sense of anti-climax in his voice, as of one who had hoped to speak of gold and jewels and armed men)—"inside that Hoose there's nothing but two women."
Heritage sat down before him with a stern face.
"Describe them," he commanded.
"One o' them is dead auld, as auld as the wife here. She didn't look to me very right in the head."
"And the other?"
"Oh, just a lassie."
"What was she like?"
Dougal seemed to be searching for adequate words. "She is..." he began. Then a popular song gave him inspiration. "She's pure as the lully in the dell!"
In no way discomposed by Heritage's fierce interrogatory air, he continued: "She's either foreign or English, for she couldn't understand what I said, and I could make nothing o' her clippit tongue. But I could see she had been greetin'. She looked feared, yet kind o' determined. I speired if I could do anything for her, and when she got my meaning she was terrible anxious to ken if I had seen a man—a big man, she said, wi' a yellow beard. She didn't seem to ken his name, or else she wouldna' tell me. The auld wife was mortal feared, and was aye speakin' in a foreign langwidge. I seen at once that what frightened them was Lean and his friends, and I was just starting to speir about them when there came a sound like a man walkin' along the passage. She was for hidin' me in behind a sofy, but I wasn't going to be trapped like that, so I got out by the other door and down the kitchen stairs and into the coal-hole. Gosh, it was a near thing!"
The boy was on his feet. "I must be off to the camp to give out the orders for the morn. I'm going back to that Hoose, for it's a fight atween the Gorbals Die-Hards and the scoondrels that are frightenin' thae women. The question is, Are ye comin' with me? Mind, ye've sworn. But if ye're no, I'm going mysel', though I'll no' deny I'd be glad o' company. You anyway——" he added, nodding at Heritage. "Maybe auld McCunn wouldn't get through the coal-hole."
"You're an impident laddie,' said the outraged Dickson. "It's no' likely we're coming with you. Breaking into other folks' houses! It's a job for the police!"
"Please yersel'," said the Chieftain, and looked at Heritage.
"I'm on," said that gentleman.
"Well, just you set out the morn as if ye were for a walk up the Garple glen. I'll be on the road and I'll have orders for ye."
Without more ado Dougal left by way of the back kitchen. There was a brief denunciation from Mrs. Morran, then the outer door banged and he was gone.
The Poet sat still with his head in his hands, while Dickson, acutely uneasy, prowled about the floor. He had forgotten even to light his pipe. "You'll not be thinking of heeding that ragamuffin boy," he ventured.
"I'm certainly going to get into the House tomorrow," Heritage answered, "and if he can show me a way so much the better. He's a spirited youth. Do you breed many like him in Glasgow?"
"Plenty," said Dickson sourly. "See here, Mr. Heritage. You can't expect me to be going about burgling houses on the word of a blagyird laddie. I'm a respectable man—aye been. Besides, I'm here for a holiday, and I've no call to be mixing myself up in strangers' affairs."
"You haven't. Only you see, I think there's a friend of mine in that place, and anyhow there are women in trouble. If you like, we'll say goodbye after breakfast, and you can continue as if you had never turned aside to this damned peninsula. But I've got to stay."
Dickson groaned. What had become of his dream of idylls, his gentle bookish romance? Vanished before a reality which smacked horribly of crude melodrama and possibly of sordid crime. His gorge rose at the picture, but a thought troubled him. Perhaps all romance in its hour of happening was rough and ugly like this, and only shone rosy in retrospect. Was he being false to his deepest faith?
"Let's have Mrs. Morran in," he ventured. "She's a wise old body and I'd like to hear her opinion of this business. We'll get common sense from her."
"I don't object," said Heritage. "But no amount of common sense will change my mind."
Their hostess forestalled them by returning at that moment to the kitchen.
"We want your advice, mistress," Dickson told her, and accordingly, like a barrister with a client, she seated herself carefully in the big easy chair, found and adjusted her spectacles, and waited with hands folded on her lap to hear the business. Dickson narrated their pre-supper doings, and gave a sketch of Dougal's evidence. His exposition was cautious and colourless, and without conviction. He seemed to expect a robust incredulity in his hearer.
Mrs. Morran listened with the gravity of one in church. When Dickson finished she seemed to meditate. "There's no blagyird trick that would surprise me in thae new folk. What's that ye ca' them—Lean and Spittal? Eppie Home threepit to me they were furriners, and these are no furrin names."
"What I want to hear from you, Mrs. Morran,' said Dickson impressively, "is whether you think there's anything in that boy's story?"
"I think it's maist likely true. He's a terrible impident callant, but he's no' a leear."
"Then you think that a gang of ruffians have got two lone women shut up in that house for their own purposes?"
"I wadna wonder."
"But it's ridiculous! This is a Christian and law-abiding country. What would the police say?"
"They never troubled Dalquharter muckle. There's no' a polisman nearer than Knockraw—yin Johnnie Trummle, and he's as useless as a frostit tattie."
"The wiselike thing, as I think," said Dickson, "would be to turn the Procurator-Fiscal on to the job. It's his business, no' ours."
"Well, I wadna say but ye're richt,' said the lady.
"What would you do if you were us?" Dickson's tone was subtly confidential. "My friend here wants to get into the House the morn with that red-haired laddie to satisfy himself about the facts. I say no. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say, and if you think the beasts are mad, report to the authorities. What would you do yourself?"
"If I were you," came the emphatic reply, "I would tak' the first train hame the morn, and when I got hame I wad bide there. Ye're a dacent body, but ye're no' the kind to be traivellin' the roads."
"And if you were me?' Heritage asked with his queer crooked smile.
"If I was young and yauld like you I wad gang into the Hoose, and I wadna rest till I had riddled oot the truith and jyled every scoondrel about the place. If ye dinna gang, 'faith I'll kilt my coats and gang mysel'. I havena served the Kennedys for forty year no' to hae the honour o' the Hoose at my hert.... Ye've speired my advice, sirs, and ye've gotten it. Now I maun clear awa' your supper."
Dickson asked for a candle, and, as on the previous night, went abruptly to bed. The oracle of prudence to which he had appealed had betrayed him and counselled folly. But was it folly? For him, assuredly, for Dickson McCunn, late of Mearns Street, Glasgow, wholesale and retail provision merchant, elder in the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, and fifty-five years of age. Ay, that was the rub. He was getting old. The woman had seen it and had advised him to go home. Yet the plea was curiously irksome, though it gave him the excuse he needed. If you played at being young, you had to take up the obligations of youth, and he thought derisively of his boyish exhilaration of the past days. Derisively, but also sadly. What had become of that innocent joviality he had dreamed of, that happy morning pilgrimage of Spring enlivened by tags from the poets? His goddess had played him false. Romance had put upon him too hard a trial.
He lay long awake, torn between common sense and a desire to be loyal to some vague whimsical standard. Heritage a yard distant appeared also to be sleepless, for the bed creaked with his turning. Dickson found himself envying one whose troubles, whatever they might be, were not those of a divided mind.