But that night, going to sleep, he did consider it. Not as a prospect, but with speculation. What would it be like to retire? To retire while he was still young enough to begin something else? If he began something else what would it be? A sheep-farm like Tommy’s? That would be a good life. But could he make a success of an entirely country existence? He doubted it. And if not, then what else could he do?
He played with this nice new toy until he fell asleep and he took it to the river with him next morning. One of the really charming facets of the game was the thought of Bryce’s face when he read his resignation. Bryce would not merely be short of staff for a week or two; he would find himself deprived for good and all of his most valued subordinate. It was a delicious thought.
He fished his favourite pool, below the swing bridge, and conducted delightful conversations with Bryce. Because of course there would be a conversation. He would give himself the ineffable delight of laying that written resignation on the desk in front of Bryce’s nose; laying it there himself, in person. Then there would be some really satisfying chat, and he would walk out into the street a free man.
Free to do what?
To be himself, at the beck and call of nobody.
To do things he had always wanted to do and had had no time for. To mess about in small boats, for instance.
To get married, perhaps.
Yes, to get married. With leisure there would be time to share his life. Time to love and be loved.
This lasted him very happily for another hour.
About noon he became aware that he was not alone. He looked up and saw that a man was standing on the bridge watching him. He was standing only a few yards from the bank, and since the bridge was motionless he must have been there for some time. The bridge was the usual trough of wire floored with wooden slats, a structure so light that even the wind was capable of moving it. He was grateful to the stranger for not walking into the middle of the thing and swaying about there so that he distracted every fish in the neighbourhood.
He nodded to the man by way of expressing his approval.
‘Your name Grant?’ asked the man.
After the circumlocutions of a people so devious-minded that they had no word for No, it was pleasant to be asked a straight question in simple English.
‘Yes,’ he said, and wondered a little. The man sounded as if he might be an American.
‘You the guy who put that advertisement in the paper?’
There was no doubt about the nationality this time.
The man tipped his hat further back on his head and said in a resigned way: ‘Oh, well. I’m crazy too, I guess, or I wouldn’t be here.’
Grant began to reel in.
‘Won’t you come down, Mr ——?’
The man moved off the bridge and came down the bank to him.
He was youngish, well-dressed, and pleasant-looking.
‘My name is Cullen,’ he said. ‘Tad Cullen. I’m a flyer. I fly freight for OCAL. You know: Oriental Commercial Airlines Ltd.’
It was said that all you needed to fly for OCAL was a certificate and no sign of leprosy. But that was an exaggeration. Indeed, it was a perversion. You had to be good to fly for OCAL. In the big shiny passenger lines, if you made a mistake you were on the carpet. In OCAL, if you made a mistake you were out on your ear. OCAL had an unlimited supply of personnel to draw upon. OCAL cared nothing for your grammar, your colour, your antecedents, your manners, your nationality, or your looks, as long as you could fly. You had to be able to fly. Grant looked at Mr Cullen with a double interest.
‘Look, Mr Grant, I know that that thing, those words in the paper, I know they were just some kind of quotation that you wanted identified, or something like that. And of course I can’t identify them. I was never any good at books. I haven’t come here to be any use to you. Quite the opposite, I guess. But I’ve been very worried, and I thought even a long shot like this might be worth trying. You see, Bill used words like that one night when he was a bit high — Bill’s my buddy — and I thought, maybe, it might be a place. I mean the description might be a place. Even if it is a quotation. I’m afraid I’m not making myself very clear.’
Grant smiled a little and said No, not so far, but suppose they both sat down and straightened it out. ‘Am I to understand that you have come here looking for me?’
‘Yes, I actually came last night. But the post-office place was shut, so I got a bed at the inn. Moymore, they call it. And then I went to the post-office this morning and asked them where I could find the A. Grant who had a lot of letters. I was sure you’d have had a lot, you see, after that advertisement. And they said Oh, yes, if it was Mr Grant I wanted I would find him on the river somewhere. Well, I came down to look and the only other person on the river was a lady, so I guessed you must be it. You see it wasn’t any good writing to you because I really hadn’t anything that seemed worth putting on paper. I mean, it was just a daffy kind of hope. And you mightn’t have bothered answering it anyway — when it had nothing to do with you, I mean.’ He paused a moment, and added in a half-hopeful half-hoping-for-nothing tone: ‘It isn’t a night-club, is it?’
‘What isn’t?’ Grant asked, surprised.
‘That place with talking beasts at the door. And the odd scenery. It sounded like a fun-fair place. You know: the kind of place where you go in a boat through tunnels in the dark and see ridiculous and frightening things unexpectedly. But Bill wouldn’t be interested in a place like that. So I thought of a night-club. You know: one of those got up with oddities to impress the customers. That would be much more Bill’s mixture. Especially in Paris. And it was in Paris that I was to meet him.’
