No-Man’s-Land, by John Buchan

VI. Summer on the Moors

The next morning I packed a bag with some changes of clothing and a collection of notebooks, and went up to town. The first thing I did was to pay a visit to my solicitors. ‘I am about to travel,’ said I, ‘and I wish to have all things settled in case any accident should happen to me.’ So I arranged for the disposal of my property in case of death, and added a codicil which puzzled the lawyers. If I did not return within six months, communications were to be entered into with the shepherd at the shieling of Farawa — post-town Allerfoot. If he could produce any papers, they were to be put into the hands of certain friends, published, and the cost charged to my estate. From my solicitors, I went to a gunmaker’s in Regent Street and bought an ordinary six-chambered revolver, feeling much as a man must feel who proposed to cross the Atlantic in a skiff and purchased a small life-belt as a precaution.

I took the night express to the North, and, for a marvel, I slept. When I woke about four we were on the verge of Westmoreland, and stony hills blocked the horizon. At first I hailed the mountain-land gladly; sleep for the moment had caused forgetfulness of my terrors. But soon a turn of the line brought me in full view of a heathery moor, running far to a confusion of distant peaks. I remembered my mission and my fate, and if ever condemned criminal felt a more bitter regret I pity his case. Why should I alone among the millions of this happy isle be singled out as the repository of a ghastly secret, and be cursed by a conscience which would not let it rest?

I came to Allerfoot early in the forenoon, and got a trap to drive me up the valley. It was a lowering grey day, hot and yet sunless. A sort of heathaze cloaked the hills, and every now and then a smurr of rain would meet us on the road, and in a minute be over. I felt wretchedly dispirited; and when at last the whitewashed kirk of Allermuir came into sight and the broken-backed bridge of Aller, man’s eyes seemed to have looked on no drearier scene since time began.

I ate what meal I could get, for, fears or no, I was voraciously hungry. Then I asked the landlord to find me some man who would show me the road to Farawa. I demanded company, not for protection — for what could two men do against such brutish strength? — but to keep my mind from its own thoughts.

The man looked at me anxiously.

‘Are ye acquaint wi’ the folks, then?’ he asked.

I said I was, that I had often stayed in the cottage.

‘Ye ken that they’ve a name for being queer. The man never comes here forbye once or twice a-year, and he has few dealings wi’ other herds. He’s got an ill name, too, for losing sheep. I dinna like the country ava. Up by yon Muneraw — no that I’ve ever been there, but I’ve seen it afar off — is enough to put a man daft for the rest o’ his days. What’s taking ye thereaways? It’s no the time for the fishing?’

I told him that I was a botanist going to explore certain hill-crevices for rare ferns. He shook his head, and then after some delay found me an ostler who would accompany me to the cottage.

The man was a shock-headed, long-limbed fellow, with fierce red hair and a humorous eye. He talked sociably about his life, answered my hasty questions with deftness, and beguiled me for the moment out of myself. I passed the melancholy lochs, and came in sight of the great stony hills without the trepidation I had expected. Here at my side was one who found some humour even in those uplands. But one thing I noted which brought back the old uneasiness. He took the road which led us farthest from Carrickfey, and when to try him I proposed the other, he vetoed it with emphasis.

After this his good spirits departed, and he grew distrustful.

‘What mak’s ye a freend o’ the herd at Farawa?’ he demanded a dozen times.

Finally, I asked him if he knew the man, and had seen him lately.

‘I dinna ken him, and I hadna seen him for years till a fortnicht syne, when a’ Allermuir saw him. He cam doun one afternoon to the public-hoose, and begood to drink. He had aye been kenned for a terrible godly kind o’ a man, so ye may believe folk wondered at this. But when he had stuck to the drink for twae days, and filled himsel’ blind-fou half-a-dozen o’ times, he took a fit o’ repentance, and raved and blethered about siccan a life as he led in the muirs. There was some said he was speakin’ serious, but maist thocht it was juist daftness.’

‘And what did he speak about?’ I asked sharply.

‘I canna verra weel tell ye. It was about some kind o’ bogle that lived in the Muneraw — that’s the shouthers o’t ye see yonder — and it seems that the bogle killed his sheep and frichted himsel’. He was aye bletherin’, too, about something or somebody ca’d Grave; but oh! The man wasna wise.’ And my companion shook a contemptuous head.

