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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
From the Bath, in its most exotic form, degenerate patrician youth passed to the coarse delights of the Circus, and thence to that parody of public duties which it was still the fashion of their class to patronise.
VON LETTERBECK: Imperial Rome.
Lamancha had been staying for the weekend at some country house, and had returned full of wrath at the way he had been made to spend his evenings. ‘I thought I hated bridge,’ he said, ‘but I almost longed for it as a change from cracking my brain and my memory to find lines from poets I had forgotten to describe people I didn’t know. I don’t like games that make me feel a congenital idiot. But there was one that rather amused me. You invented a preposterous situation and the point was to explain naturally how it came about. Drink, lunacy and practical joking were barred as explanations. One problem given was the bishop of London on a camel, with a string of sea-trout round his neck, playing on a penny whistle on the Hoe at Plymouth. There was a fellow there, a Chancery K.C., who provided a perfectly sensible explanation.’
‘I have heard of stranger things,’ said Sandy Arbuthnot, and he winked at Burminster, who flushed and looked uncomfortable. As the rest of our eyes took the same direction the flush deepened on that round cheerful face.
‘It’s no good, Mike,’ said Arbuthnot. ‘We’ve been waiting months for that story of yours, and this is the place and the hour for it. We’ll take no denial.’
‘Confound you, Sandy, I can’t tell it. It’s too dashed silly.’
‘Not a bit of it. It’s full of profound philosophical lessons, and sheer romance, as somebody has defined the thing — strangeness flowering from the commonplace. So pull up your socks and get going.’
‘I don’t know how to begin,’ said Burminster.
‘Well, I’ll start it for you . . . The scene is the railway station of Langshiels on the Scottish Borders on a certain day last summer. On the platform are various gentlemen in their best clothes with rosettes in their buttonholes — all strictly sober, it being but the third hour of the afternoon. There are also the rudiments of a brass band. Clearly a distinguished visitor is expected. The train enters the station, and from a third-class carriage descends our only Mike with a muddy face and a scratched nose. He is habited in dirty white cord breeches, shocking old butcher boots, a purple knitted waistcoat, and what I believe is called a morning coat; over all this splendour a ticky ulster — clearly not his own since it does not meet — and on his head an unspeakable bowler hat. He is welcomed by the deputation and departs, attended by the band, to a political meeting in the Town Hall. But first — I quote from the local paper —“The Duke, who had arrived in sporting costume, proceeded to the Station Hotel, where he rapidly changed.” We want to know the reason of these cantrips.’
Burminster took a long pull at his tankard, and looked round the company with more composure.
‘It isn’t much of a story, but it’s true, and, like nearly every scrape I ever got into, Archie Roylance was at the bottom of it. It all started from a discussion I had with Archie. He was staying with me at Larristane, and we got talking about the old Border raiders and the way the face of the countryside had changed and that sort of thing. Archie said that, now the land was as bare as a marble-topped table and there was no cover on the hills to hide a tomtit, a man couldn’t ride five miles anywhere between the Cheviots and the Clyde without being seen by a dozen people. I said that there was still plenty of cover if you knew how to use it — that you could hide yourself as well on bent and heather as in a thick wood if you studied the shadows and the lie of the land, same as an aeroplane can hide itself in an empty sky. Well, we argued and argued, and the upshot was that I backed myself to ride an agreed course, without Archie spotting me. There wasn’t much money on it — only an even sovereign — but we both worked ourselves up into considerable keenness. That was where I fell down. I might have known that anything Archie was keen about would end in the soup.
‘The course we fixed was about fifteen miles long, from Gledfoot bridge over the hills between Gled and Aller and the Blae Moor to the Mains of Blae. That was close to Kirk Aller, and we agreed, if we didn’t meet before, to foregather at the Cross Keys and have tea and motor home. Archie was to start from a point about four miles north-east of Gledfoot and cut in on my road at a tangent. I could shape any course I liked, but I couldn’t win unless I got to the Mains of Blae before five o’clock without being spotted. The rule about that was that he must get within speaking distance of me — say three hundred yards — before he held me up. All the Larristane horses were at grass, so we couldn’t look for pace. I chose an old hunter of mine that was very leery about bogs; Archie picked a young mare that I had hunted the season before and that he had wanted to buy from me. He said that by rights he ought to have the speedier steed, since, if he spotted me, he had more or less to ride me down.
‘We thought it was only a pleasant summer day’s diversion. I didn’t want to give more than a day to it, for I had guests arriving that evening, and on the Wednesday — this was a Monday — I had to take the chair for Deloraine at a big Conservative meeting at Langshiels, and I meant to give a lot of time to preparing a speech. I ought to say that neither of us knew the bit of country beyond its general lines, and we were forbidden to carry maps. The horses were sent on, and at 9.30 a.m. I was at Gledfoot bridge ready to start. I was wearing khaki riding breeches, polo boots, an old shooting coat, and a pretty old felt hat. I mention my costume, for later it became important.
‘I may as well finish with Archie, for he doesn’t come any more into this tale. He hadn’t been half an hour in the saddle when he wandered into a bog, and it took him till three in the afternoon to get his horse out. Consequently he chucked in his hand, and went back to Larristane. So all the time I was riding cunning and watching out of my right eye to see him on the skyline he was sweating and blaspheming in a peat moss.
‘I started from Gledfoot up the Rinks burn in very good spirits, for I had been studying the big Ordnance map and I relieved I had a soft thing. Beyond the Rinks Hope I would cross the ridge to the top of the Skyre burn, which at its head is all split up into deep grassy gullies. I had guessed this from the map, and the people at Gledfoot had confirmed it. By one or other of these gullies I could ride in good cover till I reached a big wood of firs that stretched for a mile down the left bank of the burn. Archie, to cut in on me, had a pretty steep hill to cross, and I calculated that by the time he got on the skyline I would be in the shelter of one of the gullies or even behind the wood. Not seeing me on the upper Skyre, he would think that I had bustled a bit and would look for me lower down the glen. I would lie doggo and watch for him, and when I saw him properly started I meant to slip up a side burn and get into the parallel glen of the Hollin. Once there I would ride like blazes, and either get to the Blae Moor before him — in which case I would simply canter at ease up to the Mains of Blae — or, if I saw him ahead of me, fetch a circuit among the plantings and come in on the farm from the other side. That was the general layout, but I had other dodges in hand in case Archie tried to be clever.
‘So I tittuped along the hill turf beside the Rinks burn, feeling happy and pretty certain I would win. My horse, considering he was fresh from the grass, behaved very well, and we travelled in good style. My head was full of what I was going to say at Langshiels, and I thought of some rather fine things —“Our opponents would wreck the old world in order to build a new, but you cannot found any system on chaos, not even Communism” — I rather fancied that. Well, to make a long story short, I got to the Rinks Hope in thirty minutes, and there I found the herd gathering his black-faced lambs.