For the first time a gleam of light appeared.
‘You mean that you were due to meet this Bill? And he didn’t keep the appointment?’
‘He didn’t show up at all. And that’s very unlike Bill. If Bill says he’ll do a thing, or be in a place, or remember a thing, believe you me he’ll deliver. That’s why I’m so worried. And not a word of explanation. Not a message left at the hotel or anything. Of course they may have forgotten to put down the message, hotels being what they are. But even if they did forget, there would have been some follow-up. I mean, when I didn’t react, Bill would have telephoned again saying: What are you up to, you old so-and-so, didn’t you get my message? But there wasn’t anything like that. It’s funny, isn’t it, that he would book a room and then not turn up to occupy it and not send a word in explanation?’
‘Very strange indeed. Especially since you say your friend was a dependable type. But why were you interested in my advertisement? I mean: in connection with Bill? Bill —— what, by the way?’
‘Bill Kenrick. He’s a flyer like me. With OCAL. We’ve been friends for a year or two now. The best friend I ever had, I don’t mind saying. Well, it was like this, Mr Grant. When he didn’t turn up, and no one seemed to know anything about him or to have heard from him — and he had no people in England that I could write to — I thought about what other ways there were of communicating with people. Other than telephones and letters and telegrams and what not. And so I thought of what you call the Agony Column. You know: in the newspapers. So I got the Paris edition of the Clarion— the files, I mean, at their Paris office — and went through them, and there was nothing. And then I tried The Times, and there was nothing there either. This was after some time, of course, so I had to go back through the files, but there was nothing. I was going to give it up because I thought that that was all the English papers that had regular Paris editions, but someone said why didn’t I try the Morning News. Well, I went to the News, and there didn’t seem to be anything from Bill, but there was this thing of yours that rang a bell. If Bill hadn’t been missing I don’t suppose I would have thought twice about it, but having heard Bill gabble something along those lines made me notice it and be interested. Are you with me, as Bill says?’
‘Entirely. Go on. When was it that Bill talked about the odd landscape?’
‘He didn’t talk about it at all. He just babbled one night when we were all a little drunk. Bill doesn’t drink, Mr Grant. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I mean: drink as a habit. A few of the boys in our lot do, I admit, but they don’t last long in OCAL. They don’t last long anyway. That’s why OCAL heaves them out. They don’t mind them killing themselves, but it gets expensive in crates. But now and then we have a night-out like other people. And it was on one of those nights out that Bill got going. We were all a little high so I don’t remember anything in detail. I know we were drinking toasts and we were running out of subjects by that time. And we were taking it in turn to think up unlikely things to toast. You know: like “The third daughter of the Lord Mayor of Bagdad”, or “June Kaye’s left little toe”. And Bill said: “To Paradise!” and then gabbled a piece about talking beasts and singing sands and what not.’
‘Didn’t anyone ask about this Paradise of his?’
‘No! The next fellow was just waiting to get his word in. No one was paying any attention to anything. They’d just think Bill’s toast pretty dull. I wouldn’t have remembered it myself if I hadn’t come across the words in the paper when my mind was full of Bill.’
‘And he never mentioned it again? Never talked about anything like that in his sober moments.’
‘No. He isn’t much of a talker at the best of times.’
‘You think, perhaps, if he was greatly interested in something he would keep it to himself?’
‘Oh, yes, he does that, he does that. He’s not close, you know; just a bit cagey. In most ways he’s the most open guy you could imagine. Generous with his roll, and careless with his things, and willing to do anything for anyone. But in the things that — in personal things, if you know what I mean, he sort of shuts the door on you.’
‘Did he have a girl?’
‘Not more than any of us can be said to have one. But that’s a very good sample of what I mean. When the rest of us are out for an evening we take what’s going. But Bill will go off by himself to some other quarter of the town where he has picked something more to his fancy.’
‘Any town we happen to be in. Kuwait, Masquat, Quatif, Mukalla. Anything from Aden to Karachi, if it comes to that. Most of us fly scheduled routes, but some fly tramps. Take anything anywhere.’
‘What did — does Bill fly?’
‘He’s flown all sorts. But lately he’s been flying between the Gulf and the South Coast.’
‘Arabia, you mean.’
‘Yes. It’s a damned dreary route but Bill seemed to like it. Me, I think he was too long on it. If you’re too long on one route you get stale.’
‘Why do you think he was too long on it? Had he changed at all?’
Mr Cullen hesitated. ‘Not exactly. He was just the old Bill, easy-going and nice. But he got so that he couldn’t leave it behind him.’
