The Tobermory was no ship for passengers. Its decks were littered with a hundred oddments, so that a man could barely walk a step without tacking, and my bunk was simply a shelf in the frowsty little saloon, where the odour of ham and eggs hung like a fog. I joined her at Greenock and took a turn on deck with the captain after tea, when he told me the names of the big blue hills to the north. He had a fine old copper-coloured face and side-whiskers like an archbishop, and, having spent all his days beating up the western seas, had as many yarns in his head as Peter himself.
‘On this boat,’ he announced, ‘we don’t ken what a day may bring forth. I may put into Colonsay for twa hours and bide there three days. I get a telegram at Oban and the next thing I’m awa ayont Barra. Sheep’s the difficult business. They maun be fetched for the sales, and they’re dooms slow to lift. So ye see it’s not what ye call a pleasure trip, Maister Brand.’
Indeed it wasn’t, for the confounded tub wallowed like a fat sow as soon as we rounded a headland and got the weight of the south-western wind. When asked my purpose, I explained that I was a colonial of Scots extraction, who was paying his first visit to his fatherland and wanted to explore the beauties of the West Highlands. I let him gather that I was not rich in this world’s goods.
‘Ye’ll have a passport?’ he asked. ‘They’ll no let ye go north o’ Fort William without one.’
Amos had said nothing about passports, so I looked blank.
‘I could keep ye on board for the whole voyage,’ he went on, ‘but ye wouldna be permitted to land. If ye’re seekin’ enjoyment, it would be a poor job sittin’ on this deck and admirin’ the works o’ God and no allowed to step on the pier-head. Ye should have applied to the military gentlemen in Glesca. But ye’ve plenty o’ time to make up your mind afore we get to Oban. We’ve a heap o’ calls to make Mull and Islay way.’
The purser came up to inquire about my ticket, and greeted me with a grin.
‘Ye’re acquaint with Mr Gresson, then?’ said the captain. ‘Weel, we’re a cheery wee ship’s company, and that’s the great thing on this kind o’ job.’
I made but a poor supper, for the wind had risen to half a gale, and I saw hours of wretchedness approaching. The trouble with me is that I cannot be honestly sick and get it over. Queasiness and headache beset me and there is no refuge but bed. I turned into my bunk, leaving the captain and the mate smoking shag not six feet from my head, and fell into a restless sleep. When I woke the place was empty, and smelt vilely of stale tobacco and cheese. My throbbing brows made sleep impossible, and I tried to ease them by staggering upon deck. I saw a clear windy sky, with every star as bright as a live coal, and a heaving waste of dark waters running to ink-black hills. Then a douche of spray caught me and sent me down the companion to my bunk again, where I lay for hours trying to make a plan of campaign.
I argued that if Amos had wanted me to have a passport he would have provided one, so I needn’t bother my head about that. But it was my business to keep alongside Gresson, and if the boat stayed a week in some port and he went off ashore, I must follow him. Having no passport I would have to be always dodging trouble, which would handicap my movements and in all likelihood make me more conspicuous than I wanted. I guessed that Amos had denied me the passport for the very reason that he wanted Gresson to think me harmless. The area of danger would, therefore, be the passport country, somewhere north of Fort William.
But to follow Gresson I must run risks and enter that country. His suspicions, if he had any, would be lulled if I left the boat at Oban, but it was up to me to follow overland to the north and hit the place where the Tobermory made a long stay. The confounded tub had no plans; she wandered about the West Highlands looking for sheep and things; and the captain himself could give me no time-table of her voyage. It was incredible that Gresson should take all this trouble if he did not know that at some place — and the right place — he would have time to get a spell ashore. But I could scarcely ask Gresson for that information, though I determined to cast a wary fly over him. I knew roughly the Tobermory’s course — through the Sound of Islay to Colonsay; then up the east side of Mull to Oban; then through the Sound of Mull to the islands with names like cocktails, Rum and Eigg and Coll; then to Skye; and then for the Outer Hebrides. I thought the last would be the place, and it seemed madness to leave the boat, for the Lord knew how I should get across the Minch. This consideration upset all my plans again, and I fell into a troubled sleep without coming to any conclusion.