‘Curiously enough I knew the man — Prentice they called him — for he had been one of the young shepherds at Larristane. So I stopped to have a word with him, and watched him at work. He was short-handed for the job, and he had a young collie only half-trained, so I offered to give him a hand and show my form as a mounted stockman. The top of that glen was splendid going, and I volunteered to round up the west hirsel. I considered that I had plenty of time and could spare ten minutes to help a pal.
‘It was a dashed difficult job, and it took me a good half-hour, and it was a mercy my horse didn’t get an over-reach among the mossy well-heads. However, I did it, and when I started off again both I and my beast were in a lather of sweat. That must have confused me, and the way I had been making circles round the sheep, for I struck the wrong feeder, and instead of following the one that led to the top of the Skyre burn I kept too much to my left. When I got to the watershed I looked down on a country utterly different from what I had expected. There was no delta of deep gullies, but a broad green cup seamed with stone walls, and below it a short glen which presently ran out into the broader vale of the Aller.
‘The visibility was none too good, so I could not make out the further prospect. I ought to have realised that this was not the Skyre burn. But I only concluded that I had misread the map and besides, there was a big wood lower down which I thought was the one I had remarked. There was no sign of Archie as yet on the high hills to my right, so I decided I had better get off the skyline and make my best speed across that bare green cup.
‘It took me a long time, for I had a lot of trouble with the stone dykes. The few gates were all fastened up with wire, and I couldn’t manage to undo them. So I had to scramble over the first dyke, and half pull down the next, and what with one thing and another I wasted a shocking amount of time. When I got to the bottom I found that the burn was the merest trickle, not the strong stream of the Skyre, which is a famous water for trout. But there, just ahead of me, was the big wood, so I decided I must be right after all.
‘I had kept my eye lifting to the ridge on the right, and suddenly I saw Archie. I know now that it wasn’t he, but it was man on a horse and it looked his living image. He was well down the hillside and he was moving fast. He didn’t appear to have seen me, but I realised that he would in a minute, unless I found cover.
‘I jogged my beast with the spur, and in three seconds was under cover of the fir-wood. But here I found a track, and it struck me that it was this track which Archie was following, and that he would soon be up with me. The only thing to do seemed to be to get inside the wood. But this was easier said than done, for a great wall with broken bottles on the top ran round that blessed place. I had to do something pretty quick, for I could hear the sound of hoofs behind me, and on the left there was nothing but the benty side of a hill.
‘Just then I saw a gate, a massive thing of close-set oak splints, and for a mercy it was open. I pushed through it and slammed it behind me. It shut with a sharp click as if it was a patent self-locking arrangement. A second later I heard the noise of a horse outside and hands trying the gate. Plainly they couldn’t open it. The man I thought was Archie said “Damn” and moved away.
‘I had found sanctuary, but the question now was how to get out of it. I dismounted and wrestled with the gate, but it was as firm as a rock. About this time I began to realise that something was wrong, for I couldn’t think why Archie should have wanted to get through the gate if he hadn’t seen me, and, if he had seen me, why he hadn’t shouted, according to our rules. Besides, this wasn’t a wood, it was the grounds of some house, and the map had shown no house in the Skyre glen . . . The only thing to do was to find somebody to let me out. I didn’t like the notion of riding about in a stranger’s policies, so I knotted my bridle and let my beast graze, while I proceeded on foot to prospect.
‘The ground shelved steeply, and almost at once my feet went from under me and I slithered down a bank of raw earth. You see there was no grip in the smooth soles of my polo boots. The next I knew I had banged hard into the back of a little wooden shelter which stood on a sunny mantelpiece of turf above the stream. I picked myself up and limped round the erection, rubbing the dirt from my eyes, and came face to face with a group of people.
‘They were all women, except one man, who was reading aloud to them, and they were all lying in long chairs. Pretty girls they seemed to be from the glimpse I had of them, but rather pale, and they all wore bright-coloured cloaks.
‘I daresay I looked a bit of a ruffian, for I was very warm and had got rather dirty in slithering down, and had a rent in my breeches. At the sight of me the women gave one collective bleat like a snipe, and gathered up their skirts and ran. I could see their cloaks glimmering as they dodged like woodcock among the rhododendrons.
‘The man dropped his book and got up and faced me. He was a young fellow with a cadaverous face and side-whiskers, and he seemed to be in a funk of something, for his lips twitched and his hands shook as if he had fever. I could see that he was struggling to keep calm.
‘“So you’ve come back, Mr Brumby,” he said. “I hope you had a g-good time?”
‘For a moment I had a horrid suspicion that he knew me, for they used to call me “Brummy” at school. A second look convinced me that we had never met, and I realised that the word he had used was Brumby. I hadn’t a notion what he meant, but the only thing seemed to be to brazen it out. That was where I played the fool. I ought to have explained my mistake there and then, but I still had the notion that Archie was hanging about, and I wanted to dodge him. I dropped into a long chair, and said that I had come back and that it was a pleasant day. Then I got out my pipe.
‘“Here, you mustn’t do that,” he said. “It isn’t allowed.”
‘I put the pipe away, and wondered what lunatic asylum I had wandered into. I wasn’t permitted to wonder long, for up the path from the rhododendrons came two people in a mighty hurry. One was an anxious-faced oldish man dressed like a valet, and the other a middle-aged woman in nurse’s uniform. Both seemed to be excited, and both to be trying to preserve an air of coolness.
‘“Ah, Schwester,” said the fellow with the whiskers. “Here is Mr Brumby back again and none the worse.”
‘The woman, who had kind eyes and a nice gurgling voice, looked at me reproachfully.
‘“I hope you haven’t taken any harm, sir,” she said. “We had better go back to the house, and Mr Grimpus will give you a nice bath and a change, and you’ll lie down a bit before luncheon. You must be very tired, sir. You’d better take Mr Grimpus’s arm.”
‘My head seemed to be spinning, but I thought it best to lie low and do what I was told till I got some light. Silly ass that I was, I was still on the tack of dodging Archie. I could easily have floored Grimpus, and the man with the whiskers wouldn’t have troubled me much, but there was still the glass-topped wall to get over, and there might be heftier people about, grooms and gardeners and the like. Above all, I didn’t want to make any more scenes, for I had already scared a lot of sick ladies into the rhododendrons.
