The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey


WHEN Laura heard next morning that Grant intended to go in to Scoone instead of spending the day on the river, she was indignant.

‘But I’ve just made up a wonderful luncheon for you and Zoë,’ she said. He was left with the impression that her dismay was rooted in some cause more valid than a miscalculated meal, but his mind was too busy with more important matters to analyse trivialities.

‘There’s a young American staying at Moymore who has come to ask my help about something. I thought that he might take my place on the river, if no one has any objection. He has fished quite a bit, he tells me. Perhaps Pat would like to show him the ropes.’

Pat had come to breakfast in a state so radiant that the glow of it could be felt clear across the table. It was the first day of the Easter holidays. He looked with interest when he heard his cousin’s suggestion. There were few things in life that he enjoyed so much as showing someone something.

‘What’s his name?’ he asked.

‘Tad Cullen.’

‘What’s “Tad”?’

‘I don’t know. Short for Theodore, perhaps.’

‘M— m — m,’ said Pat doubtfully.

‘He’s a flyer.’

‘Oh,’ said Pat, his brow clearing. ‘I thought maybe with a name like that he was a professor.’

‘No. He flies to and fro across Arabia.’

‘Arabia!’ said Pat, rolling the R so that the mundane Scots breakfast table scintillated with reflections of the jewelled East. Between modern transport and ancient Bagdad, Tad Cullen seemed to have satisfactory credentials. Pat would ‘show him’ with pleasure.

‘Of course Zoë gets first choice of places to fish,’ Pat said.

If Grant had imagined that Pat’s infatuation would take the form of blushing silences and a mooning adoration, he was wrong. Pat’s only sign of surrender was the constant interjection of ‘me and Zoë’ into his conversation; and it was to be observed that the personal pronoun still came first.

So Grant borrowed the car after breakfast and went down to Moymore to tell Tad Cullen that a small boy with red hair and a green kilt would be waiting for him, with all appliances and means to boot, by the swing bridge across the Turlie. He himself would be back from Scoone in time to join them on the river some time in the afternoon, he hoped.

‘I’d like to come with you, Mr Grant,’ Cullen said. ‘Have you got a line on this thing? Is that why you’re going in to Scoone this morning?’

‘No. It’s to look for a line that I’m going in. There’s not a thing you can do just now, so you might as well have a day on the river.’

‘All right, Mr Grant. You’re the boss. What’s your young friend’s name?’

‘Pat Rankin,’ Grant said, and drove away to Scoone.

He had spent most of last night lying awake with his eyes on the ceiling, letting the patterns in his mind slip and fade into each other like trick camera work in a film. Constantly the patterns materialised, and broke, and dissolved, never the same for two moments together. He lay supine and let them dance their endless slow interlacing; taking no part in their gyrations; as detached as if they were a display of Northern Lights.

It was that way his mind worked best. It would also work the other way, of course. Work very well. In problems involving a time-place sequence for instance. In matters where A was at a spot X at 5.30 p.m. on the umpteenth inst, Grant’s mind worked with the tidiness of a calculating machine. But in an affair where motive was all, he sat back and let his mind loose on the problem. Presently, if he left it alone, it would throw up the pattern that he needed.

He still had no idea why Bill Kenrick had journeyed to the north of Scotland when he should have been travelling to Paris to meet his friend; still less had he any idea why he should have been travelling with another man’s papers. But he was beginning to have an idea as to why Bill Kenrick developed his sudden interest in Arabia. Cullen, looking at the world from his limited, flyer’s point of view, had thought of that interest in terms of flying routes. But Grant was sure that the interest had other origins. On Cullen’s own showing, Kenrick had exhibited none of the usual signs of ‘nerves’. It was unlikely that his obsession with the route he flew had anything to do with weather in any of its forms. Somewhere, sometime, on one of those flights over that ‘damned dreary’ route, Kenrick had found something that interested him. And that interest had begun on an occasion when he had been blown far off his course by one of the dust-storms that haunted the interior of Arabia. He had come back from that experience ‘concussed’. ‘Not listening to what was said to him.’ ‘Still back there.’

So this morning Grant was going in to Scoone to find out what might possibly have interested Bill Kenrick in the interior of that bleak and stony immensity; in the desert and forbidding half-continent that was Arabia. And for that, of course, he was going to Mr Tallisker. Whether it was the rateable value of a cottage or the composition of lava that one wanted to be enlightened about, one went to Mr Tallisker.

