At seven o'clock on the following morning the post-cart, summoned by an early message from Mrs. Morran, appeared outside the cottage. In it sat the ancient postman, whose real home was Auchenlochan, but who slept alternate nights in Dalquharter, and beside him Dobson the innkeeper. Dickson and his hostess stood at the garden-gate, the former with his pack on his back, and at his feet a small stout wooden box, of the kind in which cheeses are transported, garnished with an immense padlock. Heritage for obvious reasons did not appear; at the moment he was crouched on the floor of the loft watching the departure through a gap in the dimity curtains.
The traveller, after making sure that Dobson was looking, furtively slipped the key of the trunk into his knapsack.
"Well, good-bye, Auntie Phemie," he said. "I'm sure you've been awful kind to me, and I don't know how to thank you for all you're sending."
"Tuts, Dickson, my man, they're hungry folk about Glesca that'll be glad o' my scones and jeelie. Tell Mirren I'm rale pleased wi' her man, and haste ye back soon."
The trunk was deposited on the floor of the cart, and Dickson clambered into the back seat. He was thankful that he had not to sit next to Dobson, for he had tell-tale stuff on his person. The morning was wet, so he wore his waterproof, which concealed his odd tendency to stoutness about the middle.
Mrs. Morran played her part well, with all the becoming gravity of an affectionate aunt, but as soon as the post-cart turned the bend of the road her demeanour changed. She was torn with convulsions of silent laughter. She retreated to the kitchen, sank into a chair, wrapped her face in her apron and rocked. Heritage, descending, found her struggling to regain composure. "D'ye ken his wife's name?" she gasped. "I ca'ed her Mirren! And maybe the body's no' mairried! Hech sirs! Hech sirs!"
Meanwhile Dickson was bumping along the moor-road on the back of the post-cart. He had worked out a plan, just as he had been used aforetime to devise a deal in foodstuffs. He had expected one of the watchers to turn up, and was rather relieved that it should be Dobson, whom he regarded as "the most natural beast" of the three. Somehow he did not think that he would be molested before he reached the station, since his enemies would still be undecided in their minds. Probably they only wanted to make sure that he had really departed to forget all about him. But if not, he had his plan ready.
"Are you travelling to-day?" he asked the innkeeper.
"Just as far as the station to see about some oil-cake I'm expectin'. What's in your wee kist? Ye came here wi' nothing but the bag on your back."
"Ay, the kist is no' mine. It's my auntie's. She's a kind body, and nothing would serve but she must pack a box for me to take back. Let me see. There's a baking of scones; three pots of honey and one of rhubarb jam—she was aye famous for her rhubarb jam; a mutton ham, which you can't get for love or money in Glasgow; some home-made black puddings, and a wee skim-milk cheese. I doubt I'll have to take a cab from the station."
Dobson appeared satisfied, lit a short pipe, and relapsed into meditation. The long uphill road, ever climbing to where far off showed the tiny whitewashed buildings which were the railway station, seemed interminable this morning. The aged postman addressed strange objurgations to his aged horse and muttered reflections to himself, the innkeeper smoked, and Dickson stared back into the misty hollow where lay Dalquharter. The south-west wind had brought up a screen of rain clouds and washed all the countryside in a soft wet grey. But the eye could still travel a fair distance, and Dickson thought he had a glimpse of a figure on a bicycle leaving the village two miles back. He wondered who it could be. Not Heritage, who had no bicycle. Perhaps some woman who was conspicuously late for the train. Women were the chief cyclists nowadays in country places.
Then he forgot about the bicycle and twisted his neck to watch the station. It was less than a mile off now, and they had no time to spare, for away to the south among the hummocks of the bog he saw the smoke of the train coming from Auchenlochan. The postman also saw it and whipped up his beast into a clumsy canter. Dickson, always nervous being late for trains, forced his eyes away and regarded again the road behind him. Suddenly the cyclist had become quite plain—a little more than a mile behind—a man, and pedalling furiously in spite of the stiff ascent. It could only be one person—Léon. He must have discovered their visit to the House yesterday and be on the way to warn Dobson. If he reached the station before the train, there would be no journey to Glasgow that day for one respectable citizen.