‘So I went off quite peaceably with Grimpus and the sister, and presently we came to a house like a small hydropathic, hideously ugly but beautifully placed, with a view south to the Aller Valley. There were more nurses in the hall and a porter with a jaw like a prize-fighter. Well, I went up in a lift to the second floor, and there was a bedroom and a balcony, and several trunks, and brushes on the dressing-table lettered H. B. They made me strip and get into a dressing-gown, and then a doctor arrived, a grim fellow with gold spectacles and a soft, bedside manner. He spoke to me soothingly about the beauty of the weather and how the heather would soon be in bloom on the hill; he also felt my pulse and took my blood pressure, and talked for a long time in a corner with the sister. If he said there was anything wrong with me he lied, for I had never felt fitter in my life except for the bewilderment of my brain.
‘Then I was taken down in a lift to the basement, and Grimpus started out to give me a bath. My hat! That was a bath! I lay in six inches of scalding water, while a boiling cataract beat on my stomach; then it changed to hot hail and then to gouts that hit like a pickaxe; and then it all turned to ice. But it made me feel uncommonly frisky. After that they took me back to my bedroom and I had a gruelling massage, and what I believe they call violet rays. By this time I was fairly bursting with vim, but I thought it best to be quite passive, and when they told me I must try to sleep before luncheon, I only grinned and put my head on the pillow like a child. When they left me I badly wanted to smoke, but my pipe had gone with my clothes, and I found laid out for me a complete suit of the man Brumby’s flannels.
‘As I lay and reflected I began to get my bearings. I knew where I was. It was a place called Craigiedean, about six miles from Kirk Aller, which had been used as a shell-shock hospital during the War and had been kept on as a home for nervous cases. It wasn’t a private asylum, as I had thought at first; it called itself a Kurhaus, and was supposed to be the last thing in science outside Germany. Now and then, however, it got some baddish cases, people who were almost off their rocker, and I fancied that Brumby was one. He was apparently my double, but I didn’t believe in exact doubles, so I guessed that he had just arrived, and hadn’t given the staff time to know him well before he went off on the bend. The horseman whom I had taken for Archie must have been out scouring the hills for him.
‘Well, I had dished Archie all right, but I had also dished myself. At any moment the real Brumby might wander back, ad then there would be a nice show up. The one thing that terrified me was that my identity should be discovered, for this as more or less my own countryside, and I should look a proper ass if it got about that I had been breaking into a nerve-cure place, frightening women, and getting myself treated like a gentle loony. Then I remembered that my horse was in the wood and might be trusted to keep on grazing along the inside of the wall where nobody went. My best plan seemed to be to wait my chance, slip out of the house, recover my beast and find some way out of the infernal park. The wall couldn’t be everywhere, for after all the place wasn’t an asylum.
‘A gong sounded for luncheon, so I nipped up, and got into Brumby’s flannels. They were all right for length, but a bit roomy. My money and the odds and ends from my own pockets were laid out on the dressing-table, but not my pipe and pouch, which I judged had been confiscated.
‘I wandered downstairs to a big dining-room, full of little tables, with the most melancholy outfit seated at them that you ever saw in all your days. The usual thing was to have a table to oneself, but sometimes two people shared one — husband and wife, no doubt, or mother and daughter. There were eight males including me, and the rest were females of every age from flappers to grandmothers. Some looked pretty sick, some quite blooming, but all had a watchful air, as if they were holding themselves in and pursuing some strict regime. There was no conversation, and everybody had brought a book or a magazine which they diligently studied. In the centre of each table, beside the salt and pepper, stood a little fleet of medicine bottles. The sister who led me to my place planted down two beside me.
‘I soon saw the reason of the literary absorption. The food was simply bestial. I was hungry and thirsty enough to have eaten two beefsteaks and drunk a quart of beer, and all I got was three rusks, a plate of thin soup, a puree of vegetables and a milk pudding in a teacup. I envied the real Brumby, who at that moment, if he had any sense, was doing himself well in a public-house. I didn’t dare to ask for more in case of inviting awkward questions, so I had plenty of leisure to observe the company. Nobody looked at anybody else, for it seemed to be the fashion to pretend you were alone in a wilderness, and even the couples did not talk to each other. I made a cautious preliminary survey to see if there was anyone I knew, but they were all strangers. After a time I felt so lonely that I wanted to howl.
‘At last the company began to get up and straggle out. The sister whom I had seen first — the others called her Schwester and she seemed to be rather a boss — appeared with a bright smile and gave me my medicine. I had to take two pills and some horrid drops out of a brown bottle. I pretended to be very docile, and I thought that I’d take the chance to pave the way to getting to my horse. So I said that I felt completely rested, and would like a walk that afternoon. She shook her head.
‘“No, Mr Brumby. Dr Miggle’s orders are positive that you rest today.”
‘“But I’m feeling really very fit,” I protested. “I’m the kind of man who needs a lot of exercise.”
‘“Not yet,” she said with a patient smile. “At present your energy is morbid. It comes from an irregular nervous complex, and we must first cure that before you can lead a normal life. Soon you’ll be having nice long walks. You promised your wife, you know, to do everything that you were told, and it was very wrong of you to slip out last night and make us all so anxious. Dr Miggle says that must never happen again.” And she wagged a reproving finger.
‘So I had a wife to add to my troubles. I began now to be really worried, for not only might Brumby turn up any moment, but his precious spouse, and I didn’t see how I was to explain to her hat I was doing in her husband’s trousers. Also the last sentence disquieted me. Dr Miggle was determined that I should not bolt again, and he looked a resolute lad. That meant that I would be always under observation, and that at night my bedroom door would be locked?
‘I made an errand to go up to my room, while Grimpus waited for me in the hall, and had a look at the window. There was a fine thick Virginia creeper which would make it easy to get to the floor beneath, but it was perfectly impossible to reach he ground, for below was a great chasm of a basement. There was nothing doing that way, unless I went through the room beneath, and that meant another outrage and probably an appalling row.
‘I felt very dispirited as I descended the stairs, till I saw a woman coming out of that identical room . . . Blessed if it wasn’t my Aunt Letitia!
‘I needn’t have been surprised, for she gave herself out as a martyr to nerves, and was always racing about the world looking for a cure. She saw me, took me for Brumby, and hurried away. Evidently Brumby’s doings had got about, and there were suspicions of his sanity. The moment was not propitious for following her, since Grimpus was looking at me.
I was escorted to the terrace by Grimpus, tucked up in a long chair, and told to stay there and bask in the sun. I must not read, but I could sleep if I liked. I never felt less like slumber, for I was getting to be a very good imitation of a mental case. I must get hold of Aunt Letitia. I could see her in her chair at the other end of the terrace, but if I got up and went to her she would take me for that loony Brumby and have a fit.