And then below us in the valley we saw the shieling, with a thin shaft of smoke rising into the rainy grey weather. The man left me, sturdily refusing any fee. ‘I wantit my legs stretched as weel as you. A walk in the hills is neither here nor there to a stoot man. When will ye be back, sir?’

The question was well-timed. ‘To-morrow fortnight,’ I said, ‘and I want somebody from Allermuir to come out here in the morning and carry some baggage. Will you see to that?’

He said ‘Ay,’ and went off, while I scrambled down the hill to the cottage. Nervousness possessed me, and though it was broad daylight and the whole place lay plain before me, I ran pell-mell, and did not stop till I reached the door.

The place was utterly empty. Unmade beds, unwashed dishes, a hearth strewn with the ashes of peat, and dust thick on everything, proclaimed the absence of inmates. I began to be horribly frightened. Had the shepherd and his sister, also, disappeared? Was I left alone in the bleak place, with a dozen lonely miles between me and human dwellings? I could not return alone; better this horrible place than the unknown perils of the out-of-doors. Hastily I barricaded the door, and to the best of my power shuttered the windows; and then with dreary forebodings I sat down to wait on fortune.

In a little I heard a long swinging step outside and the sound of dogs. Joyfully I opened the latch, and there was the shepherd’s grim face waiting stolidly on what might appear.

At the sight of me he stepped back. ‘What in the Lord’s name are ye daein’ here?’ he asked. ‘Didna ye get enough afore?’

‘Come in,’ I said, sharply. ‘I want to talk.’

In he came with those blessed dogs, — what a comfort it was to look on their great honest faces! He sat down on the untidy bed and waited.

‘I came because I could not stay away. I saw too much to give me any peace elsewhere. I must go back, even though I risk my life for it. The cause of scholarship demands it as well as the cause of humanity.’ ‘Is that a’ the news ye hae?’ he said. Weel, I’ve mair to tell ye. Three weeks syne my sister Margit was lost, and I’ve never seen her mair.’ My jaw fell, and I could only stare at him.

‘I cam hame from the hill at nightfa’ and she was gone. I lookit for her up hill and doun, but I couldna find her. Syne I think I went daft. I went to the Scarts and huntit them up and doun, but no sign could I see. The folk can bide quiet enough when they want. Syne I went to Allermuir and drank mysel’ blind, — me, that’s a God-fearing man and a saved soul; but the Lord help me, I didna ken what I was at. That’s my news, and day and nicht I wander thae hills, seekin’ for what I canna find.’

‘But, man, are you mad?’ I cried. ‘Surely there are neighbours to help you. There is a law in the land, and you had only to find the nearest police-office and compel them to assist you.’

‘What guid can man dae?’ he asked. ‘An army o’ sodgers couldna find that hidy-hole. Forby, when I went into Allermuir wi’ my story the folk thocht me daft. It was that set me drinking for — the Lord forgive me! — I wasna my ain maister. I threepit till I was hairse, but the bodies just lauch’d.’ And he lay back on the bed like a man mortally tired.

Grim though the tidings were, I can only say that my chief feeling was of comfort. Pity for the new tragedy had swallowed up my fear. I had now a purpose, and a purpose, too, not of curiosity but of mercy.

‘I go to-morrow morning to the Muneraw. But first I want to give you something to do.’ And I drew roughly a chart of the place on the back of a letter. ‘Go into Allermuir to-morrow, and give this paper to the landlord at the inn. The letter will tell him what to do. He is to raise at once all the men he can get, and come to the place on the chart marked with a cross. Tell him life depends on his hurry.’

The shepherd nodded. ‘D’ye ken the Folk are watching for you? They let me pass without trouble, for they’ve nae use for me, but I see fine they’re seeking you. Ye’ll no gang half a mile the morn afore they grip ye.’

‘So much the better,’ I said. ‘That will take me quicker to the place I want to be at.’

‘And I’m to gang to Allemuir the morn,’ he repeated, with the air of a child conning a lesson. ‘But what if they’ll no believe me?’ ‘They’ll believe the letter.’

‘Maybe,’ he said, and relapsed into a doze.

I set myself to put that house in order, to rouse the fire, and prepare some food. It was dismal work; and meantime outside the night darkened, and a great wind rose, which howled round the walls and lashed the rain on the windows.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32