Morning found us nosing between Jura and Islay, and about midday we touched at a little port, where we unloaded some cargo and took on a couple of shepherds who were going to Colonsay. The mellow afternoon and the good smell of salt and heather got rid of the dregs of my queasiness, and I spent a profitable hour on the pier-head with a guide-book called Baddely’s Scotland, and one of Bartholomew’s maps. I was beginning to think that Amos might be able to tell me something, for a talk with the captain had suggested that the Tobermory would not dally long in the neighbourhood of Rum and Eigg. The big droving season was scarcely on yet, and sheep for the Oban market would be lifted on the return journey. In that case Skye was the first place to watch, and if I could get wind of any big cargo waiting there I would be able to make a plan. Amos was somewhere near the Kyle, and that was across the narrows from Skye. Looking at the map, it seemed to me that, in spite of being passportless, I might be able somehow to make my way up through Morvern and Arisaig to the latitude of Skye. The difficulty would be to get across the strip of sea, but there must be boats to beg, borrow or steal.
I was poring over Baddely when Gresson sat down beside me. He was in a good temper, and disposed to talk, and to my surprise his talk was all about the beauties of the countryside. There was a kind of apple-green light over everything; the steep heather hills cut into the sky like purple amethysts, while beyond the straits the western ocean stretched its pale molten gold to the sunset. Gresson waxed lyrical over the scene. ‘This just about puts me right inside, Mr Brand. I’ve got to get away from that little old town pretty frequent or I begin to moult like a canary. A man feels a man when he gets to a place that smells as good as this. Why in hell do we ever get messed up in those stone and lime cages? I reckon some day I’ll pull my freight for a clean location and settle down there and make little poems. This place would about content me. And there’s a spot out in California in the Coast ranges that I’ve been keeping my eye on,’ The odd thing was that I believe he meant it. His ugly face was lit up with a serious delight.
He told me he had taken this voyage before, so I got out Baddely and asked for advice. ‘I can’t spend too much time on holidaying,’ I told him, ‘and I want to see all the beauty spots. But the best of them seem to be in the area that this fool British Government won’t let you into without a passport. I suppose I shall have to leave you at Oban.’
‘Too bad,’ he said sympathetically. ‘Well, they tell me there’s some pretty sights round Oban.’ And he thumbed the guide-book and began to read about Glencoe.
I said that was not my purpose, and pitched him a yarn about Prince Charlie and how my mother’s great-grandfather had played some kind of part in that show. I told him I wanted to see the place where the Prince landed and where he left for France. ‘So far as I can make out that won’t take me into the passport country, but I’ll have to do a bit of footslogging. Well, I’m used to padding the hoof. I must get the captain to put me off in Morvern, and then I can foot it round the top of Lochiel and get back to Oban through Appin. How’s that for a holiday trek?’
He gave the scheme his approval. ‘But if it was me, Mr Brand, I would have a shot at puzzling your gallant policemen. You and I don’t take much stock in Governments and their two-cent laws, and it would be a good game to see just how far you could get into the forbidden land. A man like you could put up a good bluff on those hayseeds. I don’t mind having a bet . . . ’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m out for a rest, and not for sport. If there was anything to be gained I’d undertake to bluff my way to the Orkney Islands. But it’s a wearing job and I’ve better things to think about.’
‘So? Well, enjoy yourself your own way. I’ll be sorry when you leave us, for I owe you something for that rough-house, and beside there’s darned little company in the old moss-back captain.’
That evening Gresson and I swopped yarns after supper to the accompaniment of the ‘Ma Goad!’ and ‘Is’t possible?’ of captain and mate. I went to bed after a glass or two of weak grog, and made up for the last night’s vigil by falling sound asleep. I had very little kit with me, beyond what I stood up in and could carry in my waterproof pockets, but on Amos’s advice I had brought my little nickel-plated revolver. This lived by day in my hip pocket, but at night I put it behind my pillow. But when I woke next morning to find us casting anchor in the bay below rough low hills, which I knew to be the island of Colonsay, I could find no trace of the revolver. I searched every inch of the bunk and only shook out feathers from the mouldy ticking. I remembered perfectly putting the thing behind my head before I went to sleep, and now it had vanished utterly. Of course I could not advertise my loss, and I didn’t greatly mind it, for this was not a job where I could do much shooting. But it made me think a good deal about Mr Gresson. He simply could not suspect me; if he had bagged my gun, as I was pretty certain he had, it must be because he wanted it for himself and not that he might disarm me. Every way I argued it I reached the same conclusion. In Gresson’s eyes I must seem as harmless as a child.