Dickson was in a fever of impatience and fright. He dared not abjure the postman to hurry, lest Dobson should turn his head and descry his colleague. But that ancient man had begun to realize the shortness of time and was urging the cart along at a fair pace, since they were now on the flatter shelf of land which carried the railway.
Dickson kept his eyes fixed on the bicycle and his teeth shut tight on his lower lip. Now it was hidden by the last dip of hill; now it emerged into view not a quarter of a mile behind, and its rider gave vent to a shrill call. Luckily the innkeeper did not hear, for at that moment with a jolt the cart pulled up at the station door, accompanied by the roar of the incoming train.
Dickson whipped down from the back seat and seized the solitary porter. "Label the box for Glasgow and into the van with it, Quick, man, and there'll be a shilling for you." He had been doing some rapid thinking these last minutes and had made up his mind. If Dobson and he were alone in a carriage he could not have the box there; that must be elsewhere, so that Dobson could not examine it if he were set on violence, somewhere in which it could still be a focus of suspicion and attract attention from his person, He took his ticket, and rushed on to the platform, to find the porter and the box at the door of the guard's van. Dobson was not there. With the vigour of a fussy traveller he shouted directions to the guard to take good care of his luggage, hurled a shilling at the porter, and ran for a carriage. At that moment he became aware of Dobson hurrying through the entrance. He must have met Léon and heard news from him, for his face was red and his ugly brows darkening.
The train was in motion. "Here, you" Dobson's voice shouted. "Stop! I want a word wi' ye." Dickson plunged at a third-class carriage, for he saw faces behind the misty panes, and above all things then he feared an empty compartment. He clambered on to the step, but the handle would not turn, and with a sharp pang of fear he felt the innkeeper's grip on his arm. Then some Samaritan from within let down the window, opened the door, and pulled him up. He fell on a seat, and a second later Dobson staggered in beside him.
Thank Heaven, the dirty little carriage was nearly full. There were two herds, each with a dog and a long hazel crook, and an elderly woman who looked like a ploughman's wife out for a day's marketing. And there was one other whom Dickson recognized with peculiar joy— the bagman in the provision line of business whom he had met three days before at Kilchrist.
The recognition was mutual. "Mr. McCunn!" the bagman exclaimed. "My, but that was running it fine! I hope you've had a pleasant holiday, sir?"
"Very pleasant. I've been spending two nights with friends down hereaways. I've been very fortunate in the weather, for it has broke just when I'm leaving."
Dickson sank back on the hard cushions. It had been a near thing, but so far he had won. He wished his heart did not beat so fast, and he hoped he did not betray his disorder in his face. Very deliberately he hunted for his pipe and filled it slowly. Then he turned to Dobson, "I didn't know you were travelling the day. What about your oil-cake?"
"I've changed my mind," was the gruff answer.
"Was that you I heard crying on me when we were running for the train?"
"Ay. I thought ye had forgot about your kist."
"No fear," said Dickson. "I'm no' likely to forget my auntie's scones."
He laughed pleasantly and then turned to the bagman. Thereafter the compartment hummed with the technicalities of the grocery trade. He exerted himself to draw out his companion, to have him refer to the great firm of D. McCunn, so that the innkeeper might be ashamed of his suspicions. What nonsense to imagine that a noted and wealthy Glasgow merchant—the bagman's tone was almost reverential—would concern himself with the affairs of a forgotten village and a tumble-down house!
Presently the train drew up at Kirkmichael station. The woman descended, and Dobson, after making sure that no one else meant to follow her example, also left the carriage. A porter was shouting: "Fast train to Glasgow—Glasgow next stop." Dickson watched the innkeeper shoulder his way through the crowd in the direction of the booking office. "He's off to send a telegram," he decided. "There'll be trouble waiting for me at the other end."
When the train moved on he found himself disinclined for further talk. He had suddenly become meditative, and curled up in a corner with his head hard against the window pane, watching the wet fields and glistening roads as they slipped past. He had his plans made for his conduct at Glasgow, but, Lord! how he loathed the whole business! Last night he had had a kind of gusto in his desire to circumvent villainy; at Dalquharter station he had enjoyed a momentary sense of triumph; now he felt very small, lonely, and forlorn. Only one thought far at the back of his mind cropped up now and then to give him comfort. He was entering on the last lap. Once get this detestable errand done and he would be a free man, free to go back to the kindly humdrum life from which he should never have strayed. Never again, he vowed, never again. Rather would he spend the rest of his days in hydropathics than come within the pale of such horrible adventures. Romance, forsooth! This was not the mild goddess he had sought, but an awful harpy who battened on the souls of men.