The Public Library in Scoone was deserted at this hour of the morning and he found Mr Tallisker having a doughnut and a cup of coffee. Grant thought the doughnut an endearingly childish and robust choice for a man who looked as though he lived on gaufrettes and China tea with lemon. Mr Tallisker was delighted to see Grant, asked how his study of the Islands was progressing, listened with interest to Grant’s heretic account of that Paradise, and was helpful about his new search. Arabia? Oh, yes, they had a whole shelf of books about the country. Almost as many people wrote books about Arabia as about the Hebrides. There was, too, if Mr Tallisker might be permitted to say so, the same tendency to idealise the subject in its devotees.

‘You think that, boiled down to plain fact, they are both just windy deserts.’

Oh, no; not entirely. That was being a little — wholesale. Mr Tallisker had had much happiness and beauty from the Islands. But the tendency to idealise a primitive people was perhaps the same in each case. And here was the shelf of books on the subject, and he would leave Mr Grant to study them at his leisure.

The books were in a reference room, and there was no other reader there. The door closed on the silence and he was left with his search. He went through the row of books very much as he had gone through the row about the Hebrides in the sitting-room at Clune, gutting each book with a swift practised eye. The range was much the same as it had been in the earlier case: all the way from the sentimentalists to the scientists. The only difference was that in this case some of the books were classics, as befitted a classic subject.

If Grant had had any last lingering doubt that the man in B Seven was Bill Kenrick, it went when he found that the desert part of south-eastern Arabia, the Empty Quarter, was called the Rub’alKhali.

So that was what ‘robbing the Caley’ had been!

After that he devoted his interest to the Empty Quarter, picking each book from the shelf, flipping through the pages on this one region, and putting it back again to go on to the next. And presently a phrase caught his eye. ‘Inhabited by monkeys.’ Monkeys, said his mind. Talking beasts. He turned the page back to see what the paragraph had been talking about.

It was talking about Wabar.

Wabar, it seemed, was the Atlantis of Arabia. The fabled city of Ad ibn Kin’ad. Somewhere in the time between legend and history it had been destroyed by fire for its sins. For it had been rich and sinful beyond the power of words to express. Its palaces had housed the most beautiful concubines and its stables the most perfect horses in the world, the one no less finely decked than the other. It stood in country so fertile that one had only to reach out a hand to pluck the fruits of the soil. There was infinite leisure to sin old sins and devise new ones. So destruction had come on the city. It had come in a night, with cleansing fire. And now Wabar, the fabled city, was a cluster of ruins; guarded by the shifting sands, by cliffs of stone that for ever changed place and form; and inhabited by a monkey race and by evil jinns. No one could approach the place because the jinns blew dust-storms in the faces of those who sought it.

That was Wabar.

And no one, it seemed, had ever found the ruins although every Arabian explorer had looked for them, openly or secretly. Indeed, no two explorers agreed as to which part of Arabia the legend referred to. Grant went back through the various volumes, using the magic key, the word Wabar, and found that each authority had his own pet theory, and that the argued sites lay as far apart as Oman and the Yemen. None of the writers, he noticed, attempted to belittle or discount the legend as palliation of their failure; the story was universal in Arabia and constant in its form, and sentimentalist and scientist alike believed that it had its basis in fact. It had been every explorer’s dream to be the discoverer of Wabar, but the sands and the jinns and the mirages had guarded it well.

‘It is probable,’ wrote one of the greatest, ‘that when the fabled city is at last found it will be by no striving or calculation but by accident.’

By accident.

By a flyer blown off his course by a dust-storm?

Was that what Bill Kenrick had seen when he came out of the solid brown cloud of sand that had blinded and buffeted him? Empty palaces in the sand? Was that what he had gone out of his way to look for — perhaps to look at— when he ‘began to come in late as a habit’?

He had said nothing after that first experience. And that, if what he had seen was a city in the sand, was understandable. He would have been teased about it: teased about mirages, and one over the eight, and what not. Even if any of the OCAL boys had ever heard the legend — and in so shifting, so easy-come a crowd it was unlikely — they would still have teased him about wish-fathered ideas. So Bill, who wrote those tight-closed M’s and N’s and was ‘just a bit cagey’, said nothing and went back to have another look. Went back again and again. Either because he wanted to find the place he had seen, or to look at a place he had already pin-pointed.

