The Mystery of Cloomber
by Arthur Conan Doyle
CHAPTER I. THE HEGIRA OF THE WESTS FROM EDINBURGH
CHAPTER II. OF THE STRANGE MANNER IN WHICH A TENANT
CAME TO CLOOMBER
CHAPTER III. OF OUR FURTHER ACQUAINTANCE WITH
MAJOR-GENERAL J. B. HEATHERSTONE
CHAPTER IV. OF A YOUNG MAN WITH A GREY HEAD
CHAPTER V. HOW FOUR OF US CAME TO BE UNDER THE
SHADOW OF CLOOMBER
CHAPTER VI. HOW I CAME TO BE ENLISTED AS ONE OF THE
GARRISON OF CLOOMBER
CHAPTER VII. OF CORPORAL RUFUS SMITH AND HIS COMING
CHAPTER VIII. STATEMENT OF ISRAEL STAKES
CHAPTER IX. NARRATIVE OF JOHN EASTERLING,
CHAPTER X. OF THE LETTER WHICH CAME FROM THE HALL
CHAPTER XI. OF THE CASTING AWAY OF THE BARQUE
CHAPTER XII. OF THE THREE FOREIGN MEN UPON THE
CHAPTER XIII. IN WHICH I SEE THAT WHICH HAS BEEN
SEEN BY FEW
CHAPTER XIV. OF THE VISITOR WHO RAN DOWN THE
ROADIN THE NIGHT-TIME
CHAPTER XV. THE DAY-BOOK OF JOHN BERTHIER
CHAPTER XVI. AT THE HOLE OF CREE
I John Fothergill West, student of law in the University of St.
Andrews, have endeavoured in the ensuing pages to lay my statement
before the public in a concise and business-like fashion.
It is not my wish to achieve literary success, nor have I any desire
by the graces of my style, or by the artistic ordering of my incidents,
to throw a deeper shadow over the strange passages of which I shall
have to speak. My highest ambition is that those who know something of
the matter should, after reading my account, be able to conscientiously
indorse it without finding a single paragraph in which I have either
added to or detracted from the truth.
Should I attain this result, I shall rest amply satisfied with the
outcome of my first, and probably my last, venture in literature.
It was my intention to write out the sequence of events in due
order, depending on trustworthy hearsay when I was describing that
which was beyond my own personal knowledge. I have now, however,
through the kind cooperation of friends, hit upon a plan which promises
to be less onerous to me and more satisfactory to the reader. This is
nothing less than to make use of the various manuscripts which I have
by me bearing upon the subject, and to add to them the first-hand
evidence contributed by those who had the best opportunities of knowing
Major-General J. B. Heatherstone.
In pursuance of this design I shall lay before the public the
testimony of Israel Stakes, formerly coachman at Cloomber Hall, and of
John Easterling, F.R.C.P. Edin., now practising at Stranraer, in
Wigtownshire. To these I shall add a verbatim account extracted from
the journal of the late John Berthier Heatherstone, of the events which
occurred in the Thul Valley in the autumn of '41 towards the end of the
first Afghan War, with a description of the skirmish in the Terada
defile, and of the death of the man Ghoolab Shah.
To myself I reserve the duty of filling up all the gaps and chinks
which may be left in the narrative. By this arrangement I have sunk
from the position of an author to that of a compiler, but on the other
hand my work has ceased to be a story and has expanded into a series of
My Father, John Hunter West, was a well known Oriental and Sanskrit
scholar, and his name is still of weight with those who are interested
in such matters. He it was who first after Sir William Jones called
attention to the great value of early Persian literature, and his
translations from the Hafiz and from Ferideddin Atar have earned the
warmest commendations from the Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, of Vienna,
and other distinguished Continental critics.
In the issue of the Orientalisches_Scienzblatt for January,
1861, he is described as
passage which I well remember that he cut out and stowed away, with a
pardonable vanity, among the most revered family archives.
He had been brought up to be a solicitor, or Writer to the Signet,
as it is termed in Scotland, but his learned hobby absorbed so much of
his time that he had little to devote to the pursuit of his profession.
When his clients were seeking him at his chambers in George Street,
he was buried in the recesses of the Advocates' Library, or poring over
some mouldy manuscript at the Philosophical Institution, with his brain
more exercised over the code which Menu propounded six hundred years
before the birth of Christ than over the knotty problems of Scottish
law in the nineteenth century. Hence it can hardly be wondered at that
as his learning accumulated his practice dissolved, until at the very
moment when he had attained the zenith of his celebrity he had also
reached the nadir of his fortunes.
There being no chair of Sanscrit in any of his native universities,
and no demand anywhere for the only mental wares which he had to
dispose of, we should have been forced to retire into genteel poverty,
consoling ourselves with the aphorisms and precepts of Firdousi, Omar
Khayyam, and others of his Eastern favourites, had it not been for the
kindness and liberality of his half-brother William Farintosh, the
Laird of Branksome, in Wigtownshire.
This William Farintosh was the proprietor of a landed estate, the
acreage which bore, unfortunately, a most disproportional relation to
its value, for it formed the bleakest and most barren tract of land in
the whole of a bleak and barren shire. As a bachelor, however, his
expenses had been small, and he had contrived from the rents of his
scattered cottages, and the sale of the Galloway nags, which he bred
upon the moors, not only to live as a laird should, but to put by a
considerable sum in the bank.
We had heard little from our kinsman during the days of our
comparative prosperity, but just as we were at our wit's end, there
came a letter like a ministering angel, giving us assurance of sympathy
and succour. In it the Laird of Branksome told us that one of his lungs
had been growing weaker for some time, and that Dr. Easterling, of
Stranraer, had strongly advised him to spend the few years which were
left to him in some more genial climate. He had determined, therefore
to set out for the South of Italy, and he begged that we should take up
our residence at Branksome in his absence, and that my father should
act as his land steward and agent at a salary which placed us above all
fear of want.
Our mother had been dead for some years, so that there were only
myself, my father, and my sister Esther to consult, and it may be
readily imagined that it did not take us long to decide upon the
acceptance of the laird's generous offer. My father started for Wigtown
that very night, while Esther and I followed a few days afterwards,
bearing with us two potato-sacksful of learned books, and such other of
our household effects that were worth the trouble and expense of
Branksome might have appeared a poor dwelling-place when compared
with the house of an English squire, but to us, after our long
residence in stuffy apartments, it was of regal magnificence.
The building was broad-spread and low, with red-tiled roof,
diamond-paned windows, and a profusion of dwelling rooms with
smoke-blackened ceilings and oaken wainscots. In front was a small
lawn, girt round with a thin fringe of haggard and ill grown beeches,
all gnarled and withered from the effects of the sea-spray. Behind lay
the scattered hamlet of Branksome-Bere—a dozen cottages at most—
inhabited by rude fisher-folk who looked upon the laird as their
To the west was the broad, yellow beach and the Irish Sea, while in
all other directions the desolate moors, greyish-green in the
foreground and purple in the distance, stretched away in long, low
curves to the horizon.
Very bleak and lonely it was upon this Wigtown coast. A man might
walk many a weary mile and never see a living thing except the white,
heavy- flapping kittiwakes, which screamed and cried to each other with
their shrill, sad voices.
Very lonely and very bleak! Once out of sight of Branksome and there
was no sign of the works of man save only where the high, white tower
of Cloomber Hall shot up, like a headstone of some giant grave, from
amid the firs and larches which girt it round.
This great house, a mile or more from our dwelling, had been built
by a wealthy Glasgow merchant of strange tastes and lonely habits, but
at the time of our arrival it had been untenanted for many years, and
stood with weather-blotched walls and vacant, staring windows looking
blankly out over the hill side.
Empty and mildewed, it served only as a landmark to the fishermen,
for they had found by experience that by keeping the laird's chimney
and the white tower of Cloomber in a line they could steer their way
through the ugly reef which raises its jagged back, like that of some
sleeping monster, above the troubled waters of the wind-swept bay.
To this wild spot it was that Fate had brought my father, my sister,
and myself. For us its loneliness had no terrors. After the hubbub and
bustle of a great city, and the weary task of upholding appearances
upon a slender income, there was a grand, soul-soothing serenity in the
long sky-line and the eager air. Here at least there was no neighbour
to pry and chatter.
The laird had left his phaeton and two ponies behind him, with the
aid of which my father and I would go the round of the estate doing
such light duties as fall to an agent, or “factor” as it was there
called, while our gentle Esther looked to our household needs, and
brightened the dark old building.
Such was our simple, uneventful existence, until the summer night
when an unlooked-for incident occurred which proved to be the herald of
those strange doings which I have taken up my pen to describe.
It had been my habit to pull out of an evening in the laird's skiff
and to catch a few whiting which might serve for our supper. On this
well-remembered occasion my sister came with me, sitting with her book
in the stern-sheets of the boat, while I hung my lines over the bows.
The sun had sunk down behind the rugged Irish coast, but a long bank
of flushed cloud still marked the spot, and cast a glory upon the
waters. The whole broad ocean was seamed and scarred with crimson
streaks. I had risen in the boat, and was gazing round in delight at
the broad panorama of shore and sea and sky, when my sister plucked at
my sleeve with a little, sharp cry of surprise.
“See, John,” she cried, “there is a light in Cloomber Tower!”.
I turned my head and stared back at the tall, white turret which
peeped out above the belt of trees. As I gazed I distinctly saw at one
of the windows the glint of a light, which suddenly vanished, and then
shone out once more from another higher up. There it flickered for some
time, and finally flashed past two successive windows underneath before
the trees obscured our view of it. It was clear that some one bearing a
lamp or a candle had climbed up the tower stairs and had then returned
into the body of the house.
“Who in the world can it be?” I exclaimed, speaking rather to myself
than to Esther, for I could see by the surprise upon her face that she
had no solution to offer. “Maybe some of the folk from Branksome-Bere
have wanted to look over the place.”
My sister shook her head.
“There is not one of them would dare to set foot within the avenue
gates,” she said. “Besides, John, the keys are kept by the house-agent
at Wigtown. Were they ever so curious, none of our people could find
their way in”
When I reflected upon the massive door and ponderous shutters which
guarded the lower storey of Cloomber, I could not but admit the force
of my sister's objection. The untimely visitor must either have used
considerable violence in order to force his way in, or he must have
obtained possession of the keys.
Piqued by the little mystery, I pulled for the beach, with the
determination to see for myself who the intruder might be, and what
were his intentions. Leaving my sister at Branksome, and summoning Seth
Jamieson, an old man-o'-war's-man and one of the stoutest of the
fishermen, I set off across the moor with him through the gathering
“It hasna a guid name after dark, yon hoose,” remarked my companion,
slackening his pace perceptibly as I explained to him the nature of our
errand. “It's no for naething that him wha owns it wunna gang within a
Scotch mile o't.”
“Well, Seth, there is some one who has no fears about going into
it,” said I, pointing to the great, white building which flickered up
in front of us through the gloom.
The light which I had observed from the sea was moving backwards and
forward past the lower floor windows, the shutters of which had been
removed. I could now see that a second fainter light followed a few
paces behind the other. Evidently two individuals, the one with a lamp
and the other with a candle or rushlight, were making a careful
examination of tile building.
“Let ilka man blaw his ain parritch,” said Seth Jamieson doggedly,
coming to a dead stop. “What is it tae us if a wraith or a bogle minds
tae tak' a fancy tae Cloomber? It's no canny tae meddle wi' such
“Why, man,” I cried, “you don't suppose a wraith came here in a gig?
What are those lights away yonder by the avenue gates?”
“The lamps o' a gig, sure enough!” exclaimed my companion in a less
lugubrious voice. “Let's steer for it, Master West, and speer where she
By this time night had closed in save for a single long, narrow slit
in the westward. Stumbling across the moor together, we made our way
into the Wigtown Road, at the point where the high stone pillars mark
the entrance to the Cloomber avenue. A tall dog-cart stood in front of
the gateway, the horse browsing upon the thin border of grass which
skirted the road.
“It's a' richt!” said Jamieson, taking a close look at the deserted
vehicle. “I ken it weel. It belongs tae Maister McNeil, the factor body
frae Wigtown—him wha keeps the keys.”
“Then we may as well have speech with him now that we are here,” I
answered. “They are coming down, if I am not mistaken.”
As I spoke we heard the slam of the heavy door and within a few
minutes two figures, the one tall and angular, the other short and
thick came towards us through the darkness. They were talking so
earnestly that they did not observe us until they had passed through
the avenue gate.
“Good evening, Mr. McNeil,” said I, stepping forward and addressing
the Wigtown factor, with whom I had some slight acquaintance.
The smaller of the two turned his face towards me as I spoke, and
showed me that I was not mistaken in his identity, but his taller
companion sprang back and showed every sign of violent agitation.
“What is this, McNeil?” I heard him say, in a gasping, choking
voice. “Is this your promise? What is the meaning of it?”
“Don't be alarmed, General! Don't be alarmed!” said the little fat
factor in a soothing fashion, as one might speak to a frightened child.
“This is young Mr. Fothergill West, of Branksome, though what brings
him up here tonight is more than I can understand. However, as you are
to be neighbours, I can't do better than take the opportunity to
introduce you to each other. Mr. West, this is General Heatherstone,
who is about to take a lease of Cloomber Hall.”
I held out my hand to the tall man, who look it in a hesitating,
“I came up,” I explained, “because I saw your lights in the windows,
and I bought that something might be wrong. I am very glad I did so,
since it has given me the chance of making the general's acquaintance.”
Whilst I was talking, I was conscious that the new tenant of
Cloomber Hall was peering at me very closely through the darkness. As I
concluded, he stretched out a long, tremulous arm, and turned the
gig-lamp in such a way as to throw a flood of light upon my face.
“Good Heavens, McNeil!” he cried, in the same quivering voice as
before, “the fellow's as brown as chocolate. He's not an Englishman.
You're not an Englishman—you, sir?”
“I'm a Scotchman, born and bred,” said I, with an inclination to
laugh, which was only checked by my new acquaintance's obvious terror.
“A Scotchman, eh?” said he, with a sigh of relief. “It's all one
nowadays. You must excuse me, Mr.—Mr. West. I'm nervous, infernally
nervous. Come along, McNeil, we must be back in Wigtown in less than an
hour. Good-night, gentlemen, good-night!”
The two clambered into their places; the factor cracked his whip,
and the high dog-cart clattered away through the darkness, casting a
brilliant tunnel of yellow light on either side of it, until the rumble
of its wheels died away in the distance.
“What do you think of our new neighbour, Jamieson?” I asked, after a
“'Deed, Mr. West, he seems, as he says himsel', to be vera nervous.
Maybe his conscience is oot o' order.”
“His liver, more likely,” said I. “He looks as if he had tried his
constitution a bit. But it's blowing chill, Seth, my lad, and it's time
both of us were indoors.”
I bade my companion good-night, and struck off across the moors for
the cheery, ruddy light which marked the parlour windows of Branksome.
There was, as may well be imagined, much stir amongst our small
community at the news that the Hall was to be inhabited once more, and
considerable speculation as to the new tenants, and their object in
choosing this particular part of the country for their residence.
It speedily became apparent that, whatever their motives might be,
they had definitely determined upon a lengthy stay, for relays of
plumbers and of joiners came down from Wigtown, and there was hammering
and repairing going on from morning till night.
It was surprising how quickly the signs of the wind and weather were
effaced, until the great, square-set house was all as spick-and-span as
though it had been erected yesterday. There were abundant signs that
money was no consideration to General Heatherstone, and that it was not
on the score of retrenchment that he had taken up his abode among us.
“It may be that he is devoted to study,” suggested my father, as we
discussed the question round the breakfast table. “Perhaps he has
chosen this secluded spot to finish some magnum opus upon which he is
engaged. If that is the case I should be happy to let him have the run
of my library.”
Esther and I laughed at the grandiloquent manner in which he spoke
of the two potato-sacksful of books.
“It may be as you say,” said I, “but the general did not strike me
during our short interview as being a man who was likely to have any
very pronounced literary tastes. If I might hazard a guess, I should
say that he is here upon medical advice, in the hope that the complete
quiet and fresh air may restore his shattered nervous system. If you
had seen how he glared at me, and the twitching of his fingers, you
would have thought it needed some restoring.”
“I do wonder whether he has a wife and a family,” said my sister.
“Poor souls, how lonely they will be! Why, excepting ourselves, there
is not a family that they could speak to for seven miles and more.”
“General Heatherstone is a very distinguished soldier,” remarked my
“Why, papa, however came you to know anything about him?”
“Ah, my dears,” said my father, smiling at us over his coffee-cup,
“you were laughing at my library just now, but you see it may be very
useful at times.” As he spoke he took a red-covered volume from a shelf
and turned over the pages. “This is an Indian Army List of three years
back,” he explained, “and here is the very gentleman we want-'Heatherstone, J. B., Commander of the Bath,' my dears, and 'V.C.',
think of that, 'V.C.'—'formerly colonel in the Indian Infantry, 41st
Bengal Foot, but now retired with the rank of major-general.' In this
other column is a record of his services—'capture of Ghuznee and
defence of Jellalabad, Sobraon 1848, Indian Mutiny and reduction of
Oudh. Five times mentioned in dispatches.' I think, my dears, that we
have cause to be proud of our new neighbour.”
“It doesn't mention there whether he is married or not, I suppose?”
“No,” said my father, wagging his white head with a keen
appreciation of his own humour. “It doesn't include that under the
heading of 'daring actions'—though it very well might, my dear, it
very well might.”
All our doubts, however, upon this head were very soon set at rest,
for on the very day that the repairing and the furnishing had been
completed I had occasion to ride into Wigtown, and I met upon the way a
carriage which was bearing General Heatherstone and his family to their
new home. An elderly lady, worn and sickly-looking, was by his side,
and opposite him sat a young fellow about my own age and a girl who
appeared to be a couple of years younger.
I raised my hat, and was about to pass them, when the general
shouted to his coachman to pull up, and held out his hand to me. I
could see now in the daylight that his face, although harsh and stern,
was capable of assuming a not unkindly expression.
“How are you, Mr. Fothergill West?” he cried. “I must apologise to
you if I was a little brusque the other night—you will excuse an old
soldier who has spent the best part of his life in harness—All the
same, you must confess that you are rather dark-skinned for a
“We have a Spanish strain in our blood,” said I, wondering at his
recurrence to the topic.
“That would, of course, account for it,” he remarked. “My dear,” to
his wife, “allow me to introduce Mr. Fothergill West to you. This is my
son and my daughter. We have come here in search of rest, Mr. West
“And you could not possibly have come to a better place,” said I.
“Oh, you think so?” he answered. “I suppose it is very quiet indeed,
and very lonely. You might walk through these country lanes at night, I
dare say, and never meet a soul, eh?”
“Well, there are not many about after dark,” I said.
“And you are not much troubled with vagrants or wandering beggars,
eh? Not many tinkers or tramps or rascally gipsies—no vermin of that
“I find it rather cold,” said Mrs. Heatherstone, drawing her thick
sealskin mantle tighter round her figure. “We are detaining Mr. West,
“So we are, my dear, so we are. Drive on, coachman. Good-day, Mr.
The carriage rattled away towards the Hall, and I trotted
thoughtfully onwards to the little country metropolis.
As I passed up the High Street, Mr. McNeil ran out from his office
and beckoned to me to stop.
“Our new tenants have gone out,” he said. “They drove over this
“I met them on the way,” I answered.
As I looked down at the little factor, I could see that his face was
flushed and that he bore every appearance of having had an extra glass.
