The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Part II


Chapter 8


Laverlaw, Mary used to say, was her notion of the end of the world. It is eight miles from a railway station and the little village of Hangingshaw, and the road to it follows a shallow valley between benty uplands till the hills grow higher, and only the size of the stream shows that you have not reached the glen head. Then it passes between two steep hillsides, where there is room but for it and the burn, rounds a corner, and enters an amphitheatre a mile or two square, bounded by steep heather hills, with the Lammer Law heaving up its great shoulders at the far end. The amphitheatre is the park of the castle, mountain turf, diversified with patches of the old Ettrick Forest and a couple of reedy lakes. The house stands at the junction of four avenues of ancient beeches — the keep thirteenth century, most of it late sixteenth century, and nothing more modern than the Restoration wing built by Bruce of Kinross. There are lawns and pleasaunces and a wonderful walled garden, and then you are among heather again, for the moorlands lap it round as the sea laps a reef.

All the land for miles is Sandy’s, and has been in his family for centuries, and though there is another property — Clenry Den, in Fife, from which, by an absurd eighteenth-century transformation, they take their title of Clanroyden — Laverlaw has always been their home. From Hangingshaw southward there are no dwellings but hill-farms and shepherds’ cottages. Beyond the containing walls of the valley lie heathy uplands hiding an infinity of glens and burns, nameless except to herds and keepers and the large-scale Ordnance map. The highway stops short at the castle, and beyond it a drove road tracks the ultimate waters of the Laver, and makes its way, by a pass called the Raxed Thrapple, to the English Border. The place is so perfect that the first sight of it catches the breath, for it is like a dream of all that is habitable and gracious; but it is also as tonic as mid-ocean and as lonely as the African veld.

I took Haraldsen and Peter John from Fosse by road, while Mary with maid and baggage and Jack Godstow travelled by rail by way of London. I had always made a practice of taking my keeper Jack to Laverlaw on our annual visits, partly that he might act as my loader at grouse-drives, and partly to give him a holiday in a different sort of world. Also he made a wonderful gillie and companion for Peter John. Jack was a living disproof of the legend that the English countryman is not adaptable. He was in bone and fibre a Cotswold man, and yet wherever he went he met friends, and he had a knack of getting right inside whatever new life he was introduced to. There was something about him that attracted good will — his square face with little greying side whiskers, and his steadfast, merry, brown eyes.

So in the first days of July there was a very pleasant party at Laverlaw — Barbara Clanroyden and her daughter, Mary, Haraldsen, Peter John, and myself. But there was no Sandy. I gave him a lift to the aerodrome that night we met at Lombard’s house, and since then I had seen nothing of him. I had an address in London, not a club but a bank, to which I wrote to report our arrival, but for days I had no word from him. He was publicly supposed to be at Laverlaw, for the press had announced his arrival there and his intention of staying for the rest of the summer. The Scotsman and the local papers chronicled his presence at local functions, like the Highland Show, the wedding of a neighbour’s daughter, and a political fête at a house on the other side of the shire. But I was certain that he had never left London, and when I met his factor by chance and asked for information, I found that gentleman as sceptical as myself. ‘If his lordship had come north I would have seen him,’ he said, ‘for there’s some important bits of business to put through. These newspapers are oftener wrong than right.’

In a week the place had laid such a spell on us that Fosse was almost forgotten, and the quiet of the glen seemed to have been about us since the beginning of time. The post came late in the afternoons, bringing the papers, but my day-late Times was rarely opened, and I did my scanty correspondence by post cards and telegrams. It was still, bright weather with a light wind from the east, and all day we were out in the strong sunshine.

If we saw no strangers there was a perpetual interest in our little colony itself. There were the two keepers, Sim and Oliver, both long-legged Borderers whose forbears had been in the same glen since the days of Kinmont Willie, and who now and then in their speech would use phrases so vivid and memorable that I understood how the great ballads came to be written. There was the head shepherd Stoddart — Sandy kept one of the farms in his own hands — a man tough and gnarled as an oak-root, who belonged to an older dispensation. He had the long stride and the clear eye of his kind, and his talk was a perpetual joy to us, for in his soft, lilting voice he revealed a lost world of pastoral. Under his tuition I became quite learned about sheep, and I would accompany him when he ‘looked the hill,’ and thereby got the hang of a wide countryside. Also to my delight I found Geordie Hamilton, the Scots Fusilier who had been my batman in the War. He had been mixed up with Sandy in his South American adventure, and had been installed at Laverlaw as a sort of ‘Laird’s Jock,’ a factotum who could put his hand to anything, and whose special business it was to attend his master out-of-doors, much what Tom Purdey was to Sir Walter Scott. Geordie had changed little; his stocky figure and his mahogany face and sullen blue eyes were the same as I remembered; but above the ears there was a slight grizzling of the shaggy dark hair.