‘I lay cogitating and baking in the sun for about two hours. Then I observed that sisters were bringing out tea or medicines to some of the patients and I thought I saw a chance of a move. I called one of them to me, and in a nice invalidish voice complained that the sun was too hot for me and that I wanted to be moved to the other end where there was more shade. The sister went off to find Grimpus and presently that sportsman appeared.
‘“I’ve had enough of this sun-bath,” I told him, “and I feel a headache coming. I want you to shift me to the shade of the beeches over there.”
‘“Very good, sir,” he said, and helped me to rise, while he picked up chair and rugs. I tottered delicately after him, and indicated a vacant space next to Aunt Letitia. She was dozing, and mercifully did not see me. The chair on my other side was occupied by an old gentleman who was sound asleep.
‘I waited for a few minutes and began to wriggle my chair a bit nearer. Then I made a pellet of earth from a crack in the paving stones and jerked it neatly on to her face.
‘“Hist!” I whispered. “Wake up, Aunt Letty.”
‘She opened one indignant eye, and turned it on me, and I thought she was going to swoon.
‘“Aunt Letty,” I said in an agonised voice. “For Heaven’s sake don’t shout. I’m not Brumby. I’m your nephew Michael.”
‘Her nerves were better than I thought, for she managed to take a pull on herself and listen to me while I muttered my tale. I could see that she hated the whole affair, and had some kind of grievance against me for outraging the sanctity of her pet cure. However, after a bit of parleying, she behaved like a brick.
‘“You are the head of our family, Michael,” she said, “and I am bound to help you out of the position in which your own rashness has placed you. I agree with you that it is essential to have no disclosure of identity. It is the custom here for patients to retire to their rooms at eight-thirty. At nine o’clock I shall have my window open, and if you enter by it you can leave by the door. That is the most I can do for you. Now please be silent, for I am ordered to be very still for an hour before tea.”
‘You can imagine that after that the time went slowly. Grimpus brought me a cup of tea and a rusk, and I fell asleep and only woke when he came at half-past six to escort me indoors. I would have given pounds for a pipe. Dinner was at seven, and I said that I would not trouble to change, though Brumby’s dress-clothes were laid out on the bed. I had the needle badly, for I had a horrid fear that Brumby might turn up before I got away.
‘Presently the doctor arrived, and after cooing over me a bit and feeling my pulse, he started out to cross-examine me about my past life. I suppose that was to find out the subconscious complexes which were upsetting my wits. I decided to go jolly carefully, for I suspected that he had either given Brumby the once-over or had got some sort of report about his case. I was right, for the first thing he asked me was about striking my sister at the age of five. Well, I haven’t got a sister, but I had to admit to beating Brumby’s, and I said the horrible affair still came between me and my sleep. That seemed to puzzle him, for apparently I oughtn’t to have been thinking about it; it should have been buried deep in my unconscious self, and worrying me like a thorn in your finger which you can’t find. He asked me a lot about my nurse, and I said that she had a brother who went to gaol for sheep stealing. He liked that, and said it was a fruitful line of inquiry. Also he wanted to know about my dreams, and said I should write them down. I said I had dreamed that a mare called Nursemaid won the Oaks, but found there was no such animal running. That cheered him up a bit, and he said that he thought my nurse might be the clue. At that I very nearly gave the show away by laughing, for my nurse was old Alison Hyslop, who is now the housekeeper at Larristane, and if anybody called her a clue she’d have their blood.
‘Dinner was no better than luncheon — the same soup and rusks and vegetables, with a bit of ill-nourished chicken added. This time I had to take three kinds of medicine instead of two. I told the sister that I was very tired, and Grimpus took me upstairs at eight o’clock. He said that Dr Miggle proposed to give me another go of violet rays, but I protested so strongly that I was too sleepy for his ministrations that Grimpus, after going off to consult him, announced that for that evening the rays would be omitted. You see I was afraid that they would put me to bed and remove my clothes, and I didn’t see myself trapesing about the country in Brumby’s pyjamas.
‘As Grimpus left me I heard the key turn in the lock. It was as well that I had made a plan with Aunt Letitia.
‘At nine o’clock I got out of my window. It was a fine night, with the sun just setting and a young moon. The Virginia creeper was sound, and in less than a minute I was outside Aunt Letitia’s window. She was waiting in a dressing-gown to let me in, and I believe the old soul really enjoyed the escapade. She wanted to give me money for my travels, but I told her that I had plenty. I poked my nose out, saw that the staircase and hall were empty, and quietly closed the door behind me.
‘The big hall door was shut, and I could hear the prize-fighting porter moving in his adjacent cubby hole. There was no road that way, so I turned to the drawing-room, which opened on the terrace. But that was all in darkness, and I guessed that the windows were shuttered. There was nothing for it but to try downstairs. I judged that the servants would be at supper, so I went through a green-baize swing-door and down a long flight of stone steps.
‘Suddenly I blundered into a brightly lit kitchen. There was no one in it, and beyond was a door which looked as if it might lead to the open air. It actually led to a scullery, where a maid was busy at a tap. She was singing to herself a song called “When the kye come hame”, so I knew she belonged to the countryside. So did I, and I resolved to play the bold game.
‘“Hey, lassie,” I said. “Whaur’s the road out o’ this hoose? I maun be back in Kirk Aller afore ten.”
‘The girl stopped her singing and stared at me. Then in response to my grin she laughed.
‘“Are ye frae Kirk Aller?” she asked.
‘“I’ve gotten a job there,” I said. “I’m in the Cally station, and I cam’ up about a parcel for one o’ the leddies here. But I come frae further up the water, Larristane way.”
‘“D’ye say sae? I’m frae Gledside mysel’. What gars ye be in sic a hurry? It’s a fine nicht and there’s a mune.”
‘She was a flirtatious damsel, but I had no time for dalliance.
‘“There’s a lassie in Kirk Aller will take the held off me if I keep her waitin’.”
‘She tossed her head and laughed. “Haste ye then, my mannie. Is it Shanks’ powny?”
‘“Na, na, I’ve a bicycle ootbye.”
‘“Well, through the wash-hoose and up the steps and roond by the roddydendrums and ye’re in the yaird. Guid nicht to ye.”
‘I went up the steps like a lamplighter and dived into the rhododendrons, coming out on the main avenue. It ran long and straight to the lodge gates, and I didn’t like the look of it. My first business was to find my horse, and I had thought out more or less the direction. The house stood on the right bank of the burn, and if I kept to my left I would cross the said burn lower down and could then walk up the other side. I did this without trouble. I forded the burn in the meadow, and was soon climbing the pine-wood which clothed the gorge. In less than twenty minutes I had reached the gate in the wall by which I had entered.