We spent the better part of a day at Colonsay, and Gresson, so far as his duties allowed, stuck to me like a limpet. Before I went ashore I wrote out a telegram for Amos. I devoted a hectic hour to the Pilgrim’s Progress, but I could not compose any kind of intelligible message with reference to its text. We had all the same edition — the one in the Golden Treasury series — so I could have made up a sort of cipher by referring to lines and pages, but that would have taken up a dozen telegraph forms and seemed to me too elaborate for the purpose. So I sent this message:
Ochterlony, Post Office, Kyle, I hope to spend part of holiday near you and to see you if boat’s programme permits. Are any good cargoes waiting in your neighbourhood? Reply Post Office, Oban.
It was highly important that Gresson should not see this, but it was the deuce of a business to shake him off. I went for a walk in the afternoon along the shore and passed the telegraph office, but the confounded fellow was with me all the time. My only chance was just before we sailed, when he had to go on board to check some cargo. As the telegraph office stood full in view of the ship’s deck I did not go near it. But in the back end of the clachan I found the schoolmaster, and got him to promise to send the wire. I also bought off him a couple of well-worn sevenpenny novels.
The result was that I delayed our departure for ten minutes and when I came on board faced a wrathful Gresson. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked. ‘The weather’s blowing up dirty and the old man’s mad to get off. Didn’t you get your legs stretched enough this afternoon?’
I explained humbly that I had been to the schoolmaster to get something to read, and produced my dingy red volumes. At that his brow cleared. I could see that his suspicions were set at rest.
We left Colonsay about six in the evening with the sky behind us banking for a storm, and the hills of Jura to starboard an angry purple. Colonsay was too low an island to be any kind of breakwater against a western gale, so the weather was bad from the start. Our course was north by east, and when we had passed the butt-end of the island we nosed about in the trough of big seas, shipping tons of water and rolling like a buffalo. I know as much about boats as about Egyptian hieroglyphics, but even my landsman’s eyes could tell that we were in for a rough night. I was determined not to get queasy again, but when I went below the smell of tripe and onions promised to be my undoing; so I dined off a slab of chocolate and a cabin biscuit, put on my waterproof, and resolved to stick it out on deck.
I took up position near the bows, where I was out of reach of the oily steamer smells. It was as fresh as the top of a mountain, but mighty cold and wet, for a gusty drizzle had set in, and I got the spindrift of the big waves. There I balanced myself, as we lurched into the twilight, hanging on with one hand to a rope which descended from the stumpy mast. I noticed that there was only an indifferent rail between me and the edge, but that interested me and helped to keep off sickness. I swung to the movement of the vessel, and though I was mortally cold it was rather pleasant than otherwise. My notion was to get the nausea whipped out of me by the weather, and, when I was properly tired, to go down and turn in.
I stood there till the dark had fallen. By that time I was an automaton, the way a man gets on sentry-go, and I could have easily hung on till morning. My thoughts ranged about the earth, beginning with the business I had set out on, and presently — by way of recollections of Blenkiron and Peter — reaching the German forest where, in the Christmas of 1915, I had been nearly done in by fever and old Stumm. I remembered the bitter cold of that wild race, and the way the snow seemed to burn like fire when I stumbled and got my face into it. I reflected that sea-sickness was kitten’s play to a good bout of malaria.
The weather was growing worse, and I was getting more than spindrift from the seas. I hooked my arm round the rope, for my fingers were numbing. Then I fell to dreaming again, principally about Fosse Manor and Mary Lamington. This so ravished me that I was as good as asleep. I was trying to reconstruct the picture as I had last seen her at Biggleswick station . . .