He studied maps. He read books about Arabia. And then ——?

Then he decided to come to England.

He had arranged to go to Paris with Tad Cullen. But instead he wanted a little time by himself in England. He had no people in England. He had not been in England for years, and according to Cullen had never seemed homesick for the place nor written to anyone there in any kind of regular correspondence. He had been brought up by an aunt when his parents were killed and she too was now dead. He had never until then had any desire to go back to England.

Grant sat back and let the stillness fall round him. He could almost hear the dust coming to rest. Year after year the dust falling in the quiet. Like Wabar.

Bill Kenrick came to England. And about three weeks later, when he is due to meet his friend in Paris, he turns up in Scotland as Charles Martin.

Grant could imagine why he wanted to come to England, but why the masquerade? Why the flying visit to the North?

Whom was he going to visit as Charles Martin?

He could have paid that flying visit and still have met his friend in Paris on the appointed date if it had not been for the accident of his tipsy fall. He could have interviewed someone in the Highlands and then flown from Scoone to meet his friend at the Hotel St Jacques for dinner.

But why as Charles Martin?

Grant put the books back on their shelf with an approving pat that he had never wasted on the Hebrides selection, and went to call on Mr Tallisker in his little office. He had at least got his line on Kenrick. He knew how to cross his trail.

‘Who would you say was the greatest authority on Arabia in England today?’ he asked Mr Tallisker.

Mr Tallisker waved his beribboned pince-nez and smiled in a deprecating way. There were what might be termed a swarm of successors to Thomas and Philby and the other great names, he said, but he supposed that only Heron Lloyd ranked as a really great authority. It was possible that he, Mr Tallisker, was prejudiced in Lloyd’s favour because he was the only one of the crowd who wrote English that was literature, but it was true that apart from his gifts as a writer he had stature and integrity and a great reputation. He had done some spectacular journeys in the course of his various explorations, and had considerable standing among the Arabs.

Grant thanked Mr Tallisker and went away to look up Who’s Who. He wanted Heron Lloyd’s address.

Then he went to have a meal; and instead of going to the Caledonian, which was convenient and sufficiently bestarred, he obeyed an obscure impulse and walked to the other side of the town so that he could eat where he had eaten breakfast with the shade of B Seven on that dark morning only a few weeks ago.

There was no half-fit gloom in the dining-room today; the place was starched and shining, silver, glass and linen. There was even a shirt-front where a head waiter hovered. But there was also Mary; calm and comfortable and plump as she had been that morning. He remembered how in need of soothing and reassurance he had been, and could hardly believe that that tortured and exhausted creature could have been himself.

He sat down at the same table, near the screens in front of the service door, and Mary came to take his order and to ask how the fishing on the Turlie was these days.

‘How did you know I was fishing the Turlie?’

‘You were with Mr Rankin when you came in for breakfast, off the train.’

Off the train. He had come off the train after that night of conflict and suffering; that loathsome night. He had come off the train, leaving B Seven dead there with a casual glance and a passing moment of regret. But B Seven had paid back a hundred-fold that moment of easy compassion. B Seven had come with him and in the end had saved him. It was B Seven who had sent him to the Islands, on that mad, cold, blown search for nothing. In that strange absurd limbo he had done all those things that he could never have done elsewhere; he had laughed till the tears ran, he had danced, he had let himself be flung about like a leaf from one empty horizon to the next, he had sung, he had sat still and looked. And he had come back a whole man. He owed B Seven more than he could ever repay.

He thought about Bill Kenrick while he had his luncheon; the young man who had had no roots. Had he been lonely in his unattached life, or just free? And if free, was it a swallow’s freedom, or an eagle’s? A sun-seeking skimming, or a soaring lordliness?

At least he had had a trait that in all climes and ages has been both rare and endearing: he was the man of action who was also by instinct a poet. It was what distinguished him from the light-come crowds of OCAL employees who span their airy patterns across the continents as unthinking as mosquitoes. It was what distinguished him from the milling five-o’clock crowds in a London railway station to whom adventure was half-a-crown each way. If the dead boy in B Seven had been neither a Sidney nor a Grenfell, he had at least been of their kind.