He had some bad minutes as the train passed through the suburbs and along the grimy embankment by which the southern lines enter the city. But as it rumbled over the river bridge and slowed down before the terminus his vitality suddenly revived. He was a business man, and there was now something for him to do.
After a rapid farewell to the bagman, he found a porter and hustled his box out of the van in the direction of the left-luggage office. Spies, summoned by Dobson's telegram, were, he was convinced, watching his every movement, and he meant to see that they missed nothing. He received his ticket for the box, and slowly and ostentatiously stowed it away in his pack. Swinging the said pack on his arm, he sauntered through the entrance hall to the row of waiting taxi-cabs, and selected the oldest and most doddering driver. He deposited the pack inside on the seat, and then stood still as if struck with a sudden thought.
"I breakfasted terrible early," he told the driver. "I think I'll have a bite to eat. Will you wait?"
"Ay," said the man, who was reading a grubby sheet of newspaper. "I'll wait as long as ye like, for it's you that pays."
Dickson left his pack in the cab and, oddly enough for a careful man, he did not shut the door. He re-entered the station, strolled to the bookstall, and bought a Glasgow Herald. His steps then tended to the refreshment-room, where he ordered a cup of coffee and two Bath buns, and seated himself at a small table. There he was soon immersed in the financial news, and though he sipped his coffee he left the buns untasted. He took out a penknife and cut various extracts from the Herald, bestowing them carefully in his pocket. An observer would have seen an elderly gentleman absorbed in market quotations.
After a quarter of an hour had been spent in this performance he happened to glance at the clock and rose with an exclamation. He bustled out to his taxi and found the driver still intent upon his reading. "Here I am at last," he said cheerily, and had a foot on the step, when he stopped suddenly with a cry. It was a cry of alarm, but also of satisfaction.
"What's become of my pack? I left it on the seat, and now it's gone! There's been a thief here."
The driver, roused from his lethargy, protested in the name of his gods that no one had been near it. "Ye took it into the station wi' ye," he urged.
"I did nothing of the kind. Just you wait here till I see the inspector. A bonny watch you keep on a gentleman's things."
But Dickson did not interview the railway authorities. Instead he hurried to the left-luggage office. "I deposited a small box here a short time ago. I mind the number. Is it here still?"
The attendant glanced at the shelf. "A wee deal box with iron bands. It was took out ten minutes syne. A man brought the ticket and took it away on his shoulder."
"Thank you. There's been a mistake, but the blame's mine. My man mistook my orders."
Then he returned to the now nervous taxi-driver. "I've taken it up with the station-master and he's putting the police on. You'll likely be wanted, so I gave him your number. It's a fair disgrace that there should be so many thieves about this station. It's not the first time I've lost things. Drive me to West George Street and look sharp." And he slammed the door with the violence of an angry man.
But his reflections were not violent, for he smiled to himself. "That was pretty neat. They'll take some time to get the kist open, for I dropped the key out of the train after we left Kirkmichael. That gives me a fair start. If I hadn't thought of that, they'd have found some way to grip me and ripe me long before I got to the Bank." He shuddered as he thought of the dangers he had escaped. "As it is, they're off the track for half an hour at least, while they're rummaging among Auntie Phemie's scones." At the thought he laughed heartily, and when he brought the taxi-cab to a standstill by rapping on the front window, he left it with a temper apparently restored. Obviously he had no grudge against the driver, who to his immense surprise was rewarded with ten shillings.
Three minutes later Mr. McCunn might have been seen entering the head office of the Strathclyde Bank and inquiring for the manager. There was no hesitation about him now, for his foot was on his native heath. The chief cashier received him with deference in spite of his unorthodox garb, for he was not the least honoured of the bank's customers. As it chanced he had been talking about him that very morning to a gentleman from London. "The strength of this city," he had said, tapping his eyeglasses on his knuckles, "does not lie in its dozen very rich men, but in the hundred or two homely folk who make no parade of wealth. Men like Dickson McCunn, for example, who live all their life in a semi-detached villa and die worth half a million." And the Londoner had cordially assented.