A heavy body collided with me and shook my arm from the rope. I slithered across the yard of deck, engulfed in a whirl of water. One foot caught a stanchion of the rail, and it gave with me, so that for an instant I was more than half overboard. But my fingers clawed wildly and caught in the links of what must have been the anchor chain. They held, though a ton’s weight seemed to be tugging at my feet . . . Then the old tub rolled back, the waters slipped off, and I was sprawling on a wet deck with no breath in me and a gallon of brine in my windpipe.
I heard a voice cry out sharply, and a hand helped me to my feet. It was Gresson, and he seemed excited.
‘God, Mr Brand, that was a close call! I was coming up to find you, when this damned ship took to lying on her side. I guess I must have cannoned into you, and I was calling myself bad names when I saw you rolling into the Atlantic. If I hadn’t got a grip on the rope I would have been down beside you. Say, you’re not hurt? I reckon you’d better come below and get a glass of rum under your belt. You’re about as wet as mother’s dish-clouts.’
There’s one advantage about campaigning. You take your luck when it comes and don’t worry about what might have been. I didn’t think any more of the business, except that it had cured me of wanting to be sea-sick. I went down to the reeking cabin without one qualm in my stomach, and ate a good meal of welsh-rabbit and bottled Bass, with a tot of rum to follow up with. Then I shed my wet garments, and slept in my bunk till we anchored off a village in Mull in a clear blue morning.
It took us four days to crawl up that coast and make Oban, for we seemed to be a floating general store for every hamlet in those parts. Gresson made himself very pleasant, as if he wanted to atone for nearly doing me in. We played some poker, and I read the little books I had got in Colonsay, and then rigged up a fishing-line, and caught saithe and lythe and an occasional big haddock. But I found the time pass slowly, and I was glad that about noon one day we came into a bay blocked with islands and saw a clean little town sitting on the hills and the smoke of a railway engine.
I went ashore and purchased a better brand of hat in a tweed store. Then I made a bee-line for the post office, and asked for telegrams. One was given to me, and as I opened it I saw Gresson at my elbow.
It read thus:
Brand, Post office, Oban. Page 117, paragraph 3. Ochterlony.
I passed it to Gresson with a rueful face.
‘There’s a piece of foolishness,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a cousin who’s a Presbyterian minister up in Ross-shire, and before I knew about this passport humbug I wrote to him and offered to pay him a visit. I told him to wire me here if it was convenient, and the old idiot has sent me the wrong telegram. This was likely as not meant for some other brother parson, who’s got my message instead.’
‘What’s the guy’s name?’ Gresson asked curiously, peering at the signature.
‘Ochterlony. David Ochterlony. He’s a great swell at writing books, but he’s no earthly use at handling the telegraph. However, it don’t signify, seeing I’m not going near him.’ I crumpled up the pink form and tossed it on the floor. Gresson and I walked to the Tobermory together.
That afternoon, when I got a chance, I had out my Pilgrim’s Progress. Page 117, paragraph 3, read:
‘Then I saw in my dream, that a little off the road, over against the Silver-mine, stood Demas (gentlemanlike) to call to passengers to come and see: who said to Christian and his fellow, Ho, turn aside hither and I will show you a thing.
At tea I led the talk to my own past life. I yarned about my experiences as a mining engineer, and said I could never get out of the trick of looking at country with the eye of the prospector. ‘For instance,’ I said, ‘if this had been Rhodesia, I would have said there was a good chance of copper in these little kopjes above the town. They’re not unlike the hills round the Messina mine.’ I told the captain that after the war I was thinking of turning my attention to the West Highlands and looking out for minerals.
‘Ye’ll make nothing of it,’ said the captain. ‘The costs are ower big, even if ye found the minerals, for ye’d have to import a’ your labour. The West Hielandman is no fond o’ hard work. Ye ken the psalm o’ the crofter?
O that the peats would cut themselves,
The fish chump on the shore,
And that I in my bed might lie
Henceforth for ever more!’
‘Has it ever been tried?’ I asked.
‘Often. There’s marble and slate quarries, and there was word o’ coal in Benbecula. And there’s the iron mines at Ranna.’
‘Where’s that?’ I asked.
‘Up forenent Skye. We call in there, and generally bide a bit. There’s a heap of cargo for Ranna, and we usually get a good load back. But as I tell ye, there’s few Hielanders working there. Mostly Irish and lads frae Fife and Falkirk way.’