“Give me a real gentleman to do business with,” he said, with a
burst of laughter. “They understand me and I understand them. 'What
shall I fill it up for?' says the general, taking a blank cheque out o'
his pouch and laying it on the table. 'Two hundred,' says I, leaving a
bit o' a margin for my own time and trouble.”
“I thought that the landlord had paid you for that,” I remarked.
“Aye, aye, but it's well to have a bit margin. He filled it up and
threw it over to me as if it had been an auld postage stamp. That's the
way business should be done between honest men—though it wouldna do if
one was inclined to take an advantage. Will ye not come in, Mr. West,
and have a taste of my whisky?”
“No, thank you” said I, “I have business to do.”
“Well, well, business is the chief thing. It's well not to drink in
the morning, too. For my own part, except a drop before breakfast to
give me an appetite, and maybe a glass, or even twa, afterwards to
promote digestion, I never touch spirits before noon. What d'ye think
o' the general, Mr. West?”
“Why, I have hardly had an opportunity of judging,” I answered.
Mr. McNeil tapped his forehead with his forefinger.
“That's what I think of him,” he said in a confidential whisper,
shaking his head at me. “He's gone, sir, gone, in my estimation. Now
what would you take to be a proof of madness, Mr. West?”
“Why, offering a blank cheque to a Wigtown house-agent,” said I.
“Ah, you're aye at your jokes. But between oorsel's now, if a man
asked ye how many miles it was frae a seaport, and whether ships come
there from the East, and whether there were tramps on the road, and
whether it was against the lease for him to build a high wall round the
grounds, what would ye make of it, eh?”
“I should certainly think him eccentric,” said I.
“If every man had his due, our friend would find himsel' in a house
with a high wall round the grounds, and that without costing him a
farthing,” said the agent.
“Where then?” I asked, humouring his joke.
“Why, in the Wigtown County Lunatic Asylum,” cried the little man,
with a bubble of laughter, in the midst of which I rode on my way,
leaving him still chuckling over his own facetiousness.
The arrival of the new family at Cloomber Hall had no perceptible
effect in relieving the monotony of our secluded district, for instead
of entering into such simple pleasures as the country had to offer, or
interesting themselves, as we had hoped, in our attempts to improve the
lot of our poor crofters and fisherfolk, they seemed to shun all
observation, and hardly ever to venture beyond the avenue gates.
We soon found, too, that the factor's words as to the inclosing of
the grounds were founded upon fact, for gangs of workmen were kept hard
at work from early in the morning until late at night in erecting a
high, wooden fence round the whole estate.
When this was finished and topped with spikes, Cloomber Park became
impregnable to any one but an exceptionally daring climber. It was as
if the old soldier had been so imbued with military ideas that, like my
Uncle Toby, he could not refrain even in times of peace from standing
upon the defensive.
Stranger still, he had victualled the house as if for a siege, for
Begbie, the chief grocer of Wigtown, told me himself in a rapture of
delight and amazement that the general had sent him an order for
hundreds of dozens of every imaginable potted meat and vegetable.
It may be imagined that all these unusual incidents were not allowed
to pass without malicious comment. Over the whole countryside and as
far away as the English border there was nothing but gossip about the
new tenants of Cloomber Hall and the reasons which had led them to come
The only hypothesis, however, which the bucolic mind could evolve,
was that which had already occurred to Mr. McNeil, the factor—namely,
that the old general and his family were one and all afflicted with
madness, or, as an alternative conclusion, that he had committed some
heinous offence and was endeavouring to escape the consequences of his
These were both natural suppositions under the circumstances, but
neither of them appeared to me to commend itself as a true explanation
of the facts.
It is true that General Heatherstone's behaviour on the occasion of
our first interview was such as to suggest some suspicion of mental
disease, but no man could have been more reasonable or more courteous
than he had afterwards shown himself to be.
Then, again, his wife and children led the same secluded life that
he did himself, so that the reason could not be one peculiar to his own
As to the possibility of his being a fugitive from justice, that
theory was even more untenable. Wigtownshire was bleak and lonely, but
it was not such an obscure corner of the world that a well-known
soldier could hope to conceal himself there, nor would a man who feared
publicity set every one's tongue wagging as the general had done.
On the whole, I was inclined to believe that the true solution of
the enigma lay in his own allusion to the love of quiet, and that they
had taken shelter here with an almost morbid craving for solitude and
repose. We very soon had an instance of the great lengths to which this
desire for isolation would carry them.
My father had come down one morning with the weight of a great
determination upon his brow.
“You must put on your pink frock to-day, Esther,” said he, “and you,
John, you must make yourself smart, for I have determined that the
three of us shall drive round this afternoon and pay our respects to
Mrs. Heatherstone and the general.”
“A visit to Cloomber,” cried Esther, clapping her hands.
“I am here,” said my father, with dignity, “not only as the laird's
factor, but also as his kinsman. In that capacity I am convinced that
he would wish me to call upon these newcomers and offer them any
politeness which is in our power. At present they must feel lonely and
friendless. What says the great Firdousi? 'The choicest ornaments to a
man's house are his friends.'“
My sister and I knew by experience that when the old man began to
justify his resolution by quotations from the Persian poets there was
no chance of shaking it. Sure enough that afternoon saw the phaeton at
the door, with my father perched upon the seat, with his second-best
coat on and a pair of new driving-gloves.
“Jump in, my dears,” he cried, cracking his whip briskly, “we shall
show the general that he has no cause to be ashamed of his neighbours.”
Alas! pride always goes before a fall. Our well-fed ponies and
shining harness were not destined that day to impress the tenants of
Cloomber with a sense of our importance.
We had reached the avenue gate, and I was about to get out and open
it, when our attention was arrested by a very large wooden placard,
which was attached to one of the trees in such a manner that no one
could possibly pass without seeing it. On the white surface of this
board was printed in big, black letters the following hospitable
GENERAL AND MRS. HEATHERSTONE
HAVE NO WISH
THE CIRCLE OF THEIR ACQUAINTANCE.
We all sat gazing at this announcement for some moments in silent
astonishment. Then Esther and I, tickled by the absurdity of the thing,
burst out laughing, but my father pulled the ponies' heads round, and
drove home with compressed lips and the cloud of much wrath upon his
brow. I have never seen the good man so thoroughly moved, and I am
convinced that his anger did not arise from any petty feeling of
injured vanity upon his own part, but from the thought that a slight
had been offered to the Laird of Branksome, whose dignity he
If I had any personal soreness on account of this family snub, it
was a very passing emotion, and one which was soon effaced from my
It chanced that on the very next day after the episode I had
occasion to pass that way, and stopped to have another look at the
obnoxious placard. I was standing staring at it and wondering what
could have induced our neighbours to take such an outrageous step, when
I became suddenly aware of a sweet, girlish face which peeped out at me
from between the bars of the gate, and of a white hand which eagerly
beckoned me to approach. As I advanced to her I saw that it was the
same young lady whom I had seen in the carriage.
“Mr. West,” she said, in a quick whisper, glancing from side to side
as she spoke in a nervous, hasty manner, “I wish to apologise to you
for the indignity to which you and your family were subjected
yesterday. My brother was in the avenue and saw it all, but he is
powerless to interfere. I assure you, Mr. West, that if that hateful
thing,” pointing up at the placard, “has given you any annoyance, it
has given my brother and myself far more.”
“Why, Miss Heatherstone,” said I, putting the matter off with a
laugh, “Britain is a free country, and if a man chooses to warn off
visitors from his premises there is no reason why he should not.”
“It is nothing less than brutal,” she broke out, with a petulant
stamp of the foot. “To think that your sister, too, should have such a
unprovoked insult offered to her! I am ready to sink with shame at the
“Pray do not give yourself one moment's uneasiness upon the
subject,” said I earnestly, for I was grieved at her evident distress.
“I am sure that your father has some reason unknown to us for taking
“Heaven knows he has!” she answered, with ineffable sadness in her
voice, “and yet I think it would be more manly to face a danger than to
fly from it. However, he knows best, and it is impossible for us to
judge. But who is this?” she exclaimed, anxiously, peering up the dark
avenue. “Oh, it is my brother Mordaunt. Mordaunt,” she said, as the
young man approached us. “I have been apologising to Mr. West for what
happened yesterday, in your name as well as my own.”
“I am very, very glad to have the opportunity of doing it in
person,” said he courteously. “I only wish that I could see your sister
and your father as well as yourself, to tell them how sorry I am. I
think you had better run up to the house, little one, for it's getting
near tiffin-time. No—don't you go Mr. West. I want to have a word with
Miss Heatherstone waved her hand to me with a bright smile, and
tripped up the avenue, while her brother unbolted the gate, and,
passing through, closed it again, locking it upon the outside.
“I'll have a stroll down the road with you, if you have no
objection. Have a manilla.” He drew a couple of cheroots from his
pocket and handed one to me. “You'll find they are not bad,” he said.
“I became a connoisseur in tobacco when I was in India. I hope I am not
interfering with your business in coming along with you?”
“Not at all,” I answered “I am very glad to have your company.”
“I'll tell you a secret,” said my companion. “This is the first time
that I have been outside the grounds since we have been down here.”
“And your sister?”
“She has never been out, either,” he answered. “I have given the
governor the slip to-day, but he wouldn't half like it if he knew. It's
a whim of his that we should keep ourselves entirely to ourselves. At
least, some people would call it a whim, for my own part I have reason
to believe that he has solid grounds for all that he does—though
perhaps in this matter he may be a little too exacting.”
“You must surely find it very lonely,” said I. “Couldn't you manage
to slip down at times and have a smoke with me? That house over yonder
“Indeed, you are very kind,” he answered, with sparkling eyes. “I
should dearly like to run over now and again. With the exception of
Israel Stakes, our old coachman and gardener, I have not a soul that I
can speak to.”
“And your sister—she must feel it even more,” said I, thinking in
my heart that my new acquaintance made rather too much of his own
troubles and too little of those of his companion.
“Yes; poor Gabriel feels it, no doubt,” he answered carelessly, “but
it's a more unnatural thing for a young man of my age to be cooped up
in this way than for a woman. Look at me, now. I am three-and-twenty
next March, and yet I have never been to a university, nor to a school
for that matter. I am as complete an ignoramus as any of these
clodhoppers. It seems strange to you, no doubt, and yet it is so. Now,
don't you think I deserve a better fate?”
He stopped as he spoke, and faced round to me, throwing his palms
forward in appeal.
As I looked at him, with the sun shining upon his face, he certainly
did seem a strange bird to be cooped up in such a cage. Tall and
muscular, with a keen, dark face, and sharp, finely cut features, he
might have stepped out of a canvas of Murillo or Velasquez. There were
latent energy and power in his firm-set mouth, his square eyebrows, and
the whole pose of his elastic, well-knit figure.
“There is the learning to be got from books and the learning to be
got from experience,” said I sententiously. “If you have less of your
share of the one, perhaps you have more of the other. I cannot believe
you have spent all your life in mere idleness and pleasure.”
“Pleasure!” he cried. “Pleasure! Look at this!” He pulled off his
hat, and I saw that his black hair was all decked and dashed with
streaks of grey. “Do you imagine that this came from pleasure?” he
asked, with a bitter laugh.
“You must have had some great shock,” I said, astonished at the
sight, “some terrible illness in your youth. Or perhaps it arises from
a more chronic cause—a constant gnawing anxiety. I have known men as
young as you whose hair was as grey.”
“Poor brutes!” he muttered. “I pity them.”
“If you can manage to slip down to Branksome at times,” I said,
“perhaps you could bring Miss Heatherstone with you. I know that my
father and my sister would be delighted to see her, and a change, if
only for an hour or two, might do her good.”
“It would be rather hard for us both to get away together,” he
answered, “However, if I see a chance I shall bring her down. It might
be managed some afternoon perhaps, for the old man indulges in a siesta
We had reached the head of the winding lane which branches off from
the high road and leads to the laird's house, so my companion pulled
“I must go back,” he said abruptly, “or they will miss me. It's very
kind of you, West, to take this interest in us. I am very grateful to
you, and so will Gabriel be when she hears of your kind invitation.
It's a real heaping of coals of fire after that infernal placard of my
He shook my hand and set off down the road, but he came running
after me presently, calling me to stop.
“I was just thinking,” he said, “that you must consider us a great
mystery up there at Cloomber. I dare say you have come to look upon it
as a private lunatic asylum, and I can't blame you. If you are
interested in the matter, I feel it is unfriendly upon my part not to
satisfy your curiosity, but I have promised my father to be silent
about it. And indeed if I were to tell you all that I know you might
not be very much the wiser after all. I would have you understand this,
however—that my father is as sane as you or I, and that he has very
good reasons for living the life which he does. I may add that his wish
to remain secluded does not arise from any unworthy or dishonourable
motives, but merely from the instinct of self-preservation.”
“He is in danger, then?” I ejaculated.
“Yes; he is in constant danger.”
“But why does he not apply to the magistrates for protection?” I
asked. “If he is afraid of any one, he has only to name him and they
will bind him over to keep the peace.”
“My dear West,” said young Heatherstone, “the danger with which my
father is threatened is one that cannot be averted by any human
intervention. It is none the less very real, and possibly very
“You don't mean to assert that it is supernatural,” I said
“Well, hardly that, either,” he answered with hesitation. “There.”
he continued, “I have said rather more than I should, “but I know that
you will not abuse my confidence. Good-bye!”
He look to his heels and was soon out of sight round a curve in the
A danger which was real and imminent, not to be averted by human
means, and yet hardly supernatural—here was a conundrum indeed!
I had come to look upon the inhabitants of the Hall as mere
eccentrics, but after what young Mordaunt Heatherstone had just told
me, I could no longer doubt that some dark and sinister meaning
underlay all their actions. The more I pondered over the problem, the
more unanswerable did it appear, and yet I could not get the matter out
of my thoughts.
The lonely, isolated Hall, and the strange, impending catastrophe
which hung over its inmates, appealed forcibly to my imagination. All
that evening, and late into the night, I sat moodily by the fire,
pondering over what I had heard, and revolving in my mind the various
incidents which might furnish me with some clue to the mystery.
I trust that my readers will not set me down as an inquisitive
busybody when I say that as the days and weeks went by I found my
attention and my thoughts more and more attracted to General
Heatherstone and the mystery which surrounded him.
It was in vain that I endeavoured by hard work and a strict
attention to the laird's affairs to direct my mind into some more
healthy channel. Do what I would, on land or on the water, I would
still find myself puzzling over this one question, until it obtained
such a hold upon me that I felt it was useless for me to attempt to
apply myself to anything until I had come to some satisfactory solution
I could never pass the dark line of five-foot fencing, and the great
iron gate, with its massive lock, without pausing and racking my brain
as to what the secret might be which was shut in by that inscrutable
barrier. Yet, with all my conjectures and all my observations, I could
never come to any conclusion which could for a moment be accepted as an
explanation of the facts.
My sister had been out for a stroll one night, visiting a sick
peasant or performing some other of the numerous acts of charity by
which she had made herself beloved by the whole countryside.
“John,” she said when she returned, “have you seen Cloomber Hall at
“No,” I answered, laying down the book which I was reading. “Not
since that memorable evening when the general and Mr. McNeil came over
to make an inspection.”
“Well, John, will you put your hat on and come a little walk with
I could see by her manner that something had agitated or frightened
“Why, bless the girl!” cried I boisterously, “what is the matter?
The old Hall is not on fire, surely? You look as grave as if all
Wigtown were in a blaze.”
“Not quite so bad as that,” she said, smiling. “But do come out,
Jack. I should very much like you to see it.”
I had always refrained from saying anything which might alarm my
sister, so that she knew nothing of the interest which our neighbours'
doings had for me. At her request I took my hat and followed her out
into the darkness. She led the way along a little footpath over the
moor, which brought us to some rising ground, from which we could look
down upon the Hall without our view being obstructed by any of the
fir-trees which had been planted round it.
“Look at that!” said my sister, pausing at the summit of this little
Cloomber lay beneath us in a blaze of light. In the lower floors the
shutters obscured the illumination, but above, from the broad windows
of the second storey to the thin slits at the summit of the tower,
there was not a chink or an aperture which did not send forth a stream
of radiance. So dazzling was the effect that for a moment I was
persuaded that the house was on fire, but the steadiness and clearness
of the light soon freed me from that apprehension. It was clearly the
result of many lamps placed systematically all over the building.
It added to the strange effect that all these brilliantly
illuminated rooms were apparently untenanted, and some of them, so far
as we could judge, were not even furnished. Through the whole great
house there was no sign of movement or of life—nothing but the clear,
unwinking flood of yellow light.
I was still lost in wonder at the sight when I heard a short, quick
sob at my side.
“What is it, Esther, dear?” I asked, looking down at my companion.
“I feel so frightened. Oh, John, John, take me home, I feel so
She clung to my arm, and pulled at my coat in a perfect frenzy of
“It's all safe, darling,” I said soothingly. “There is nothing to
fear. What has upset you so?”
“I am afraid of them, John; I am afraid of the Heatherstones. Why is
their house lit up like this every night? I have heard from others that
it is always so. And why does the old man run like a frightened hare if
any one comes upon him. There is something wrong about it, John, and it
I pacified her as well as I could, and led her home with me, where I
took care that she should have some hot port negus before going to bed.
I avoided the subject of the Heatherstones for fear of exciting her,
and she did not recur to it of her own accord. I was convinced,
however, from what I had heard from her, that she had for some time
back been making her own observations upon our neighbours, and that in
doing so she had put a considerable strain upon her nerves.
I could see that the mere fact of the Hall being illuminated at
night was not enough to account for her extreme agitation, and that it
must have derived its importance in her eyes from being one in a chain
of incidents, all of which had left a weird or unpleasant impression
upon her mind.
That was the conclusion which I came to at the time, and I have
reason to know now that I was right, and that my sister had even more
cause than I had myself for believing that there was something uncanny
about the tenants of Cloomber.
Our interest in the matter may have arisen at first from nothing
higher than curiosity, but events soon look a turn which associated us
more closely with the fortunes of the Heatherstone family.
Mordaunt had taken advantage of my invitation to come down to the
laird's house, and on several occasions he brought with him his
beautiful sister. The four of us would wander over the moors together,
or perhaps if the day were fine set sail upon our little skiff and
stand off into the Irish Sea.
On such excursions the brother and sister would be as merry and as
happy as two children. It was a keen pleasure to them to escape from
their dull fortress, and to see, if only for a few hours, friendly and
sympathetic faces round them.
There could be but one result when four young people were brought
together in sweet, forbidden intercourse. Acquaintance-ship warmed into
friendship, and friendship flamed suddenly into love.
Gabriel sits beside me now as I write, and she agrees with me that,
dear as is the subject to ourselves, the whole story of our mutual
affection is of too personal a nature to be more than touched upon in
this statement. Suffice it to say that, within a few weeks of our first
meeting Mordaunt Heatherstone had won the heart of my clear sister, and
Gabriel had given me that pledge which death itself will not be able to
I have alluded in this brief way to the double tie which sprang up
between the two families, because I have no wish that this narrative
should degenerate into anything approaching to romance, or that I
should lose the thread of the facts which I have set myself to
chronicle. These are connected with General Heatherstone, and only
indirectly with my own personal history.
It is enough if I say that after our engagement the visits to
Branksome became more frequent, and that our friends were able
sometimes to spend a whole day with us when business had called the
general to Wigtown, or when his gout confined him to his room.