The days passed in a delightful ease. We walked and rode over the hills, and picnicked by distant waters. The streams were low and the fishing was poor, though Peter John did fairly well in the lochs, and got a three-pounder one evening in the park lake with the dry fly. It was only a month to the Twelfth, so Morag the falcon was not permitted on the moors, but he amused himself with flying her at pigeons and using her to scare the hoodies. The months at Laverlaw had made Barbara well again, and she and Mary, with their clan about them, were happy; even Sandy’s absence was not much of a drawback, for his way was the wind’s way, and any hour he might appear out of the void. It was lotus-eating weather in a land which might have been Tir-nan-Og, so remote it seemed from mundane troubles. When I gave a thought to my special problem it was only to remind myself that for the moment we were utterly secure. The pedlar who took the Laverlaw round from Hangingshaw had his coming advertised hours in advance; the baker’s and butcher’s carts had their fixed seasons and their familiar drivers; and any stranger would be noted and talked over by the whole glen; while, as for the boundary hills, the shepherds were intelligence-officers who missed nothing. All the same I thought it wise to warn the keepers and Stoddart and Geordie Hamilton that I had a private reason for wanting to be told in good time of the coming of any stranger, and I knew that the word would go round like a fiery cross.

We were all lapped in peace, but the most remarkable case was Haraldsen. It may have been the stronger air, for we were four hundred miles farther north, or the belief that here he was safe, but he lost his hunted look, he no longer started at a sudden sound, and he could talk without his eyes darting restlessly everywhere. He began to find an interest in life, and went fishing with Peter John and Jack, accompanied the keepers and Stoddart on their rounds, and more than once joined me in a long stride among the hills.

It was not only ease that he was gaining. The man’s old interests were reviving. His Island of Sheep, which he had been shutting out of his thoughts, had returned to his mind while he was delighting in the possessions of another. Laverlaw was so completely a home, that this homeless man began to think of his own. I could see a longing in his eyes which was not mere craving for safety. As we walked together he would talk to me of the Norlands, and I could see how deep the love of them was in his bones. His mental trouble was being quieted by the renascence of an old affection. Once in the late afternoon we halted on the top of the Lammer Law to drink in the view — the glen of the Laver below us with the house and its demesne like jewels in a perfect setting, the far blue distances to the north, and all around us and behind us a world of grey-green or purple uplands. He drew a long breath. ‘It is Paradise,’ he said; ‘but there is one thing wanting.’ And when I asked what that was, he replied, ‘The sea.’

Yet at the back of my head there was always a slight anxiety. It was not for the present but for the future. I did not see how our sanctuary could be attacked, but this spell of peace was no solution of the problem. We could not go on living in Laverlaw in a state of mild siege. I had no guess at what Sandy was after, except that he was unravelling the machinations of Haraldsen’s enemies; that knowledge was no doubt essential, but it did not mean that we had defeated them. We were only postponing the real struggle. My one solid bit of comfort was that Haraldsen was rapidly getting back to normal. If he went on as he was going, he would soon be a possible combatant in any scrap, instead of an embarrassment.

Then one day that happened which woke all my fears. I had told Peter John that Haraldsen was in danger, and warned him to be very much on the watch for anything or anybody suspicious. This was meat and drink to him, for it gave him a job infinitely more attractive than the two hours which he was supposed to devote to his books every morning. I could see him cock his ears whenever Sim or Geordie had any piece of news. But till this particular day nothing came of his watchfulness.

It was the day of the sheep-clipping at the Mains of Laverlaw, the home farm. The two hill hirsels had been brought down to the valley the night before, and were penned in great folds beside the stream. Beyond was a narrow alley which admitted them in twos and threes to a smaller fold where the stools of the shearers were set up. At dawn the men had assembled — Stoddart and his young shepherd, whose name was Nickson, and the herds from the rest of the Laverlaw estate, many of whom had walked a dozen moorland miles. There were the herds of the Lanely Bield, and Clatteringshaws, and Drygrain, and Upper and Nether Camhope, and the two Lammers, and a man from the remotest corner of Sandy’s land, the Back Hill of the Cludden, who got his letters only once a fortnight, and did not see a neighbour for months. And there were dogs of every colour and age, from Stoddart’s old patriarch Yarrow, who was the doyen of the tribe, to slim, slinking young collies, wild as hawks to a stranger, but exquisitely skilled in their trade and obedient to the slightest nod of their masters. On this occasion there was little for them to do; it was their holiday, and they dozed each in his owner’s shadow, after a stormy morning of greetings with their kind.