‘Leave his work behind, you mean?’
‘Yes. Most of us — all of us, in fact — drop work when we turn the bus over to the ground staff. We don’t remember it until we say hullo to the mechanic in charge next morning. But Bill got so that he would pore over maps of the route as if he had never flown the hop before.’
‘Why this interest in the route, do you think?’
‘Well, I did think maybe he was figuring out a way to avoid the bad weather areas. It did begin — the interest in maps, I mean — one time when he came in very late after being blown out of his way by one of those terrific hurricanes that come out of nowhere in that country. We had nearly given him up that time.’
‘Don’t you fly above the weather?’
‘On a long hop, of course. But when you’re flying freight you have to come down at the oddest places. So you’re always more or less at the mercy of the weather.’
‘I see. And you think Bill changed after that experience?’
‘Well, I think it left a mark on him. I was there when he came in. In the plane, I mean. I was waiting for him, on the field. And he seemed to me a bit — concussed, if you get me.’
‘Suffering from shock.’
‘Yes. Still back there, if you know what I mean. Not really listening to what you said to him.’
‘And after that he began to study maps. To plan his route, you think.’
‘Yes. From then on it was in the forefront of his mind instead of being something that you drop with your working clothes. He even began to come in late as a habit. As if he went out of his way to look for an easier route.’ He paused a moment, and then added in a quick warning tone: ‘Please understand, Mr Grant, I’m not saying Bill has lost his nerve.’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Lost nerves don’t take you that way at all, believe me.
‘You get quite the opposite. You don’t want to think of flying at all. You get short in the temper, and you drink too much and too early in the day, and you try to wangle short hops, and you go sick when there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s no mystery about lost nerve, Mr Grant. It announces itself like a name on a marquee. There was nothing like that about Bill — and I don’t think there ever will be. It was just that he couldn’t leave the thing behind.’
‘It became an obsession with him.’
‘That’s about it, I suppose.’
‘Did he have other interests?’
‘He read books,’ Mr Cullen said, in an apologetic way; as one confessing a peculiarity in a friend. ‘Even in that, it showed.’
‘I mean, instead of the books being the usual story affairs they’d as likely as not be about Arabia.’
‘Yes?’ Grant said, thoughtfully. Ever since this stranger had first mentioned Arabia, Grant had been altogether ‘with him’. Arabia to all the world meant one thing: sand. And what was more, he realised that when he had had the feeling, that morning in the Scoone hotel, that ‘singing sands’ did actually exist somewhere, it was with Arabia that he should have connected them. Somewhere in Arabia there were in fact sands that were alleged to sing.
‘So I was glad when he took his “leave” earlier than he meant to,’ Mr Cullen was saying. ‘We had planned to go together, and spend our leave in Paris. But he changed his mind and said he wanted a week or two in London first. He’s English, you know. So we arranged to meet at the Hotel St Jacques in Paris. He was to meet me there on the 4th of March.’
‘When?’ said Grant; and was suddenly still. Mind and body still, like a pointer with the bird in sight; like a man with the target in his sights.
‘The 4th of March. Why?’
Singing sands were anyone’s interest. Men who fly for OCAL were two a penny. But the wide, vague, indefinite affair of Bill Kenrick who was obsessed with Southern Arabia and did not turn up to his appointments in Paris narrowed suddenly to one small focused point. To a date.
On the 4th of March, when Bill Kenrick should have turned up in Paris, the London mail had come into Scoone bearing the dead body of a young man who was interested in singing sands. A young man with reckless eyebrows. A young man who, on looks, would have made a very likely flyer. Grant remembered that he had tried him, in imagination, on the bridge of a small ship; a fast small ship, hell in any kind of a sea. He had looked well there. But he would look just as well at the controls of a plane.
‘Why did Bill choose Paris?’
‘Why does anyone choose Paris!’
‘It wasn’t because he was French?’
‘Bill? No, Bill’s English. Very English.’
‘Did you ever see his passport?’
‘Not that I can remember. Why?’
‘You don’t think that he might have been French by birth?’
It wouldn’t work out, anyway. The Frenchman was called Martin. Unless his English upbringing had made him want to adopt an English name?
‘You don’t happen to have a photograph of your friend, do you?’
But Mr Cullen’s attention was on something else. Grant turned to look, and found that Zoë was approaching them along the river bank. He looked at his watch.
‘Hell!’ he said. ‘And I promised to have the stove going!’ He turned to his bag and fished the primus from it.
‘Your wife?’ asked Mr Cullen, with that refreshing frankness. In the Islands it would have taken five minutes conversation to have elicited that information from him.
‘No. That’s Lady Kentallen.’
‘Lady? A title?’