‘There was no sign of my horse anywhere. I followed the wall on my left till it curved round and crossed the burn, but the beast was not there, and it was too dark to look for hoof-marks. I tried to my right and got back to the level of the park, but had no better luck. If I had had any sense I would have given up the quest, and trusted to getting as far as Gledfoot on my own feet. The horse might be trusted to turn up in his own time. Instead I went blundering on in the half-light of the park, and presently I blundered into trouble.
‘Grimpus must have paid another visit to my room, found me gone, seen the open window, and started a hue-and-cry. They would not suspect my Aunt Letitia, and must have thought that I had dropped like a cat into the basement. The pursuit was coming down the avenue, thinking I had made for the lodge — gates, and as ill-luck would have it, I had selected that moment to cross the drive, and they spotted me. I remember that out of a corner of one eye I saw the lights of a fly coming up the drive, and I wondered if Brumby had selected this inauspicious moment to return.
‘I fled into the park with three fellows after me. Providence never meant me for a long-distance runner, and, besides, I was feeling weak from lack of nourishment. But I was so scared of what would happen if I was caught that I legged it like a miler, and the blighters certainly didn’t gain on me.
‘But what I came to was the same weary old wall with the bottle glass on the top of it. I was pretty desperate, and I thought I saw a way. A young horse-chestnut tree grew near the wall and one bough overhung it. I made a jump at the first branch, caught it, and with a bit of trouble swung myself up into the crutch. This took time, and one of the fellows came up and made a grab at my leg, but I let him have Brumby’s rubber-soled heel in the jaw.
‘I caught the bigger branch and wriggled along it till I was above and beyond the-wall. Then the dashed thing broke with my twelve stone, and I descended heavily on what looked like a high road.
‘There was no time to spare, though I was a bit shaken, for the pursuit would not take long to follow me. I started off down that road looking for shelter, and I found it almost at once. There was a big covered horse-van moving ahead of me, with a light showing from the interior. I sprinted after it, mounted the step and stuck my head inside.
‘“Can I come in?” I panted. “Hide me for ten minutes and I’ll explain.”
‘I saw an old, spectacled, whiskered face. It was portentously solemn, but I thought I saw a twinkle in the eye.
‘“Ay,” said a toothless mouth, “ye can come in.” A hand grabbed my collar, and I was hauled inside. That must have been just when the first of my pursuers dropped over the wall.
‘I had got into a caravan which was a sort of bedroom, and behind the driver’s seat was a double curtain. There I made myself inconspicuous while the old man parleyed with the pursuit.
‘“Hae ye seen a gentleman?” I could hear a panting voice. “Him that drappit ower the wa’? He was rinnin’ hard.”
‘“What kind of a gentleman?”
‘“He had on grey claithes — aboot the same height as mysel’.” The speaker was not Grimpus.
‘“Naebody passed me,” was the strictly truthful answer. “Ye’d better seek the ither side o’ the road among the bracken. There’s plenty hidy-holes there. Wha’s the man?”
‘“Ane o’ the doctor’s folk.” I knew, though I could not see, that the man had tapped his forehead significantly. “Aweel, I’ll try back. Guid nicht to ye.”
‘I crept out of my refuge and found the old man regarding me solemnly under the swinging lamp.
‘“I’m one of the auld-fashioned Radicals,” he announced, “and I’m for the liberty o’ the individual. I dinna hold wi’ lockin’ folks up because a pernickettypernicketty doctor says they’re no wise. But I’d be glad to be assured, sir, that ye’re no a dangerous lunattic. If ye are, Miggle has nae business to be workin’ wi’ lunattics. His hoose is no an asylum.”
‘“I’m as sane as you are,” I said, and as shortly as I could I told him my story. I said I was a laird on Gledwater-side — which was true, and that my name was Brown — which wasn’t. I told him about my bet with Archie and my ride and its disastrous ending. His face never moved a muscle; probably he didn’t believe me, but because of his political principles he wasn’t going to give me away.
‘“Ye can bide the night with me,” he said. “The morn we’ll be busy and ye can gang wherever ye like. It’s a free country in spite o’ our God-forsaken Government.”
‘I blessed him, and asked to whom I was indebted for this hospitality.
‘“I’m the Great McGowan,” he said. “The feck o’ the pawraphernalia is on ahead. We open the morn in Kirk Aller.”
‘He had spoken his name as if it were Mussolini or Dempsey, one which all the world should know. I knew it too, for it had been familiar to me from childhood. You could have seen it any time in the last twenty years flaming upon hoardings up and down the Lowlands — The Great McGowan’s Marvellous Multitudinous Menagerie — McGowan’s Colossal Circassian Circus — The Only Original McGowan.
‘We rumbled on for another half-mile, and then turned from the road into a field. As we bumped over the grass I looked out of the door and saw about twenty big caravans and wagons at anchor. There was a strong smell of horses and of cooking food, and above it I seemed to detect the odour of unclean beasts. We took up our station apart from the rest, and after the proprietor had satisfied himself by a brief inspection that the whole outfit was there, he announced that it was time to retire. Mr McGowan had apparently dined, and he did not offer me food, which I would have welcomed, but he mixed me a rummer of hot toddy. I wondered if it would disagree with the various medicines I had been compelled to take, and make me very sick in the night. Then he pointed out my bunk, undressed himself as far as his shirt, pulled a nightcap over his venerable head, and in five minutes was asleep. I had had a wearing day, and in spite of the stuffiness of the place it wasn’t long before I dropped off also.
‘I awoke next morning to find myself alone in the caravan. I opened the window and saw that a fine old racket was going on. The show had started to move, and as the caravans bumped over the turf various specimens inside were beginning to give tongue. It was going to be a gorgeous day and very hot. I was a little bit anxious about my next move, for Kirk Aller was unpleasantly near Craigiedean and Dr Miggle. In the end I decided that my best plan would be to take the train to Langshiels and there hire a car to Larristane, after sending a telegram to say I was all right, in case my riderless steed should turn up before me. I hadn’t any headgear, but I thought I could buy something in Kirk Aller, and trust to luck that nobody from the Kurhaus spotted me in the street. I wanted a bath and a shave and breakfast, but I concluded I had better postpone them till I reached the hotel at Langshiels.
‘Presently Mr McGowan appeared, and I could see by his face that something had upset him. He was wearing an old check dressing-gown, and he had been padding about in his bare feet on the dewy grass.
‘“Ye telled me a story last night, Mr Brown,” he began solemnly, “which I didna altogether believe. I apologise for being a doubting Thomas. I believe every word o’t, for I’ve just had confirmation.”
‘I mumbled something about being obliged to him, and he went on.