We all attended the clipping. It was a very hot day, and the air in the fold was thick with the reek of sheep and the strong scent of the keel-pot, from which the shorn beasts were marked with a great L. I have seen a good deal of shearing in my time, but I have never seen it done better than by these Borderers, who wrought in perfect silence and apparently with effortless ease. The Australian sheep-hand may be quicker at the job, but he could not be a greater artist. There was never a gash or a shear-mark, the fleeces dropped plumply beside the stools, and the sheep, no longer dingy and weathered but a dazzling white, were as evenly trimmed as if they had been fine women in the hands of a coiffeur. It was too smelly a place for the women to sit in long, but twenty yards off was crisp turf beginning to be crimsoned with bell-heather, and the shingle-beds and crystal waters of the burn. We ended by camping on a little hillock, where we could look down upon the scene, and around to the hills shimmering in the heat, and up to the deep blue sky on which were etched two mewing buzzards.

We had our luncheon there, when the work stopped for the midday rest, and Haraldsen and I went down afterwards to smoke with the herds. The clipping meal at Laverlaw was established by ancient precedent. There was beer for all, but whisky only for the older men. There were crates of mutton-pies for which the Hangingshaw baker was famous, and baskets of buttered scones and oatcakes and skim-milk cheese. The company were mighty trenchermen, and I observed the herd of the Back Hill of the Cludden, to whom this was a memorable occasion, put away six pies and enough cakes and cheese to last me for a week.

After that we went home, but Peter John stayed behind, for he had decided to become a sheep-farmer and was already deep in the confidence of the herds. In the afternoon I took Haraldsen to visit the keep of Hardriding ten miles off, an ancient tooth of masonry on a crag by a burn. I remember thinking that I had never seen him in better spirits, for his morning at the clipping seemed to have cheered him by its spectacle of decent, kindly folk.

When we got back just before dinner I found Peter John waiting for me with a graver face than usual.

There had been visitors, it appeared, at the clipping that afternoon. One was Little, the auctioneer from Laverkirk. That was to be expected, for ‘Leittle,’ as the countryside pronounced his name, was a famous figure in the shire, a little red-faced man with a gift of broad humour, whose jokes in the sale-ring were famous through the Lowlands. But he had also a rough side to his tongue, and this, with his profound knowledge of black-faced sheep, made him respected as well as liked. He was a regular guest at the Laverlaw clippings, and was a special friend of Stoddart’s. But he had brought a friend with him whom nobody had met before. Peter John described him carefully. An average-sized man, quite young, with a small, well-trimmed moustache like a soldier. He wore riding breeches and cloth gaiters, and a check cap, and carried a shooting-stick. He was Scotch and spoke broadly, but not in the local fashion — Stoddart thought he must come from Dumfries way. His name was Harcus, and Little had introduced him as a rising dealer whom they would soon hear more of, and who was on holiday, taking a look at the Laver Water flocks. He seemed to know a lot about Cheviot sheep.

‘Well, he sounds harmless enough,’ I said, when I had heard his story. ‘A dealer is the kind of fellow you’d expect at a clipping, and if Little brought him he must be all right.’

But I could see from the boy’s face that he was not satisfied.

‘I didn’t much like him,’ he said. ‘He was too soft-spoken, and he wanted to know too much. Geordie Hamilton said he would “speir the inside out of a whelk.” He asked all about who was staying here, and if Lord Clanroyden was still here. He said a lot of nice things about Lord Clanroyden which Mr. Stoddart thought cheek. Mr. Stoddart thought he wanted something out of him.’

‘There’s nothing in that,’ I said. ‘That’s the habit of dealers. He probably wants to buy the Mains hoggs before they’re sent to Laverkirk. Was that the only thing that made you suspicious?’

‘No-o,’ he said slowly. ‘There was another thing. He behaved rather queerly about me. I was sitting behind the keel-pot cutting a whistle, and I heard all his talk with Mr. Stoddart and Mr. Nickson. I saw that he had noticed me when he arrived. He pretended not to know we were staying in this house, and when Mr. Stoddart said that you were here he looked surprised, and asked was that the General Hannay that he had heard about in the War? And then he said suddenly, “Sir Richard’s boy’s here. I would like to have a crack wi’ him,” and Mr. Stoddart had to introduce us. That showed that he must have known all about us before, and that I was your son.’