And for that Grant loved him.

‘You know,’ said that voice in him, ‘if you don’t take care you’ll develop a “thing” about Bill Kenrick.’

‘I’ve got it already,’ he said cheerfully; and the voice retired in a defeated silence.

He over-tipped Mary and went away to book two seats on the morning plane to London. He had still more than a week of holiday to come and the Turlie still swarmed with fish, beautiful silver clean-run fighting fish, but he had other business. Since yesterday afternoon he had only one business: Bill Kenrick.

He had qualms about that air journey to London, but not very serious qualms. He could hardly recognise, when he looked back at him, that demon-ridden frightened creature who had stepped down on to Scoone platform from the London mail less than a month ago. All that was left of that deplorable object was a slight fear of being afraid. The terror itself was no longer there.

He bought enough sweets for Patrick to keep him sick for three months on end, and drove back to the hills. He was afraid that the sweets were a little too elegant to please Patrick entirely — a little too ‘jessie-like’ perhaps? — since Pat’s avowed favourites were something in Mrs Mair’s window labelled Ogo–Pogo Eyes. But Laura would no doubt dole out the Scoone ones in driblets anyway.

He halted the car above the river, half-way between Moymore and Scoone, and went down across the moor to look for Tad Cullen. It was still early afternoon and he would not yet have finished his after-luncheon spell on the river.

He had not yet begun it. As Grant came to the edge of the moor and looked down at the river’s immediate hollow, he saw below him in the mid-distance a small group of three persons, idle and relaxed on the bank. Zoë was propped in her favourite position against a rock, and on either side of her, on a level with her crossed feet and gazing at her with an unwavering attention, were her two followers: Pat Rankin and Tad Cullen. Looking at them, amused and indulgent, Grant became aware that Bill Kenrick had done him a final service for which he had not yet had credit. Bill Kenrick had saved him from falling in love with Zoë Kentallen.

A few more hours would have done it. A few more hours in her uninterrupted company, and he would have been involved past recovery. Bill Kenrick had intervened just in time.

It was Pat who saw him first and came to meet him and bring him back to the company as children and dogs do to those of whom they approve. Zoë tilted her head back to watch him come and said: ‘You haven’t missed anything, Alan Grant. No one has had a nibble all day. Would you like to take my rod for a little? Perhaps a change of rhythm will fetch them.’

Grant said that he would like that very much, since his time for fishing was running out.

‘You have still a week to catch everything in the river,’ she said.

Grant wondered how she had known that. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I am going back to London tomorrow morning,’ and for the first time saw Zoë react to a stimulus as an adult would. The instant regret on her face was as vivid as that on Pat’s, but unlike Pat she controlled and removed it. She said in her polite gentle voice how sorry she was, but her face no longer showed any emotion. It was her fairy-tale face again; the Hans Andersen illustration.

Before he could consider this phenomenon, Tad Cullen said: ‘Can I come back with you, Mr Grant? To London.’

‘I meant you to. I’ve booked two seats on the morning plane.’

In the end Grant took the rod that Tad Cullen was using — a spare one from Clune — so that they could go down river together and talk. But Zoë made no motion to continue her fishing.

‘I’ve had enough,’ she said, unjointing her rod. ‘I think I shall go back to Clune and write some letters.’

Pat stood irresolute, still like a friendly dog between two allegiances, and then said: ‘I’m going back with Zoë.’

He said it, Grant thought, almost as if he were championing her instead of merely accompanying her; as if he had joined an Unfair–To-Zoë movement. But since no one could ever think of being unfair to Zoë, his attitude was surely unnecessary.

From the rock where he sat with Tad Cullen to give him the news he watched the two figures grow small across the moor, and wondered a little at that sudden withdrawal, at the dispirited air that hung about her progress. She looked like a discouraged child, tired and trailing homeward unexpectant. Perhaps the thought of David, her husband, had suddenly drowned her. That was the way with grief: it left you alone for months together until you thought that you were cured, and then without warning it blotted out the sunlight.

‘But that wouldn’t be much to get excited about, would it?’ Tad Cullen was saying.

‘What wouldn’t?’