As to our good father, he was ever ready to greet us with many small
jests and tags of Oriental poems appropriate to the occasion, for we
had no secrets from him, and he already looked upon us all as his
There were times when on account of some peculiarly dark or restless
fit of the general's it was impossible for weeks on end for either
Gabriel or Mordaunt to get away from the grounds. The old man would
even stand on guard, a gloomy and silent sentinel, at the avenue gate,
or pace up and down the drive as though he suspected that attempts had
been made to penetrate his seclusion.
Passing of an evening I have seen his dark, grim figure flitting
about in the shadow of the trees, or caught a glimpse of his hard,
angular, swarthy face peering out suspiciously at me from behind the
My heart would often sadden for him as I noticed his uncouth,
nervous movements, his furtive glances and twitching features. Who
would have believed that this slinking, cowering creature had once been
a dashing officer, who had fought the battles of his country and had
won the palm of bravery among the host of brave men around him?
In spite of the old soldier's vigilance, we managed to hold
communication with our friends.
Immediately behind the Hall there was a spot where the fencing had
been so carelessly erected that two of the rails could be removed
without difficulty, leaving a broad gap, which gave us the opportunity
for many a stolen interview, though they were necessarily short, for
the general's movements were erratic, and no part of the grounds was
secure from his visitations.
How vividly one of these hurried meetings rises before me! It stands
out clear, peaceful, and distinct amid the wild, mysterious incidents
which were destined to lead up to the terrible catastrophe which has
cast a shade over our lives.
I can remember that as I walked through the fields the grass was
damp with the rain of the morning, and the air was heavy with the smell
of the fresh-turned earth. Gabriel was waiting for me under the
hawthorn tree outside the gap, and we stood hand-in-hand looking down
at the long sweep of moorland and at the broad blue channel which
encircled it with its fringe of foam.
Far away in the north-west the sun glinted upon the high peak of
Mount Throston. From where we stood we could see the smoke of the
steamers as they ploughed along the busy water-way which leads to
“Is it not magnificent?” Gabriel cried, clasping her hands round my
arm. “Ah, John, why are we not free to sail away over these waves
together, and leave all our troubles behind us on the shore?”
“And what are the troubles which you would leave behind you, dear
one?” I asked. “May I not know them, and help you to bear them?”
“I have no secrets from you, John,” she answered, “Our chief trouble
is, as you may guess, our poor father's strange behaviour. Is it not a
sad thing for all of us that a man who has played such a distinguished
part in the world should skulk from one obscure corner of the country
to another, and should defend himself with locks and barriers as though
he were a common thief flying from justice? This is a trouble, John,
which it is out of your power to alleviate.”
“But why does he do it, Gabriel?” I asked.
“I cannot tell,” she answered frankly. “I only know that he imagines
some deadly danger to be hanging over his head, and that this danger
was incurred by him during his stay in India. What its nature may be I
have no more idea than you have.”
“Then your brother has,” I remarked. “I am sure from the way in
which he spoke to me about it one day that he knows what it is, and
that he looks upon it as real.”
“Yes, he knows, and so does my mother,” she answered, “but they have
always kept it secret from me. My poor father is very excited at
present. Day and night he is in an agony of apprehension, but it will
soon be the fifth of October, and after that he will be at peace.”
“How do you know that?” I asked in surprise.
“By experience,” she answered gravely. “On the fifth of October
these fears of his come to a crisis. For years back he has been in the
habit of locking Mordaunt and myself up in our rooms on that date, so
that we have no idea what occurs, but we have always found that he has
been much relieved afterwards, and has continued to be comparatively in
peace until that day begins to draw round again.”
“Then you have only ten days or so to wait,” I remarked, for
September was drawing to a close. “By the way, dearest, why is it that
you light up all your rooms at night?”
“You have noticed it, then?” she said. “It comes also from my
father's fears. He does not like to have one dark corner in the whole
house. He walks about a good deal at night, and inspects everything,
from the attics right down to the cellars. He has large lamps in every
room and corridor, even the empty ones, and he orders the servants to
light them all at dusk.”
“I am rather surprised that you manage to keep your servants,” I
said, laughing. “The maids in these parts are a superstitious class,
and their imaginations are easily excited by anything which they don't
“The cook and both housemaids are from London, and are used to our
ways. We pay them on a very high scale to make up for any inconvenience
to which they may be put. Israel Stakes, the coachman, is the only one
who comes from this part of the country, and he seems to be a stolid,
honest fellow, who is not easily scared.”
“Poor little girl,” I exclaimed, looking down at the slim, graceful
figure by my side. “This is no atmosphere for you to live in. Why will
you not let me rescue you from it? Why won't you allow me to go
straight and ask the general for your hand? At the worst he could only
She turned quite haggard and pale at the very thought.
“For Heaven's sake, John,” she cried earnestly, “do nothing of the
kind. He would whip us all away in the dead of the night, and within a
week we should be settling down again in some wilderness where we might
never have a chance of seeing or hearing from you again. Besides, he
never would forgive us for venturing out of the grounds.”
“I don't think that he is a hard-hearted man,” I remarked. “I have
seen a kindly look in his eyes, for all his stern face.”
“He can be the kindest of fathers,” she answered. “But he is
terrible when opposed or thwarted. You have never seen him so, and I
trust you never will. It was that strength of will and impatience of
opposition which made him such a splendid officer. I assure you that in
India every one thought a great deal of him. The soldiers were afraid
of him, but they would have followed him anywhere.”
“And had he these nervous attacks then?”
“Occasionally, but not nearly so acutely. He seems to think that the
danger—whatever it may be—becomes more imminent every year. Oh, John,
it is terrible to be waiting like this with a sword over our heads—and
all the more terrible to me since I have no idea where the blow is to
“Dear Gabriel,” I said, taking her hand and drawing her to my side,
“look over all this pleasant countryside and the broad blue sea. Is it
not all peaceful and beautiful? In these cottages, with their red-tiled
roofs peeping out from the grey moor, there live none but simple,
God-fearing men, who toil hard at their crafts and bear enmity to no
man. Within seven miles of us is a large town, with every civilised
appliance for the preservation of order. Ten miles farther there is a
garrison quartered, and a telegram would at any time bring down a
company of soldiers. Now, I ask you, dear, in the name of common-sense,
what conceivable danger could threaten you in this secluded
neighbourhood, with the means of help so near? You assure me that the
peril is not connected with your father's health?”
“No, I am sure of that. It is true that Dr. Easterling, of
Stranraer. has been over to see him once or twice, but that was merely
for some small indisposition. I can assure you that the danger is not
to be looked for in that direction.”
“Then I can assure you,” said I, laughing, “that there is no danger
at all. It must be some strange monomania or hallucination. No other
hypothesis will cover the facts.”
“Would my father's monomania account for the fact of my brother's
hair turning grey and my mother wasting away to a mere shadow?”
“Undoubtedly,” I answered, “The long continued worry of the
general's restlessness and irritability would produce those effects on
“No, no!” said she, shaking her head sadly, “I have been exposed to
his restlessness and irritability, but they have had no such effect
upon me. The difference between us lies in the fact that they know this
awful secret and I do not.”
“My dear girl,” said I, “the days of family apparitions and that
kind of thing are gone. Nobody is haunted nowadays, so we can put that
supposition out of the question. Having done so, what remains? There is
absolutely no other theory which could even be suggested. Believe me,
the whole mystery is that the heat of India has been too much for your
poor father's brain.”
What she would have answered I cannot tell, for at that moment she
gave a start as if some sound had fallen upon her ear. As she looked
round apprehensively, I suddenly saw her features become rigid and her
eyes fixed and dilated.
Following the direction of her gaze, I felt a sudden thrill of fear
pass through me as I perceived a human face surveying us from behind
one of the trees—a man's face, every feature of which was distorted by
the most malignant hatred and anger. Finding himself observed, he
stepped out and advanced towards us, when I saw that it was none other
than the general himself. His beard was all a-bristle with fury, and
his deepset eyes glowed from under their heavily veined lids with a
most sinister and demoniacal brightness.
“To your room, girl!” he cried in a hoarse, harsh voice, stepping in
between us and pointing authoritatively towards the house.
He waited until Gabriel, with a last frightened glance at me, had
passed through the gap, and then he turned upon me with an expression
so murderous that I stepped back a pace or two, and tightened my grasp
upon my oak stick.
“You-you—” he spluttered, with his hand twitching at his throat, as
though his fury were choking him. “You have dared to intrude upon my
privacy! Do you think I built this fence that all the vermin in the
country might congregate round it? Oh, you have been very near your
death, my fine fellow! You will never be nearer until your time comes.
Look at this!” he pulled a squat, thick pistol out of his bosom. “If
you had passed through that gap and set foot on my land I'd have let
daylight into you. I'll have no vagabonds here. I know how to treat
gentry of that sort, whether their faces are black or white.”
“Sir,” said I, “I meant no harm by coming here, and I do not know
how I have deserved this extraordinary outburst. Allow me to observe,
however, that you are still covering me with your pistol, and that, as
your hand is rather tremulous, it is more than possible that it may go
off. If you don't turn the muzzle down I shall be compelled in
self-defence to strike you over the wrist with my stick.”
“What the deuce brought you here, then?” he asked, in a more
composed voice, putting his weapon back into his bosom. “Can't a
gentleman live quietly without your coming to peep and pry? Have you no
business of your own to look after, eh? And my daughter? how came you
to know anything of her? and what have you been trying to squeeze out
of her? It wasn't chance that brought you here.”
“No,” said I boldly, “it was not chance which brought me here. I
have had several opportunities of seeing your daughter and of
appreciating her many noble qualities. We are engaged to be married to
each other, and I came up with the express intention of seeing her.”
Instead of blazing into a fury, as I had expected, the general gave
a long whistle of astonishment, and then leant up against the railings,
laughing softly to himself.
“English terriers are fond of nosing worms,” he remarked at last.
“When we brought them out to India they used to trot off into the
jungle and begin sniffing at what, they imagined to be worms there. But
the worm turned out to be a venomous snake, and so poor doggy played no
more. I think you'll find yourself in a somewhat analogous position if
you don't look out.”
“You surely don't mean to cast an aspersion upon your own daughter?”
I said, flushing with indignation.
“Oh, Gabriel is all right,” he answered carelessly. “Our family is
not exactly one, however, which I should recommend a young fellow to
marry into. And pray how is it that I was not informed of this snug
little arrangement of yours?”
“We were afraid, sir, that you might separate us,” I replied,
feeling that perfect candour was the best policy under the
circumstances. “It is possible that we were mistaken. Before coming to
any final decision, I implore you to remember that the happiness of
both of us is at stake. It is in your power to divide our bodies, but
our souls shall be for ever united.”
“My good fellow,” said the general, in a not unkindly tone, “you
don't know what you are asking for. There is a gulf between you and any
one of the blood of Heatherstone which can never be bridged over.”
All trace of anger had vanished now from his manner, and given place
to an air of somewhat contemptuous amusement.
My family pride took fire at his words. “The gulf may be less than
you imagine,” I said coldly. “We are not clodhoppers because we live in
this out-of-the-way place. I am of noble descent on one side, and my
mother was a Buchan of Buchan, I assure you that there is no such
disparity between us as you seem to imagine.”
“You misunderstand me,” the general answered. “It is on our side
that the disparity lies. There are reasons why my daughter Gabriel
should live and die single. It would not be to your advantage to marry
“But surely, sir,” I persisted, “I am the best judge of my own
interests and advantages. Since you take this ground all becomes easy,
for I do assure you that the one interest which overrides all others is
that I should have the woman I love for my wife. If this is your only
objection to our match you may surely give us your consent, for any
danger or trial which I may incur in marrying Gabriel will not weigh
with me one featherweight.”
“Here's a young bantam!” exclaimed the old soldier, smiling at my
warmth. “It's easy to defy danger when you don't know what the danger
“What is it, then?” I asked, hotly. “There is no earthly peril which
will drive me from Gabriel's side. Let me know what it is and test me.”
“No, no. That would never do,” he answered with a sigh, and then,
thoughtfully, as if speaking his mind aloud: “He has plenty of pluck
and is a well-grown lad, too. We might do worse than make use of him.”
He went on mumbling to himself with a vacant stare in his eyes as if
he had forgotten my presence.
“Look here, West,” he said presently. “You'll excuse me if I spoke
hastily a little time ago. It is the second time that I have had
occasion to apologise to you for the same offence. It shan't occur
again. I am rather over-particular, no doubt, in my desire for complete
isolation, but I have good reasons for insisting on the point. Rightly
or wrongly, I have got it into my head that some day there might be an
organised raid upon my grounds. If anything of the sort should occur I
suppose I might reckon upon your assistance?”
“With all my heart.”
“So that if ever you got a message such as 'Come up,' or even
'Cloomber,' you would know that it was an appeal for help, and would
hurry up immediately, even if it were in the dead of the night?”
“Most certainly I should,” I answered. “But might I ask you what the
nature of the danger is which you apprehend?”
“There would be nothing gained by your knowing. Indeed, you would
hardly understand it if I told you. I must bid you good day now, for I
have stayed with you too long. Remember, I count upon you as one of the
Cloomber garrison now.”
“One other thing, sir,” I said hurriedly, for he was turning away,”
I hope that you will not be angry with your daughter for anything which
I have told you. It was for my sake that she kept it all secret from
“All right,” he said, with his cold, inscrutable smile. “I am not
such an ogre in the bosom of my family as you seem to think. As to this
marriage question, I should advise you as a friend to let it drop
altogether, but if that is impossible I must insist that it stand over
completely for the present. It is impossible to say what unexpected
turn events may take. Good-bye.”
He plunged into the wood and was quickly out of sight among the
Thus ended this extraordinary interview, in which this strange man
had begun by pointing a loaded pistol at my breast and had ended, by
partially acknowledging the possibility of my becoming his future son-in-law. I hardly knew whether to be cast down or elated over it.
On the one hand he was likely, by keeping a closer watch over his
daughter, to prevent us from communicating as freely as we had done
hitherto. Against this there was the advantage of having obtained an
implied consent to the renewal of my suit at some future date. On the
whole, I came to the conclusion as I walked thoughtfully home that I
had improved my position by the incident.
But this danger—this shadowy, unspeakable danger—which appeared to
rise up at every turn, and to hang day and night over the towers of
Cloomber! Rack my brain as I would, I could not conjure up any solution
to the problem which was not puerile and inadequate.
One fact struck me as being significant. Both the father and the son
had assured me, independently of each other, that if I were told what
the peril was, I would hardly realise its significance. How strange and
bizarre must the fear be which can scarcely be expressed in
I held up my hand in the darkness before I turned to sleep that
night, and I swore that no power of man or devil should ever weaken my
love for the woman whose pure heart I had had the good fortune to win.
In making this statement I have purposely couched it in bald and
simple language, for fear I should be accused of colouring my narrative
for the sake of effect. If, however, I have told my story with any
approach to realism, the reader will understand me when I say that by
this time the succession of dramatic incidents which had occurred had
arrested my attention and excited my imagination to the exclusion of
all minor topics.
How could I plod through the dull routine of an agent's work, or
interest myself in the thatch of this tenant's bothy or the sails of
that one's boat, when my mind was taken up by the chain of events which
I have described, and was still busy seeking an explanation for them.
Go where I would over the countryside, I could see the square, white
tower shooting out from among the trees, and beneath that tower this
ill-fated family were watching and waiting, waiting and watching—and
for what? That was still the question which stood like an impassable
barrier at the end of every train of thought.
Regarded merely as an abstract problem, this mystery of the
Heatherstone family had a lurid fascination about it, but when the
woman whom I loved a thousandfold better than I did myself proved to be
so deeply interested in the solution, I felt that it was impossible to
turn my thoughts to anything else until it had been finally cleared up.
My good father had received a letter from the laird, dated from
Naples, which told us that he had derived much benefit from the change,
and that he had no intention of returning to Scotland for some time.
This was satisfactory to all of us, for my father had found Branksome
such an excellent place for study that it would have been a sore trial
to him to return to the noise and tumult of a city. As to my dear
sister and myself, there were, as I have shown, stronger reasons still
to make us love the Wigtownshire moors.
In spite of my interview with the general—or perhaps I might say on
account of it—I took occasion at least twice a day to walk towards
Cloomber and satisfy myself that all was well there. He had begun by
resenting my intrusion, but he had ended by taking me into a sort of
half-confidence, and even by asking my assistance, so I felt that I
stood upon a different footing with him than I had done formerly, and
that he was less likely to be annoyed by my presence. Indeed, I met him
pacing round the inclosure a few days afterwards, and his manner
towards me was civil, though he made no allusion to our former
He appeared to be still in an extreme state of nervousness, starting
from time to time, and gazing furtively about him, with little
frightened, darting glances to the right and the left. I hoped that his
daughter was right in naming the fifth of October as the turning point
of his complaint, for it was evident to me as I looked at his gleaming
eyes and quivering hands, that a man could not live long in such a
state of nervous tension.
I found on examination that he had had the loose rails securely
fastened so as to block up our former trysting-place, and though I
prowled round the whole long line of fencing, I was unable to find any
other place where an entrance could be effected.
Here and there between the few chinks left in the barrier I could
catch glimpses of the Hall, and once I saw a rough-looking, middle-aged
man standing at a window on the lower floor, whom I supposed to be
Israel Stakes, the coachman. There was no sign, however, of Gabriel or
of Mordaunt, and their absence alarmed me. I was convinced that, unless
they were under some restraint, they would have managed to communicate
with my sister or myself. My fears became more and more acute as day
followed day without our seeing or hearing anything of them.
One morning—it was the second day of October—I was walking towards
the Hall, hoping that I might be fortunate enough to learn some news of
my darling, when I observed a man perched upon a stone at the side of
As I came nearer to him I could see that he was a stranger, and from
his dusty clothes and dilapidated appearance he seemed to have come
from a distance. He had a great hunch of bread on his knee and a
clasp-knife in his hand, but he had apparently just finished his
breakfast, for he brushed the crumbs off his lap and rose to his feet
when he perceived me.
Noticing the great height of the fellow and that he still held his
weapon, I kept well to the other side of the road, for I knew that
destitution makes men desperate and that the chain that glittered on my
waistcoat might be too great a temptation to him upon this lonely
highway. I was confirmed in my fears when I saw him step out into the
centre of the road and bar my progress.
“Well, my lad,” I said, affecting an ease which I by no means felt,
“what can I do for you this morning?”
The fellow's face was the colour of mahogany with exposure to the
weather, and he had a deep scar from the corner of his mouth to his
ear, which by no means improved his appearance. His hair was grizzled,
but his figure was stalwart, and his fur cap was cocked on one side so
as to give him a rakish, semi-military appearance. Altogether he gave
me the impression of being one of the most dangerous types of tramp
that I had ever fallen in with.
Instead of replying to my question, he eyed me for some time in
silence with sullen, yellow-shot eyes, and then closed his knife with a
“You're not a beak,” he said, “too young for that, I guess. They had
me in chokey at Paisley and they had me in chokey at Wigtown, but by
the living thunder if another of them lays a hand on me I'll make him
remember Corporal Rufus Smith! It's a darned fine country this, where
they won't give a man work, and then lay him by the heels for having no
visible means of subsistence.”
“I am sorry to see an old soldier so reduced,” said I. “What corps
did you serve in?”
“H Battery, Royal Horse Artillery. Bad cess to the Service and every
one in it! Here I am nigh sixty years of age, with a beggarly pension
of thirty-eight pound ten—not enough to keep me in beer and baccy.”