I didn’t pursue the subject, for I had found Demas’s silver-mine. If the Tobermory lay at Ranna for a week, Gresson would have time to do his own private business. Ranna would not be the spot, for the island was bare to the world in the middle of a much-frequented channel. But Skye was just across the way, and when I looked in my map at its big, wandering peninsulas I concluded that my guess had been right, and that Skye was the place to make for.
That night I sat on deck with Gresson, and in a wonderful starry silence we watched the lights die out of the houses in the town, and talked of a thousand things. I noticed — what I had had a hint of before — that my companion was no common man. There were moments when he forgot himself and talked like an educated gentleman: then he would remember, and relapse into the lingo of Leadville, Colorado. In my character of the ingenuous inquirer I set him posers about politics and economics, the kind of thing I might have been supposed to pick up from unintelligent browsing among little books. Generally he answered with some slangy catchword, but occasionally he was interested beyond his discretion, and treated me to a harangue like an equal. I discovered another thing, that he had a craze for poetry, and a capacious memory for it. I forgot how we drifted into the subject, but I remember he quoted some queer haunting stuff which he said was Swinburne, and verses by people I had heard of from Letchford at Biggleswick. Then he saw by my silence that he had gone too far, and fell back into the jargon of the West. He wanted to know about my plans, and we went down into the cabin and had a look at the map. I explained my route, up Morvern and round the head of Lochiel, and back to Oban by the east side of Loch Linnhe.
‘Got you,’ he said. ‘You’ve a hell of a walk before you. That bug never bit me, and I guess I’m not envying you any. And after that, Mr Brand?’
‘Back to Glasgow to do some work for the cause,’ I said lightly.
‘Just so,’ he said with a grin. ‘It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.’
We steamed out of the bay next morning at dawn, and about nine o’clock I got on shore at a little place called Lochaline. My kit was all on my person, and my waterproof’s pockets were stuffed with chocolates and biscuits I had bought in Oban. The captain was discouraging. ‘Ye’ll get your bellyful o’ Hieland hills, Mr Brand, afore ye win round the loch head. Ye’ll be wishin’ yerself back on the Tobermory.’ But Gresson speeded me joyfully on my way, and said he wished he were coming with me. He even accompanied me the first hundred yards, and waved his hat after me till I was round the turn of the road.
The first stage in that journey was pure delight. I was thankful to be rid of the infernal boat, and the hot summer scents coming down the glen were comforting after the cold, salt smell of the sea. The road lay up the side of a small bay, at the top of which a big white house stood among gardens. Presently I had left the coast and was in a glen where a brown salmon-river swirled through acres of bog-myrtle. It had its source in a loch, from which the mountain rose steeply — a place so glassy in that August forenoon that every scar and wrinkle of the hillside were faithfully reflected. After that I crossed a low pass to the head of another sea-lock, and, following the map, struck over the shoulder of a great hill and ate my luncheon far up on its side, with a wonderful vista of wood and water below me.
All that morning I was very happy, not thinking about Gresson or Ivery, but getting my mind clear in those wide spaces, and my lungs filled with the brisk hill air. But I noticed one curious thing. On my last visit to Scotland, when I covered more moorland miles a day than any man since Claverhouse, I had been fascinated by the land, and had pleased myself with plans for settling down in it. But now, after three years of war and general rocketing, I felt less drawn to that kind of landscape. I wanted something more green and peaceful and habitable, and it was to the Cotswolds that my memory turned with longing.
I puzzled over this till I realized that in all my Cotswold pictures a figure kept going and coming — a young girl with a cloud of gold hair and the strong, slim grace of a boy, who had sung ‘Cherry Ripe’ in a moonlit garden. Up on that hillside I understood very clearly that I, who had been as careless of women as any monk, had fallen wildly in love with a child of half my age. I was loath to admit it, though for weeks the conclusion had been forcing itself on me. Not that I didn’t revel in my madness, but that it seemed too hopeless a business, and I had no use for barren philandering. But, seated on a rock munching chocolate and biscuits, I faced up to the fact and resolved to trust my luck. After all we were comrades in a big job, and it was up to me to be man enough to win her. The thought seemed to brace any courage that was in me. No task seemed too hard with her approval to gain and her companionship somewhere at the back of it. I sat for a long time in a happy dream, remembering all the glimpses I had had of her, and humming her song to an audience of one black-faced sheep.