‘This ancient city you’re talking about. Would anyone get all that excited about it? I mean, about a few ruins. Ruins are two a nickel in the world nowadays.’

‘Not these, they aren’t,’ Grant said, forgetting Zoë. ‘The man who found Wabar would make history.’

‘I thought when you said he had found something important you were going to say munition works in the desert or something like that.’

‘Now that really is something that is two for a nickel!’


‘Secret munition plants. No one who found one of those would be a celebrity.’

Tad’s ears pricked. ‘A celebrity? You mean the man who found this place would be a celebrity?’

‘I’ve already said so.’

‘No. You just said he would make history.’

‘True. Too true,’ Grant said. ‘The terms are not synonymous any more. Yes, he would be a celebrity. Tutankhamen’s tomb would be nothing to it.’

‘And you think Bill will have gone to see this fellow, this Lloyd guy?’

‘If not to him, then to someone else in that line. He wanted to talk to someone who would take what he had to tell as a serious matter; I mean, who would not just tease him about seeing things. And he wanted to meet someone who would be personally interested and excited by his news. Well, he would do just what I did. He would go to a museum, or a library, or perhaps even to one of the Information departments at the big stores, and find out who the best-known English explorer of Arabia happened to be. He would probably be given a choice, since librarians and curators are pedantic people and Information departments subject to the law of libel, but Lloyd is head-and-shoulders above the others because he writes almost as well as he explores. He is the household word of the bunch, so to speak. So the chances are twenty to one that Bill would choose Lloyd.’

‘So we find out when and where he saw Lloyd and pick up his trail from there.’

‘Yes. We also find out whether he went to see Lloyd as Charles Martin or under his own name.’

‘Why would he go as Charles Martin?’

‘Who knows? You said that he was a little cagey. He may have wanted to keep back his connection with OCAL. Are OCAL strict about their routes and schedules? It may be as simple as that.’

Cullen sat in silence for a little, making a pattern in the turf with the butt of the fishing-rod. Then he said:

‘Mr Grant, don’t think I’m being dramatic or — or sensational or silly, but you don’t think, do you, that Bill could have been bumped off?’

‘He could have been, of course. Murder does happen. Even clever murders. But the chances against it are very long.’


‘Well, for one thing it has passed a police investigation. In spite of all the detective stories to the contrary the Criminal Investigation Department really is a highly efficient organisation. By far the most efficient organisation, if you’ll accept a slightly prejudiced opinion, that exists in this country today — or in any other country, in any period.’

‘But the police have already been wrong about one thing.’

‘About his identity, you mean. Yes, but they can hardly be blamed for that.’

‘You mean because the set-up was perfect. Well, what’s to hinder the other set-up being as perfect as the Charles Martin one?’

‘Nothing, of course. Clever murders, as I say, do happen. But it is much easier to forge an identity than to get away with murder. How do you think it was done? Someone came in and slugged him after the train left Euston, and arranged it to look like a fall?’


‘But no one visited B Seven after the train left Euston. B Eight heard him come back shortly after the attendant had done his round, and close his door. After that there was no conversation.’

‘It doesn’t need conversation to slug a man on the back of the head.’

‘No, but it does need opportunity. The chances against opening that door and finding the occupant in the right position for slugging him are astronomical. It’s not an easy place to take a swing at anyone, even choosing your own time: a sleeping compartment. Anyone with lethal intentions would have to come into the compartment: it couldn’t be done from the corridor. It couldn’t be done when the victim was in bed. And it couldn’t be done with the victim facing you; and he would face round as soon as he was aware that there was someone in the compartment. Therefore it could only be done after preliminary conversation. And B Eight says there was no conversation or visiting. B Eight is the kind of woman who “can’t sleep on a train”. She makes up her mind about that beforehand, and every little sound and squeak and rattle is welcomed as a sign of her suffering. She is usually dead asleep and snoring by about half-past two; but long before that time Bill Kenrick was dead.’

‘Did she hear him fall?’

‘She heard a “thump”, it seems, and thought that he was taking down a suitcase. He had no suitcase, of course, that would make a thump in being handled. Did Bill speak French, by the way?’

‘Well enough to get by.’

Avec moi.

‘Yes. About that. Why?’

‘I just wondered. It looks as if he planned to spend a night somewhere.’

‘In Scotland, you mean?’