“I should have thought thirty-eight pound ten a year would have been
a nice help to you in your old age,” I remarked.
“Would you, though?” he answered with a sneer, pushing his weather-beaten face forward until it was within a foot of my own.
“How much d'ye think that slash with a tulwar is worth? And my foot
with all the bones rattling about like a bagful of dice where the trail
of the gun went across it. What's that worth, eh? And a liver like a
sponge, and ague whenever the wind comes round to the east—what's the
market value of that? Would you take the lot for a dirty forty pound a
year—would you now?”
“We are poor folk in this part of the country,” I answered. “You
would pass for a rich man down here.”
“They are fool folk and they have fool tastes,” said he, drawing a
black pipe from his pocket and stuffing it with tobacco. “I know what
good living is, and, by cripes! while I have a shilling in my pocket I
like to spend it as a shilling should be spent. I've fought for my
country and my country has done darned little for me. I'll go to the
Rooshians, so help me! I could show them how to cross the Himalayas so
that it would puzzle either Afghans or British to stop 'em. What's that
secret worth in St. Petersburg, eh, mister?”
“I am ashamed to hear an old soldier speak so, even in jest,” said I
“Jest, indeed!” He cried, with a great, roaring oath. “I'd have done
it years ago if the Rooshians had been game to take it up. Skobeloff
was the best of the bunch, but he's been snuffed out. However, that's
neither here nor there. What I want to ask you is whether you've ever
heard anything in this quarter of a man called Heatherstone, the same
who used to be colonel of the 41st Bengalis? They told me at Wigtown
that he lived somewhere down this way.”
“He lives in that large house over yonder,” said I, pointing to
Cloomber Tower. “You'll find the avenue gate a little way down the
road, but the general isn't over fond of visitors.”
The last part of my speech was lost upon Corporal Rufus Smith; for
the instant that I pointed out the gate he set off hopping down the
His mode of progression was the most singular I have ever seen, for
He would only put his right foot to the ground once in every half-dozen
strides, while he worked so hard and attained such a momentum with the
other limb that he got over the ground at an astonishing speed.
I was so surprised that I stood in the roadway gazing after this
hulking figure until the thought suddenly struck me that some serious
result might come from a meeting between a man of such blunt speech and
the choleric, hot-headed general. I therefore followed him as he hopped
along like some great, clumsy bird, and overtook him at the avenue
gate, where he stood grasping the ironwork and peering through at the
dark carriage-drive beyond.
“He's a sly old jackal,” he said, looking round at me and nodding
his head in the direction of the Hall. “He's a deep old dog. And that's
his bungalow, is it, among the trees?”
“That is his house,” I answered; “but I should advise you to keep a
more civil tongue in your head if you intend to speak with the general.
He is not a man to stand any nonsense.”
“Right you are. He was always a hard nut to crack. But isn't this
him coming down the avenue?”
I looked through the gate and saw that it was indeed the general,
who, having either seen us or been attracted by our voices, was
hurrying down towards us. As he advanced he would stop from time to
time and peer at us through the dark shadow thrown by the trees, as if
he were irresolute whether to come on or no.
“He's reconnoitering!” whispered my companion with a hoarse chuckle.
“He's afraid—and I know what he's afraid of. He won't be caught in a
trap if he can help it, the old 'un. He's about as fly as they make
'em, you bet!”
Then suddenly standing on his tip-toes and waving his hand through
the bars of the gate, he shouted at the top of his voice:
“Come on, my gallant commandant! Come on! The coast's clear, and no
enemy in sight.”
This familiar address had the effect of reassuring the general, for
he came right for us, though I could tell by his heightened colour that
his temper was at boiling point.
“What, you here, Mr. West?” he said, as his eye fell upon me. “What
is it you want, and why have you brought this fellow with you?”
“I have not brought him with me, sir,” I answered, feeling rather
disgusted at being made responsible for the presence of the
disreputable-looking vagabond beside me. “I found him on the road here,
and he desired to be directed to you, so I showed him the way. I know
nothing of him myself.”
“What do you want with me, then?” the general asked sternly, turning
to my companion.
“If you please, sir,” said the ex-corporal, speaking in a whining
voice, and touching his moleskin cap with a humility which contrasted
strangely with the previous rough independence of his bearing, “I'm an
old gunner in the Queen's service, sir, and knowing your name by
hearing it in India I thought that maybe you would take me as your
groom or gardener, or give me any other place as happened to be
“I am sorry that I cannot do anything for you, my man,” the old
soldier answered impressively.
“Then you'll give me a little just to help me on my way, sir,” said
he cringing mendicant. “You won't see an old comrade go to the bad for
the sake of a few rupees? I was with Sale's brigade in the Passes, sir,
and I was at the second taking of Cabul.”
General Heatherstone looked keenly at the supplicant, but was
silent to his appeal.
“I was in Ghuznee with you when the walls were all shook down by an
earthquake, and when we found forty thousand Afghans within gunshot of
us. You ask me about it, and you'll see whether I'm lying or not. We
went through all this when we were young, and now that we are old you
are to live in a fine bungalow, and I am to starve by the roadside. It
don't seem to me to be fair.”
“You are an impertinent scoundrel,” said the general. “If you had
been a good soldier you would never need to ask for help. I shall not
give you a farthing.”
“One word more, sir,” cried the tramp, for the other was turning
away, “I've been in the Tarada Pass.”
The old soldier sprang round as if the words had been a pistol-shot.
“What—what d'ye mean?” he stammered. “I've been in the Tarada Pass,
sir, and I knew a man there called Ghoolab Shah.”
These last were hissed out in an undertone, and a malicious grin
overspread the face of the speaker.
Their effect upon the general was extraordinary. He fairly staggered
back from the gateway, and his yellow countenance blanched to a livid,
mottled grey. For a moment he was too overcome to speak. At last he
“Ghoolab Shah' Who are you who know Ghoolab Shah?”
“Take another look,” said the tramp, “your sight is not as keen as
it was forty years ago.”
The general took a long, earnest look at the unkempt wanderer in
front of him, and as he gazed I saw the light of recognition spring up
in his eyes.
“God bless my soul!” he cried. “Why, it's Corporal Rufus Smith.”
“You've come on it at last,” said the other, chuckling to himself.
“I was wondering how long it would be before you knew me. And, first of
all, just unlock this gate, will you? It's hard to talk through a
grating. It's too much like ten minutes with a visitor in the cells.”
The general, whose face still bore evidences of his agitation, undid
the bolts with nervous, trembling fingers. The recognition of Corporal
Rufus Smith had, I fancied, been a relief to him, and yet he plainly
showed by his manner that he regarded his presence as by no means an
“Why, Corporal,” he said, as the gate swung open, “I have often
wondered whether you were dead or alive, but I never expected to see
you again. How have you been all these long years?”
“How have I been?” the corporal answered gruffly. “Why, I have been
drunk for the most part. When I draw my money I lay it out in liquor,
and as long as that lasts I get some peace in life. When I'm cleaned
out I go upon tramp, partly in the hope of picking up the price of a
dram, and partly in order to look for you.”
“You'll excuse us talking about these private matters, West,” the
general said, looking round at me, for I was beginning to move away.
“Don't leave us. You know something of this matter already, and may
find yourself entirely in the swim with us some of these days.”
Corporal Rufus Smith looked round at me in blank astonishment.
“In the swim with us?” he said. “However did he get there?”
“Voluntarily, voluntarily,” the general explained, hurriedly sinking
his voice. “He is a neighbour of mine, and he has volunteered his help
in case I should ever need it.”
This explanation seemed, if anything, to increase the big stranger's
“Well, if that don't lick cock-fighting!” he exclaimed,
contemplating me with admiration. “I never heard tell of such a thing.”
“And now you have found me, Corporal Smith,” said the tenant of
Cloomber, “what is it that you want of me?”
“Why, everything. I want a roof to cover me, and clothes to wear,
and food to eat, and, above all, brandy to drink.”
“Well, I'll take you in and do what I can for you,” said the general
slowly. “But look here, Smith, we must have discipline. I'm the general
and you are the corporal; I am the master and you are the man. Now,
don't let me have to remind you of that again.”
The tramp drew himself up to his full height and raised his right
hand with the palm forward in a military salute.
“I can take you on as gardener and get rid of the fellow I have got.
As to brandy, you shall have an allowance and no more. We are not deep
drinkers at the Hall.”
“Don't you take opium, or brandy, or nothing yourself, sir?” asked
Corporal Rufus Smith.
“Nothing,” the general said firmly.
“Well, all I can say is, that you've got more nerve and pluck than I
shall ever have. I don't wonder now at your winning that Cross in the
Mutiny. If I was to go on listening night after night to them things
without ever taking a drop of something to cheer my heart—why, it
would drive me silly.”
General Heatherstone put his hand up, as though afraid that his
companion might say too much.
“I must thank you, Mr. West,” he said, “for having shown this man my
door. I would not willingly allow an old comrade, however humble, to go
to the bad, and if I did not acknowledge his claim more readily it was
simply because I had my doubts as to whether he was really what he
represented himself to be. Just walk up to the Hall, Corporal, and I
shall follow you in a minute.”
“Poor fellow!” he continued, as he watched the newcomer hobbling up
the avenue in the ungainly manner which I have described. “He got a gun
over his foot, and it crushed the bones, but the obstinate fool would
not let the doctors take it off. I remember him now as a smart young
soldier in Afghanistan. He and I were associated in some queer
adventures, which I may tell you of some day, and I naturally feel
sympathy towards him, and would befriend him. Did he tell you anything
about me before I came?”
“Not a word,” I replied.
“Oh,” said the general carelessly, but with an evident expression of
relief, “I thought perhaps he might have said something of old times.
Well, I must go and look after him, or the servants will be frightened,
for he isn't a beauty to look at. Good-bye!”
With a wave of the hand the old man turned away from me and hurried
up the drive after this unexpected addition to his household, while I
strolled on round the high, black paling, peering through every chink
between the planks, but without seeing a trace either of Mordaunt or of
I have now brought this statement down to the coming of Corporal
Rufus Smith, which will prove to be the beginning of the end.
I have set down soberly and in order the events which brought us to
Wigtownshire, the arrival of the Heatherstones at Cloomber, the many
strange incidents which excited first our curiosity and finally our
intense interest in that family, and I have briefly touched upon the
circumstances which brought my sister and myself into a closer and more
personal relationship with them. I think that there cannot be a better
moment than this to hand the narrative over to those who had means of
knowing something of what was going on inside Cloomber during the
months that I was observing it from without.
Israel Stakes, the coachman, proved to be unable to read or write,
but Mr. Mathew Clark, the Presbyterian Minister of Stoneykirk, has
copied down his deposition, duly attested by the cross set opposite to
his name. The good clergyman has, I fancy, put some slight polish upon
the narrator's story, which I rather regret, as it might have been more
interesting, if less intelligible, when reported verbatim. It still
preserves, however, considerable traces of Israel's individuality, and
may be regarded as an exact record of what he saw and did while in
General Heatherstone's service.
[Copied and authenticated by the Reverend Mathew Clark, Presbyterian
Minister of Stoneykirk, in Wigtownshire]
Maister Fothergill West and the meenister say that I maun tell all I
can aboot General Heatherstone and his hoose, but that I maunna say
muckle aboot mysel' because the readers wouldna care to hear aboot me
or my affairs. I am na sae sure o' that, for the Stakes is a family
weel kenned and respecked on baith sides o' the Border, and there's
mony in Nithsdale and Annandale as would be gey pleased to hear news o'
the son o' Archie Stakes, o' Ecclefechan.
I maun e'en do as I'm tauld, however, for Mr. West's sake, hoping
he'll no forget me when I chance to hae a favour tae ask. I'm no
able tae write mysel' because my feyther sent me oot to scare craws
instead o' sendin' me tae school, but on the ither hond he brought me
up in the preenciples and practice o' the real kirk o' the Covenant,
for which may the Lord be praised!
It way last May twel'month that the factor body, Maister McNeil, cam
ower tae me in the street and speered whether I was in want o' a place
as a coachman and gairdner. As it fell oot I chanced tae be on the look
oot for something o' the sort mysel' at the time, but I wasna ower
quick to let him see that I wanted it.
“Ye can tak it or leave it,” says he sharp like. “It's a guid place,
and there's mony would be glad o't. If ye want it ye can come up tae my
office at twa the morn and put your ain questions tae the gentleman.”
That was a' I could get frae him, for he's a close man and a hard
one at a bargain—which shall profit him leetle in the next life,
though he lay by a store o' siller in this. When the day comes there'll
be a hantle o' factors on the left hand o' the throne, and I shouldna
be surprised if Maister McNeil found himsel' amang them.
Weel, on the morn I gaed up to the office and there I foond the
factor and a lang, thin, dour man wi' grey hair and a face as brown and
crinkled as a walnut. He looked hard at me wi' a pair o' een that
glowed like twa spunks, and then he says, says he:
“You've been born in these pairts, I understan'?”
“Aye,” says I, “and never left them neither.”
“Never been oot o' Scotland?” he speers.
“Twice to Carlisle fair,” says I, for I am a man wha loves the
truth; and besides I kenned that the factor would mind my gaeing there,
for I bargained fur twa steers and a stirk that he wanted for the
stockin' o' the Drumleugh Fairm.
“I learn frae Maister McNeil,” says General Heatherstone—for him it
was and nane ither—“that ye canna write.”
“Na,” says I.
“Na,” says I.
“It seems tae me,” says he, turnin' tae the factor, “that this is
the vera man I want. Servants is spoilt noo-a-days,” says he, “by ower
muckle eddication. I hae nae doobt, Stakes, that ye will suit me well
enough. Ye'll hae three pund a month and a' foond, but I shall resairve
the right o' givin' ye twenty-four hoors' notice at any time. How will
that suit ye?”
“It's vera different frae my last place,” says I, discontented-like.
And the words were true enough, for auld Fairmer Scott only gave me
a pund a month and parritch twice a day.
“Weel, weel,” says he, “maybe we'll gie ye a rise if ye suit.
Meanwhile here's the han'sel shillin' that Maister McNeil tells me it's
the custom tae give, and I shall expec' tae see ye at Cloomber on
When the Monday cam roond I walked oot tae Cloomber, and a great
muckle hoose it is, wi' a hunderd windows or mair, and space enough tae
hide awa' half the parish.
As tae gairdening, there was no gairden for me tae work at, and the
horse was never taken oot o' the stables frae week's end tae week's
end. I was busy enough for a' that, for there was a deal o' fencing tae
be put up, and one thing or anither, forbye cleanin' the knives and
brushin' the boots and such-like jobs as is mair fit for an auld wife
than for a grown man.
There was twa besides mysel' in the kitchen, the cook Eliza, and
Mary the hoosemaid, puir, benighted beings baith o' them, wha had
wasted a' their lives in London, and kenned leetle aboot the warld or
the ways o' the flesh.
I hadna muckle tae say to them, for they were simple folk who could
scarce understand English, and had hardly mair regard for their ain
souls than the tods on the moor. When the cook said she didna think
muckle o' John Knox, and the ither that she wouldna give saxpence tae
hear the discourse o' Maister Donald McSnaw o' the true kirk, I kenned
it was time for me tae leave them tae a higher Judge.
There was four in family, the general, my leddy, Maister Mordaunt,
and Miss Gabriel, and it wasna long before I found that a' wasna just
exactly as it should be. My leddy was as thin and as white as a ghaist,
and many's the time as I've come on her and found her yammerin' and
greetin' all by hersel'. I've watched her walkin' up and doon in the
wood where she thought nane could see her and wringin' her honds like
There was the young gentleman, tae, and his sister—they baith
seemed to hae some trouble on their minds, and the general maist of a',
for the ithers were up ane day and down anither; but he was aye the
same, wi' a face as dour and sad as a felon when he feels the tow roond
I speered o' the hussies in the kitchen whether they kenned what was
amiss wi' the family, but the cook she answered me back that it wasna
for her tae inquire into the affairs o' her superiors, and that it was
naething to her as long as she did her work and had her wages. They
were puir, feckless bodies, the twa o' them, and would scarce gie an
answer tae a ceevil question, though they could clack lood eneugh when
they had a mind.
Weel, weeks passed into months and a' things grew waur instead o'
better in the Hall. The general he got mair nairvous, and his leddy
mair melancholy every day, and yet there wasna any quarrel or bickering
between them, for when they've been togither in the breakfast room I
used often tae gang round and prune the rose-tree alongside o' the
window, so that I couldna help hearin' a great pairt o' their
conversation, though sair against the grain.
When the young folk were wi' them they would speak little, but when
they had gone they would aye talk as if some waefu' trial ere aboot to
fa' upon them, though I could never gather from their words what it was
that they were afeared o'.
I've heard the general say mair than ance that he wasna frighted o'
death, or any danger that he could face and have done wi', but that it
was the lang, weary waitin' and the uncertainty that had taken a' the
strength and the mettle oot o' him. Then my leddy would console him and
tell him that maybe it wasna as bad as he thocht, and that a' would
come richt in the end—but a' her cheery words were clean throwed away
As tae the young folks, I kenned weel that they didna bide in the
groonds, and that they were awa' whenever they got a chance wi' Maister
Fothergill West tae Branksome, but the general was too fu' o' his ain
troubles tae ken aboot it, and it didna seem tae me that it was pairt
o' my duties either as coachman or as gairdner tae mind the bairns. He
should have lairnt that if ye forbid a lassie and a laddie to dae
anything it's just the surest way o' bringin' it aboot. The Lord foond
that oot in the gairden o' Paradise, and there's no muckle change
between the folk in Eden and the folk in Wigtown.
There's ane thing that I havena spoke aboot yet, but that should be
The general didna share his room wi' his wife, but slept a' alane in
a chamber at the far end o' the hoose, as distant as possible frae
every one else. This room was aye lockit when he wasna in it, and
naebody was ever allowed tae gang into it. He would mak' his ain bed,
and red it up and dust it a' by himsel', but he wouldna so much as
allow one o' us to set fut on the passage that led tae it.
At nicht he would walk a' ower the hoose, and he had lamps hung in
every room and corner, so that no pairt should be dark.
Many's the time frae my room in the garret I've heard his futsteps
comin' and gangin', comin' and gangin' doon one passage and up anither
frae midnight till cockcraw. It was weary wark to lie listenin' tae his
clatter and wonderin' whether he was clean daft, or whether maybe he'd
lairnt pagan and idolatrous tricks oot in India, and that his
conscience noo was like the worm which gnaweth and dieth not. I'd ha'
speered frae him whether it wouldna ease him to speak wi' the holy
Donald McSnaw, but it might ha' been a mistake, and the general wasna a
man that you'd care tae mak' a mistake wi'.
Ane day I was workin' at the grass border when he comes up and he
says, says he:
“Did ye ever have occasion tae fire a pistol, Israel?”
“Godsakes!” says I, “I never had siccan a thing in my honds in my
“Then you'd best not begin noo,” says he. “Every man tae his ain
weepon,” he says. “Now I warrant ye could do something wi' a guid
“Aye, could I,” I answered blithely, “as well as ony lad on the
“This is a lonely hoose,” says he, “and we might be molested by some
rascals. It's weel tae be ready for whatever may come. Me and you and
my son Mordaunt and Mr. Fothergill West of Branksome, who would come if
he was required, ought tae be able tae show a bauld face—what think
“'Deed, sir,” I says, “feastin' is aye better than fechtin'—but if
ye'll raise me a pund a month, I'll no' shirk my share o' either.”