‘Yes,’ Grant said, busy with the stove. ‘She is Viscountess Kentallen.’
Mr Cullen considered this in silence for a little.
‘I supposed that’s a sort of marked-down Countess.’
‘No. On the contrary. A very superior kind. Practically a Marchioness. Look, Mr Cullen, let’s postpone this matter of your friend for a little. It’s a matter that interests me more than I can say, but ——’
‘Yes, of course, I’ll go. When can I talk to you again about it?’
‘Of course you will not go! You’ll stay and have some food with us.’
‘You mean you want me to meet this Marchioness, this — whatyoumaycallit, Viscountess?’
‘Why not? She is a very nice person to meet. One of the nicest persons I know.’
‘Yes?’ Mr Cullen looked with interest at the approaching Zoë. ‘She’s certainly very nice to look at. I didn’t know they came like that. Somehow I imagined all aristocrats had beaky noses.’
‘Specially provided for looking down, I take it.’
‘Something like that.’
‘I don’t know how far back in English history one would have to go to find an aristocratic nose that was looked down. I doubt if you’d find one at all. The only place to find a looked-down nose is in the suburbs. In what is known as lower-middle-class circles.’
Mr Cullen looked puzzled. ‘But the aristocrats keep themselves to themselves and look down on the rest, don’t they?’
‘It has never been possible in England for any class to keep themselves to themselves, as you call it. They have been intermarrying at all levels for two thousand years. There never have been separate and distinct classes — or an aristocratic class at all in the sense that you mean it.’
‘I suppose nowadays things are evening up,’ Mr Cullen suggested, faintly unbelieving.
‘Oh, no. It has always been a fluid thing. Even our Royalty. Elizabeth the First was the grand-daughter of a Lord Mayor. And you’ll find that Royalty’s personal friends have no titles at all: I mean the people who are on calling-terms at Buckingham Palace. Whereas the bold bad baron who sits next you in an expensive restaurant probably started life as a platelayer on the railway. There is no keeping oneself to oneself in England, as far as class goes. It can’t be done. It can only be done by Mrs Jones who sniffs at her neighbour Mrs Smith because Mr Jones makes two pounds a week more than Mr Smith.’
He turned from the puzzled American to greet Zoë. ‘I’m truly sorry about the stove. I’m afraid I got it going too late to be ready. We were having a very interesting conversation. This is Mr Cullen, who flies freight for Oriental Commercial Airlines.’
Zoë shook hands, and asked him what kind of plane he flew.
From the tone of his voice when he told her Grant deduced that Mr Cullen thought that Zoë was merely taking a condescending interest. Condescension was what he would expect from an ‘aristocrat’.
‘They’re very heavy in hand, aren’t they?’ Zoë remarked sympathetically. ‘My brother used to fly one when he was on the Australia run. He was always cursing it.’ She began to open the packets of food. ‘But now that he works in an office in Sydney he has a little runabout of his own. A Beamish Eight. A lovely thing. I used to fly it when he first bought it; before he took it to Australia. David — my husband — and I used to dream of having one too, but we could never afford it.’
‘But a Beamish Eight costs only four hundred,’ Mr Cullen blurted.
Zoë licked her fingers, sticky from a leaking apple tart, and said: ‘Yes, I know, but we never had four hundred to spare.’
Mr Cullen, feeling himself being washed out to sea, sought some terra firma.
‘I oughtn’t to be eating your food this way,’ he said. ‘They’ll have plenty for me back at the hotel. I really ought to go back.’
‘Oh, don’t go,’ Zoë said with a simplicity so genuine that it penetrated even Mr Cullen’s defences. ‘There is enough for a platoon.’
So to Grant’s pleasure in more ways than one, Mr Cullen stayed. And Zoë, unaware that she was providing the United States with a revised view of the genus English Aristocrat, ate like a hungry schoolboy and talked in her gentle voice to the stranger as if she had known him all her life. By the apple tart stage, Mr Cullen had ceased to be on his guard. By the time that they were handing round the chocolates that Laura had included he had surrendered unconditionally.
They sat together in the spring sunshine, full-fed and content. Zoë lying back against the grassy bank with her feet crossed and her hands behind her head, her eyes closed against the sun. Grant with his mind busy with B Seven, and the material that Tad Cullen had brought him. Mr Cullen himself perched on a rock looking down the river to the green civilised strath where the moors ended and the fields began.
‘It’s a fine little country, this,’ he said. ‘I like it. If you ever decide to fight for your freedom, count me in.’
‘Freedom?’ said Zoë, opening her eyes. ‘Freedom from whom or what?’
‘From England, of course.’
Zoë looked helpless, but Grant began to laugh. ‘I think you must have been talking to a little black man in a kilt,’ he said.