‘Yes. The Testament and the French novel. And yet he didn’t speak French.’

‘Perhaps the Scotch party didn’t either.’

‘No. Scotch parties usually don’t. But if he planned to spend a night somewhere he couldn’t meet you that day in Paris.’

‘Oh, being a day late wouldn’t worry Bill. He could have sent me a wire on the 4th.’

‘Yes . . . I wish I could think of his reason for blacking himself all over.’

‘Blacking himself?’

‘Yes. Dressing the part so completely. Why did he want someone to think that he was French?’

‘I can’t think why anyone would want anyone to think they were French,’ Mr Cullen said. ‘What are you hoping from this Lloyd guy?’

‘I’m hoping that it was Lloyd who saw him away at Euston. They were talking about the Rub’alKhali, remember. What sounded to Old Yughourt’s ear — quite typically — as “rob the Caley”.’

‘Does this Lloyd live in London?’

‘Yes. In Chelsea.’

‘I hope he is at home.’

‘I hope so indeed. Now I am going to have a last hour with the Turlie, and if you can bear just to sit and think the problem over for a little, then perhaps you would come back to supper at Clune and meet the Rankin family?’

‘That would be fine,’ Tad said. ‘I haven’t said goodbye to the Countess. I’m a convert to Countesses. Would you say that the Countess is typical of your aristocracy, Mr Grant?’

‘In the sense of having all the qualities of the type, she is indeed typical,’ Grant said, picking his way down the bank to the water.

He fished until the level light warned him that it was evening, but he caught nothing. This was a result that neither surprised nor disappointed him. His thoughts were elsewhere. He no longer saw Bill Kenrick’s dead face in the swirling water, but Bill Kenrick’s personality was all round him. Bill Kenrick possessed his mind.

He reeled in for the last time with a sigh, not for his empty bag or his farewell to the Turlie, but because he was no nearer to finding a reason why Bill Kenrick should have blacked himself all over.

‘I’m glad I had this chance of seeing this island,’ Tad said as they walked up to Clune. ‘It’s not a bit the way I imagined it.’

From his tone Grant deduced that he had imagined it as a sort of Wabar; inhabited by monkeys and jinns.

‘I wish it had been a happier way of seeing it,’ he said. ‘You must come back some day and fish in peace.’

Tad grinned a little shamefacedly and rubbed his tumbled hair. ‘Oh, I guess it will always be Paris for me. Or Vienna, maybe. When you spend your days in godforsaken little towns you look forward to the bright lights.’

‘Well, we do have bright lights in London.’

‘Yes. Maybe I’ll have another smack at London. London’s all right.’

Laura came to the door as they arrived and said: ‘Alan, what’s this I hear about ——’ and then noticed his companion. ‘Oh. You must be Tad. Pat says you don’t believe that there are any fish in the Turlie. How d’you do. I’m so glad you’ve come up. Go in and Pat will show you where to wash, and then come and join us in a drink before supper.’ She summoned Pat, who was hovering, and passed the visitor into his charge, blocking the way firmly on any advance by her cousin. When she had got rid of Mr Cullen she turned again to her charge. ‘Alan, you’re not going back to town tomorrow?’

‘But I’m cured, Lalla,’ he said, thinking that that was what disturbed her.

‘Well, what if you are? There is still more than a week of your leave, and the Turlie better than it has been for seasons. You can’t give up all that just to get some young man out of some hole that he’s got himself into.’

‘Tad Cullen’s not in any hole. I’m not being quixotic, if that is what you’re thinking. I’m going away tomorrow because that is the thing I want to do.’ He was going to add, ‘I just can’t wait to get away’, but even with an intimate like Laura that might lead to misunderstanding.

‘But we are all so happy, and things were ——’ she broke off. ‘Oh, well. Nothing I can say will make you change your mind. I ought to know that. Nothing has ever made you deviate by a hair’s breadth from any line that you once set your mind on. You’ve always been a damned Juggernaut.’

‘A damned horrible metaphor,’ he said. ‘Couldn’t you make it a bullet or a bee-line or something equally undeviating but less destructive?’

She put her arm through his, friendly and a little amused. ‘But you are destructive, darling.’ And as he began a protest: ‘All in the very kindest and most lethal way imaginable. Come and have a drink. You look as if you could do with one.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01