‘“Ay, for the pollis were here this morning — seeking you. Yon man at Craigiedean is terrible ill-set against ye, Mr Brown. The pollisman — his name’s Tarn Doig, I ken him fine — says they’re looking for a man that personated an inmate, and went off wi’ some o’ the inmate’s belongings. I’m quotin’ Tarn Doig. I gave Tarn an evasive answer, and he’s off on his bicycle the other road, but — I ask ye as a freend, Mr Brown — what is precisely the facts o’ the case?”
‘“Good God!” I said. “It’s perfectly true. These clothes I’m wearing belong to the man Brumby, though they’ve got my own duds in exchange. He must have come back after I left. What an absolutely infernal mess! I suppose they could have me up for theft.”
‘“Mair like obtaining goods on false pretences, though I think ye have a sound answer. But that’s no the point, Mr Brown. The doctor is set on payin’ off scores. Ye’ve entered his sawnatorium and gone through a’ the cantrips he provides, and ye’ve made a gowk o’ him. He wants to make an example o you. Tarn Doig was sayin’ that he’s been bleezin’ half the night on the telephone, an’ he’ll no rest till ye’re grippit. Now ye tell me that ye’re a laird and a man o’ some poseetion, and I believe ye. It wad be an ill job for you and your freends if ye was to appear before the Shirra.”
‘I did some rapid thinking. So far I was safe, for there was nothing about the clothes I had left behind to identify me. I was pretty certain that my horse had long ago made a bee-line for the Larristane stables. If I could only get home without being detected, I might regard the episode as closed.
‘“Supposing I slip off now,” I said. “I have a general notion of the land, and I might get over the hills without anybody seeing me.”
‘He shook his head. “Ye wouldn’t travel a mile. Your description has been circulated and a’ body’s lookin’ for ye — a man in a grey flannel suit and soft shoes wi’ a red face and nae hat. Guid kens what the doctor has said about ye, but the countryside is on the look-out for a dangerous, and maybe lunattic, criminal. There’s a reward offered of nae less than twenty pound.”
‘“Can you not take me with you to Kirk Aller?” I asked despairingly.
‘“Ay, ye can stop wi’ me. But what better wad ye be in Kirk Aller? That’s where the Procurator Fiscal bides.”
‘Then he put on his spectacles and looked at me solemnly.
‘“I’ve taken a fancy to ye, Mr Brown, and ye can tell the world that. I ask you, are ye acquaint wi’ horses?”
‘I answered that I had lived among them all my life, and had been in the cavalry before I went into the Air Force.
‘“I guessed it by your face. Horses have a queer trick o’ leavin’ their mark on a body. Now, because I like ye, I’ll make a proposeetion to ye that I would make to no other man . . . I’m without a ring-master. Joseph Japp, who for ten years has had the job with me, is lyin’ wi’ the influenzy at Berwick. I could make shift with Dublin Davie, but Davie has no more presence than a messan dog, and forbye Joseph’s clothes wouldna fit him. When I cast my eyes on ye this mornin’ after hearin’ Tarn Doig’s news, I says to mysel’, ‘Thou art the man.’”
‘Of course I jumped at the offer. I was as safe in Kirk Aller, as Joseph Japp’s understudy, as I was in my own house. Besides, I liked the notion; it would be a good story to tell Archie. But I said it could only be for one night, and that I must leave tomorrow, and he agreed. “I want to make a good show for a start in Kirk Aller — forbye, Joseph will be ready to join me at Langshiels.”
‘I borrowed the old boy’s razor and had a shave and a wash, while he was cooking breakfast. After we had fed he fetched my predecessor’s kit. It fitted me well enough, but Lord! I looked a proper blackguard. The cord breeches had been recently cleaned, but the boots were like a pair of dilapidated buckets, and the coat would have made my tallor weep. Mr McGowan himself put on a frock-coat and a high collar and spruced himself up till he looked exactly like one of those high-up Irish dealers you see at the Horse Show — a cross between a Cabinet Minister and a Methodist parson. He said the ring-master should ride beside the chief exhibit, so we bustled out and I climbed up in front of a wagon which bore a cage containing two very low-spirited lions. I was given a long whip, and told to make myself conspicuous.
‘I didn’t know Kirk Aller well, so I had no fear of being recognised either as myself or as the pseudo-Brumby. The last time I had been there was when I had motored over from Larristane to dine with the Aller Shooting Club. My present entry was of a more sensational kind. I decided to enjoy myself and to attract all the notice I could, and I certainly succeeded. Indeed, you might say I received an ovation. As it happened it was a public holiday, and the streets were pretty full. We rumbled up the cobbled Westgate, and down the long High Street, with the pavements on both sides lined with people and an attendant mob of several hundred children. The driver was a wizened little fellow in a jockey cap, but I was the principal figure on the box. I gave a fine exhibition with my whip, and when we slowed down I picked out conspicuous figures in the crowd and chaffed them. I thought I had better use Cockney patter, as being more in keeping with my job, and I made a happy blend of the table-talk of my stud-groom and my old batman in the regiment. It was rather a high-class performance and you’d be surprised how it went down. There was one young chap with a tremendous head of hair that I invited to join his friends in the cage, and just then one of the dejected lions let out a growl, and I said that Mamma was calling to her little Percy. And there was an old herd from the hills, who had been looking upon the wine-cup, and who, in a voice like a fog-horn, wanted to know what we fed the beasts on. Him I could not refrain from answering in his own tongue. “Braxy, my man,” I cried, “The yowes ye lost when we were fou last Boswell’s Fair.” I must have got home somehow, for the crowd roared, and his friends thumped the old chap on the back and shouted: “That’s a guid ane! He had you there, Tarn.”
‘My triumphant procession came to an end on the Aller Green, where the show was to be held. A canvas palisade had been set up round a big stretch of ground, and the mob of children tailed off at the gate. Inside most of our truck had already arrived. The stadium for the circus had been marked off, and tiers of wooden seats were being hammered together. A big tent had been set up, which was to house the menagerie, and several smaller tents were in process of erection. I noticed that the members of the troupe looked at me curiously till Mr McGowan arrived and introduced me. “This is Mr Brown, a friend of mine,” he said, “who will take on Joe Japp’s job for the night.” And, aside to me, “Man, I heard ye comin’ down the High Street. Ye did fine. Ye’re a great natural talent for the profession.” After that we were all very friendly, and the whole company had a snack together in one of the tents — bread and cheese and bottled beer.
‘The first thing I did was to make a bundle of Brumby’s clothes, which Mr McGowan promised to send back to Craigiedean when the coast was clear. Then I bribed a small boy to take a telegram to the Post Office — to Archie at Larristane, saying I had been detained and hoped to return next day. After that I took off my coat and worked like a beaver. It was nearly six o’clock before we had everything straight, and the show opened at seven, so we were all a bit the worse for wear when we sat down to high tea. It’s a hard job an artiste’s, as old McGowan observed.
