The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 6

Sundry Doings at Fosse

I found Macgillivray reading Greek with his feet on the mantelpiece and the fire out. He was a bit of a scholar and kept up his classics. Of all my friends he was the one who had aged least. His lean, dark head and smooth, boyish face were just as I remembered them twenty years ago. I hadn’t seen him for months, and he gave me a great welcome, rang for beer to which he knew I was partial, and settled me in his best armchair.

‘Why this honour?’ he asked. ‘Is it friendship or business? A sudden craving for my company, or a mess you want to be helped out of?’

‘Both,’ I said. ‘But business first.’

‘A job for the Yard?’

‘No-o. Not just yet, anyhow. I want some information. I’ve just got on the track of a rather ugly affair.’

He whistled. ‘You have a high standard of ugliness. What is it?’

‘Blackmail,’ I said.

‘Yourself? He must be a bold blackmailer to tackle you.’

‘No, a friend. A pretty helpless sort of friend, who will go mad if he isn’t backed up.’

‘Well, let’s have the story.’

‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘It’s a private affair which I would rather keep to myself for a little till I see how things shape. I only want an answer to a few questions.’

He laughed. ‘That was always your way, Dick. You “keep your ain fish-guts for your ain sea-mews,” as they say in Scotland. You never let in the Yard till the fruitiest episodes are over.’

‘I’ve done a good deal for you in my time,’ I said.

‘True. And you may always count upon us to do our damnedest.’

Then he suddenly became serious.

‘I’m going to talk to you like a grandfather, Dick. You’re not ageing properly.’

‘I’m ageing a dashed sight too fast,’ I said.

‘No, you’re not. We’re all getting old, of course, but you’re not acquiring the virtues of age. There’s still an ineradicable daftness about you. You’ve been lying pretty low lately, and I had hoped you had settled down for good. Consider. You’re a married man with a growing son. You have made for yourself what I should call a happy life. I don’t want to see you wreck it merely because you are feeling restless. So if it’s only a craze for adventure that is taking you into this business, my advice to you as a friend is to keep out of it.’

He picked up the book he had been reading.

‘Here’s a text for you,’ he said. ‘It is Herodotus. This is the advice he makes Amasis give to his friend Polycrates. I’ll translate. “I know that the Gods are jealous, for I cannot remember that I ever heard of any man who, having been constantly successful, did not at last utterly perish.” That’s worth thinking about. You’ve been amazingly lucky, but you mustn’t press your luck too far. Remember, the Gods are jealous.’

‘I’m not going into this affair for fun,’ I replied. ‘It’s a solid obligation of honour.’

‘Oh, in that case I have no more to say. Ask your questions.’

‘Do you know anything about a fellow called Albinus, Erick Albinus? A man about my own age — a Dane by birth who has lived in America and, I should think, in many parts of the world? Dabbles in finance of a shady kind.’ I gave the best description I could of how Albinus had looked thirty years ago, and what his appearance today might be presumed to be.

Macgillivray shook his head. ‘I can’t place him. I’ll have our records looked up, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t know anybody like him. I certainly don’t remember his name.’

‘Well, then, what about a man called Lancelot Troth?’

‘Now we’re getting on familiar ground,’ he said. ‘I know a good deal about Troth. The solicitor, I suppose you mean? He belongs to a firm which has been going on for several generations and has never been quite respectable. The father was a bit of a rogue who died years ago somewhere in Africa. That was before my time, but in the last ten years we have had to keep an eye on the activities of the son. He operates on the borderland of rather dubious finance, but so far he has never quite crossed the frontier, though sometimes he has had to be shepherded back. Company promotion is his chief line, and he is uncommonly clever at taking advantage of every crack in our confused company law. I thought we had him the other day over the Lepcha business, but we were advised that a prosecution would fail. He has several side lines — does a good deal of work for Indian rajahs which may now and then be pretty shady — made a pot of money over greyhound-racing in its early days — a mighty gambler, too, they tell me, and fairly successful. Rich! So-so. Flush one day and hard up the next — he leads the apolaustic life, and that’s an expensive thing nowadays.’

I asked about his appearance and Macgillivray described him. A man in his early forties, strongly made, with the square, clean-shaven face of his profession. Like a cross between a Chancery barrister and a Newmarket trainer.