“We won't quarrel ower that,” says he, and agreed tae the extra
twal' pund a year as easy as though it were as many bawbees. Far be it
frae me tae think evil, but I couldna help surmisin' at the time that
money that was so lightly pairted wi' was maybe no' so very honestly
I'm no' a curious or a pryin' mun by nature, but I was sair puzzled
in my ain mind tae tell why it was that the general walked aboot at
nicht and what kept him frae his sleep.
Weel, ane day I was cleanin' doon the passages when my e'e fell on a
great muckle heap o' curtains and auld cairpets and sic' like things
that were piled away in a corner, no vera far frae the door o' the
general's room. A' o' a sudden a thocht came intae my heid and I says
“Israel, laddie,” says I, “what's tae stop ye frae hidin' behind
that this vera nicht and seein' the auld mun when he doesna ken human
e'e is on him?”
The mair I thocht o't the mair seemple it appeared, and I made up my
mind tae put the idea intae instant execution.
When the nicht cam roond I tauld the women-folk that I was bad wi'
the jawache, and would gang airly tae my room. I kenned fine when ance
I got there that there was na chance o' ony ane disturbin' me, so I
waited a wee while, and then when a' was quiet, I slippit aff my boots
and ran doon the ither stair until I cam tae the heap o' auld clothes,
and there I lay doon wi' ane e'e peepin' through a kink and a' the rest
covered up wi' a great, ragged cairpet.
There I bided as quiet as a mouse until the general passed me on his
road tae bed, and a' was still in the hoose.
My certie! I wouldna gang through wi' it again for a' the siller at
the Union Bank of Dumfries, I canna think o't noo withoot feelin' cauld
a' the way doon my back.
It was just awfu' lyin' there in the deid silence, waitin' and
waitin' wi' never a soond tae break the monotony, except the heavy
tickin' o' an auld clock somewhere doon the passage.
First I would look doon the corridor in the one way, and syne I'd
look doon in t'ither, but it aye seemed to me as though there was
something coming up frae the side that I wasna lookin' at. I had a
cauld sweat on my broo, and my hairt was beatin' twice tae ilka tick o'
the clock, and what feared me most of a' was that the dust frae the
curtains and things was aye gettin' doon intae my lungs, and it was a'
I could dae tae keep mysel' frae coughin'.
Godsakes! I wonder my hair wasna grey wi' a' that I went through. I
wouldna dae it again to be made Lord Provost o' Glasgie.
Weel, it may have been twa o'clock in the mornin' or maybe a little
mair, and I was just thinkin' that I wasna tae see onything after
a'—and I wasna very sorry neither—when all o' a sudden a soond cam
tae my ears clear and distinct through the stillness o' the nicht.
I've been asked afore noo tae describe that soond, but I've aye
foond that it's no' vera easy tae gie a clear idea o't, though it was
unlike any other soond that ever I hearkened tae. It was a shairp,
ringin' clang, like what could be caused by flippin' the rim o' a
wineglass, but it was far higher and thinner than that, and had in it,
tae, a kind o' splash, like the tinkle o' a rain-drop intae a
In my fear I sat up amang my cairpets, like a puddock among
gowan-leaves, and I listened wi' a' my ears. A' was still again noo,
except for the dull tickin' o' the distant clock.
Suddenly the soond cam again, as clear, as shrill, as shairp as
ever, and this time the general heard it, for I heard him gie a kind o'
groan, as a tired man might wha has been roosed oot o' his sleep.
He got up frae his bed, and I could make oot a rustling noise, as
though he were dressin' himsel', and presently his footfa' as he began
tae walk up and doon in his room.
Mysakes! it didna tak lang for me tae drap doon amang the cairpets
again and cover mysel' ower. There I lay tremblin' in every limb, and
sayin' as mony prayers as I could mind, wi' my e'e still peepin'
through the keek-hole, and' fixed upon the door o' the general's room.
I heard the rattle o' the handle presently, and the door swung
slowly open. There was a licht burnin' in the room beyond, an' I could
just catch a glimpse o' what seemed tae me like a row o' swords stuck
alang the side o' the wa', when the general stepped oot and shut the
door behind him. He was dressed in a dressin' goon, wi' a red
smokin'-cap on his heid, and a pair o' slippers wi' the heels cut off
and the taes turned up.
For a moment it cam into my held that maybe he was walkin' in his
sleep, but as he cam towards me I could see the glint o' the licht in
his e'en, and his face was a' twistin', like a man that's in sair
distress o' mind. On my conscience, it gies me the shakes noo when I
think o' his tall figure and his yelley face comin' sae solemn and
silent doon the lang, lone passage.
I haud my breath and lay close watchin' him, but just as he cam tae
where I was my vera hairt stood still in my breast, for “ting!”—loud
and clear, within a yaird o' me cam the ringin', clangin' soond that I
had a'ready hairkened tae.
Where it cam frae is mair than I can tell or what was the cause o't.
It might ha' been that the general made it, but I was sair puzzled tae
tell hoo, for his honds were baith doon by his side as he passed me. It
cam frae his direction, certainly, but it appeared tae me tae come frae
ower his heid, but it was siccan a thin, eerie, high-pitched, uncanny
kind o' soond that it wasna easy tae say just exactly where it did come
The general tuk nae heed o't, but walked on and was soon oot o'
sicht, and I didna lose a minute in creepin' oot frae my hidin' place
and scamperin' awa' back tae my room, and if a' the bogies in the Red
Sea were trapesin' up and doon the hale nicht through, I wud never put
my heid oot again tae hae a glimpse o' them.
I didna say a word tae anybody aboot what I'd seen, but I made up my
mind that I wudna stay muckle langer at Cloomber Ha'. Four pund a month
is a good wage, but it isna enough tae pay a man for the loss o' his
peace o' mind, and maybe the loss o' his soul as weel, for when the
deil is aboot ye canna tell what sort o' a trap he may lay for ye, and
though they say that Providence is stronger than him, it's maybe as
weel no' to risk it.
It was clear tae me that the general and his hoose were baith under
some curse, and it was fit that that curse should fa' on them that had
earned it, and no' on a righteous Presbyterian, wha had ever trod the
My hairt was sair for young Miss Gabriel—for she was a bonnie and
winsome lassie—but for a' that, I felt that my duty was tae mysel' and
that I should gang forth, even as Lot ganged oot o' the wicked cities
o' the plain.
That awfu' cling-clang was aye dingin' in my lugs, and I couldna
bear to be alane in the passages for fear o' hearin' it ance again. I
only wanted a chance or an excuse tae gie the general notice, and tae
gang back to some place where I could see Christian folk, and have the
kirk within a stone-cast tae fa' back upon.
But it proved tae be ordained that, instead o' my saying the word,
it should come frae the general himsel'.
It was ane day aboot the beginning of October, I was comin' oot o'
the stable, after giein' its oats tae the horse, when I seed a great
muckle loon come hoppin' on ane leg up the drive, mair like a big,
ill-faured craw than a man.
When I clapped my een on him I thocht that maybe this was ane of the
rascals that the maister had been speakin' aboot, so withoot mair ado I
fetched oot my bit stick with the intention o' tryin' it upon the
limmer's heid. He seed me comin' towards him, and readin' my intention
frae my look maybe, or frae the stick in my hand, he pu'ed oot a lang
knife frae his pocket and swore wi' the most awfu' oaths that if I
didna stan' back he'd be the death o' me.
Ma conscience! the words the chiel used was eneugh tae mak' the hair
stand straight on your heid. I wonder he wasna struck deid where he
We were still standin' opposite each ither—he wi' his knife and me
wi' the stick—when the general he cam up the drive and foond us. Tae
my surprise he began tae talk tae the stranger as if he'd kenned him a'
“Put your knife in your pocket, Corporal,” says he. “Your fears have
turned your brain.”
“Blood an' wounds!” says the other. “He'd ha' turned my brain tae
some purpose wi' that muckle stick o' his if I hadna drawn my
snickersnee. You shouldna keep siccan an auld savage on your premises.”
The maister he frooned and looked black at him, as though he didna
relish advice comin' frae such a source. Then turnin' tae me—“You
won't be wanted after to-day, Israel,” he says; “you have been a guid
servant, and I ha' naething tae complain of wi' ye, but circumstances
have arisen which will cause me tae change my arrangements.”
“Vera guid, sir,” says I.
“You can go this evening,” says he, “and you shall have an extra
month's pay tae mak up t'ye for this short notice.”
Wi' that he went intae the hoose, followed by the man that he ca'ed
the corporal, and frae that day tae this I have never clapped een
either on the ane or the ither. My money was sent oot tae me in an
envelope, and havin' said a few pairtin' words tae the cook and the
wench wi' reference tae the wrath tae come and the treasure that is
richer than rubies, I shook the dust o' Cloomber frae my feet for ever.
Maister Fothergill West says I maunna express an opeenion as tae
what cam aboot afterwards, but maun confine mysel' tae what I saw
mysel'. Nae doubt he has his reasons for this—and far be it frae me
tae hint that they are no' guid anes—but I maun say this, that what
happened didna surprise me. It was just as I expeckit, and so I said
tae Maister Donald McSnaw.
I've tauld ye a' aboot it noo, and I havena a word tae add or tae
withdraw. I'm muckle obleeged tae Maister Mathew Clairk for puttin' it
a' doon in writin' for me, and if there's ony would wish tae speer
onything mair o' me I'm well kenned and respeckit in Ecclefechan, and
Maister McNeil, the factor o' Wigtown, can aye tell where I am tae be
 The old rascal was well paid for his trouble, so he need not
have made such a favour of it.—J.F.W.
Having given the statement of Israel Stakes in extenso, I
shall append a short memorandum from Dr. Easterling, now practising at
Stranraer. It is true that the doctor was only once within the walls of
Cloomber during its tenancy by General Heatherstone, but there were
some circumstances connected with this visit which made it valuable,
especially when considered as a supplement to the experiences which I
have just submitted to the reader.
The doctor has found time amid the calls of a busy country practice
to jot down his recollections, and I feel that I cannot do better than
subjoin them exactly as they stand.
I have very much pleasure in furnishing Mr. Fothergill West with an
account of my solitary visit to Cloomber Hall, not only on account of
the esteem which I have formed for that gentleman ever since his
residence at Branksome, but also because it is my conviction that the
facts in the case of General Heatherstone are of such a singular nature
that it is of the highest importance that they should be placed before
the public in a trustworthy manner.
It was about the beginning of September of last year that I received
a note from Mrs. Heatherstone, of Cloomber Hall, desiring me to make a
professional call upon her husband, whose health, she said, had been
for some time in a very unsatisfactory state.
I had heard something of the Heatherstones and of the strange
seclusion in which they lived, so that I was very much pleased at this
opportunity of making their closer acquaintance, and lost no time in
complying with her request.
I had known the Hall in the old days of Mr. McVittie, the original
proprietor, and I was astonished on arriving at the avenue gate to
observe the changes which had taken place.
The gate itself, which used to yawn so hospitably upon the road, was
now barred and locked, and a high wooden fence, with nails upon the
top, encircled the whole grounds. The drive itself was leaf-strewn and
uncared-for, and the whole place had a depressing air of neglect and
I had to knock twice before a servant-maid opened the door and
showed me through a dingy hall into a small room, where sat an elderly,
careworn lady, who introduced herself as Mrs. Heatherstone. With her
pale face, her grey hair, her sad, colourless eyes, and her faded silk
dress, she was in perfect keeping with her melancholy surroundings.
“You find us in much trouble, doctor,” she said, in a quiet, refined
voice. “My poor husband has had a great deal to worry him, and his
nervous system for a long time has been in a very weak state. We came
to this part of the country in the hope that the bracing air and the
quiet would have a good effect upon him. Instead of improving, however,
he has seemed to grow weaker, and this morning he is in a high fever
and a little inclined to be delirious. The children and I were so
frightened that we sent for you at once. If you will follow me I will
take you to the general's bedroom.”
She led the way down a series of corridors to the chamber of the
sick man, which was situated in the extreme wing of the building.
It was a carpetless, bleak-looking room, scantily furnished with a
small truckle bed, a campaigning chair, and a plain deal table, on
which were scattered numerous papers and books. In the centre of this
table there stood a large object of irregular outline, which was
covered over with a sheet of linen.
All round the walls and in the corners were arranged a very choice
and varied collection of arms, principally swords, some of which were
of the straight pattern in common use in the British Army, while among
the others were scimitars, tulwars, cuchurries, and a score of other
specimens of Oriental workmanship. Many of these were richly mounted,
with inlaid sheaths and hilts sparkling with precious stones, so that
there was a piquant contrast between the simplicity of the apartment
and the wealth which glittered on the walls.
I had little time, however, to observe the general's collection,
since the general himself lay upon the couch and was evidently in sore
need of my services.
He was lying with his head turned half away from us. Breathing
heavily, and apparently unconscious of our presence. His bright,
staring eyes and the deep, hectic flush upon his cheek showed that his
fever was at its height.
I advanced to the bedside, and, stooping over him, I placed my
fingers upon his pulse, when immediately he sprang up into the sitting
position and struck at me frenziedly with his clenched hands. I have
never seen such intensity of fear and horror stamped upon a human face
as appeared upon that that which was now glaring up at me.
“Bloodhound!” he yelled; “let me go—let me go, I say! Keep your
hands off me! Is it not enough that my life has been ruined? When is it
all to end? How long am I to endure it?”
“Hush, dear, hush!” said his wife in a soothing voice, passing her
cool hand over his heated forehead. “This is Doctor Easterling, from
Stranraer. He has not come to harm you, but to do you good.”
The general dropped wearily back upon his pillow, and I could see by
the changed expression of his face that his delirium had left him, and
that he understood what had been said.
I slipped my clinical thermometer into his armpit and counted his
pulse rate. It amounted to 120 per minute, and his temperature proved
to be 104 degrees. Clearly it was a case of remittent fever, such as
occurs in men who have spent a great part of their lives in the
“There is no danger,” I remarked. “With a little quinine and arsenic
we shall very soon overcome the attack and restore his health.”
“No danger, eh?” he said. “There never is any danger for me. I am as
hard to kill as the Wandering Jew. I am quite clear in the head now,
Mary; so you may leave me with the doctor.”
Mrs. Heatherstone left the room-rather unwillingly, as I
thought—and I sat down by the bedside to listen to anything which my
patient might have to communicate.
“I want you to examine my liver,” he said when the door was closed.
“I used to have an abscess there, and Brodie, the staff-surgeon, said
that it was ten to one that it would carry me off. I have not felt much
of it since I left the East. This is where it used to be, just under
the angle of the ribs.”
“I can find the place,” said I, after making a careful examination;
“but I am happy to tell you that the abscess has either been entirely
absorbed, or has turned calcareous, as these solitary abscesses will.
There is no fear of its doing you any harm now.”
He seemed to be by no means overjoyed at the intelligence.
“Things always happen so with me,” he said moodily. “Now, if another
fellow was feverish and delirious he would surely be in some danger,
and yet you will tell me that I am in none. Look at this, now.” He
bared his chest and showed me a puckered wound over the region of the
heart. “That's where the jezail bullet of a Hillman went in. You would
think that was in the right spot to settle a man, and yet what does it
do but glance upon a rib, and go clean round and out at the back,
without so much as penetrating what you medicos call the pleura. Did
ever you hear of such a thing?”
“You were certainly born under a lucky star,” I observed, with a
“That's a matter of opinion,” he answered, shaking his head. “Death
has no terrors for me, if it will but come in some familiar form, but I
confess that the anticipation of some strange, some preternatural form
of death is very terrible and unnerving”
“You mean,” said I, rather puzzled at his remark, “that you would
prefer a natural death to a death by violence?”
“No, I don't mean that exactly,” he answered. “I am too familiar
with cold steel and lead to be afraid of either. Do you know anything
about odyllic force, doctor?”
“No, I do not,” I replied, glancing sharply at him to see if there
were any signs of his delirium returning. His expression was
intelligent, however, and the feverish flush had faded from his cheeks.
“Ah, you Western scientific men are very much behind the day in some
things,” he remarked. “In all that is material and conducive to the
comfort of the body you are pre-eminent, but in what concerns the
subtle forces of Nature and the latent powers of the human spirit your
best men are centuries behind the humblest coolies of India. Countless
generations of beef-eating, comfort loving ancestors have given our
animal instincts the command over our spiritual ones. The body, which
should have been a mere tool for the use of the soul, has now become a
degrading prison in which it is confined. The Oriental soul and body
are not so welded together as ours are, and there is far less wrench
when they part in death”
“They do not appear to derive much benefit from this peculiarity in
their organisation,” I remarked incredulously.
“Merely the benefit of superior knowledge,” the general answered.
“If you were to go to India, probably the very first thing you would
see in the way of amusement would be a native doing what is called the
mango trick. Of course you have heard or read of it. The fellow plants
a mango seed, and makes passes over it until it sprouts and bears
leaves and fruit—all in the space of half-an-hour. It is not really a
trick— it is a power. These men know more than your Tyndalls or
Huxleys do about Nature's processes, and they can accelerate or retard
her workings by subtle means of which we have no conception. These
low-caste conjurers—as they are called—are mere vulgar dabblers, but
the men who have trod the higher path are as far superior to us in
knowledge as we are to the Hottentots or Patagonians.”
“You speak as if you were well acquainted with them,” I remarked.
“To my cost, I am,” he answered. “I have been brought in contact
with them in a way in which I trust no other poor chap ever will be.
But, really, as regards odyllic force, you ought to know something of
it, for it has a great future before it in your profession. You should
read Reichcnbach's 'Researches on Magnetism and Vital Force,' and
Gregory's 'Letters on Animal Magnetism.' These, supplemented by the
twenty-seven Aphorisms of Mesmer, and the works of Dr. Justinus Kerner,
of Weinsberg, would enlarge your ideas.”
I did not particularly relish having a course of reading prescribed
for me on a subject connected with my own profession, so I made no
comment, but rose to take my departure. Before doing so I felt his
pulse once more, and found that the fever had entirely left him in the
sudden, unaccountable fashion which is peculiar to these malarious
types of disease.
I turned my face towards him to congratulate him upon his
improvement, and stretched out my hand at the same time to pick my
gloves from the table, with the result that I raised not only my own
property, but also the linen cloth which was arranged over some object
in the centre.
I might not have noticed what I had done had I not seen an angry
look upon the invalid's face and heard him utter an impatient
exclamation. I at once turned, and replaced the cloth so promptly that
I should have been unable to say what was underneath it, beyond having
a general impression that it looked like a bride-cake.
“All right, doctor,” the general said good-humouredly, perceiving
how entirely accidental the incident was. “There is no reason why you
should not see it,” and stretching out his hand, he pulled away the
linen covering for the second time.
I then perceived that what I had taken for a bride-cake was really
an admirably executed model of a lofty range of mountains, whose
snow-clad peaks were not unlike the familiar sugar pinnacles and
“These are the Himalayas, or at least the Surinam branch of them,”
he remarked, “showing the principal passes between India and
Afghanistan. It is an excellent model. This ground has a special
interest for me, because it is the scene of my first campaign. There is
the pass opposite Kalabagh and the Thul valley, where I was engaged
during the summer of 1841 in protecting the convoys and keeping the
Afridis in order. It wasn't a sinecure, I promise you.”
“And this,” said I, indicating a blood-red spot which had been
marked on one side of the pass which he had pointed out—“this is the
scene of some fight in which you were engaged.”