‘I never met a queerer, friendlier, more innocent company, for the proprietor seemed to have set out to collect originals, and most of them had been with him for years. The boss of the menagerie was an ex-sailor, who had a remarkable way with beasts; he rarely spoke a word, but just grinned and whistled through broken teeth. The clown, who said his name was Sammie Dreep, came from Paisley, and was fat enough not to need the conventional bolster. Dublin Davie, my second in command, was a small Irishman who had been an ostler, and limped owing to having been with the Dublin Fusiliers at Gallipoli. The clown had a wife who ran the commissariat, when she wasn’t appearing in the ring as Zenobia, the Pride of the Sahara. Then there were the Sisters Wido — a young married couple with two children; and the wife of a man who played the clarionet — figured in the bill as Elise the Equestrienne. I had a look at the horses, which were the ordinary skinny, broad-backed, circus ponies. I found out later that they were so well trained that I daresay they could have done their turns in the dark.
‘At a quarter to seven we lit the naphtha flares and our orchestra started in. McGowan told me to get inside Japp’s dress clothes, and rather unwillingly I obeyed him, for I had got rather to fancy my morning’s kit. I found there was only a coat and waistcoat, for I was allowed to retain the top-boots and cords. Happily the shirt was clean, but I had a solitaire with a sham diamond as big as a shilling, and the cut of the coat would have been considered out-of-date by a self-respecting waiter in Soho. I had also a scarlet silk handkerchief to stuff in my bosom, a pair of dirty white kid gloves, and an immense coach whip.
‘The menagerie was open, but that night the chief attraction was the circus, and I don’t mind saying that about the best bit of the circus was myself. In one of the intervals McGowan insisted on shaking hands and telling me that I was wasted in any other profession than a showman’s. The fact is I was rather above myself, and entered into what you might call the spirit of the thing. We had the usual Dick Turpin’s ride to York, and an escape of Dakota Dan (one of the Sisters Wido) from Red Indians (the other Wido, Zenobia and Elise, with about a ton of feathers on their heads). The Equestrienne equestered, and the Widos hopped through hoops, and all the while I kept up my patter and spouted all the rot I could remember.
‘The clown was magnificent. He had a Paisley accent you could have cut like a knife, but he prided himself on talking aristocratic English. He had a lot of badinage with Zenobia about her life in the desert. One bit I remember. She kept on referring to bulbuls, and asked him if he had ever seen a bull-bull. He said he had, for he supposed it was a male coo-coo. But he was happiest at my expense. I never heard a chap with such a flow of back-chat. A funny thing — but when he wasn’t calling me “Little Pansy-face”, he addressed me as “Your Grace” and “Me Lord Dook”, and hoped that the audience would forgive my neglige attire, seeing my coronet hadn’t come back from the wash.
‘Altogether the thing went with a snap from beginning to end, and when old McGowan, all dressed up with a white waistcoat, made a speech at the end and explained about the next performances he got a perfect hurricane of applause. After that we had to tidy up. There was the usual trouble with several procrastinating drunks, who wanted to make a night of it. One of them got into the ring and tried to have a row with me. He was a big loutish fellow with small eyes and red hair, and had the look of a betting tout. He stuck his face close to mine and bellowed at me:
‘“I ken ye fine, ye ———! I seen ye at Lanerick last back-end . . . Ye ca’d yoursel’ Gentleman Geordie, and ye went off wi’ my siller. By God, I’ll get it out o’ ye, ye ——— welsher.”
‘I told him that he was barking up the wrong tree, and that I was not a bookie and had never been near Lanerick, but he refused to be convinced. The upshot was that Davie and I had to chuck him out, blaspheming like a navvy and swearing that he was coming back with his pals to do me in.
‘We were a very contented lot of mountebanks at supper that night. The takings were good and the menagerie also had been popular, and we all felt that we had been rather above our form. McGowan, for whom I was acquiring a profound affection, beamed on us, and produced a couple of bottles of blackstrap to drink the health of the Colossal Circassian Circus. That old fellow was a nonesuch. He kept me up late — for I stopped with him in his caravan — expounding his philosophy of life. It seemed he had been intended for the kirk, but had had too much joie de vivre for the pulpit. He was a born tramp, and liked waking up most days in a new place, and he loved his queer outfit and saw the comedy of it. “For three and thirty years I’ve travelled the country,” he said, “and I’ve been a public benefactor, Mr Brown. I’ve put colour into many a dowie life, and I’ve been a godsend to the bairns. There’s no vulgarity in my performances — they’re a’ as halesome as spring water.” He quoted Burns a bit, and then he got on to politics, for he was a great Radical, and maintained that Scotland was about the only true democracy, because a man was valued precisely for what he was and no more. “Ye’re a laird, Mr Brown, but ye’re a guid fellow, and this night ye’ve shown yourself to be a man and a brither. What do you and me care for mawgnates? We take no stock in your Andra Carnegies and your Dukes o’ Burminster.” And as I dropped off to sleep he was obliging with a verse of “A man’s man for a’ that.”
‘I woke in excellent spirits, thinking what a good story I should have to tell when I returned to Larristane. My plan was to get off as soon as possible, take the train to Langshiels, and then hire. I could see that McGowan was sorry to part with me, but he agreed that it was too unhealthy a countryside for me to dally in. There was to be an afternoon performance, so everybody had to hustle, and there was no reason for me to linger. After breakfast I borrowed an old ulster from him, for I had to cover up my finery, and a still older brown bowler to replace the topper I had worn on the preceding day.
‘Suddenly we heard a fracas, and the drunk appeared who had worried me the night before. He had forced his way in and was pushing on through an expostulating crowd. When he saw me he made for me with a trail of blasphemy. He was perfectly sober now and looked very ugly.
‘“Gie me back my siller,” he roared. “Gie me back the five-pund note I won at Lanerick when I backed Kettle o’ Fish.” If I hadn’t warded him off he would have taken me by the throat.
‘I protested again that he was mistaken, but I might as well have appealed to a post. He swore with every variety of oath that I was Gentleman Geordie, and that I had levanted with his winnings. As he raved I began to see a possible explanation of his madness. Some bookmaker, sporting my sort of kit, had swindled him. I had ridden several times in steeplechases at Lanerick and he had seen me and got my face in his head, and mixed me up with the fraudulent bookie.
‘It was a confounded nuisance, and but for the principle of the thing I would have been inclined to pay up. As it was we had to fling him out, and he went unwillingly, doing all the damage he could. His parting words were that he and his pals weren’t done with me, and that though he had to wait fifty years he would wring my neck.
