The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

8

Wee Archie departed next morning when ‘the boat’ called, on his way to spread light throughout all the other dark places of the archipelago. He had been staying with the Reverend Mr MacKay, it transpired; and Grant wondered what that blameless padre to a Highland regiment would think if he knew what he had been sheltering under his roof. Or was the Reverend Mr MacKay, too, sick of Archie Brown’s disease?

On the whole Grant thought not.

Mr MacKay had all the authority that mortal man could crave; he had a satisfaction for his vanity every Sunday morning; he had seen the world, and life and death, and men’s souls in relation to both, and he was not likely to hanker after esoteric glories. He had merely been host to a Scottish celebrity. For in a small country like Scotland Archie ranked as a celebrity, and Mr MacKay was no doubt greatly pleased to entertain him.

So Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking with a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go. He spent his evenings with his legs stretched out to the office fire listening to Mr Todd’s tales of pub-owning in the Lowlands. He ate enormously. He put on weight visibly. He slept as soon as his head touched the pillow and woke only when it was morning. And by the end of the fifth day he was ready to face a hundred air journeys rather than spend another twelve hours in the place.

So on the sixth morning he stood on the great flat of white sand waiting for the little plane to pick him up on its way back from Stornoway. And the small misgiving somewhere in the depths of him was nothing like the pervading apprehension with which he had expected to be filled at this moment. Mr Todd stood with him, and beside them on the sand was his small case. Up on the grass, where the road ended, was the Cladda Hotel car, the only one on the island and the only one of its class anywhere in the world. They stood there, four tiny dark objects in the shining waste, watching the small bird-like thing in the sky drop down to them.

This, Grant thought, was as near to the original idea of flight as one was likely to get nowadays. As someone had pointed out, when man first dreamed of flying he had seen himself rising on his own silver wings into the blue empyrean, but it hadn’t turned out at all like that. First he was trundled to a field, then he was shut in a box, then he was terrified, then he was sick, then he was in Paris. Being picked up from the sands on the sea-ward fringe of the world by a casual-alighting bird was as near as one would ever come to the free soaring of man’s original vision.

The great bird idled up to them along the sand, and for a moment Grant panicked. It was, when all was said, a box. A tight-closed trap of a thing. But the casualness of everything loosened his rigid muscles almost as soon as they had stiffened. In the clinical order of an airport, shepherded and compelled, panic might have conquered. But here, on the open sand, with the pilot draped about the top step as he gossiped with Mr Todd, and the crying of gulls and the smell of the sea, it was a thing one could take or leave. There was no compulsion to be afraid of.

So when the moment came he put his foot over the last step with nothing more than a slight heart-quickening. And before he could analyse his reaction to that closing door a nearer interest caught his mind. In front of him, on the other side of the gangway, was Wee Archie.

Wee Archie looked as if he had just got out of bed, and as if he had done that getting-out in some hurry. His dishevelled splendour looked more than ever as if they were someone’s else’s clothes altogether. He looked like a discarded armature with some studio props flung on top of it. He greeted Grant like an old friend, condescended to him about his ignorance of the Islands, recommended Gaelic to him as a language it would pay him to study, and went back to sleep. Grant sat and looked at him.

The little bastard, he thought. The vain, worthless little bastard.

Archie’s mouth had fallen open, and the strands of black hair no longer covered the thin patch. The knees above the fat brilliant socks were more like anatomical specimens than any mechanism designed for the propulsion of a living being. They weren’t knees; they were ‘the knee joint’. The articulation of the fibula was particularly interesting.

The vain vicious little bastard. He had had a profession that would give him his bread and butter, a profession that would have given him a certain standing, a profession that would have brought him spiritual reward. But that had not satisfied his egotistical soul. He had needed the limelight. And as long as he could strut in the light he did not care who paid for the illumination.

Grant was still considering the fundamental part that vanity played in the make-up of the criminal when a geometrical pattern opened below him like a Japanese flower in water. He took his thoughts from psychological matters in order to consider this Euclidean phenomenon in a world of nature and found that they were circling the mainland airport. He had flown back from Cladda and had hardly been aware of it.

He climbed down on to the tarmac and wondered what would happen if he did a war-dance of joy there and then. He wanted to go whooping and prancing round the aerodrome like a child on his first hobby-horse. Instead he went to the telephone booths and asked Tommy if he could pick him up at the Caledonian in Scoone in about two hours. Tommy could and would.