‘He doesn’t make a bad impression at first sight,’ he added. ‘He looks you in the face and he has rather pleasant eyes. On the occasions when I’ve met him I’ve rather liked him. A tough, no doubt, but with some of the merits of the breed. I can imagine him standing stiffly by his friends, and I have heard of him doing generous things. He’s a bit of a sportsman too — keeps a six-ton cutter, and can be seen on a Friday evening departing in old clothes from his City office with his kit in a pillow-case. If your trouble is blackmail, Dick, and Troth is in it, it won’t be the ordinary kind. The man might be a bandit, but he wouldn’t be a sneak-thief.’

Then I spoke the name of Barralty, and when he heard it Macgillivray’s attention visibly quickened. He whistled, and his face took on that absent-minded look which always means that his brain or his memory is busy.

‘Barralty,’ he repeated. ‘Do you know, Dick, you’ve an uncommon knack of getting alongside interesting folk? Whenever you’ve consulted me it has always been in connection with gentry about whom I was pretty curious myself. Barralty — Joseph Bannatyne Barralty! It would take a cleverer man than me to expound that intricate gentleman. Did you ever see him?’

I said No — I had only heard of him for the first time that day.

‘How shall I describe him? In some lights he looks like a half-pay colonel who inhabits the environs of Cheltenham. Tallish, lean, big-nose, high cheek-bones — dresses generally in well-cut flannels or tweeds — age anything round fifty. He has a moustache which has gone grey at the tips, and it gives him a queer look of innocence. That’s one aspect — the English country gentleman. In another light he is simply Don Quixote — the same unfinished face, the same mild sad eyes and general air of being lost that one associates with the Don. That sounds rather attractive, doesn’t it? — half adventurer, half squire? But there’s a third light — for I have seen him look as ugly as sin. The pale eyes became mean and shallow and hard, the rudimentary features were something less than human, and the brindled moustache with its white points looked like the tusks of an obscene boar. . . . I dare say you’ve gathered that I don’t much like Mr. Barralty.

‘But I don’t understand him,’ he went on. ‘First of all, let me say that we have nothing against him. He came down in the Lepcha business, but there was never any suggestion against his character. He behaved perfectly well, and will probably end by paying every creditor in full, for he is bound to come on top again. He has had his ups and downs, and, like everybody in the City, has had to mix with doubtful characters, but his own reputation is unblemished. He doesn’t appear to care for money so much as for the game. Yet nobody likes him, and I doubt if many trust him, though every one admits his ability. Now if you find a man unpopular for no apparent reason, it is generally safe to assume some pretty rotten patch in him. I assume the patch all right in Barralty’s case, but I’m hanged if I can put my finger on it, or find anything to justify my assumption except that now and then I’ve seen him look like the Devil.’

I asked about his profession.

‘He’s a stockbroker — a one-man firm which he founded himself. His interests? Not financial exclusively — indeed, he professes to despise the whole money-spinning business. Says he is in it only to get cash for the things he cares about. What are these? Well, yachting used to be one. In the days of his power he had the Thelma — six hundred tons odd — that might be the original link with Troth. Then he’s a first-class, six-cylindered, copper-bottomed highbrow. A gentlemanly Communist. An intellectual who doesn’t forget to shave. The patron of every new fad in painting and sculping and writing. Mighty condescending about all that ordinary chaps like you and me like, but liable to enthuse about monstrosities, provided that they’re brand-new and for preference foreign. I should think it was a genuine taste, for he has that kind of rootless, marginal mind. He backs his fancy too. For years he has kept the —— going (Macgillivray mentioned a peevishly superior weekly journal), and he imports at his own expense all kinds of exponents of the dernier cri. His line is that he despises capitalism, as he despises all orthodoxies, but that as long as the beastly thing lasts, he will try to make his bit out of it, and spend the proceeds in hastening its end. Quite reasonable. I blame nothing about him except his taste.’

‘Isn’t he popular with his progressive lot?’ I asked.

Macgillivray shook his head. ‘I should doubt it. They flatter him when necessary, and sponge on him, but I’m pretty certain they don’t like him.’