“Yes, we had a skirmish there,” he answered, leaning forward and
looking at the red mark. “We were attacked by—”
At this moment he fell back upon his pillow as if he had been shot,
while the same look of horror came over his face which I had observed
when I first entered the room. At the same instant there came,
apparently from the air immediately above his bed, a sharp, ringing,
tinkling sound, which I can only compare with the noise made by a
bicycle alarm, though it differed from this in having a distinctly
throbbing character. I have never, before or since, heard any sound
which could be confounded with it.
I stared round in astonishment, wondering where it could have come
from, but without perceiving anything to which it could be ascribed.
“It's all right, doctor,” the general said with a ghastly smile.
“It's only my private gong. Perhaps you had better step downstairs and
write my prescription in the dining-room.”
He was evidently anxious to get rid of me, so I was forced to take
my departure, though I would gladly have stayed a little longer, in the
hope of learning something as to the origin of the mysterious sound.
I drove away from the house with the full determination of calling
again upon my interesting patient, and endeavouring to elicit some
further particulars as to his past life and his present circumstances.
I was destined, however, to be disappointed, for I received that very
evening a note from the general himself, enclosing a handsome fee for
my single visit, and informing me that my treatment had done him so
much good that he considered himself to be convalescent, and would not
trouble me to see him again.
This was the last and only communication which I ever received from
the tenant of Cloomber.
I have been asked frequently by neighbours and others who were
interested in the matter whether he gave me the impression of insanity.
To this I must unhesitatingly answer in the negative. On the contrary,
his remarks gave me the idea of a man who had both read and thought
I observed, however, during our single interview, that his reflexes
were feeble, his arcus senilis well marked, and his arteries
atheromatous— all signs that his constitution was in an unsatisfactory
condition, and that a sudden crisis might be apprehended.
Having thrown this side-light upon my narrative, I can now resume
the statement of my own personal experiences. These I had brought down,
as the reader will doubtless remember, to the date of the arrival of
the savage-looking wanderer who called himself Corporal Rufus Smith.
This incident occurred about the beginning of the month of October, and
I find upon a comparison of dates that Dr. Easterling's visit to
Cloomber preceded it by three weeks or more.
During all this time I was in sore distress of mind, for I had never
seen anything either of Gabriel or of her brother since the interview
in which the general had discovered the communication which was kept up
between us. I had no doubt that some sort of restraint had been placed
upon them; and the thought that we had brought trouble on their heads
was a bitter one both to my sister and myself.
Our anxiety, however, was considerably mitigated by the receipt, a
couple of days after my last talk with the general, of a note from
Mordaunt Heatherstone. This was brought us by a little, ragged urchin,
the son of one of the fishermen, who informed us that it had been
handed to him at the avenue gate by an old woman—who, I expect, must
have been the Cloomber cook.
“MY DEAREST FRIENDS,” it ran, “Gabriel and I have grieved to think
how concerned you must be at having neither heard from nor seen us. The
fact is that we are compelled to remain in the house. And this
compulsion is not physical but moral.
“Our poor father, who gets more and more nervous every day, has
entreated us to promise him that we will not go out until after the
fifth of October, and to allay his fears we have given him the desired
pledge. On the other hand, he has promised us that after the
fifth—that is, in less than a week—we shall be as free as air to come
or go as we please, so we have something to look forward to.
“Gabriel says that she has explained to you that the governor is
always a changed man after this particular date, on which his fears
reach a crisis. He apparently has more reason than usual this year to
anticipate that trouble is brewing for this unfortunate family, for I
have never known him to take so many elaborate precautions or appear so
thoroughly unnerved. Who would ever think, to see his bent form and his
shaking hands, that he is the same man who used some few short years
ago to shoot tigers on foot among the jungles of the Terai, and would
laugh at the more timid sportsmen who sought the protection of their
“You know that he has the Victoria Cross, which he won in the
streets of Delhi, and yet here he is shivering with terror and starting
at every noise, in the most peaceful corner of the world. Oh, the pity
of it. West! Remember what I have already told you—that it is no
fanciful or imaginary peril, but one which we have every reason to
suppose to be most real. It is, however, of such a nature that it can
neither be averted nor can it profitably be expressed in words. If all
goes well, you will see us at Branksome on the sixth.
“With our fondest love to both of you, I am ever, my dear friends,
This letter was a great relief to us as letting us know that the
brother and sister were under no physical restraint, but our
powerlessness and inability even to comprehend what the danger was
which threatened those whom we had come to love better than ourselves
was little short of maddening.
Fifty times a day we asked ourselves and asked each other from what
possible quarter this peril was to be expected, but the more we thought
of it the more hopeless did any solution appear.
In vain we combined our experiences and pieced together every word
which had fallen from the lips of any inmate of Cloomber which might be
supposed to bear directly or indirectly upon the subject.
At last, weary with fruitless speculation, we were fain to try to
drive the matter from our thoughts, consoling ourselves with the
reflection that in a few more days all restrictions would be removed,
and we should be able to learn from our friends' own lips.
Those few intervening days, however, would, we feared, be dreary,
long ones. And so they would have been, had it not been for a new and
most unexpected incident, which diverted our minds from our own
troubles and gave them something fresh with which to occupy themselves.
The third of October had broken auspiciously with a bright sun and a
cloudless sky. There had in the morning been a slight breeze, and a few
little white wreaths of vapour drifted here and there like the
scattered feathers of some gigantic bird, but, as the day wore on, such
wind as there was fell completely away, and the air became close and
The sun blazed down with a degree of heat which was remarkable so
late in the season, and a shimmering haze lay upon the upland moors and
concealed the Irish mountains on the other side of the Channel.
The sea itself rose and fell in a long, heavy, oily roll, sweeping
slowly landward, and breaking sullenly with a dull, monotonous booming
upon the rock-girt shore. To the inexperienced all seemed calm and
peaceful, but to those who are accustomed to read Nature's warnings
there was a dark menace in air and sky and sea.
My sister and I walked out in the afternoon, sauntering slowly along
the margin of the great, sandy spit which shoots out into the Irish
Sea, flanking upon one side the magnificent Bay of Luce, and on the
other the more obscure inlet of Kirkmaiden, on the shores of which the
Branksome property is situated.
It was too sultry to go far, so we soon seated ourselves upon one of
the sandy hillocks, overgrown with faded grass-tufts, which extend
along the coast-line, and which form Nature's dykes against the
encroachments of the ocean.
Our rest was soon interrupted by the scrunching of heavy boots upon
the shingle, and Jamieson, the old man-o'-war's man whom I have already
had occasion to mention, made his appearance, with the flat, circular
net upon his back which he used for shrimp-catching. He came towards us
upon seeing us, and said in his rough, kindly way that he hoped we
would not take it amiss if he sent us up a dish of shrimps for our tea
“I aye make a good catch before a storm,” he remarked.
“You think there is going to be a storm, then?” I asked.
“Why, even a marine could see that,” he answered, sticking a great
wedge of tobacco into his cheek. “The moors over near Cloomber are just
white wi' gulls and kittiewakes. What d'ye think they come ashore for
except to escape having all the feathers blown out o' them? I mind a
day like this when I was wi' Charlie Napier off Cronstadt. It well-nigh
blew us under the guns of the forts, for all our engines and
“Have you ever known a wreck in these parts?” I asked.
“Lord love ye, sir, it's a famous place for wrecks. Why, in that
very bay down there two o' King Philip's first-rates foundered wi' all
hands in the days o' the Spanish war. If that sheet o' water and the
Bay o' Luce round the corner could tell their ain tale they'd have a
gey lot to speak of. When the Jedgment Day comes round that water will
be just bubbling wi' the number o' folks that will be coming up frae
“I trust that there will be no wrecks while we are here,” said
The old man shook his grizzled head and looked distrustfully at the
“If it blows from the west,” he said, “some o' these sailing ships
may find it no joke to be caught without sea-room in the North Channel.
There's that barque out yonder—I daresay her maister would be glad
enough to find himsel' safe in the Clyde.”
“She seems to be absolutely motionless,” I remarked, looking at the
vessel in question, whose black hull and gleaming sails rose and fell
slowly with the throbbing of the giant pulse beneath her. “Perhaps,
Jamieson, we are wrong, and there will be no storm after all.”
The old sailor chuckled to himself with an air of superior
knowledge, and shuffled away with his shrimp-net, while my sister and I
walked slowly homewards through the hot and stagnant air.
I went up to my father's study to see if the old gentleman had any
instructions as to the estate, for he had become engrossed in a new
work upon Oriental literature, and the practical management of the
property had in consequence devolved entirely upon me.
I found him seated at his square library table, which was so heaped
with books and papers that nothing of him was visible from the door
except a tuft of white hair.
“My dear son,” he said to me as I entered, “it is a great grief to
me that you are not more conversant with Sanscrit. When I was your age,
I could converse not only in that noble language, but also in the
Tamulic, Lohitic, Gangelic, Taic, and Malaic dialects, which are all
offshoots from the Turanian branch.”
“I regret extremely, sir,” I answered, “that I have not inherited
your wonderful talents as a polyglot.”
“I have set myself a task,” he explained, “which, if it could only
be continued from generation to generation in our own family until it
was completed, would make the name of West immortal. This is nothing
less than to publish an English translation of the Buddhist Djarmas,
with a preface giving an idea of the position of Brahminism before the
coming of Sakyamuni. With diligence it is possible that I might be able
myself to complete part of the preface before I die.”
“And pray, sir,” I asked, “how long would the whole work be when it
“The abridged edition in the Imperial Library of Pekin,” said my
father, rubbing his hands together, “consists of 325 volumes of an
average weight of five pounds. Then tile preface, which must embrace
some account of the Rig-veda, the Sama-veda, the Yagur-veda, and the
Atharva- veda, with the Brahmanas, could hardly be completed in less
than ten volumes. Now, if we apportion one volume to each year, there
is every prospect of the family coming to an end of its task about the
date 2250, the twelfth generation completing the work, while the
thirteenth might occupy itself upon the index.”
“And how are our descendants to live, sir,” I asked, with a smile,
“during the progress of this great undertaking:'“
“That's the worst of you, Jack,” my father cried petulantly. “There
is nothing practical about you. Instead of confining your attention to
the working out of my noble scheme, you begin raising all sorts of
absurd objections. It is a mere matter of detail how our descendants
live, so long as they stick to the Djarmas. Now, I want you to go up to
the bothy of Fergus McDonald and see about the thatch, and Willie
Fullerton has written to say that his milk-cow is bad. You might took
in upon your way and ask after it.”
I started off upon my errands, but before doing so I took a look at
the barometer upon the wall. The mercury had sunk to the phenomenal
point of twenty-eight inches. Clearly the old sailor had not been wrong
in his interpretation of Nature's signs.
As I returned over the moors in the evening, the wind was blowing in
short, angry puffs, and the western horizon was heaped with sombre
clouds which stretched their long, ragged tentacles right up to the
Against their dark background one or two livid, sulphur-coloured
splotches showed up malignant and menacing, while the surface of the
sea had changed from the appearance of burnished quicksilver to that of
ground glass. A low, moaning sound rose up from the ocean as if it knew
that trouble was in store for it.
Far out in the Channel I saw a single panting, eager steam vessel
making ifs way to Belfast Lough, and the large barque which I had
observed in the morning still beating about in the offing, endeavouring
to pass to the northward.
At nine o'clock a sharp breeze was blowing, at ten it had freshened
into a gale, and before midnight the most furious storm was raging
which I can remember upon that weather-beaten coast.
I sat for some time in our small, oak-panelled sitting-room
listening to the screeching and howling of the blast and to the rattle
of the gravel and pebbles as they pattered against the window. Nature's
grim orchestra was playing its world-old piece with a compass which
ranged from the deep diapason of the thundering surge to the thin
shriek of the scattered shingle and the keen piping of frightened sea
Once for an instant I opened the lattice window, but a gust of wind
and rain came blustering through, bearing with it a great sheet of
seaweed, which flapped down upon the table. It was all I could do to
close it again with a thrust of my shoulder in the face of the blast.
My sister and father had retired to their rooms, but my thoughts
were too active for sleep, so I continued to sit and to smoke by the
What was going on in the Hall now, I wondered? What did Gabriel
think of the storm, and how did it affect the old man who wandered
about in the night? Did he welcome these dread forces of Nature as
being of the same order of things as his own tumultuous thoughts?
It was only two days now from the date which I had been assured was
to mark a crisis in his fortunes. Would he regard this sudden tempest
as being in any way connected with the mysterious fate which threatened
Over all these things and many more I pondered as I sat by the
glowing embers until they died gradually out, and the chill night air
warned me that it was time to retire.
I may have slept a couple of hours when I was awakened by some one
tugging furiously at my shoulder. Sitting up in bed, I saw by the dim
light that my father was standing half-clad by my bedside, and that it
was his grasp which I felt on my night-shirt.
“Get up, Jack, get up!” he was crying excitedly. “There's a great
ship ashore in the bay, and the poor folk will all be drowned. Come
down, my boy, and let us see what we can do.”
The good old man seemed to be nearly beside himself with excitement
and impatience. I sprang from my bed, and was huddling on a few
clothes, when a dull, booming sound made itself heard above the howling
of the wind and the thunder of the breakers.
“There it is again!” cried my father. “It is their signal gun, poor
creatures! Jamieson and the fishermen are below. Put your oil-skin coat
on and the Glengarry hat. Come, come, every second may mean a human
We hurried down together and made our way to the beach, accompanied
by a dozen or so of the inhabitants of Branksome.
The gale had increased rather than moderated, and the wind screamed
all round us with an infernal clamour. So great was its force that we
had to put our shoulders against it, and bore our way through it, while
the sand and gravel tingled up against our faces.
There was just light enough to make out the scudding clouds and the
white gleam of the breakers, but beyond that all was absolute darkness.
We stood ankle deep in the shingle and seaweed, shading our eyes
with our hands and peering out into the inky obscurity.
It seemed to me as I listened that I could hear human voices loud in
intreaty and terror, but amid the wild turmoil of Nature it was
difficult to distinguish one sound from another.
Suddenly, however, a light glimmered in the heart of the tempest,
and next instant the beach and sea and wide, tossing bay were
brilliantly illuminated by the wild glare of a signal light.
The ship lay on her beam-ends right in the centre of the terrible
Hansel reef, hurled over to such an angle that I could see all the
planking of her deck. I recognised her at once as being the same
three-masted barque which I had observed in the Channel in the morning,
and the Union Jack which was nailed upside down to the jagged slump of
her mizzen proclaimed her nationality.
Every spar and rope and writhing piece of cordage showed up hard and
clear under the vivid light which spluttered and flickered from the
highest portion of the forecastle. Beyond the doomed ship, out of the
great darkness came the long, rolling lines of big waves, never ending,
never tiring, with a petulant tuft of foam here and there upon their
crests. Each as it reached the broad circle of unnatural light appeared
to gather strength and volume and to hurry on more impetuously until
with a roar and a jarring crash it sprang upon its victim.
Clinging to the weather shrouds we could distinctly see ten or a
dozen frightened seamen who, when the light revealed our presence,
turned their white faces towards us and waved their hands imploringly.
The poor wretches had evidently taken fresh hope from our presence,
though it was clear that their own boats had either been washed away or
so damaged as to render them useless.
The sailors who clung to the rigging were not, however, the only
unfortunates on board. On the breaking poop there stood three men who
appeared to be both of a different race and nature from the cowering
wretches who implored our assistance.
Leaning upon the shattered taff-rail they seemed to be conversing
together as quietly and unconcernedly as though they were unconscious
of the deadly peril which surrounded them.
As the signal light flickered over them, we could see from the shore
that these immutable strangers wore red fezes, and that their faces
were of a swarthy, large-featured type, which proclaimed an Eastern
There was little time, however, for us to take note of such details.
The ship was breaking rapidly, and some effort must be made to save the
poor, sodden group of humanity who implored our assistance.
The nearest lifeboat was in the Bay of Luce, ten long miles away,
but here was our own broad, roomy craft upon the shingle, and plenty of
brave fisher lads to form a crew. Six of us sprang to the oars, the
others pushed us off, and we fought our way through the swirling,
raging waters, staggering and recoiling before the great, sweeping
billows, but still steadily decreasing the distance between the barque
It seemed, however, that our efforts were fated to be in vain.
As we mounted upon a surge I saw a giant wave, topping all the
others, and coming after them like a driver following a flock, sweep
down upon the vessel, curling its great, green arch over the breaking
With a rending, riving sound the ship split in two where the
terrible, serrated back of the Hansel reef was sawing into her keel.
The after-part, with the broken mizzen and the three Orientals, sank
backwards into deep water and vanished, while the fore-half oscillated
helplessly about, retaining its precarious balance upon the rocks.
A wail of fear went up from the wreck and was echoed from the beach,
but by the blessing of Providence she kept afloat until we made our way
under her bowsprit and rescued every man of the crew.
We had not got half-way upon our return, however, when another great
wave swept the shattered forecastle off the reef, and, extinguishing
the signal light, hid the wild denouement from our view.
Our friends upon the shore were loud in congratulation and praise,
nor were they backward in welcoming and comforting the castaways. They
were thirteen in all, as cold and cowed a set of mortals as ever
slipped through Death's fingers, save, indeed, their captain, who was a
hardy, robust man, and who made light of the affair.
Some were taken off to this cottage and some to that, but the
greater part came back to Branksome with us, where we gave them such
dry clothes as we could lay our hands on, and served them with beef and
beer by the kitchen fire. The captain, whose name was Meadows,
compressed his bulky form into a suit of my own, and came down to the
parlour, where he mixed himself some grog and gave my father and myself
an account of the disaster.
“If it hadn't been for you, sir, and your brave fellows,” he said,
smiling across at me, “we should be ten fathoms deep by this time. As
to the Belinda, she was a leaky old tub and well insured, so
neither the owners nor I are likely to break our hearts over her.”
“I am afraid,” said my father sadly, “that we shall never see your
three passengers again. I have left men upon the beach in case they
should be washed up, but I fear it is hopeless. I saw them go down when
the vessel split, and no man could have lived for a moment among that
“Who were they?” I asked. “I could not have believed that it was
possible for men to appear so unconcerned in the face of such imminent
“As to who they are or were,” the captain answered, puffing
thoughtfully at his pipe, “that is by no means easy to say. Our last
port was Kurrachee, in the north of India, and there we took them
aboard as passengers for Glasgow. Ram Singh was the name of the
younger, and it is only with him that I have come in contact, but they
all appeared to be quiet, inoffensive gentlemen. I never inquired their
business, but I should judge that they were Parsee merchants from
Hyderabad whose trade took them to Europe. I could never see why the
crew should fear them, and the mate, too, he should have had more
“Fear them I!” I ejaculated in surprise.
“Yes, they had some preposterous idea that they were dangerous
shipmates. I have no doubt if you were to go down into the kitchen now
you would find that they are all agreed that our passengers were the
cause of the whole disaster.”
As the captain was speaking the parlour door opened and the mate of
the barque, a tall, red-bearded sailor, stepped in. He had obtained a
complete rig-out from some kind-hearted fisherman, and looked in his
comfortable jersey and well-greased seaboots a very favourable specimen
of a shipwrecked mariner.
With a few words of grateful acknowledgment of our hospitality, he
drew a chair up to the fire and warmed his great, brown hands before
“What d'ye think now, Captain Meadows?” he asked presently, glancing
up at his superior officer. “Didn't I warn you what would be the upshot
of having those niggers on board the Belinda?”