‘He had a kilt, yes, but he wasn’t coloured,’ Mr Cullen said.
‘No, I meant black-haired. You’ve been talking to Archie Brown.’
‘Who is Archie Brown?’ asked Zoë.
‘He is the self-appointed saviour of Gaeldom, and our future Sovereign, Commissar, President or what have you, when Scotland has freed herself from the murderous burden of the English yoke.’
‘Oh, yes. That man,’ Zoë said mildly, identifying Archie in her mind. ‘He is a little off his head, isn’t he? Does he live around here?’
‘He is staying at the hotel at Moymore, I understand. He has been doing missionary work on Mr Cullen, it seems.’
‘Well,’ Mr Cullen grinned a little sheepishly, ‘I did just wonder if he wasn’t over-stating things a bit. I’ve met some Scots in my time and they didn’t seem to me to be the kind of people to put up with the treatment Mr Brown was describing. Indeed, if you’ll forgive me, Mr Grant, they always seemed to me the kind of people to get the best of whatever bargain was going.’
‘Did you ever hear the Union better described?’ Grant said to Zoë.
‘I never knew anything about the Union,’ Zoë said comfortably, ‘except that it took place in 1707.’
‘Was there a battle, then?’ Mr Cullen asked.
‘No,’ Grant said. ‘Scotland stepped thankfully on to England’s band-wagon, and fell heir to all the benefits. Colonies, Shakespeare, soap, solvency and so forth.’
‘I hope Mr Brown doesn’t go lecture-touring in the States,’ Zoë said, half asleep.
‘He will,’ Grant said. ‘He will. All vociferous minorities go lecture-touring in the States.’
‘It will give them very wrong ideas, won’t it?’ Zoë said mildly. Grant thought with what a blistering phrase Laura would have expressed the same idea. ‘They have the oddest ideas. When David and I were there, the year before he was killed, we were always being asked why we didn’t stop taxing Canada. When we said we had never taxed Canada they just looked at us as if we were telling lies. Not very good lies, either.’
From Mr Cullen’s expression Grant deduced that he too had had ‘odd’ ideas about Canadian taxation, but Zoë‘s eyes were closed. Grant wondered if Mr Cullen realised that Zoë was quite unaware that he was an American; that it had not occurred to her to consider his accent, his nationality, his clothes or any personal thing about him. She had accepted him as he stood, as a person. He was just a flyer, like her brother; someone who had turned up in time to share their picnic and who was pleasant and interesting to talk to. It would not occur to her to pigeon-hole him, to put him in any special category. If she was conscious at all of his narrow a’s she no doubt took him for a North-countryman.
He looked at her, half asleep there in the sun, and thought how beautiful she was. He looked across at Mr Cullen and saw that he too was looking at Zoë Kentallen and thinking how beautiful she was. Their glances met and ran away from each other.
But Grant, who last night could imagine no greater felicity than to sit and look at Zoë Kentallen, was conscious now of a faint impatience with her, and this so shocked him that he took it out, in his self-analytical way, to examine it. What flaw could there be in this divinity? What imperfection in this princess from a fairy-tale?
‘You know very well what’s wrong,’ said that irreverent voice in him. ‘You want her to get the hell out of here so that you can find out about B Seven.’
And for once he did not try to contradict the voice. He did in brutal fact wish that Zoë would ‘get the hell out of here’. The Zoë whose very presence had made magic of yesterday afternoon was now an encumbrance. Tiny prickles of boredom chased each other up and down his spine. Lovely, simple, heavenly Zoë, do get a move on. Creature of delight and princess of my dreams, go away.
He was rehearsing phrases for taking his own departure, when she gave the abrupt half-sigh half-yawn of a child and said: ‘Well, there is a seven-pounder in the Cuddy Pool that must be finding life dull without me.’ And with her usual lack of fuss or chat she took her things and departed into the spring afternoon.
Mr Cullen looked after her approvingly, and Grant waited for comment. But it seemed that Mr Cullen too had been waiting for the departure of his ‘marked-down Countess’. He watched her out of earshot and then said immediately:
‘Mr Grant, why did you ask me if I had a photograph of Bill? Does that mean that you think you know him?’
‘No. No. But it would eliminate people who could not be Bill.’
‘Oh. Yes. Well, I haven’t one in my pocket but I have one in my grip at the hotel. It isn’t a very good one, but it would give you the general idea. Could I bring it to you sometime?’
‘No. I’ll walk down to Moymore with you now.’
‘You will? You’re certainly very kind, Mr Grant. You think you’ve got a line on this thing? You haven’t told me what those words were. That quotation or whatever it was. That’s really what I came to ask you. What the talking-beasts thing was all about. If it was a place he was interested in, you see, he might have gone there, and I could go there too and cross his trail that way.’