I asked if all this intelligentsia business might not be a dodge to help Barralty’s city interests. It made him a new type of financier, and simple folk might be inclined to trust a man who declared that his only object in getting money was to prevent anybody, including himself, piling it up in the future.

Macgillivray thought that there might be something in that.

‘He’s a cautious fellow. His name is always being appended to protests in the newspapers, but he keeps off anything too extreme. His line is not the fanatic, but the superior critic of human follies. He does nothing to scare the investor. . . . Well, I’ll keep an eye on him, and see if I can find out more about his relations with Troth. And the other fellow — what’s his name — Erick Albinus? You’ve given me an odd triangle.’

As I was leaving, Macgillivray said one last thing, which didn’t make much impression at the time, but which I was to remember later.

‘I should back you against the lot, Dick. They’re not natural criminals, and their nerve might crack. The danger would be if they got into the hands of somebody quite different — some really desperate fellow — like yourself.’

I went down to Fosse next morning by the early train, and Haraldsen duly arrived at midday. He put up with my keeper Jack Godstow, who had a roomy cottage in which I reserved a couple of rooms for bachelor guns when Fosse was overcrowded during a big shoot. I hunted him up after tea, and we went for a walk on the Downs.

My impression of the day before was confirmed. Haraldsen was as sane as I was. Whatever his trouble was, it was real enough, and not a mental delusion. But he was in an appalling condition of nerves. He was inclined to talk to himself under his breath — you could see his lips moving, and he had a queer trick of grunting. When we sat down he kept twitching his hands and fussing with his legs, and he would suddenly go off into an abstraction. He admitted that he had been sleeping badly. I was distressed by his state, for he was a fifty per cent. sicker man than he had been at Hanham in January. I discovered that he had two terrors: one that something very bad might at any moment happen to himself or his daughter — especially his daughter. The other was that this miserable thing might simply drag on without anything happening, and that he would be shut off for ever from his beloved home in the north.

I did my best to minister to his tattered nerves. I told him that he was perfectly safe with me, and that I wouldn’t let matters drag on — Lombard and I would take steps to clear them up. I encouraged him to talk about his Island of Sheep, for it did him good to have something pleasant to think about, and he described to me with tremendous feeling the delight of its greenery and peace, the summer days when it was never dark, the fresh, changing seas, the tardy, delicate springs, the roaring, windy autumns, the long, snug, firelit winters.

I impressed upon him that for the present he must lie low. He would have the run of the house and the library, and Mary and I would see a lot of him, but to the countryside he must be an invalid friend of a friend of mine, who had come to Fosse for quiet and mustn’t be disturbed. Jack Godstow would take him out fishing and show him the lie of the land. I gathered that he had some belongings scattered up and down London which he would like to have beside him, and I said that I would arrange for Lombard to collect them quietly and send them on. But I chiefly told him to be quite assured that this persecution was going to be brought to an end, for I saw that it was only that hope which would soothe him.

I spoke confidently, but I hadn’t a notion how it was to be done. Haraldsen’s safety depended on his being hidden away — I was quite clear about that — so we couldn’t draw the fire of his enemies so as to locate them. About these enemies I was wholly in the dark. An Americanized Dane, a shady sporting solicitor, a highbrow financier who looked like Don Quixote and had just crashed; it didn’t sound a formidable combination. I had only met one of them, Albinus, and about him I only knew the episode at Mafudi’s kraal; Macgillivray rather liked Troth, and Barralty sounded unpleasant but ineffective. Yet the three were engaged in something which had put the fear of death on a very decent citizen, and that had to be riddled out and stopped. There was nothing to do but to wait on developments. That night I wrote a long letter to Lombard, telling him the result of my talk with Macgillivray, asking him to keep his ears open for any news which would connect the three names, and warning him that I might summon him at any moment. As we went to bed I told Mary that I had not much to do for the next few weeks, and that I meant to devote them to getting Haraldsen back to an even keel.