The captain leant back in his chair and laughed heartily.
“Didn't I tell you?” he cried, appealing to us. “Didn't I tell you?”
“It might have been no laughing matter for us,” the other remarked
petulantly. “I have lost a good sea-kit and nearly my life into the
“Do I understand you to say,” said I, “that you attribute your
misfortunes to your ill-fated passengers?”
The mate opened his eyes at the adjective.
“Why ill-fated, sir?” he asked.
“Because they are most certainly drowned,” I answered.
He sniffed incredulously and went on warming his hands.
“Men of that kind are never drowned,” he said, after a pause. “Their
father, the devil, looks after them. Did you see them standing on the
poop and rolling cigarettes at the time when the mizzen was carried
away and the quarter-boats stove? That was enough for me. I'm not
surprised at you landsmen not being able to take it in, but the captain
here, who's been sailing since he was the height of the binnacle, ought
to know by this time that a cat and a priest are the worst cargo you
can carry. If a Christian priest is bad, I guess an idolatrous pagan
one is fifty times worse. I stand by the old religion, and be d—d to
My father and I could not help laughing at the rough sailor's very
unorthodox way of proclaiming his orthodoxy. The mate, however, was
evidently in deadly earnest, and proceeded to state his case, marking
off the different points upon the rough, red fingers of his left hand.
“It was at Kurrachee, directly after they come that I warned ye,” he
said reproachfully to the captain. “There was three Buddhist Lascars in
my watch, and what did they do when them chaps come aboard? Why, they
down on their stomachs and rubbed their noses on the deck—that's what
they did. They wouldn't ha' done as much for an admiral of the R'yal
Navy. They know who's who—these niggers do; and I smelt mischief the
moment I saw them on their faces. I asked them afterwards in your
presence, Captain, why they had done it, and they answered that the
passengers were holy men. You heard 'em yourself.”
“Well, there's no harm in that, Hawkins,” said Captain Meadows.
“I don't know that,” the mate said doubtfully. “The holiest
Christian is the one that's nearest God, but the holiest nigger is, in
my opinion, the one that's nearest the devil. Then you saw yourself,
Captain Meadows, how they went on during the voyage, reading books that
was writ on wood instead o' paper, and sitting up right through the
night to jabber together on the quarter-deck. What did they want to
have a chart of their own for and to mark the course of the vessel
“They didn't,” said the captain.
“Indeed they did, and if I did not tell you sooner it was because
you were always ready to laugh at what I said about them. They had
instruments o' their own—when they used them I can't say—but every
day at noon they worked out the latitude and longitude, and marked out
the vessel's position on a chart that was pinned on their cabin table.
I saw them at it, and so did the steward from his pantry.”
“Well, I don't see what you prove from that,” the captain remarked,”
though I confess it is a strange thing.”
“I'll tell you another strange thing,” said the mate impressively.
“Do you know the name of this bay in which we are cast away?”
“I have learnt from our kind friends here that we are upon the
Wigtownshire coast,” the captain answered, “but I have not heard the
name of the bay.”
The mate leant forward with a grave face.
“It is the Bay of Kirkmaiden,” he said.
If he expected to astonish Captain Meadows he certainly succeeded,
for that gentleman was fairly bereft of speech for a minute or more.
“This is really marvellous,” he said, after a time, turning to us.
“These passengers of ours cross-questioned us early in tile voyage as
to the existence of a bay of that name. Hawkins here and I denied all
knowledge of one, for on the chart it is included in the Bay of Luce.
That we should eventually be blown into it and destroyed is an
“Too extraordinary to be a coincidence,” growled the mate. “I saw
them during the calm yesterday morning, pointing to the land over our
starboard quarter. They knew well enough that that was the port they
were making for.”
“What do you make of it all, then, Hawkins?” asked the captain, with
a troubled face. “What is your own theory on the matter?”
“Why, in my opinion,” the mate answered, “them three swabs have no
more difficulty in raising a gale o' wind than I should have in
swallowing this here grog. They had reasons o' their own for coming to
this God-forsaken—saving your presence, sirs—this God-forsaken bay,
and they took a short cut to it by arranging to be blown ashore there.
That's my idea o' the matter, though what three Buddhist priests could
find to do in the Bay of Kirkmaiden is clean past my comprehension.”
My father raised his eyebrows to indicate the doubt which his
hospitality forbade him from putting into words.
“I think, gentlemen,” he said, “that you are both sorely in need of
rest after your perilous adventures. If you will follow me I shall lead
you to your rooms.”
He conducted them with old-fashioned ceremony to the laird's best
spare bedroom, and then, returning to me in the parlour, proposed that
we should go down together to the beach and learn whether anything
fresh had occurred.
The first pale light of dawn was just appearing in the east when we
made our way for the second time to the scene of the shipwreck. The
gale had blown itself out, but the sea was still very high, and all
inside the breakers was a seething, gleaming line of foam, as though
the fierce old ocean were gnashing its white fangs at the victims who
had escaped from its clutches.
All along the beach fishermen and crofters were hard at work hauling
up spars and barrels as fast as they were tossed ashore. None of them
had seen any bodies, however, and they explained to us that only such
things as could float had any chance of coming ashore, for the
undercurrent was so strong that whatever was beneath the surface must
infallibly be swept out to sea.
As to the possibility of the unfortunate passengers having been able
to reach the shore, these practical men would not hear of it for a
moment, and showed us conclusively that if they had not been drowned
they must have been dashed to pieces upon the rocks.
“We did all that could be done,” my father said sadly, as we
returned home. “I am afraid that the poor mate has had his reason
affected by the suddenness of the disaster. Did you hear what he said
about Buddhist priests raising a gale?”
“Yes, I heard him,” said I. “It was very painful to listen to him,”
said my father. “I wonder if he would object to my putting a small
mustard plaster under each of his ears. It would relieve any congestion
of the brain. Or perhaps it would be best to wake him up and give him
two antibilious pills. What do you think, Jack?”
“I think,” said I, with a yawn, “that you had best let him sleep,
and go to sleep yourself. You can physic him in the morning if he needs
So saying I stumbled off to my bedroom, and throwing myself upon the
couch was soon in a dreamless slumber.
It must have been eleven or twelve o'clock before I awoke, and it
seemed to me in the flood of golden light which streamed into my
chamber that the wild, tumultuous episodes of the night before must
have formed part of some fantastic dream.
It was hard to believe that the gentle breeze which whispered so
softly among the ivy-leaves around my window was caused by the same
element which had shaken the very house a few short hours before. It
was as if Nature had repented of her momentary passion and was
endeavouring to make amends to an injured world by its warmth and its
sunshine. A chorus of birds in the garden below filled the whole air
with their wonder and congratulations.
Down in the hall I found a number of the shipwrecked sailors,
looking all the better for their night's repose, who set up a buzz of
pleasure and gratitude upon seeing me.
Arrangements had been made to drive them to Wigtown, whence they
were to proceed to Glasgow by the evening train, and my father had
given orders that each should be served with a packet of sandwiches and
hard-boiled eggs to sustain him on the way.
Captain Meadows thanked us warmly in the name of his employers for
the manner in which we had treated them, and he called for three cheers
from his crew, which were very heartily given. He and the mate walked
down with us after we had broken our fast to have a last look at the
scene of the disaster.
The great bosom of the bay was still heaving convulsively, and its
waves were breaking into sobs against the rocks, but there was none of
that wild turmoil which we had seen in the early morning. The long,
emerald ridges, with their little, white crests of foam, rolled slowly
and majestically in, to break with a regular rhythm—the panting of a
A cable length from the shore we could see the mainmast of the
barque floating upon the waves, disappearing at times in the trough of
the sea, and then shooting up towards Heaven like a giant javelin,
shining and dripping as the rollers tossed it about. Other smaller
pieces of wreckage dotted the waters, while innumerable spars and
packages were littered over the sands. These were being drawn up and
collected in a place of safety by gangs of peasants. I noticed that a
couple of broad-winged gulls were hovering and skimming over the scene
of the shipwreck, as though many strange things were visible to them
beneath the waves. At times we could hear their raucous voices as they
cried to one another of what they saw.
“She was a leaky old craft,” said the captain, looking sadly out to
sea, “but there's always a feeling of sorrow when we see the last of a
ship we have sailed in. Well, well, she would have been broken up in
any case, and sold for firewood.”
“It looks a peaceful scene,” I remarked. “Who would imagine that
three men lost their lives last night in those very waters?”
“Poor fellows,” said the captain, with feeling, “Should they be cast
up after our departure, I am sure, Mr. West, that you will have them
I was about to make some reply when the mate burst into a loud
guffaw, slapping his thigh and choking with merriment.
“If you want to bury them,” he said, “you had best look sharp, or
they may clear out of the country. You remember what I said last night?
Just look at the top of that 'ere hillock, and tell me whether I was in
the right or not?”
There was a high sand dune some little distance along the coast, and
upon the summit of this the figure was standing which had attracted the
mate's attention. The captain threw up his hands in astonishment as his
eyes rested upon it.
“By the eternal,” he shouted, “it's Ram Singh himself! Let us
Taking to his heels in his excitement he raced along the beach,
followed by the mate and myself, as well as by one or two of the
fishermen who had observed the presence of the stranger.
The latter, perceiving our approach, came down from his post of
observation and walked quietly in our direction, with his head sunk
upon his breast, like one who is absorbed in thought.
I could not help contrasting our hurried and tumultuous advance with
the gravity and dignity of this lonely Oriental, nor was the matter
mended when he raised a pair of steady, thoughtful dark eyes and
inclined his head in a graceful, sweeping salutation. It seemed to me
that we were like a pack of schoolboys in the presence of a master.
The stranger's broad, unruffled brow, his clear, searching gaze,
firm-set yet sensitive mouth, and clean-cut, resolute expression, all
combined to form the most imposing and noble presence which I had ever
known. I could not have imagined that such imperturbable calm and at
the same time such a consciousness of latent strength could have been
expressed by any human face.
He was dressed in a brown velveteen coat, loose, dark trousers, with
a shirt that was cut low in the collar, so as to show the muscular,
brown neck, and he still wore the red fez which I had noticed the night
I observed with a feeling of surprise, as we approached him, that
none of these garments showed the slightest indication of the rough
treatment and wetting which they must have received during their
wearer's submersion and struggle to the shore.
“So you are none the worse for your ducking,” he said in a pleasant,
musical voice, looking from the captain to the mate. “I hope that your
poor sailors have found pleasant quarters.”
“We are all safe,” the captain answered. “But we had given you up
for lost—you and your two friends. Indeed, I was just making
arrangements for your burial with Mr. West here.”
The stranger looked at me and smiled.
“We won't give Mr. West that trouble for a little time yet,” he
remarked; “my friends and I came ashore all safe, and we have found
shelter in a hut a mile or so along the coast. It is lonely down there,
but we have everything which we can desire.”
“We start for Glasgow this afternoon,” said the captain; “I shall be
very glad if you will come with us. If you have not been in England
before you may find it awkward travelling alone.”
“We are very much indebted to you for your thoughtfulness,” Ram
Singh answered; “but we will not take advantage of your kind offer.
Since Nature has driven us here we intend to have a look about us
before we leave.”
“As you like,” the captain said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don't
think you are likely to find very much to interest you in this hole of
“Very possibly not,” Ram Singh answered with an amused smile. “You
remember Milton's lines:
'The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a hell of Heaven,
a heaven of Hell.'
I dare say we can spend a few days here comfortably enough. Indeed,
I think you must be wrong in considering this to be a barbarous
locality. I am much mistaken if this young gentleman's father is not
Mr. James Hunter West, whose name is known and honoured by the pundits
“My father is, indeed, a well-known Sanscrit scholar,” I answered in
“The presence of such a man,” observed the stranger slowly, “changes
a wilderness into a city. One great mind is surely a higher indication
of civilisation than are incalculable leagues of bricks and mortar.
“Your father is hardly so profound as Sir William Jones, or so
universal as the Baron Von Hammer-Purgstall, but he combines many of
the virtues of each. You may tell him, however, from me that he is
mistaken in the analogy which he has traced between the Samoyede and
Tamulic word roots.”
“If you have determined to honour our neighbourhood by a short
stay,” said I, “you will offend my father very much if you do not put
up with him. He represents the laird here, and it is the laird's
privilege, according to our Scottish custom, to entertain all strangers
of repute who visit this parish.”
My sense of hospitality prompted me to deliver this invitation,
though I could feel the mate twitching at my sleeves as if to warn me
that the offer was, for some reason, an objectionable one. His fears
were, however, unnecessary, for the stranger signified by a shake of
the head that it was impossible for him to accept it.
“My friends and I are very much obliged to you,” he said, “but we
have our own reasons for remaining where we are. The hut which we
occupy is deserted and partly ruined, but we Easterns have trained
ourselves to do without most of those things which are looked upon as
necessaries in Europe, believing firmly in that wise axiom that a man
is rich, not in proportion to what he has, but in proportion to what he
can dispense with. A good fisherman supplies us with bread and with
herbs, we have clean, dry straw for our couches; what could man wish
“But you must feel the cold at night, coming straight from the
tropics,” remarked the captain. “Perhaps our bodies are cold sometimes.
We have not noticed it. We have all three spent many years in the Upper
Himalayas on the border of the region of eternal snow, so we are not
very sensitive to inconveniences of the sort.”
“At least,” said I, “you must allow me to send you over some fish
and some meat from our larder.”
“We are not Christians,” he answered, “but Buddhists of the higher
school. We do not recognise that man has a moral right to slay an ox or
a fish for the gross use of his body. He has not put life into them,
and has assuredly no mandate from the Almighty to take life from them
save under most pressing need. We could not, therefore, use your gift
if you were to send it.”
“But, sir,” I remonstrated, “if in this changeable and inhospitable
climate you refuse all nourishing food your vitality will fail you—you
“We shall die then,” he answered, with an amused smile. “And now,
Captain Meadows, I must bid you adieu, thanking you for your kindness
during the voyage, and you, too, good-bye—you will command a ship of
your own before the year is out. I trust, Mr. West, that I may see you
again before I leave this part of the country. Farewell!”
He raised his red fez, inclined his noble head with the stately
grace which characterised all his actions, and strode away in the
direction from which he had come.
“Let me congratulate you, Mr. Hawkins,” said the captain to the mate
as we walked homewards. “You are to command your own ship within the
“No such luck!” the mate answered, with a pleased smile upon his
mahogany face, “still, there's no saying how things may come out. What
d'ye think of him, Mr. West?”
“Why,” said I, “I am very much interested in him. What a magnificent
head and bearing he has for a young man. I suppose he cannot be more
“Forty,” said the mate.
“Sixty, if he is a day,” remarked Captain Meadows. “Why, I have
heard him talk quite familiarly of the first Afghan war. He was a man
then, and that is close on forty years ago.”
“Wonderful!” I ejaculated. “His skin is as smooth and his eyes are
as clear as mine are. He is the superior priest of the three, no
“The inferior,” said the captain confidently. “That is why he does
all the talking for them. Their minds are too elevated to descend to
mere worldly chatter.”
“They are the strangest pieces of flotsam and jetsam that were ever
thrown upon this coast,” I remarked. “My father will be mightily
interested in them.”
“Indeed, I think the less you have to do with them the better for
you,” said the mate. “If I do command my own ship I'll promise you that
I never carry live stock of that sort on board of her. But here we are
all aboard and the anchor tripped, so we must bid you good-bye.”
The wagonette had just finished loading up when we arrived, and the
chief places, on either side of the driver, had been reserved for my
two companions, who speedily sprang into them. With a chorus of cheers
the good fellows whirled away down the road, while my father, Esther,
and I stood upon the lawn and waved our hands to them until they
disappeared behind the Cloomber woods, en_route for the Wigtown
railway station. Barque and crew had both vanished now from our little
world, the only relic of either being the heaps of debris upon
the beach, which were to lie there until the arrival of an agent from
At dinner that evening I mentioned to my father the episode of the
three Buddhist priests, and found, as I had expected, that he was very
much interested by my account of them.
When, however, he heard of the high manner in which Ram Singh had
spoken of him, and the distinguished position which he had assigned him
among philologists, he became so excited that it was all we could do to
prevent him from setting off then and there to make his acquaintance.
Esther and I were relieved and glad when we at last succeeded in
abstracting his boots and manoeuvring him to his bedroom, for the
exciting events of the last twenty-four hours had been too much for his
weak frame and delicate nerves.
I was silting at the open porch in the gloaming, turning over in my
mind the unexpected events which had occurred so rapidly—the gale, the
wreck, the rescue, and the strange character of the castaways—when my
sister came quietly over to me and put her hand in mine.
“Don't you think, Jack.” she said, in her low, sweet voice, “that we
are forgetting our friends over at Cloomber? Hasn't all this excitement
driven their fears and their danger out of our heads?”
“Out of our heads, but never out of our hearts,” said I, laughing.
“However, you are right, little one, for our attention has certainly
been distracted from them. I shall walk up in the morning and see if I
can see anything of them. By the way, to-morrow is the fateful 5th of
October—one more day, and all will be well with us.”
“Or ill,” said my sister gloomily.
“Why, what a little croaker you are, to be sure!” I cried. “What in
the world is coming over you?”
“I feel nervous and low-spirited,” she answered, drawing closer to
my side and shivering. “I feel as if some great peril were hanging over
the heads of those we love. Why should these strange men wish to stay
upon the coast?”
“What, the Buddhists?” I said lightly. “Oh, these fellows have
continual feast-days and religious rites of all sorts. They have some
very good reason for staying, you may be sure.”
“Don't you think,” said Esther, in an awe-struck whisper, “that it
is very strange that these priests should arrive here all the way from
India just at the present moment? Have you not gathered from all you
have heard that the general's fears are in some way connected with
India and the Indians?”
The remark made me thoughtful.
“Why, now that you mention it,” I answered, “I have some vague
impression that the mystery is connected with some incident which
occurred in that country. I am sure, however, that your fears would
vanish if you saw Ram Singh. He is the very personification of wisdom
and benevolence. He was shocked at the idea of our killing a sheep, or
even a fish for his benefit—said he would rather die than have a hand
in taking the life of an animal.”
“It is very foolish of me to be so nervous,” said my sister bravely.
“But you must promise me one thing, Jack. You will go up to Cloomber in
the morning, and if you can see any of them you must tell them of these
strange neighbours of ours. They are better able to judge than we are
whether their presence has any significance or not.”
“All right, little one,” I answered, as we went indoors. “You have
been over-excited by all these wild doings, and you need a sound
night's rest to compose you. I'll do what you suggest, however, and our
friends shall judge for themselves whether these poor fellows should be
sent about their business or not.”
I made the promise to allay my sister's apprehensions, but in the
bright sunlight of morning it appeared less than absurd to imagine that
our poor vegetarian castaways could have any sinister intentions, or
that their advent could have any effect upon the tenant of Cloomber.
I was anxious, myself, however, to see whether I could see anything
of the Heatherstones, so after breakfast I walked up to the Hall. In
their seclusion it was impossible for them to have learnt anything of
the recent events. I felt, therefore, that even if I should meet the
general he could hardly regard me as an intruder while I had so much
news to communicate.
The place had the same dreary and melancholy appearance which always
characterised it. Looking through between the thick iron bars of the
main gateway there was nothing to be seen of any of the occupants. One
of the great Scotch firs had been blown down in the gale, and its long,
ruddy trunk lay right across the grass-grown avenue; but no attempt had
been made to remove it.