The food at the airport restaurant tasted like Lucas–Carton, the Tour d’Argent, and La Crémaillière all rolled into one. The man at the next table was complaining bitterly about it. But he of course had not just been reborn after five months of hell and seven days of Katie–Ann.

Tommy’s round, kind face in the lounge of the Caledonian looked rounder and kinder than even Tommy’s face had ever looked before.

There was no wind.

No wind at all.

It was a beautiful world.

What a frightful anticlimax it would be, he thought, if when he got into the car with Tommy the old horror overcame him. Perhaps the thing was just waiting there for him, licking its lips with anticipation.

But there was nothing in the car. Just himself and Tommy and the good relaxed atmosphere of their habitual intercourse. They drove away into the country, an appreciably greener country than it had been ten days ago, and the evening sun came out and sent long golden fingers of light across the calm fields.

‘How did the Moymore ceremony come off?’ he asked. ‘The bouquet presentation.’

‘Oh, heavens: that!’ Tommy said, making motions as of a man mopping his forehead.

‘Didn’t he present it?’

‘If letting her have it is presenting it, I suppose technically he presented it. He handed it over with a speech he had thought up himself.’

‘What kind of speech?’

‘I think he had been rehearsing a sort of get-out for himself ever since we talked him into it by making Zoë Kentallen a rebel of some kind. Which was Laura’s idea, by the way, not mine. Well, when she stooped to take the great bush of carnations from him — she’s very tall — he held them out of her reach for a moment and said firmly: “I’m only giving you this, mind, because you’re a fellow-revolutionary.” She took it without batting an eyelid. She said: “Yes, of course. How very kind of you,” although she hadn’t an idea what he was talking about. She bowled him over, by the way.’

‘How?’

‘In the good old female way. Pat is in the throes of his first infatuation.’

Grant looked forward to seeing this phenomenon.

Clune lay very peaceful in its green hollow, and Grant looked at it as one coming home victorious from battle. Last time he had driven up that sandy road he had been a slave; now he was a free man. He had gone out to look for B Seven and had found himself.

Laura came out to meet him at the doorstep and said: ‘Alan, have you taken to a tipster’s business on the side?’

‘No. Why?’

‘Or one of those Lonely Hearts columns, or something?’

‘No.’

‘Because Mrs Mair says there is a whole sackful of mail waiting for you at the post-office.’

‘Oh. How did Mrs Mair know that the letters were for me?’

‘She said you were the only A. Grant in the district. I take it you haven’t advertised for a wife?’

‘No, just for a bit of information,’ he said, going with her into the sitting-room.

The room in the early dusk was full of firelight and wavering shadows. He thought it was empty until he noticed that someone was sitting in the big wing-chair by the hearth. A woman; so long and slender that she seemed as fluid as the shadows and he had to look a second time to be sure that she was not in truth a shadow.

‘Lady Kentallen,’ said Laura’s voice behind him, in an introducing tone. ‘Zoë has come back to Clune for a few days’ fishing.’

The woman leant forward to shake hands with him and he saw that she was a girl.

‘Mr Grant,’ she said, greeting him. ‘Laura says that you like to be called Mr.’

‘Yes. Yes, I do. “Inspector” has a grim sound in private life.’

‘And a little unreal, too,’ she said in her gentle voice. ‘Like something out of a detective story.’

‘Yes; people expect you to say: “Where were you on the evening of the umpteenth inst?”’ How could this virginal creature be the mother of three sons, one of them nearly old enough to leave school? ‘Have you been having any luck on the river?’

‘I had a nice grilse this morning. You are going to have it for supper.’

She had the kind of beauty that allows a woman to part her hair in the middle and wear it smooth to her head. A dark, small head on a long graceful neck.

He remembered suddenly about the newly decorated bedroom. So the fresh paint had been for Zoë Kentallen, and not for Laura’s latest candidate for his interest. That was an enormous relief. It had been bad enough to have Laura’s selections put under his nose, but to have had the latest one actually under the same roof would have been, to put it mildly, tiresome.

‘The Oban train must have been in time for once,’ Laura said, remarking on his early arrival.

‘Oh, he flew back,’ Tommy said, throwing another log on the fire. He said it casually, unaware that the fact had any importance.

Grant looked over at Laura and saw her face light with happiness. She turned her head to find him among the shadows and saw that he was looking at her, and smiled. Had it mattered so much to her then? Dear Lalla. Dear kind understanding Lalla.