‘That was odd,’ I admitted, rather impressed by Peter John’s shrewdness. I asked what he had talked to him about, and he told me just ordinary things — what school he was at, what he thought of Scotland, what he was going to do when he grew up — and that he had laughed when he heard of the sheep-farming plan. Stoddart had given the two visitors a drink, and after an hour’s stay they had gone down the valley in Little’s car.

I said that I didn’t think there was any real cause to worry. But Peter John was obstinate, and then he added that which really alarmed me.

‘I thought I had better do something about it,’ he said, ‘so I asked Mr. Sprot — he’s the young shepherd at Nether Laver and lives nearest to Hangingshaw — to try to find out when he got home if this Mr. Harcus had been in the village before. Do you know what he told me? That he had been there for three days, and had been staying with Miss Newbigging at the post office. He said he had been to a lot of farms, and had bought the short-horn bull at Windyways that got the second prize at the Highland Show.’

That word ‘post office’ alarmed me. It was the very place a man would choose for his lodgings if he wanted to make private inquiries. There was no inn in Hangingshaw, and the post office was the natural centre for a big countryside. Also Miss Newbigging, the postmistress, was a most notorious old gossip, and lived to gather and retail news.

‘So I thought I’d better ask Geordie Hamilton to go down there’ (in this case alone Peter John dropped his habit of ‘mistering’ everybody, for it was impossible to call Geordie otherwise than by his Christian name). ‘He went off on his bicycle after tea. I thought he was the best man for the job, for he’s a great friend of Miss Newbigging.’

‘That was right,’ I said. ‘So far I give you good marks. I’ll have a talk to Geordie in the morning.’

I dressed for dinner with a faint uneasiness at the back of my head. It was increased when, just as we were drinking our coffee, I was told that Geordie Hamilton wanted to see me urgently. I found him in the gun-room with a glowing face, as if he had made some speed on his bicycle from Hangingshaw in the warm evening.

‘Yon man Haircus, sirr,’ he began at once. ‘Actin’ under instructions from Maister Peter John I proceeded to Hangingshaw and had a word wi’ Miss Newbiggin’. Sprot was speakin’ the truth. Haircus is no there noo, for he gaed off in the car wi’ Leittle the auctioneer, him and his pockmanty. But he’s been bidin’ there the last three days and — weel, sirr, I dinna like the look o’ things. I didna like the look o’ the man, for he was neither gentry nor plain folk. And gude kens what he’s been up to.’

Geordie proceeded with his report, delivered in the staccato fashion of the old Scots Fusilier days. He had found Miss Newbigging alone and had had a friendly cup of tea with her. ‘Yon’s an awfu’ ane to speak,’ he said. ‘She has a tongue on her like a pen-gun.’ The post mistress had been full of her late lodger, and had described him as a ‘fine, couthy, cracky body.’ He was Galloway bred, but had been a lot in the north of England, and his big market was Carlisle. He told her that he wanted to get in touch with the farmers in these parts, which he said were the pick of the Borders. ‘He was aye rimin’,’ said Miss Newbigging, ‘about this bonny countryside and the dacent folk that bode in it.’ She had been glad to answer his questions, for he was bringing trade into the parish. When asked if he had been curious about Laverlaw, she had replied that he had, just as every one would be curious about the Big House. He seemed to know all about Lord Clanroyden and to have a great opinion of him. ‘I telled him that his lordship was supposed to be in residence, but that I hadna clapped eyes on him for months. But says I, that’s naethin new, for his lordship comes and gangs like a bog-blitter, though I whiles think that he should pay mair attention to his leddy wife, and her no that strong.’ But Miss Newbigging had been positive that she had never given him the names of the party now at Laverlaw. ‘Though he might have read them on the letters,’ she had added.

On further examination Geordie discovered that Harcus had been what the postmistress called ‘a usefu’ man about the house.’ He had helped her every day to sort out the mail, both the incoming and the outgoing. He had often been jocose about the former. ‘Here’s ane to Sundhope frae the Bank,’ he would say. ‘That’ll be about the over-draft for the beasts he bocht at Kelso. And here is a bundle for her leddyship. It’s bigger than I get mysel’ after the back-end sales. But I see there’s twa leddyships, Leddy Clanroyden and Leddy Hannay. There’s walth o’ rank the noo up the Laver Water.’