So Dickson was ushered promptly into an inner room, and was warmly greeted by Mr. Mackintosh, the patron of the Gorbals Die-Hards.
"I must thank you for your generous donation, McCunn. Those boys will get a little fresh air and quiet after the smoke and din of Glasgow. A little country peace to smooth out the creases in their poor little souls."
"Maybe," said Dickson, with a vivid recollection of Dougal as he had last seen him. Somehow he did not think that peace was likely to be the portion of that devoted band. "But I've not come here to speak about that."
He took off his waterproof; then his coat and waistcoat; and showed himself a strange figure with sundry bulges about the middle. The manager's eyes grew very round. Presently these excrescences were revealed as linen bags sewn on to his shirt, and fitting into the hollow between ribs and hip. With some difficulty he slit the bags and extracted three hide-bound packages.
"See here, Mackintosh," he said solemnly. "I hand you over these parcels, and you're to put them in the innermost corner of your strong room. You needn't open them. Just put them away as they are, and write me a receipt for them. Write it now."
Mr. Mackintosh obediently took pen in hand.
"What'll I call them?" he asked.
"Just the three leather parcels handed to you by Dickson McCunn, Esq., naming the date."
Mr. Mackintosh wrote. He signed his name with his usual flourish and handed the slip to his client.
"Now," said Dickson, "you'll put that receipt in the strong box where you keep my securities and you'll give it up to nobody but me in person and you'll surrender the parcels only on presentation of the receipt. D'you understand?"
"Perfectly. May I ask any questions?"
"You'd better not if you don't want to hear lees.'
"What's in the packages?" Mr. Mackintosh weighed them in his hand.
"That's asking," said Dickson. "But I'll tell ye this much. It's jools."
"No, but I'm their trustee."
"I was hearing they were worth more than a million pounds."
"God bless my soul," said the startled manager. "I don't like this kind of business, McCunn."
"No more do I. But you'll do it to oblige an old friend and a good customer. If you don't know much about the packages you know all about me. Now, mind, I trust you."
Mr. Mackintosh forced himself to a joke. "Did you maybe steal them?"
Dickson grinned. "Just what I did. And that being so, I want you to let me out by the back door."
When he found himself in the street he felt the huge relief of a boy who had emerged with credit from the dentist's chair. Remembering that here would be no midday dinner for him at home, his first step was to feed heavily at a restaurant. He had, so far as he could see, surmounted all his troubles, his one regret being that he had lost his pack, which contained among other things his Izaak Walton and his safety razor. He bought another razor and a new Walton, and mounted an electric tram car en route for home.
Very contented with himself he felt as the car swung across the Clyde bridge. He had done well—but of that he did not want to think, for the whole beastly thing was over. He was going to bury that memory, to be resurrected perhaps on a later day when the unpleasantness had been forgotten. Heritage had his address, and knew where to come when it was time to claim the jewels. As for the watchers, they must have ceased to suspect him, when they discovered the innocent contents of his knapsack and Mrs. Morran's box. Home for him, and a luxurious tea by his own fireside; and then an evening with his books, for Heritage's nonsense had stimulated his literary fervour. He would dip into his old favourites again to confirm his faith. To-morrow he would go for a jaunt somewhere—perhaps down the Clyde, or to the South of England, which he had heard was a pleasant, thickly peopled country. No more lonely inns and deserted villages for him; henceforth he would make certain of comfort and peace.
The rain had stopped, and, as the car moved down the dreary vista of Eglinton street, the sky opened into fields of blue and the April sun silvered the puddles. It was in such place and under such weather that Dickson suffered an overwhelming experience.
It is beyond my skill, being all unlearned in the game of psycho-analysis, to explain how this thing happened. I concern myself only with facts. Suddenly the pretty veil of self-satisfaction was rent from top to bottom, and Dickson saw a figure of himself within, a smug leaden little figure which simpered and preened itself and was hollow as a rotten nut. And he hated it.