But next day I had news which upset all my plans. Peter John at school was stricken with appendicitis, and was to be operated on that day. Mary and I raced off at once and took rooms near the nursing-home. The operation went off well, and after two days, which were purgatory to me and hell to Mary, he was pronounced to be out of danger. He made an excellent quick recovery, being as healthy as a trout, but it was a fortnight before he was allowed up, and three weeks before he left the home. Then, since the weather was hot, we took him to a seaside place on the East coast for a couple of weeks, so it was not till the beginning of June that we returned to Fosse.

Meanwhile I had heard nothing about Haraldsen. Lombard and Macgillivray had both been silent, and Jack Godstow had only reported weekly that the gentleman was doing nicely and was looking forward to the May-fly season. When I got back to Fosse I expected to find him rested and calmed and beginning to put on flesh, for all these weeks he had been deep in country peace and must have felt secure.

I found exactly the opposite. Haraldsen looked worse than when I had left him, leaner, paler, and his eyes had more of a hunted look than ever. He had little to say to me except to repeat his thanks for my kindness. No, he had not been disturbed; nothing had happened to alarm him; he was quite well and had got back a bit of his appetite, he thought; he wasn’t sleeping so badly. But all the time his eyes were shifting about as if he expected any moment to see something mighty unpleasant, and he started at every noise. He was the very model of a nervous wreck.

I had a long talk about him with Jack Godstow. I won’t attempt Jack’s dialect, for no words could reproduce the odd Cotswold lilt and drawl, and the racy idiom of every sentence. The gist of his report was that Mr. Haraldsen was a difficult one to manage, since he never knew his own mind. He would make a plan to fish the evening rise, and then change it and start out at midnight when there was nothing doing. He didn’t like the daylight no more than an owl, and he didn’t like other folks neither, and would get scared if he saw a strange face. He was always asking about new folk in the neighbourhood, but Lord bless you, said Jack, new folk didn’t come this way, except for an odd hiker or two, and the extra hands for the hay harvest, and the motor gentry on the Fosse Way. The gentleman needn’t worry himself, and he had told him so, but it was no good speaking. I explained to Jack that my friend was a sick man, and that part of his sickness was a dread of strange faces. Jack understood that and grinned. ‘Like that new ‘awk of Master Peter John’s,’ he said.

The mention of Peter John gave me an idea. The boy was not going back to school that half, and was settling down to a blissful summer at Fosse before he went north to Sandy Clanroyden at Laverlaw. He had six little kestrels sitting all day on the lawn, and Morag on her perch in the Crow Wood, and a young badger called Broccoli that rootled about in the stable straw and gave him heart disease at night by getting down into the entrails of the greenhouses. He was still under a mild doctor’s régime, but was picking up strength very fast. Haraldsen had taken to him at Hanham, and I thought that his company might be wholesome for him. So I asked him to take on the job of being a good deal with my guest, for everything about Peter John suggested calm nerves and solid reason. There was something else in my mind.

‘Mr. Haraldsen is an invalid,’ I said, ‘and must keep quiet. He has been through rather a beastly experience, which I’ll tell you about some day. It’s just possible that the experience isn’t over yet, and that some person or persons might turn up here who wouldn’t be well disposed to him. I want you to keep your eyes very wide open and let me know at once if you see or hear anything suspicious. By suspicious I mean something outside the usual — I don’t care how small it is. We can’t afford to take any chances with Mr. Haraldsen.’

Peter John nodded and his face brightened. He asked no questions, but I knew that he had got something to think about.

Nothing happened for a week. The boy did Haraldsen good; Mary and I both noticed it, and Jack Godstow admitted as much. He took him to fish in the early mornings both in our little trout stream and in the Decoy ponds. He took him on the Downs in the afternoon to fly Morag. He took him into the woods after dinner to watch fox cubs at play, and try to intercept Broccoli’s cousin on his way from his sett. Haraldsen began to get some colour into his face, and he confessed that he slept better. I don’t know what the two talked about, but they must have found common subjects, for I could hear them conversing vigorously — Peter John’s slow, grave voice, and Haraldsen’s quicker, more staccato speech. If we were making no progress with Haraldsen’s business we were at any rate mending his health.

Then one evening Peter John came to me with news.