They began to talk about the Islands. Tommy had a fine tale of a man whose hat blew off as he was boarding a boat in Barra and who found it waiting for him on the pier at Mallaig. Laura was funny about the impossibility of carrying on a conversation in a language that has no words for anything less than two hundred years old and supplied an imaginary account of a road accident. (‘Blah-blah bicycle blah-blah S-bend blah-blah brakes blah-blah traction-engine blah-blah ambulance blah-blah stretcher blah-blah anaesthetic blah-blah private ward blah-blah temperature-chart blah-blah chrysanthemums freezias ranunculus narcissus carnations. . . . ) Zoë had stayed in the Islands as a child and was very knowledgeable about poaching salmon; an art she had been taught by local talent under the very nose of her host’s game-keeper.

Grant was pleased to find that the family atmosphere of Clune had been in no way disturbed by the presence of this guest. She seemed unaware of her beauty, and unexpectant of attention. He was not surprised that Pat had been ‘bowled over’.

It was only when his bedroom door finally closed on him and he was alone that his mind went to that waiting sack of letters in the post-office at Moymore. A sack of them! Well, that was not unbearably surprising, after all. A life in the C.I.D. conditioned one to the existence of the letter-writer. There were people whose only interest in life was writing letters. To the newspapers, to authors, to strangers, to City Councils, to the police. It did not much matter to whom; the satisfaction of writing seemed to be all. Seven-eighths of that pile of letters would be the product of those whose hobby was writing letters.

But there was still the odd eighth.

What would the odd eighth have to say?

In the morning he watched the guest getting her tackle ready for the river and wished that he was going with her, but still more he wanted to go to the post-office at Moymore. She set off without fuss, self-sufficient and unobtrusive, and Grant, watching her walk down the path, thought that she was more like an adolescent boy than a prospective dowager. She was wearing very elegant trousers and a disreputable old lumber jacket, and he remarked to Tommy that she was one of the few women who looked really well in trousers.

‘She’s the only woman in the world,’ Tommy said, ‘who looks beautiful in waders.’

So Grant went away to interview Mrs Mair at Moymore. Mrs Mair hoped that he had a secretary and presented him with a paper-knife. It was a thin silver affair, very tarnished, with a thistle head made of amethyst. When he pointed out that the thing was hall-marked and of some value nowadays and that he could not accept expensive presents from strange women, she said:

‘Mr Grant, that thing has been in my shop for twenty-five years. It was made for the souvenir trade in the days when people could read. Now they just look and listen. You’re the first person I’ve met in a quarter of a century that needed a paper-knife. Indeed, by the time you’ve slit open all the letters in that sack, you’ll need more than a paper-knife, I’m thinking. Anyway it’s the first and last time I’ll ever have a sack of mail addressed to one person in this office and I’d like to mark the occasion. So you take the wee knife!’

He took it gratefully, hoisted the sack into the car, and went back to Clune.

‘The bag’s post-office property,’ she said after him, ‘so see you bring it back!’

He took the sack to his own room, polished the little knife until it shone with a pleased and grateful air as if glad to be noticed after all those years, emptied the bag on to the floor, and slipped the knife into the first letter to come to hand. The first letter asked him how he dared expose to the public gaze the words the writer had written, with such pain and heart-searching, in the spring of 1911, under the orders of her spirit guide Azul. It was like being publicly exhibited without clothes, to see her own precious lines so wantonly laid bare.

Thirteen other correspondents claimed to have written the lines (without spirit guidance) and asked what was in it for them. Five sent the completed poem — five different poems — and claimed that they were the author of it. Three accused him of blasphemy, and seven said he was plagiarising from Revelations. One said: ‘Thank you very much for an evening’s entertainment, old boy, and how is the fishing on the Turlie this year?’ One directed him to the Apocrypha, one to the Arabian Nights, one to Rider Haggard, one to Theosophy, one to Grand Canyon, and five to various parts of Central and South America. Nine sent him cures for alcoholism, and twenty-two sent him circulars about esoteric cults. Two suggested subscriptions to poetry magazines, and one offered to teach him to write salable verse. One said: ‘If you are the A. Grant I sat through the monsoon with at Bishenpur this is my present address.’ One said: ‘If you are the A. Grant I spent the night with in a rest hotel in Amalfi this is just to say hullo, and I wish my husband was as good.’ One sent him particulars of a Clan Grant association. Nine were obscene. Three were illegible.