The horrid truth burst on him that Heritage had been right. He only played with life. That imbecile image was a mere spectator, content to applaud, but shrinking from the contact of reality. It had been all right as a provision merchant, but when it fancied itself capable of higher things it had deceived itself. Foolish little image with its brave dreams and its swelling words from Browning! All make-believe of the feeblest. He was a coward, running away at the first threat of danger. It was as if he were watching a tall stranger with a wand pointing to the embarrassed phantom that was himself, and ruthlessly exposing its frailties! And yet the pitiless showman was himself too—himself as he wanted to be, cheerful, brave, resourceful, indomitable.
Dickson suffered a spasm of mortal agony. "Oh, I'm surely not so bad as all that," he groaned. But the hurt was not only in his pride. He saw himself being forced to new decisions, and each alternative was of the blackest. He fairly shivered with the horror of it. The car slipped past a suburban station from which passengers were emerging—comfortable black-coated men such as he had once been. He was bitterly angry with Providence for picking him out of the great crowd of sedentary folk for this sore ordeal. "Why was I tethered to sich a conscience?" was his moan. But there was that stern inquisitor with his pointer exploring his soul. "You flatter yourself you have done your share," he was saying. "You will make pretty stories about it to yourself, and some day you may tell your friends, modestly disclaiming any special credit. But you will be a liar, for you know you are afraid. You are running away when the work is scarcely begun, and leaving it to a few boys and a poet whom you had the impudence the other day to despise. I think you are worse than a coward. I think you are a cad."
His fellow-passengers on the top of the car saw an absorbed middle-aged gentleman who seemed to have something the matter with his bronchial tubes. They could not guess at the tortured soul. The decision was coming nearer, the alternatives loomed up dark and inevitable. On one side was submission to ignominy, on the other a return to that place which he detested, and yet loathed himself for detesting. "It seems I'm not likely to have much peace either way," he reflected dismally.
How the conflict would have ended had it continued on these lines I cannot say. The soul of Mr. McCunn was being assailed by moral and metaphysical adversaries with which he had not been trained to deal. But suddenly it leapt from negatives to positives. He saw the face of the girl in the shuttered House, so fair and young and yet so haggard. It seemed to be appealing to him to rescue it from a great loneliness and fear. Yes, he had been right, it had a strange look of his Janet— the wide-open eyes, the solemn mouth. What was to become of that child if he failed her in her need?
Now Dickson was a practical man, and this view of the case brought him into a world which he understood. "It's fair ridiculous," he reflected. "Nobody there to take a grip of things. Just a wheen Gorbals keelies and the lad Heritage. Not a business man among the lot."
The alternatives, which hove before him like two great banks of cloud, were altering their appearance. One was becoming faint and tenuous; the other, solid as ever, was just a shade less black. He lifted his eyes and saw in the near distance the corner of the road which led to his home. "I must decide before I reach that corner," he told himself.
Then his mind became apathetic. He began to whistle dismally through his teeth, watching the corner as it came nearer. The car stopped with a jerk. "I'll go back," he said aloud, clambering down the steps. The truth was he had decided five minutes before when he first saw Janet's face.
He walked briskly to his house, entirely refusing to waste any more energy on reflection. "This is a business proposition," he told himself, "and I'm going to handle it as sich." Tibby was surprised to see him and offered him tea in vain. "I'm just back for a few minutes. Let's see the letters."
There was one from his wife. She proposed to stay another week at the Neuk Hydropathic and suggested that he might join her and bring her home. He sat down and wrote a long affectionate reply, declining, but expressing his delight that she was soon returning. "That's very likely the last time Mamma will hear from me," he reflected, but—oddly enough—without any great fluttering of the heart.
Then he proceeded to be furiously busy. He sent out Tibby to buy another knapsack and to order a cab and to cash a considerable cheque. In the knapsack he packed a fresh change of clothing and the new safety razor, but no books, for he was past the need of them. That done, he drove to his solicitors.
"What like a firm are Glendonan and Speirs in Edinburgh?" he asked the senior partner.
"Oh, very respectable. Very respectable indeed. Regular Edinburgh W.S. Lot. Do a lot of factoring."