They had been out hawking with Morag on the Sharway Downs, and on their way home had met a young man on horseback. At first Peter John had thought him one of the grooms from the Clipperstone Racing Stables exercising a horse, but as they passed he saw that the rider was not dressed like a groom. He wore white linen breeches, a smartly cut flannel coat, and an O.E. tie. He had taken a good look at the falconers, and the impression left by him on Peter John was of a florid young man with a small dark moustache and slightly projecting upper teeth. To their surprise they met him again, this time apparently in rather a hurry, for he was going at a quick trot, and again he scrutinized them sharply. Now, said my son, that meant that he had made a circuit by the track that led to Sharway Lodge Farm, and cut through the big Sharway Wood — not an easy road, and possible only for one who knew the country. Who was this young man? Did I know anybody like him, for he had never seen him before? Why was he so interested in the pair of them?

I said that he was no doubt a stranger who was intrigued by the sight of the falcon, and wanted to have another look at it.

‘But he didn’t look at Morag,’ was the answer. ‘It was Mr. Haraldsen that interested him — both times. You might have thought that he knew him and wanted to stop and speak.’

‘Did Mr. Haraldsen recognize him?’ I asked, and was told No. He didn’t know him from Adam, and Peter John, not to alarm him, had pretended he was one of the racing-stable people.

Two days later I had to be at Gloucester for the Agricultural Show. When I was dressing for dinner in the evening Mary was full of the visitors she had had that afternoon at tea.

‘The Marthews, no less!’ she said. ‘I can’t think what brought them here, for Caythorp is thirty miles off and I scarcely know them. Claire Marthew was a god-daughter of one of my Wymondham aunts — I used to meet her here in the old days when she was Claire Serocold and a very silly affected girl. She hasn’t improved much — her face lacquered like a doll’s, and her eyes like a Pekinese, and her voice so foolish it made one hot to hear it. She’s by way of being uncommonly smart, and she babbled of grandees. But she was amiable enough, though I can’t explain this sudden craving for my society. She brought her whole party with her — in several cars — you never saw such a caravan. Mostly women who had to be shown the house and the garden — I wish I were a better show-woman, Dick, for I become paralysed with boredom when I have to expound our possessions. There was one extraordinarily pretty girl, a Miss Ludlow — a film actress, I believe, who was content to smile and look beautiful. There were a couple of young men, too, who didn’t say much. I told Peter John to look after them, and I think he took them to see the hunters at grass, and Morag, and Broccoli. By the way, I haven’t seen him since. I wonder what he’s up to?’

Peter John was very late for dinner. In theory he should have been in bed by nine, but it was no good making rules for one whose habits, in summer at any rate, were largely nocturnal. At ten o’clock, when I was writing letters in the library, he appeared at my side.

‘Did my mother tell you about the people who came to tea?’ he asked. ‘There was a flock of them, and one was the man that Mr. Haraldsen and I met on Tuesday — the chap on horseback who wanted to have another look at us.’

‘What was his name?’ I asked.

‘They all called him Frankie. My mother thinks it was something like Warrender — but not Warrender. I took him to see the horses, and he asked a lot of questions.’

‘Wasn’t there another man?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but he didn’t count. He was a sort of artist or antiquarian, and couldn’t be got away from the tithe-barn. It was this Frankie chap that mattered. He made me take him all over the place, and he asked me all sorts of questions about who lived here, and what their jobs were, and who our friends were, and if many people came to stay with us. It would have been cheek in anybody else, but he did it quite nicely, as if he liked the place enormously and wanted to know all about it. But you told me to look out for anything suspicious, and I thought him a bit suspicious.

‘And that isn’t the end,’ he went on. ‘Frankie didn’t go off with the rest. He started with them in a little sports car of his own, but he turned off at the lodge gate and tucked away his car in the track that leads to the old quarry. I was following him and saw him skirt the water-meadow and have a look at the back of Trimble’s cottage. Then he moved on to Jack’s, and lay up in the hazel clump behind it, where he could get a good view. I nipped in by the side door, and luckily caught Mr. Haraldsen, who was just starting out, and told him to stick indoors. Frankie was so long in the clump that I got tired of waiting and decided to flush him, so I made a circuit and barged in beside him, pretending I had lost Broccoli. He took it quite calmly, and said he was a keen botanist and had stayed behind to look for some plant that he had heard lived here. But he didn’t want to stay any longer, so I saw him to his car, and he socked me two half-crowns, and then I went back to give the “All Clear” to Mr. Haraldsen.’