‘After that I thought I had better waste no time, so I said good-bye to McGowan and left the show-ground by the back entrance close to the Aller. I had a general notion of the place, and knew that if I kept down the river I could turn up a lane called the Water Wynd, and get to the station without traversing any of the main streets. I had ascertained that there was a train at 10.30 which would get me to Langshiels at 11.15, so that I could be at Larristane for luncheon.
‘I had underrated the persistence of my enemy. He and his pals had picketed all the approaches to the show, and when I turned into the Water Wynd I found a fellow there, who at the sight of me blew a whistle. In a second or two he was joined by three others, among them my persecutor.
‘“We’ve gotten ye noo,” he shouted, and made to collar me.
‘“If you touch me,” I said, “it’s assault, and a case for the police.”
‘“That’s your game, is it?” he cried. “Na, na, we’ll no trouble the pollis. They tell me the Law winna help me to recover a bet, so I’ll just trust to my nieves. Will ye pay up, ye ——— or take the bloodiest bashin’ ye ever seen?”
‘I was in an uncommon nasty predicament. There was nobody in the Wynd but some children playing, and the odds were four to one. If I fought I’d get licked. The obvious course of safety was to run up the Wynd towards the High Street, where I might find help. But that would mean a street row and the intervention of the police, a case in court, and the disclosure of who I was. If I broke through and ran back to McGowan I would be no farther forward. What was perfectly clear was that I couldn’t make the railway station without landing myself in the worst kind of mess.
‘There wasn’t much time to think, for the four men were upon me. I hit out at the nearest, saw him go down, and then doubled up the Wynd and into a side alley on the right.
‘By the mercy of Providence this wasn’t a cul-de-sac, but twisted below the old walls of the burgh, and then became a lane between gardens. The pursuit was fairly hot, and my accursed boots kept slipping on the cobbles and cramped my form. They were almost upon me before I reached the lane, but then I put on a spurt, and was twenty yards ahead when it ended in a wall with a gate. The gate was locked, but the wall was low, and I scrambled over it, and dropped into the rubbish heap of a garden.
‘There was no going back, so I barged through some gooseberry bushes, skirted a lawn, squattered over a big square of gravel, and charged through the entrance gates of a suburban villa. My enemies plainly knew a better road, for when I passed the entrance they were only a dozen yards off on my left. That compelled me to turn to the right, the direction away from Kirk Aller. I was now on a highway where I could stretch myself, and it was not long before I shook off the pursuit. They were whiskyfied ruffians and not much good in a hunt. It was a warm morning, but I did not slacken till I had put a good quarter of a mile between us. I saw them come round a turn, lumbering along, cooked to the world, so I judged I could slow down to an easy trot.
‘I was cut off from my lines of communication, and the only thing to do was to rejoin them by a detour. The Aller valley, which the railway to Langshiels followed, gave me a general direction. I remembered that about six miles off there was a station called Rubersdean, and that there was an afternoon train which got to Langshiels about three o’clock. I preferred to pick it up there, for I didn’t mean to risk showing my face inside Kirk Aller again.
‘By this time I had got heartily sick of my adventures. Being chased like a fox is amusing enough for an hour or two, but it soon palls. I was becoming a regular outlaw — wanted by the police for breaking into a nursing-home and stealing a suit, and very much wanted by various private gentlemen on the charge of bilking. Everybody’s hand seemed to be against me, except old McGowan’s, and I had had quite enough of it. I wanted nothing so much as to be back at Larristane, and I didn’t believe would tell Archie the story, for I was fed up with the whole business.
‘I didn’t dare go near a public-house, and the best I could do for luncheon was a bottle of ginger-beer and some biscuits which I bought at a sweetie-shop. To make a long story short, I reached Rubersdean in time, and as there were several people on the platform I waited till the train arrived before showing myself. I got into a third-class carriage at the very end of it.
‘The only occupants were a woman and a child, and my appearance must have been pretty bad, for the woman looked as if she wanted to get out when she saw me. But I said it was a fine day and ‘guid for the crops’, and I suppose she was reassured by my Scotch tongue, for she quieted down. The child was very inquisitive, and they discussed me in whispers. “What’s that man, Mamaw?” it asked. “Never mind, Jimmie.” “But I want to ken, Mamaw.” “Wheesht, dearie. He’s a crool man. He kills the wee mawpies.” At that the child set up a howl, but I felt rather flattered, for a rabbit-trapper was a respectable profession compared to those with which I had recently been credited.
‘At the station before Langshiels they collect the tickets. I had none, so when the man came round I could only offer a Bank of England five-pound note. He looked at it very suspiciously, asked me rudely if I had nothing smaller, consulted the station-master, and finally with a very ill grace got me change out of the latter’s office. This hung up the train for a good five minutes, and you could see by their looks that they thought I was a thief. The thing had got so badly on my nerves that I could have wept. I counted the minutes till we reached Langshiels, and I was not cheered by the behaviour of my travelling companion. She was clearly convinced of the worst, and when we came out of a tunnel she was jammed into the farthest corner, clutching her child and her bag, and looking as if she had escaped from death. I can tell you it was a thankful man that shot out on to the platform at Langshiels . . .
‘I found myself looking into the absolutely bewildered eyes of Tommy Deloraine . . . I saw a lot of fellows behind him with rosettes and scared faces, and I saw what looked like a band . . .
‘It took me about a hundredth part of a second to realise that I had dropped out of the frying-pan into the fire. You will scarcely believe it, but since I had rehearsed my speech going up the Rinks burn, the political meeting at Langshiels had gone clean out of my head. I suppose I had tumbled into such an utterly new world that no link remained with the old one. And as my foul luck would have it, I had hit on the very train by which I had told Deloraine I would travel.
“For heaven’s sake, Tommy, tell me where I can change,” I hissed. “Lend me some clothes or I’ll murder you.”
‘Well, that was the end of it. I got into a suit of Tommy’s at the Station Hotel — luckily he was about my size — and we proceeded with the brass band and the rosetted committee to the Town Hall. I made a dashed good speech, though I say it who shouldn’t, simply because I was past caring what I did. Life had been rather too much for me the last two days.’
Burminster finished his tankard, and a light of reminiscence came into his eye.
‘Last week,’ he said, ‘I was passing Buckingham Palace. One of the mallards from St James’s Park had laid away, and had hatched out a brood somewhere up Constitution Hill. The time had come when she wanted to get the ducklings back to the water. There was a big crowd, and through the midst of it marched two bobbies with the mother-duck between them, while the young ones waddled behind. I caught the look in her eye, and, if you believe me, it was the comicalest mixture of relief and embarrassment, shyness, self-consciousness and desperation.
‘I would like to have shaken hands with that bird. I knew exactly how she felt.’
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