There were one hundred and seventeen letters.

The one that gave him most pleasure was one that read: ‘I’ve fathomed your code, you bloody traitor, and I shall report you to the Special Branch.’

Not one of them was of any help at all.

Oh, well. He had not really hoped. It had been a shot in the dark.

He had at least had some amusement out of it. Now he could settle down and fish until the end of his sick-leave. He wondered how long Zoë Kentallen was staying.

The guest had taken sandwiches with her and did not appear for lunch, but in the afternoon Grant took his rod and followed her down to the river. She had probably already fished the whole of the Clune water, but perhaps she did not know it as well as he did. She might be glad of some unobtrusive advice. Not, of course, that he was going down to the river for the sole purpose of talking to her. He was going to fish. But he would have to find out first which part of the water she herself was fishing. And he could hardly, having found her, pass with a casual wave of the hand.

He did not pass at all, of course. He sat on the bank watching her drop a Green Highlander above the big one that she had been pursuing with various lures for the last hour. ‘He just thumbs his nose at me,’ she said. ‘It has become a personal affair between us.’ She used her rod with the ease of someone who has fished since she was a child; almost absent-mindedly, as Laura did. It was very satisfying to watch.

He gaffed the fish for her an hour later, and they sat together on the grass and ate the rest of her sandwiches. She asked about his work, not as if it was a sensational matter, but as she might inquire about it if he had been an architect or an engine-driver; and told him about her three boys and what they were going to be. Her simplicity was indestructible, and her unselfconsciousness child-like in its completeness.

‘Nigel will be sick when he hears that I have been fishing the Turlie,’ she said. She said it as a girl might say it of a schoolboy brother; and he deduced that this described with fair accuracy the relationship between herself and her sons.

There were hours yet of daylight, but neither of them made any move to go back to the river. They sat there looking down on the brown water and talked. Grant, out of his wide acquaintance, tried to think of an equivalent to her, and failed. None of the beautiful women he had seen in his time had had her fairy-princess quality; her air of timeless youth. A stray from Tir nan Og, he thought. It was surprising that she should, soberly considered, be the same age as Laura.

‘Did you know Laura well at school?’

‘Not bosom-friend well. I was terribly in awe of her, you see.’

‘In awe? Of Laura?’

‘Yes. She was very clever, you know, and good at everything, and I never could add two and two.’

Since part of his delight in her was the contrast between her Hans Andersen-illustration quality and her practicality, he deduced that this was an exaggeration. But it was probably true that she had no — no branches to her, so to speak. No multitude of leaves to breathe the air of the world. The climate of her mind was uncritical. Her utterance had none of Laura’s glancing comment; none of Laura’s swift interest and dissection.

‘We are very lucky, you and Laura and I, to have known the Highlands when we were children,’ she said, when they were talking of early fishing experiences. ‘That is what I should wish most for a child. To have a beautiful calf-country. When David — my husband — was killed they wanted me to sell Kentallen. We had never had much money, and the Death Duties took the margin that made the place workable. But I wanted to hang on to it at least until Nigel and Timmy and Charles are grown-up. They will hate losing it, but at least they will have had the years that matter in a beautiful country.’

He looked at her, putting her tackle neatly away in its box with the sober care of a tidy child, and thought that the solution of her problem was surely remarriage. The West End that he knew so well was lousy with sleek men in shiny cars who could keep Kentallen with no more effort than they would keep a Japanese garden in one of the rooms that they called lounges. The difficulty was, he supposed, that in Zoë Kentallen’s world money was neither an introduction nor an absolution.

The spring sunlight faded. The skies grew luminous. The hills went far away and lay down, as Laura had once said as a child; describing in eight easy words the whole look and atmosphere of an evening of settled weather when tomorrow is going to be a wonderful day.

‘We ought to be getting back,’ Zoë said.

As he picked up their fishing things from the bank he thought that there had been more magic in this one afternoon on the Turlie than in all the much advertised Islands of the West.

‘You love your work, don’t you?’ she said as they walked up the hill to Clune. ‘Laura told me that you could have retired years ago if you had wanted to.’

‘Yes,’ he said, a little surprised. ‘I suppose that I could have retired. My mother’s sister left me a legacy. She married a man who did well in Australia and she had no children.’

‘What would you do if you retired?’

‘I don’t know. I have never even considered it.’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04