I told Peter John that he had done very well, and had better get off to bed. His story had disquieted me, for this Frankie man had clearly been interested in Haraldsen, and it looked as if he had spotted his lair. That wasn’t difficult, for, if there was anybody at Fosse who was not staying in the house, Jack’s cottage was the only one big enough for a guest. I cross-examined Mary about Frankie, but she could tell me little. He had seemed a very ordinary young man, with pleasant manners and a vacant face — she remembered his prominent teeth. But she had got his name — not Warrender, but Varrinder. ‘He’s probably the son of the snuffy old Irish peer — Clongelt? — Clongelly? — who was said to be a money-lender in Cork Street.’

It was, I think, three days later that Sandy Clanroyden came to visit us. He wired that he wanted exercise, and proposed that I should meet him at a distant railway station, send his kit back in the car, and walk with him the fifteen miles to Fosse. We had a gorgeous walk through the blue June weather, drank good ale at the little pubs, and dropped down from the uplands nearly opposite our lodge gates, where a wild field of stunted thorns formed the glacis of the hills. We had a clear view of a patch of highway, where two men were getting into a little sports car.

Sandy sank to the ground as if he had been shot. ‘Down, Dick,’ he commanded, and, after a long stare, fixed in his eye the little single glass which he used for watching birds. All I saw was two young men, who seemed to be in rather a hurry. One was hatless, and the other had his hat pulled far down on his head. At that distance I couldn’t be sure, but I had the impression that both were a little the worse for wear, for their flannel suits didn’t seem to hang quite right on them.

When they had gone, Sandy pocketed his glass and grunted. He didn’t say one word till we reached the house and were being greeted by Mary. Instead of replying to her inquiries about Barbara, he asked, like a cross-examining counsel, if she had had any visitors at Fosse that afternoon.

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘The Varrinder youth, who came with the Matthews, turned up again. I told you about him, Dick. He’s a great botanist, and there is something very rare here, which he wanted to show to his friend. He said that on his last visit he had found the dwarf orchis.’

Sandy whistled. ‘Not very clever,’ he said. ‘Ustulata is impossible on this soil. Who was his friend?’

‘A Frenchman, a Monsieur Blanc. Mr. Varrinder called him Pierre.’

‘Describe him.’

Mary wrinkled her brows. ‘A man about thirty-five or forty, I should say. Very slim and elegant and beautifully dressed. A queerly shaped head that rose to a peak, rather like a faun’s — clean-shaven, and with the kind of colour that people get from living in hot climates. His chin was paler than the rest of his face, so I expect he once had a beard. They wouldn’t stay to tea — only wanted permission to explore the home woods.’

‘Did Peter John see them?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. He has been out for the whole day, but he’s back now, for I heard his bath running.’

As I was showing Sandy his room he said solemnly, ‘We must have a long talk after dinner, Dick.’

‘We must,’ I said. ‘I have a good deal I want to tell you.’

‘And I have something rather startling to tell you,’ he replied.

That night I brought Peter John into our conference, for I judged that he had better know everything. I began by going fully into the Haraldsen business, of which, of course, Sandy knew nothing. I told him of my talk with Lombard, and my talks with Haraldsen himself, and my conviction that the man was not dreaming, but was really in danger. I repeated what Macgillivray had told me about Troth and Barralty. I explained that I had thought it best to bring him down to Fosse, which seemed to me a safe hiding-place. Then I recounted what had happened since he came here, his growing restlessness and misery, which Peter John seemed to be in the way of curing, and finally the episode of young Varrinder. I said that I hadn’t liked the business of that youth, for he appeared to have a morbid interest in Haraldsen, and I told of his lying up behind Jack’s cottage, and I added that I liked less his coming here today with his tale of a bogus orchis. ‘Do you know anything about him?’ I asked.

‘Not much,’ said Sandy. ‘I’ve heard of him. He’s reputed to be something of a waster, gambles high at Dillon’s, and so forth. But I can tell you a good deal about his friend Monsieur — Pierre — Blanc.’ Sandy repeated the name slowly as if each syllable had its flavour.