"I want you to telephone through to them and inquire about a place in Carrick called Huntingtower, near the village of Dalquharter. I understand it's to let, and I'm thinking of taking a lease of it."
The senior partner after some delay got through to Edinburgh, and was presently engaged in the feverish dialectic which the long-distance telephone involves. "I want to speak to Mr. Glendonan himself.... Yes, yes, Mr. Caw of Paton and Linklater....Good afternoon.... Huntingtower. Yes, in Carrick. Not to let? But I understand it's been in the market for some months. You say you've an idea it has just been let. But my client is positive that you're mistaken, unless the agreement was made this morning.... You'll inquire? Ah, I see. The actual factoring is done by your local agent, Mr. James Loudon, in Auchenlochan. You think my client had better get into touch with him at once. Just wait a minute, please."
He put his hand over the receiver. "Usual Edinburgh way of doing business," he observed caustically. "What do you want done?"
"I'll run down and see this Loudon. Tell Glendonan and Spiers to advise him to expect me, for I'll go this very day."
Mr. Caw resumed his conversation. "My client would like a telegram sent at once to Mr. Loudon introducing him. He's Mr. Dickson McCunn of Mearns Street—the great provision merchant, you know. Oh, yes! Good for any rent. Refer if you like to the Strathclyde Bank, but you can take my word for it. Thank you. Then that's settled. Good-bye."
Dickson's next visit was to a gunmaker who was a fellow-elder with him in the Guthrie Memorial Kirk.
"I want a pistol and a lot of cartridges," he announced. "I'm not caring what kind it is, so long as it is a good one and not too big."
"For yourself?" the gunmaker asked. "You must have a license, I doubt, and there's a lot of new regulations."
"I can't wait on a license. It's for a cousin of mine who's off to Mexico at once. You've got to find some way of obliging an old friend, Mr. McNair."
Mr. McNair scratched his head. "I don't see how I can sell you one. But I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll lend you one. It belongs to my nephew, Peter Tait, and has been lying in a drawer ever since he came back from the front. He has no use for it now that he's a placed minister."
So Dickson bestowed in the pockets of his waterproof a service revolver and fifty cartridges, and bade his cab take him to the shop in Mearns Street. For a moment the sight of the familiar place struck a pang to his breast, but he choked down unavailing regrets. He ordered a great hamper of foodstuffs—the most delicate kind of tinned goods, two perfect hams, tongues, Strassburg pies, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, and, as a last thought, half a dozen bottles of old liqueur brandy. It was to be carefully packed, addressed to Mrs. Morran, Dalquharter Station, and delivered in time for him to take down by the 7.33 train. Then he drove to the terminus and dined with something like a desperate peace in his heart.
On this occasion he took a first-class ticket, for he wanted to be alone. As the lights began to be lit in the wayside stations and the clear April dusk darkened into night, his thoughts were sombre yet resigned. He opened the window and let the sharp air of the Renfrewshire uplands fill the carriage. It was fine weather again after the rain, and a bright constellation—perhaps Dougal's friend O'Brien—hung in the western sky. How happy he would have been a week ago had he been starting thus for a country holiday! He could sniff the faint scent of moor-burn and ploughed earth which had always been his first reminder of Spring. But he had been pitchforked out of that old happy world and could never enter it again. Alas! for the roadside fire, the cosy inn, the Compleat Angler, the Chavender or Chub!
And yet—and yet! He had done the right thing, though the Lord alone knew how it would end. He began to pluck courage from his very melancholy, and hope from his reflections upon the transitoriness of life. He was austerely following Romance as he conceived it, and if that capricious lady had taken one dream from him she might yet reward him with a better. Tags of poetry came into his head which seemed to favour this philosophy—particularly some lines of Browning on which he used to discourse to his Kirk Literary Society. Uncommon silly, he considered, these homilies of his must have been, mere twitterings of the unfledged. But now he saw more in the lines, a deeper interpretation which he had earned the right to make.
"Oh world, where all things change and nought abides,
Oh life, the long mutation—is it so?
Is it with life as with the body's change?
Where, e'en tho' better follow, good must pass."
That was as far as he could get, though he cudgelled his memory to continue. Moralizing thus, he became drowsy, and was almost asleep when the train drew up at the station of Kirkmichael.