On the highroad half a mile below me, I saw a figure on a bicycle mounting the hill, and then getting off to mop its face at the summit. I turned my Ziess glasses on to it, and observed that it was a country policeman. It caught sight of me, stared for a bit, tucked its machine into the side of the road, and then very slowly began to climb the hillside. Once it stopped, waved its hand and shouted something which I could not hear. I sat finishing my luncheon, till the features were revealed to me of a fat oldish man, blowing like a grampus, his cap well on the back of a bald head, and his trousers tied about the shins with string.
There was a spring beside me and I had out my flask to round off my meal.
‘Have a drink,’ I said.
His eye brightened, and a smile overran his moist face.
‘Thank you, sir. It will be very warrm coming up the brae.’
‘You oughtn’t to,’ I said. ‘You really oughtn’t, you know. Scorching up hills and then doubling up a mountain are not good for your time of life.’
He raised the cap of my flask in solemn salutation. ‘Your very good health.’ Then he smacked his lips, and had several cupfuls of water from the spring.
‘You will haf come from Achranich way, maybe?’ he said in his soft sing-song, having at last found his breath.
‘Just so. Fine weather for the birds, if there was anybody to shoot them.’
‘Ah, no. There will be few shots fired today, for there are no gentlemen left in Morvern. But I wass asking you, if you come from Achranich, if you haf seen anybody on the road.’
From his pocket he extricated a brown envelope and a bulky telegraph form. ‘Will you read it, sir, for I haf forgot my spectacles?’
It contained a description of one Brand, a South African and a suspected character, whom the police were warned to stop and return to Oban. The description wasn’t bad, but it lacked any one good distinctive detail. Clearly the policeman took me for an innocent pedestrian, probably the guest of some moorland shooting-box, with my brown face and rough tweeds and hobnailed shoes.
I frowned and puzzled a little. ‘I did see a fellow about three miles back on the hillside. There’s a public-house just where the burn comes in, and I think he was making for it. Maybe that was your man. This wire says “South African”; and now I remember the fellow had the look of a colonial.’
The policeman sighed. ‘No doubt it will be the man. Perhaps he will haf a pistol and will shoot.’
‘Not him,’ I laughed. ‘He looked a mangy sort of chap, and he’ll be scared out of his senses at the sight of you. But take my advice and get somebody with you before you tackle him. You’re always the better of a witness.’
‘That is so,’ he said, brightening. ‘Ach, these are the bad times! in old days there wass nothing to do but watch the doors at the flower-shows and keep the yachts from poaching the sea-trout. But now it is spies, spies, and “Donald, get out of your bed, and go off twenty mile to find a German.” I wass wishing the war wass by, and the Germans all dead.’
‘Hear, hear!’ I cried, and on the strength of it gave him another dram.
I accompanied him to the road, and saw him mount his bicycle and zig-zag like a snipe down the hill towards Achranich. Then I set off briskly northward. It was clear that the faster I moved the better.
As I went I paid disgusted tribute to the efficiency of the Scottish police. I wondered how on earth they had marked me down. Perhaps it was the Glasgow meeting, or perhaps my association with Ivery at Biggleswick. Anyhow there was somebody somewhere mighty quick at compiling a dossier. Unless I wanted to be bundled back to Oban I must make good speed to the Arisaig coast.
Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office.
For the past hour I had been considering that I had better prepare for mishaps. If the police of these parts had been warned they might prove too much for me, and Gresson would be allowed to make his journey unmatched. The only thing to do was to send a wire to Amos and leave the matter in his hands. Whether that was possible or not depended upon this remote postal authority.
I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves.
Beside her I noticed a little pile of books, one of which was a Bible. Open on her lap was a paper, the United Free Church Monthly. I noticed these details greedily, for I had to make up my mind on the part to play.