‘Listen, Dick,’ he said, ‘and you, Peter John, though you’ll have to get your father to explain a lot afterwards. I’ve told you pretty fully the story of what happened in Olifa two years ago.* You remember that the Gran Seco was a sort of port of missing ships, where all kinds of geniuses and desperadoes who had crashed their lives were inspanned in Castor’s service. They were like the servants of the Old Man of the Mountain in the Crusades, and drugged themselves into competence and comfort. Well, you know what happened. The gang — they called themselves the Conquistadores — was cleaned out. Some were killed in our final scrap, and the rest were bound to die slowly when they were deprived of their dope. There was one of them, almost the boldest, called Jacques D’Ingraville, who had been in his day a famous French ace. He was as big a blackguard as the others, but more wholesome, for, though he doped, his work in the air kept his body from becoming quite so sodden. I was never very sure what became of him in the end. We had no certain news of his death in the fight at Veiro, but there was a strong probability that he had stopped a bullet there, and anyhow, I knew that his number was up, since the supply of astura was cut off. I pictured him creeping to some hole in South America or Europe to die.

‘Well, I was wrong,’ he continued. ‘Alone of those verminous Conquistadores — almost certainly alone — D’Ingraville lives. And I should say that he had recovered. He looked quite a fit man when I saw him this evening.’

Nobody spoke for a little. To me the whole affair suddenly began to wear a blacker complexion. It wasn’t so much the appearance of D’Ingraville, for I had always suspected that Troth and Barralty and Albinus were not the whole of the gang. It was the fact that they had managed to trace Haraldsen here in spite of all our care. I reckoned that they must be far cleverer and more powerful than I had believed, and that my job of standing by Haraldsen was going to be a large-sized affair. I suddenly felt very feeble, and rather timid and old. But the sight of Sandy’s face cheered me, for instead of being worried it was eager and merry.

‘Who are in with you, Dick?’ he asked. ‘Only Lombard? Well, I think I must make a third. Partly because I’ve been funnily mixed up with Haraldsen, for Fate made me his father’s legatee. The jade tablet was put in my hands for a purpose. Partly because of Monsieur le Capitaine Jacques D’Ingraville, alias Pierre Blanc. He’s too dangerous a lad to be left at large. I haven’t finished my Olifa job till I have settled with him. The time, I think, has come for me to take a hand.’

He got up and found himself a drink. I looked at him as he stood half in the dusk, with the light of a single lamp on his face — not much younger than me, but as taut as a strung bow and as active as a hunting leopard. I thought that Haraldsen’s enemies had unloosed a force of pretty high velocity. Peter John must have thought the same. He had listened to our talk with his eyes popping out of his head, and that sullen set of his face which he always wore when he was strongly moved. But as he looked at Sandy his solemnity broke into a smile.

‘I go up to town tomorrow,’ said Sandy, ‘and I must get busy. I want a good deal more information, and I have better means of getting it than Macgillivray. I wish I knew just how much time we have. The gang are on Haraldsen’s track — that’s clear — but the question is, have they located him? The Varrinder lad can’t be sure, or he wouldn’t have come back twice.. .. Of course they may have done the business today. I wonder how far they got this evening?’

Peter John spoke. ‘They didn’t get very far. They couldn’t. You see, they both fell into the Mill pool.’

Sandy took his pipe from his mouth and beamed on the boy. ‘They fell into the Mill pool? Explain yourself, my son.’

‘I spotted them when they arrived,’ said Peter John, ‘and I knew they would be a little time in the house anyhow, so I nipped off and warned Mr. Haraldsen to keep cover. When they came out I trailed them. They went through the garden to the High Wood, but I was pretty certain that they meant to go to the hazel clump behind Jack’s cottage. To get there they had to cross the Mill lead by the plank bridge just above the pool. The stone at the end of the bridge isn’t safe unless the planks are pushed well up the bank. So I loosened it a bit more, and pulled down the planks so that they rested on it.’

‘Well?’ Sandy and I demanded in one breath.

‘They both fell into the pool, and it’s pretty deep. I helped to pull them out and asked them to come up to the house to change. They wouldn’t, for they were very cross. But Mr. Varrinder socked me another five bob.’

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