‘You’re very fond of this Bill, aren’t you?’
‘Well, we’ve been together quite a time and though we’re opposites in most ways we get along fine. Just fine. I wouldn’t like anything to happen to Bill.’
Grant changed the conversation and asked about Tad Cullen’s own life. And while they walked down the glen to Moymore he heard about the clean small town back in the States, and what a dull place it seemed to a boy who could fly, and how wonderful the East had seemed in the distance and how unexciting close up.
‘Just Main Street with some smells,’ Mr Cullen said.
‘What did you do in Paris during your long wait for Bill to turn up?’
‘Oh, I helled around some. It wasn’t much fun without Bill. I met a couple of chaps I’d known in India, and we went places together, but I was impatient all the time for Bill to be there. I let them go, after a bit, and went to look at some of the places in the tourist folders. Some of those old places are pretty nice. There was one place built right over the water — a castle, I mean — on stone arches, so that the river flowed underneath. That was fine. It would have done very well for the Countess. Is that the kind of place she lives in?’
‘No,’ Grant said, thinking of the difference between Chenonceaux and Kentallen. ‘She lives in a grim, flat, grey house with tiny windows and poky rooms and narrow stairs and a front door as welcoming as the exit of a laundry chute. It has two little turrets on the fourth-storey level, next the roof, and in Scotland that makes it a castle.’
‘Sounds like a prison. Why does she stay?’
‘A prison! No Prison Committee would consider it for a moment; questions would be asked in the House immediately about its lack of light, heating, sanitary conveniences, colour, beauty, space, and what not. She stays because she loves the place. I doubt if she can stay much longer, however. Death duties have been so heavy that she will have to sell.’
‘But will anyone buy it?’
‘Not to live in. But some speculator will buy it, and cut down the woods. The lead on the roof would probably fetch something; and they’d have to take the roof off anyhow to avoid paying tax on the house.’
‘Hah! Dust-bowl stuff,’ remarked Mr Cullen. ‘It hasn’t a moat, by any chance?’
‘I must see a moat before I go back to OCAL.’ And then, after a pause, ‘I’m really very worried about Bill, Mr Grant.’
‘Yes, it is certainly very odd.’
‘That was nice of you,’ Mr Cullen said unexpectedly.
‘Not to say: “Don’t you worry, he’ll turn up all right!” I can hardly keep my hands off people who say: “Don’t you worry, he’ll turn up.” I could strangle them.’
Moymore Hotel was a tiny version of Kentallen, without the turrets. But it was whitewashed and cheerful, and the trees behind it were coming into leaf. In the little flagged entrance-hall Mr Cullen hesitated.
‘In Britain I notice people don’t ask you up to their hotel bedroom. Would you like to wait in the sitting-room, perhaps?’
‘Oh, no; I’ll come up. I don’t think we have any feeling about hotel bedrooms. It is probably just that our hotel sitting-rooms are so near our bedrooms that there is no need to go up, and so we don’t suggest it. When a public lounge is a day’s journey from your own room it is easier to take a guest with you, I suppose. That way you are at least in the same hemisphere.’
Mr Cullen had a front room, looking across the road to the fields and the river and the hills beyond. With his professional eye Grant noticed the log fire ready-laid in the hearth and the daffodils in the window: Moymore had standards; with his personal mind he was concerned for this Tad Cullen, who had interrupted his leave and come to the wilds of Caledonia to find the friend who meant so much to him. A foreboding that he could not shake off had grown in him with every step of the way to Moymore, and now it filled him to the point of nausea.
The young man took a letter-case from his travelling-bag and opened it on the dressing-table. It contained practically everything but the wherewithal for writing letters. Among the mess of papers, maps, travel folders and what not, there were two leather articles: an address-book and a pocket-book. From the pocket-book he took some photographs and riffled through the feminine smiles until he found what he was looking for.
‘Here it is. I’m afraid it isn’t a very good one. It’s just a snapshot, you see. It was taken when a crowd of us were at the beach.’
Grant took the proffered piece of paper, almost reluctantly.
‘That’s ——’ Tad Cullen was beginning, lifting his arm to point.
‘No, wait!’ Grant said, stopping him. ‘Let me see if I— if I recognise anyone.’
There were perhaps a dozen young men in the photograph, which had been taken on the verandah of some beach-house. They were clustered round the steps and draped over the rickety wooden railing in various stages of deshabille. Grant swept a swift glance over their laughing faces and was conscious of a great relief. There was no one there that he had ever ——
And then he saw the man on the bottom step.