‘It’s a warm day, mistress,’ I said, my voice falling into the broad Lowland speech, for I had an instinct that she was not of the Highlands.
She laid aside her paper. ‘It is that, sir. It is grand weather for the hairst, but here that’s no till the hinner end o’ September, and at the best it’s a bit scart o’ aits.’
‘Ay. It’s a different thing down Annandale way,’ I said.
Her face lit up. ‘Are ye from Dumfries, sir?’
‘Not just from Dumfries, but I know the Borders fine.’
‘Ye’ll no beat them,’ she cried. ‘Not that this is no a guid place and I’ve muckle to be thankfu’ for since John Sanderson — that was ma man — brought me here forty-seeven year syne come Martinmas. But the aulder I get the mair I think o’ the bit whaur I was born. It was twae miles from Wamphray on the Lockerbie road, but they tell me the place is noo just a rickle o’ stanes.’
‘I was wondering, mistress, if I could get a cup of tea in the village.’
‘Ye’ll hae a cup wi’ me,’ she said. ‘It’s no often we see onybody frae the Borders hereaways. The kettle’s just on the boil.’
She gave me tea and scones and butter, and black-currant jam, and treacle biscuits that melted in the mouth. And as we ate we talked of many things — chiefly of the war and of the wickedness of the world.
‘There’s nae lads left here,’ she said. ‘They a’ joined the Camerons, and the feck o’ them fell at an awfu’ place called Lowse. John and me never had no boys, jist the one lassie that’s married on Donald Frew, the Strontian carrier. I used to vex mysel’ about it, but now I thank the Lord that in His mercy He spared me sorrow. But I wad hae liked to have had one laddie fechtin’ for his country. I whiles wish I was a Catholic and could pit up prayers for the sodgers that are deid. It maun be a great consolation.’
I whipped out the Pilgrim’s Progress from my pocket. ‘That is the grand book for a time like this.’
‘Fine I ken it,’ she said. ‘I got it for a prize in the Sabbath School when I was a lassie.’
I turned the pages. I read out a passage or two, and then I seemed struck with a sudden memory.
‘This is a telegraph office, mistress. Could I trouble you to send a telegram? You see I’ve a cousin that’s a minister in Ross-shire at the Kyle, and him and me are great correspondents. He was writing about something in the Pilgrim’s Progress and I think I’ll send him a telegram in answer.’
‘A letter would be cheaper,’ she said.
‘Ay, but I’m on holiday and I’ve no time for writing.’
She gave me a form, and I wrote:
Ochterlony. Post Office, Kyle. — Demas will be at his mine within the week. Strive with him, lest I faint by the way.
‘Ye’re unco lavish wi’ the words, sir,’ was her only comment.
We parted with regret, and there was nearly a row when I tried to pay for the tea. I was bidden remember her to one David Tudhole, farmer in Nether Mirecleuch, the next time I passed by Wamphray.
The village was as quiet when I left it as when I had entered. I took my way up the hill with an easier mind, for I had got off the telegram, and I hoped I had covered my tracks. My friend the postmistress would, if questioned, be unlikely to recognize any South African suspect in the frank and homely traveller who had spoken with her of Annandale and the Pilgrim’s Progress.
The soft mulberry gloaming of the west coast was beginning to fall on the hills. I hoped to put in a dozen miles before dark to the next village on the map, where I might find quarters. But ere I had gone far I heard the sound of a motor behind me, and a car slipped past bearing three men. The driver favoured me with a sharp glance, and clapped on the brakes. I noted that the two men in the tonneau were carrying sporting rifles.
‘Hi, you, sir,’ he cried. ‘Come here.’ The two rifle-bearers — solemn gillies — brought their weapons to attention.
‘By God,’ he said, ‘it’s the man. What’s your name? Keep him covered, Angus.’
The gillies duly covered me, and I did not like the look of their wavering barrels. They were obviously as surprised as myself.
I had about half a second to make my plans. I advanced with a very stiff air, and asked him what the devil he meant. No Lowland Scots for me now. My tone was that of an adjutant of a Guards’ battalion.
My inquisitor was a tall man in an ulster, with a green felt hat on his small head. He had a lean, well-bred face, and very choleric blue eyes. I set him down as a soldier, retired, Highland regiment or cavalry, old style.