This had roused Geordie’s interest. He asked if Harcus had made a point of looking at the outgoing letters. Miss Newbigging had replied: ‘He did, now I come to think o’t. I was aye tellin’ him there was nae need, for the hale lot gangs to Laverkirk to be sorted. But he was a carefu’ man, and he had time on his hands, and he would set them out in wee packs as if he was playin’ at the cards. “That’s for Embro”, he would say, “an that’s for the West country, and that heap’s for England.” He was aye awfu’ interested in the English letters, comin’ as he did frae Carlisle.’

Geordie, having learned all he wanted, had taken his departure after compliments. Now he sat before me with his shaggy brows drawn down. ‘Ye telled me, sirr, to let naething gang by me, however sma,’ and there’s just a chance that there’s mischief here. Haircus doesna ken wha’s writin’ to the folk in this house, but he kens a wheen o’ the names that the folk here write to.’

That was precisely the point, and at first I thought that it did not matter. And then, when Geordie had gone, I suddenly remembered that though we were in a sanctuary our party was not complete. There was one absentee, one sheep outside the fold. Not Sandy — he could very well look after himself. It was Haraldsen’s child, his daughter Anna.

I started out to look for Haraldsen, but he had gone off with Peter John to dap for trout in the park lake. It was nearly eleven o’clock before they returned, and, as they entered the lit hall from the purple gloom which is all the night that Laverlaw knows in early July, I thought what a miracle recent weeks had wrought in Haraldsen’s appearance. He held his head up, and looked you straight in the face, and walked like a free man. When I called to him he was laughing like a care-free boy at the figure Peter John cut in Sandy’s short waders. It struck me that it was just in this recovered confidence that our danger lay.

He had often told me about his daughter Anna. She was at a well-known boarding-school for girls in Northamptonshire, called Brewton Ashes, under the name of Smith, the name he had taken when he sought refuge in England. At first he had looked after her in her holidays, and taken her to dismal seaside resorts which he had heard well spoken of. But as his dread of pursuit grew he had dropped all this, and had not seen her for nearly a year. It had been arranged that one of the mistresses, to whom she was attached, should look after her in the holidays, and Haraldsen must have paid for pretty expensive trips for the two, since it was the only way he could make up to the child for his absence. He had always been very careful about letters, writing to her not direct, but through his bank, and he had never dared to show himself within twenty miles of Brewton Ashes.

I turned the conversation on to the girl, being careful not to alarm him, for I didn’t want to spoil his convalescence. I pretended that Peter John wanted to write and tell her about Laverlaw, and asked how it was done. He told me that there was a choice of three banks, who all had their instructions.

‘It seems a roundabout way,’ I said; ‘but I dare say you are wise. Do you stick to it rigidly?’

‘Yes. It is better so. You never know. . . . Well, to be quite honest, I have broken the rule once, and I do not intend to break it again. That was last Monday. Anna’s thirteenth birthday was yesterday, and I made a mistake about the dates, for I have been so busy here that I have grown careless. I could not bear to think that she would have no message from me on that day, so I wrote direct to her at Brewton Ashes.’ His smile was a little embarrassed, and he looked at me as if he expected reproaches. ‘I do not think that any harm is done. This place is so far away from everybody.’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I said. ‘You needn’t worry about that, but I think you’re wise all the same to stick to your rule. Now for bed. Lord, it’s nearly midnight.’

But I thought it by no means all right. It was infernally bad luck that Haraldsen should have chosen to be indiscreet just at the time when the mysterious Harcus was in the neighbourhood. I told myself that the latter would make nothing of a letter addressed to a Miss Anna Smith at a country address in England. But I have never made the mistake of underrating the intelligence of the people I was up against. Anyhow, I was taking no chances. I routed out Geordie Hamilton from his room above the stables and warned him for duty. Then I wrote a letter to Sandy in London, telling him all that had happened and my doubts about Harcus. I left it to him to decide whether any steps should be taken to safeguard the girl. Geordie was instructed to set off at once to Laverkirk, twenty miles distant, and post it there, so that it might catch the London mail — Laverkirk was on the main line to the south — and reach Sandy the following evening.

But I wasn’t content with a letter. I also wrote out a telegram to Sandy in a simple cypher we had often used before — a longish telegram, for I had to explain how it was possible that the enemy might have got the girl’s address. Geordie, when he had posted the letter, was to go to bed in the Station Hotel, be up betimes, and send the telegram as soon as the office was open. I had no fear of espionage in Laverkirk, which was a big bustling market-town with half a dozen post offices.

Then I went to bed with anxiety in my mind out of which I could not argue myself. The happy peace of Laverlaw had been flawed. I felt like the man in Treasure Island who was tipped the black spot.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50