He was sitting with his feet pushed away from him into the sand, his eyes screwed up against the sun and his chin tilted back a little as if he had been in the act of turning to say something to the men behind. It was just so that his head had been tilted back against the pillow in Compartment B Seven on the morning of the 4th of March.
‘Is that your friend?’ Grant said, pointing to the man on the bottom step.
‘Yes, that’s Bill. How did you know? Have you met him somewhere, then?’
‘I— I’m inclined to think that I have. But of course, on that photograph, I could hardly swear to it.’
‘I don’t want you to do any swearing. Just give me a general weather report. Just tell me roughly when and where you saw him and I’ll track him down, don’t you be in any doubt about it. Do you know where you met him? I mean, do you remember?’
‘Oh, yes. I remember. I saw him in a compartment — a sleeping-berth compartment — of the London mail when it was running into Scoone early in the morning of the 4th of March. That was the train I came north on.’
‘You mean Bill came here? To Scotland? What for?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Didn’t he tell you? Did you talk to him?’
‘No. I couldn’t.’
Grant put out his hand and pushed his companion gently backwards so that he sat down in the chair that was behind him.
‘I couldn’t because he was no longer alive.’
There was a short silence.
‘I’m truly sorry, Cullen. I wish I could pretend to you that it might not be Bill, but short of going into a witness-box on oath I am prepared to back my belief that it is.’
After another little silence Cullen said: ‘Why was he dead? What happened to him?’
‘He had had a fair load of whisky and he fell backwards against the solid porcelain wash-basin. It fractured his skull.’
‘Who said all this?’
‘That was the finding of the coroner’s court. In London.’
‘In London? Why in London?’
‘Because he had died, according to the post-mortem, very shortly after leaving Euston. And by English law, a sudden death is investigated by a coroner and a jury.’
‘But all that’s just — just supposition,’ Cullen said, beginning to come alive and be angry. ‘If he was alone, how can anyone tell what happened to him?’
‘Because the English police are the most painstaking creatures as well as the most suspicious.’
‘Police? There were police in on this thing?’
‘Oh, assuredly. The police do the investigating and report in public to the coroner and his jury. In this case there had been the most exhaustive examination and tests. They knew in the end almost to a mouthful how much neat whisky he had drunk, and at what intervals before his — his death.’
‘And that about his falling backwards — how could they know that?’
‘They went prowling with microscopes. The oil and broken hair were still evident on the edge of the basin. And the skull injury was consistent with a backwards fall against just such an object.’
Cullen calmed down at this, but he looked disorientated.
‘How do you know all this?’ he asked, vaguely; and then with growing suspicion: ‘How did you come to see him anyway?’
‘When I was on my way out I came across the sleeping-car attendant trying to rouse him. The man thought he was just sleeping it off, because the whisky bottle had rolled all over the floor and the compartment smelt as if he had been making a night of it.’
This did not satisfy Tad Cullen. ‘You mean that was the only time you saw him? Just for a moment, lying — lying dead there, and you could recognise him from a snapshot — a not very good snapshot — weeks later?’
‘Yes. I was impressed by his face. Faces are my business; and in a way my hobby. I was interested in the way the slant of the eyebrows gave the face a reckless expression, even — even as it was, without any real expression whatever. And the interest was intensified in a way that was quite accidental.’
‘What was that?’ Cullen was not giving an inch.
‘When I was having breakfast, in the Station Hotel at Scoone, I found that I had picked up by accident a newspaper that had been tumbled off the berth when the attendant was trying to waken him, and in the Stop Press — the blank space, you know — someone had been pencilling some lines of verse. “The beasts that talk, the streams that stand, the stones that walk, the singing sand ——” then two blank lines, and then: “that guard the way to Paradise.”’
‘That was what you advertised about,’ Cullen said, his face growing momentarily blacker. ‘What was it to you that you went to the trouble of advertising about it?’
‘I wanted to know where the lines came from if they were lines from some book. If they were lines in the process of being made into a poem, then I wanted to know what the subject was.’
‘Why? What should you care?’
‘I had no choice in the matter. The thing ran round and round in my head. Do you know anyone called Charles Martin?’
‘No, I don’t. And don’t change the subject.’
‘I’m not changing the subject, oddly enough. Do me the kindness to think of it seriously for a moment. Have you ever, at any time, heard of or known a Charles Martin?’
‘I’ve told you, no! I don’t have to think. And of course you’re changing the subject! What has Charles Martin got to do with this?’
‘According to the police, the man who was found dead in Compartment B Seven was a French mechanic called Charles Martin.’
After a moment Cullen said: ‘Look, Mr Grant, maybe I’m not very bright, but you’re not making sense. What you’re saying is that you saw Bill Kenrick lying dead in a compartment of a train, but he wasn’t Bill Kenrick at all; he was a man called Martin.’