He produced a telegraph form, like the policeman.
‘Middle height — strongly built — grey tweeds — brown hat — speaks with a colonial accent — much sunburnt. What’s your name, sir?’
I did not reply in a colonial accent, but with the hauteur of the British officer when stopped by a French sentry. I asked him again what the devil he had to do with my business. This made him angry and he began to stammer.
‘I’ll teach you what I have to do with it. I’m a deputy-lieutenant of this county, and I have Admiralty instructions to watch the coast. Damn it, sir, I’ve a wire here from the Chief Constable describing you. You’re Brand, a very dangerous fellow, and we want to know what the devil you’re doing here.’
As I looked at his wrathful eye and lean head, which could not have held much brains, I saw that I must change my tone. If I irritated him he would get nasty and refuse to listen and hang me up for hours. So my voice became respectful.
‘I beg your pardon, sir, but I’ve not been accustomed to be pulled up suddenly, and asked for my credentials. My name is Blaikie, Captain Robert Blaikie, of the Scots Fusiliers. I’m home on three weeks’ leave, to get a little peace after Hooge. We were only hauled out five days ago.’ I hoped my old friend in the shell-shock hospital at Isham would pardon my borrowing his identity.
The man looked puzzled. ‘How the devil am I to be satisfied about that? Have you any papers to prove it?’
‘Why, no. I don’t carry passports about with me on a walking tour. But you can wire to the depot, or to my London address.’
He pulled at his yellow moustache. ‘I’m hanged if I know what to do. I want to get home for dinner. I tell you what, sir, I’ll take you on with me and put you up for the night. My boy’s at home, convalescing, and if he says you’re pukka I’ll ask your pardon and give you a dashed good bottle of port. I’ll trust him and I warn you he’s a keen hand.’
There was nothing to do but consent, and I got in beside him with an uneasy conscience. Supposing the son knew the real Blaikie! I asked the name of the boy’s battalion, and was told the 10th Seaforths. That wasn’t pleasant hearing, for they had been brigaded with us on the Somme. But Colonel Broadbury — for he told me his name — volunteered another piece of news which set my mind at rest. The boy was not yet twenty, and had only been out seven months. At Arras he had got a bit of shrapnel in his thigh, which had played the deuce with the sciatic nerve, and he was still on crutches.
We spun over ridges of moorland, always keeping northward, and brought up at a pleasant white-washed house close to the sea. Colonel Broadbury ushered me into a hall where a small fire of peats was burning, and on a couch beside it lay a slim, pale-faced young man. He had dropped his policeman’s manner, and behaved like a gentleman. ‘Ted,’ he said, ‘I’ve brought a friend home for the night. I went out to look for a suspect and found a British officer. This is Captain Blaikie, of the Scots Fusiliers.’
The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards.
In the half-hour before dinner the last wisp of suspicion fled from my host’s mind. For Ted Broadbury and I were immediately deep in ‘shop’. I had met most of his senior officers, and I knew all about their doings at Arras, for his brigade had been across the river on my left. We fought the great fight over again, and yarned about technicalities and slanged the Staff in the way young officers have, the father throwing in questions that showed how mighty proud he was of his son. I had a bath before dinner, and as he led me to the bathroom he apologized very handsomely for his bad manners. ‘Your coming’s been a godsend for Ted. He was moping a bit in this place. And, though I say it that shouldn’t, he’s a dashed good boy.’
I had my promised bottle of port, and after dinner I took on the father at billiards. Then we settled in the smoking-room, and I laid myself out to entertain the pair. The result was that they would have me stay a week, but I spoke of the shortness of my leave, and said I must get on to the railway and then back to Fort William for my luggage.
So I spent that night between clean sheets, and ate a Christian breakfast, and was given my host’s car to set me a bit on the road. I dismissed it after half a dozen miles, and, following the map, struck over the hills to the west. About midday I topped a ridge, and beheld the Sound of Sleat shining beneath me. There were other things in the landscape. In the valley on the right a long goods train was crawling on the Mallaig railway. And across the strip of sea, like some fortress of the old gods, rose the dark bastions and turrets of the hills of Skye.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05