‘No, what I’m saying is that the police believe him to be a man called Martin.’
‘Well, I take it they have good grounds for their belief.’
‘Excellent grounds. He had letters, and identity papers. Even better, his people have identified him.’
‘They did! Then what have you been stringing me along for! There isn’t any suggestion that that man was Bill! If the police are satisfied that the man was a Frenchman called Martin, why in thunder should you decide that he wasn’t Martin at all but Bill Kenrick!’
‘Because I’m the only person in the world who has seen both the man in B Seven and that snapshot.’ Grant nodded at the photograph where it lay on the dressing-table.
This gave Cullen pause. Then he said: ‘But that’s a poor photograph. It can’t convey much to someone who has never seen Bill.’
‘It may be a poor photograph in the sense that it is a mere snapshot, but it is a very good likeness indeed.’
‘Yes,’ Cullen said slowly, ‘it is.’
‘Consider three things; three facts. One: Charles Martin’s people had not seen him for years, and then they saw only a dead face; if you are told that your son has died, and no one suggests that there is any doubt as to identity, you see the face you expected to see. Two: the man known as Charles Martin was found dead on a train on the same day as Bill Kenrick was due to join you in Paris. Three: in his compartment there was a pencilled jingle about talking beasts and singing sands, a subject that on your own showing had interested Bill Kenrick.’
‘Did you tell the police about the paper?’
‘I tried to. They weren’t interested. There was no mystery, you see. They knew who the man was, and how he died, and that was all that concerned them.’
‘It might have interested them that he was writing verse in English.’
‘Oh, no. There is no evidence that he wrote anything, or that the paper belonged to him at all. He may have picked it up somewhere.’
‘The whole thing’s crazy,’ Cullen said, angry and bewildered.
‘It’s fantastic. But at the heart of all the whirling absurdity there is a small core of stillness.’
‘Yes. There is one small clear space on which one can stand while taking one’s bearings.’
‘What is that?’
‘Your friend Bill Kenrick is missing. And out of a crowd of strange faces, I pick Bill Kenrick as a man I saw dead in a sleeping-compartment at Scoone on the morning of the 4th of March.’
Cullen thought this over. ‘Yes,’ he said drearily, ‘I suppose that makes sense. I suppose it must be Bill. I suppose I knew all the time that something — something awful had happened. He would never have left me without word. He would have written or telephoned or something to say why he hadn’t turned up on time. But what was he doing on a train to Scotland? What was he doing on a train anyhow?’
‘If Bill wanted to go somewhere he would fly. He wouldn’t take a train.’
‘Lots of people take a night train because it saves time. You sleep and travel at the same time. The question is: why as Charles Martin?’
‘I think it’s a case for Scotland Yard.’
‘I don’t think the Yard would thank us.’
‘I’m not asking for their thanks,’ Cullen said tartly, ‘I’m instructing them to find out what happened to my buddy.’
‘I still don’t think they would be interested.’
‘They’d better be!’
‘You have no evidence at all that Bill Kenrick didn’t duck of his own accord; that he isn’t having a good time on his own until it is time to go back to OCAL.’
‘But he was found dead in a railway compartment!’ Cullen said in a voice that was nearly a howl.
‘Oh, no. That was Charles Martin. About whom there is no mystery whatever.’
‘But you can identify Martin as Kenrick!’
‘I can say, of course, that in my opinion that face in the snapshot is the face I saw in Compartment B Seven on the morning of March the 4th. Scotland Yard will say that I am entitled to my opinion, but that I am without doubt misled by a resemblance, since the man in Compartment B Seven is one Charles Martin, a mechanic, and a native of Marseilles, in the suburbs of which his parents still live.’
‘You’re very smooth in the part of Scotland Yard, aren’t you! All the same ——’
‘I ought to be. I’ve worked there for more years than I care to think about. I shall be going back there a week Monday, as soon as my holiday is over.’
‘You mean that you are Scotland Yard?’
‘Not the whole of it. One of its minor props. Props in the support sense. I don’t carry cards in my fishing clothes but if you come up to my host’s house with me he will vouch for my genuineness.’
‘Oh. No. No, of course I believe you, Mr — er ——’
‘Inspector. But we’ll stick to Mr, since I’m off duty.’
‘I’m sorry if I was fresh. It just didn’t occur to me —— You see, you don’t expect to meet Scotland Yard in real life. It’s just something you read about. You don’t expect them to — to ——’
‘To go fishing.’
‘No, I guess you don’t, at that. Only in books.’
‘Well, now that you have accepted me as genuine, and you know that my version of Scotland Yard’s reaction is not only accurate but straight from the horse’s mouth, what are we going to do?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01