Everything about the property had the same air of desolation and
neglect, with the solitary exception of the massive and impenetrable
fencing, which presented as unbroken and formidable an obstacle as ever
to the would-be trespasser.
I walked round this barrier as far as our old trysting-place without
finding any flaw through which I could get a glimpse of the house, for
the fence had been repaired with each rail overlapping the last, so as
to secure absolute privacy for those inside, and to block those
peep-holes which I had formerly used.
At the old spot, however, where I had had the memorable interview
with the general on the occasion when he surprised me with his
daughter, I found that the two loose rails had been refixed in such a
manner that there was a gap of two inches or more between them.
Through this I had a view of the house and of part of the lawn in
front of it, and, though I could see no signs of life outside or at any
of the windows, I settled down with the intention of sticking to my
post until I had a chance of speaking to one or other of the inmates.
Indeed, the cold, dead aspect of the house had struck such a chill into
my heart that I determined to scale the fence at whatever risk of
incurring the general's displeasure rather than return without news of
Happily there was no need of this extreme expedient, for I had not
been there half-an-hour before I heard the harsh sound of an opening
lock, and the general himself emerged from the main door.
To my surprise he was dressed in a military uniform, and that not
the uniform in ordinary use in the British Army. The red coat was
strangely cut and stained with the weather. The trousers had originally
been white, but had now faded to a dirty yellow. With a red sash across
his chest and a straight sword hanging from his side, he stood the
living example of a bygone type—the John Company's officer of forty
He was followed by the ex-tramp, Corporal Rufus Smith, now well-clad
and prosperous, who limped along beside his master, the two pacing up
and down the lawn absorbed in conversation. I observed that from time
to time one or other of them would pause and glance furtively all about
them, as though guarding keenly against a surprise. I should have
preferred communicating with the general alone, but since there was no
dissociating him from his companion, I beat loudly on the fencing with
my stick to attract their attention. They both faced round in a moment,
and I could see from their gestures that they were disturbed and
I then elevated my stick above the barrier to show them where the
sound proceeded from. At this the general began to walk in my direction
with the air of a man who is bracing himself up for an effort, but the
other caught him by the wrist and endeavoured to dissuade him.
It was only when I shouted out my name and assured them that I was
alone that I could prevail upon them to approach. Once assured of my
identity the general ran eagerly towards me and greeted me with the
“This is truly kind of you, West,” he said. “It is only at such
times as these that one can judge who is a friend and who not. It would
not be fair to you to ask you to come inside or to stay any time, but I
am none the less very glad to see you.”
“I have been anxious about you all,” I said, “for it is some little
time since I have seen or heard from any of you. How have you all been
“Why, as well as could be expected. But we will be better
tomorrow—we will be different men to-morrow, eh, Corporal?”
“Yes, sir,” said the corporal, raising his hand to his forehead in a
military salute. “We'll be right as the bank to-morrow.”
“The corporal and I are a little disturbed in our minds just now,”
the general explained, “but I have no doubt that all will come right.
After all, there is nothing higher than Providence, and we are all in
His hands. And how have you been, eh?”
“We have been very busy for one thing,” said I. “I suppose you have
heard nothing of the great shipwreck?”
“Not a word,” the general answered listlessly.
“I thought the noise of the wind would prevent you hearing the
signal guns. She came ashore in the bay the night before last—a great
barque from India.”
“From India!” ejaculated the general.
“Yes. Her crew were saved, fortunately, and have all been sent on to
“All sent on!” cried the general, with a face as bloodless as a
“All except three rather strange characters who claim to be Buddhist
priests. They have decided to remain for a few days upon the coast.”
The words were hardly out of my mouth when the general dropped upon
his knees with his long, thin arms extended to Heaven.
“Thy will be done!” he cried in a cracking voice. “Thy blessed will
I could see through the crack that Corporal Rufus Smith's face had
turned to a sickly yellow shade, and that he was wiping the
perspiration from his brow.
“It's like my luck!” he said. “After all these years, to come when I
have got a snug billet.”
“Never mind, my lad,” the general said, rising, and squaring his
shoulders like a man who braces himself up for an effort. “Be it what
it may we'll face it as British soldiers should. D'ye remember at
Chillianwallah, when you had to run from your guns to our square, and
the Sikh horse came thundering down on our bayonets? We didn't flinch
then, and we won't flinch now. It seems to me that I feel better than I
have done for years. It was the uncertainty that was killing me.”
“And the infernal jingle-jangle,” said the corporal. “Well, we all
go together—that's some consolation.”
“Good-bye, West,” said the general. “Be a good husband to Gabriel,
and give my poor wife a home. I don't think she will trouble you long.
Good-bye! God bless you!”
“Look here, General,” I said, peremptorily breaking off a piece of
wood to make communication more easy, “this sort of thing has been
going on too long. What are these hints and allusions and innuendoes?
It is time we had a little plain speaking. What is it you fear? Out
with it! Are you in dread of these Hindoos? If you are, I am able, on
my father's authority, to have them arrested as rogues and vagabonds.”
“No, no, that would never do,” he answered, shaking his head. “You
will learn about the wretched business soon enough. Mordaunt knows
where to lay his hand upon the papers bearing on the matter. You can
consult him about it to-morrow.”
“But surely,” I cried, “if the peril is so imminent something may be
done to avert it. If you would but tell me what you fear I should know
how to act.”
“My dear friend,” he said, “there is nothing to be done, so calm
yourself, and let things take their course. It has been folly on my
part to shelter myself behind mere barriers of wood and stone. The fact
is, that inaction was terrible to me, and I felt that to do anything,
however futile, in the nature of a precaution, was better than passive
resignation. My humble friend here and I have placed ourselves in a
position in which, I trust, no poor fellow will ever find himself
again. We can only recommend ourselves to the unfailing goodness of the
Almighty, and trust that what we have endured in this world may lessen
our atonement in the world to come. I must leave you now, for I have
many papers to destroy and much to arrange. Good-bye!”
He pushed his hand through the hole which I had made, and grasped
mine in a solemn farewell, after which he walked back to the Hall with
a firm and decided step, still followed by the crippled and sinister
I walked back to Branksome much disturbed by this interview, and
extremely puzzled as to what course I should pursue.
It was evident now that my sister's suspicions were correct, and
that there was some very intimate connection between the presence of
the three Orientals and the mysterious peril which hung over the towers
It was difficult for me to associate the noble-faced Ram Singh's
gentle, refined manner and words of wisdom with any deed of violence,
yet now that I thought of it I could see that a terrible capacity for
wrath lay behind his shaggy brows and dark, piercing eyes.
I felt that of all men whom I had ever met he was the one whose
displeasure I should least care to face. But how could two men so
widely dissociated as the foul-mouthed old corporal of artillery and
the distinguished Anglo-Indian general have each earned the ill-will of
these strange castaways? And if the danger were a positive physical
one, why should he not consent to my proposal to have the three men
placed under custody—though I confess it would have gone much against
my grain to act in so inhospitable a manner upon such vague and shadowy
These questions were absolutely unanswerable, and yet the solemn
words and the terrible gravity which I had seen in the faces of both
the old soldiers forbade me from thinking that their fears were
It was all a puzzle—an absolutely insoluble puzzle.
One thing at least was clear to me—and that was that in the present
state of my knowledge, and after the general's distinct prohibition, it
was impossible for me to interfere in any way. I could only wait and
pray that, whatever the danger might be, it might pass over, or at
least that my dear Gabriel and her brother might be protected against
I was walking down the lane lost in thought, and had got as far as
the wicket gate which opens upon the Branksome lawn, when I was
surprised to hear my father's voice raised in most animated and excited
The old man had been of late so abstracted from the daily affairs of
the world, and so absorbed in his own special studies, that it was
difficult to engage his attention upon any ordinary, mundane topic.
Curious to know what it was that had drawn him so far out of himself, I
opened the gate softly, and walking quietly round the laurel bushes,
found him sitting, to my astonishment, with none other than the very
man who was occupying my thoughts, Ram Singh, the Buddhist.
The two were sitting upon a garden bench, and the Oriental appeared
to be laying down some weighty proposition, checking every point upon
his long, quivering, brown fingers, while my father, with his hands
thrown abroad and his face awry, was loud in protestation and in
So absorbed were they in their controversy, that I stood within a
hand-touch of them for a minute or more before they became conscious of
On observing me the priest sprang to his feet and greeted me with
the same lofty courtesy and dignified grace which had so impressed me
the day before.
“I promised myself yesterday,” he said, “the pleasure of calling
upon your father. You see I have kept my word. I have even been daring
enough to question his views upon some points in connection with the
Sanscrit and Hindoo tongues, with the result that we have been arguing
for an hour or more without either of us convincing the other. Without
pretending to as deep a theoretical knowledge as that which has made
the name of James Hunter West a household word among Oriental scholars,
I happen to have given considerable attention to this one point, and
indeed I am in a position to say that I know his views to be unsound. I
assure you, sir, that up to the year 700, or even later, Sanscrit was
the ordinary language of the great bulk of the inhabitants of India.”
“And I assure you, sir,” said my father warmly, “that it was dead
and forgotten at that date, save by the learned, who used it as a
vehicle for scientific and religious works—just as Latin was used in
the Middle Ages long after it had ceased to be spoken by any European
“If you consult the puranas you will find,” said Ram Singh, “that
this theory, though commonly received, is entirely untenable.”
“And if you will consult the Ramayana, and more particularly the
canonical books on Buddhist discipline,” cried my father, “you will
find that the theory is unassailable.”
“But look at the Kullavagga,” said our visitor earnestly.
“And look at King Asoka,” shouted my father triumphantly. “When, in
the year 300 before the Christian era—before, mind you—he ordered the
laws of Buddha to be engraved upon the rocks, what language did he
employ, eh? Was it Sanscrit?—no! And why was it not Sanscrit? Because
the lower orders of his subjects would not have been able to understand
a word of it. Ha, ha! That was the reason. How are you going to get
round King Asoka's edicts, eh?”
“He carved them in the various dialects,” Ram Singh answered. “But
energy is too precious a thing to be wasted in mere wind in this style.
The sun has passed its meridian, and I must return to my companions.”
“I am sorry that you have not brought them to see us,” said my
father courteously. He was, I could see, uneasy lest in the eagerness
of debate he had overstepped the bounds of hospitality.
“They do not mix with the world,” Ram Singh answered, rising to his
feet. “They are of a higher grade than I, and more sensitive to
contaminating influences. They are immersed in a six months' meditation
upon the mystery of the third incarnation, which has lasted with few
intermissions from the time that we left the Himalayas. I shall not see
you again, Mr. Hunter West, and I therefore bid you farewell. Your old
age will be a happy one, as it deserves to be, and your Eastern studies
will have a lasting effect upon the knowledge and literature of your
own country. Farewell!”
“And am I also to see no more of you?” I asked.
“Unless you will walk with me along the sea-shore,” he answered.
“But you have already been out this morning, and may be tired. I ask
too much of you.”
“Nay, I should be delighted to come,” I responded from my heart, and
we set off together, accompanied for some little distance by my father,
who would gladly, I could see, have reopened the Sanscrit controversy,
had not his stock of breath been too limited to allow of his talking
and walking at the same time.
“He is a learned man,” Ram Singh remarked, after we had left him
behind, “but, like many another, he is intolerant towards opinions
which differ from his own. He will know better some day.”
I made no answer to this observation, and we trudged along for a
time in silence, keeping well down to the water's edge, where the sands
afforded a good foothold.
The sand dunes which lined the coast formed a continuous ridge upon
our left, cutting us off entirely from all human observation, while on
the right the broad Channel stretched away with hardly a sail to break
its silvery uniformity. The Buddhist priest and I were absolutely alone
I could not help reflecting that if he were really the dangerous man
that the mate affected to consider him, or that might be inferred from
the words of General Heatherstone, I had placed myself completely in
Yet such was the majestic benignity of the man's aspect, and the
unruffled serenity of his deep, dark eyes, that I could afford in his
presence to let fear and suspicion blow past me as lightly as the
breeze which whistled round us. His face might be stern, and even
terrible, but I felt that he could never be unjust.
As I glanced from time to time at his noble profile and the sweep of
his jet-black beard, his rough-spun tweed travelling suit struck me
with an almost painful sense of incongruity, and I re-clothed him in my
imagination with the grand, sweeping Oriental costume which is the
fitting and proper frame for such a picture—the only garb which does
not detract from the dignity and grace of the wearer.
The place to which he led me was a small fisher cottage which had
been deserted some years before by its tenant, but still stood gaunt
and bare, with the thatch partly blown away and the windows and doors
in sad disrepair. This dwelling, which the poorest Scotch beggar would
have shrunk from, was the one which these singular men had preferred to
the proffered hospitality of the laird's house. A small garden, now a
mass of tangled brambles, stood round it, and through this my
acquaintance picked his way to the ruined door. He glanced into the
house and then waved his hand for me to follow him.
“You have now an opportunity,” he said, in a subdued, reverential
voice, “of seeing a spectacle which few Europeans have had the
privilege of beholding. Inside that cottage you will find two
Yogis—men who are only one remove from the highest plane of adeptship.
They are both wrapped in an ecstatic trance, otherwise I should not
venture to obtrude your presence upon them. Their astral bodies have
departed from them, to be present at the feast of lamps in the holy
Lamasery of Rudok in Tibet. Tread lightly lest by stimulating their
corporeal functions you recall them before their devotions are
Walking slowly and on tiptoe, I picked my way through the weed-grown
garden, and peered through the open doorway.
There was no furniture in the dreary interior, nor anything to cover
the uneven floor save a litter of fresh straw in a corner.
Among this straw two men were crouching, the one small and wizened,
the other large-boned and gaunt, with their legs crossed in Oriental
fashion and their heads sunk upon their breasts. Neither of them looked
up, or took the smallest notice of our presence.
They were so still and silent that they might have been two bronze
statues but for the slow and measured rhythm of their breathing. Their
faces, however, had a peculiar, ashen-grey colour, very different from
the healthy brown of my companion's, and I observed, on, stooping my
head, that only the whites of their eyes were visible, the balls being
turned upwards beneath the lids.
In front of them upon a small mat lay an earthenware pitcher of
water and half-a-loaf of bread, together with a sheet of paper
inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Ram Singh glanced at
these, and then, motioning to me to withdraw, followed me out into the
“I am not to disturb them until ten o'clock,” he said. “You have now
seen in operation one of the grandest results of our occult philosophy,
the dissociation of spirit from body. Not only are the spirits of these
holy men standing at the present moment by the banks of the Ganges, but
those spirits are clothed in a material covering so identical with
their real bodies that none of the faithful will ever doubt that Lal
Hoomi and Mowdar Khan are actually among them. This is accomplished by
our power of resolving an object into its 'chemical atoms, of conveying
these atoms with a speed which exceeds that of lightning to any given
spot, and of there re-precipitating them and compelling them to retake
their original form. Of old, in the days of our ignorance, it was
necessary to convey the whole body in this way, but we have since found
that it was as easy and more convenient to transmit material enough
merely to build up an outside shell or semblance. This we have termed
the astral body”
“But if you can transmit your spirits so readily,” I observed, “why
should they be accompanied by any body at all?”
“In communicating with brother initiates we are able to employ our
spirits only, but when we wish to come in contact with ordinary mankind
it is essential that we should appear in some form which they can see
“You have interested me deeply in all that you have told me,” I
said, grasping the hand which Ram Singh had held out to me as a sign
that our interview was at an end. “I shall often think of our short
“You will derive much benefit from it,” he said slowly, still
holding my hand and looking gravely and sadly into my eyes. “You must
remember that what will happen in the future is not necessarily bad
because it does not fall in with your preconceived ideas of right. Be
not hasty in your judgments. There are certain great rules which must
be carried out, at whatever cost to individuals. Their operation may
appear to you to be harsh and cruel, but that is as nothing compared
with the dangerous precedent which would be established by not
enforcing them. The ox and the sheep are safe from us, but the man with
the blood of the highest upon his hands should not and shall not live.”
He threw up his arms at the last words with a fierce, threatening
gesture, and, turning away from me, strode back to the ruined hut.
I stood gazing after him until he disappeared through the doorway,
and then started off for home, revolving in my mind all that I had
heard, and more particularly this last outburst of the occult
Far on the right I could see the tall, white tower of Cloomber
standing out clear-cut and sharp against a dark cloud-bank which rose
behind it. I thought how any traveller who chanced to pass that way
would envy in his heart the tenant of that magnificent building, and
how little they would guess the strange terrors, the nameless dangers,
which were gathering about his head. The black cloud-wrack was but the
image, I reflected, of the darker, more sombre storm which was about to
“Whatever it all means, and however it happens,” I ejaculated, “God
grant that the innocent be not confounded with the guilty.”
My father, when I reached home, was still in a ferment over his
learned disputation with the stranger.
“I trust, Jack,” he said, “that I did not handle him too roughly. I
should remember that I am in_loco_magistri, and be less prone to
argue with my guests. Yet, when he took up this most untenable
position, I could not refrain from attacking him and hurling him out of
it, which indeed I did, though you, who are ignorant of the niceties of
the question, may have failed to perceive it. You observed, however,
that my reference to King Asoka's edicts was so conclusive that he at
once rose and took his leave.”
“You held your own bravely,” I answered, “but what is your
impression of the man now that you have seen him?” “Why,” said my
father, “he is one of those holy men who, under the various names of
Sannasis, Yogis, Sevras, Qualanders, Hakims, and Cufis have devoted
their lives to the study of the mysteries of the Buddhist faith. He is,
I take it, a theosophist, or worshipper of the God of knowledge, the
highest grade of which is the adept. This man and his companions have
not attained this high position or they could not have crossed the sea
without contamination. It is probable that they are all advanced chelas
who hope in time to attain to the supreme honour of adeptship.”
“But, father,” interrupted my sister, “this does not explain why men
of such sanctity and attainments should choose to take up their
quarters on the shores of a desolate Scotch bay.”
“Ah, there you get beyond me,” my father answered. “I may suggest,
however, that it is nobody's business but their own, so long as they
keep the peace and are amenable to the law of the land.”
“Have you ever heard,” I asked, “that these higher priests of whom
you speak have powers which are unknown to us?”
“Why, Eastern literature is full of it. The Bible is an Eastern
book, and is it not full of the record of such powers from cover to
cover? It is unquestionable that they have in the past known many of
Nature's secrets which are lost to us. I cannot say, however, from my
own knowledge that the modern theosophists really possess the powers
that they claim.”
“Are they a vindictive class of people?” I asked. “Is there any
offence among them which can only be expiated by death?”
“Not that I know of,” my father answered, raising his white eyebrows
in surprise. “You appear to be in an inquisitive humour this
afternoon— what is the object of all these questions? Have our Eastern
neighbours aroused your curiosity or suspicion in any way?”
I parried the question as best I might, for I was unwilling to let
the old man know what was in my mind. No good purpose could come from
his enlightenment; his age and his health demanded rest rather than
anxiety; and indeed, with the best will in the world I should have
found it difficult to explain to another what was so very obscure to
myself. For every reason I felt that it was best that he should be kept
in the dark.
Never in all my experience had I known a day pass so slowly as did
that eventful 5th of October. In every possible manner I endeavoured to
while away the tedious hours, and yet it seemed as if darkness would
I tried to read, I tried to write, I paced about the lawn, I walked
to the end of the lane, I put new flies upon my fishing-hooks, I began
to index my father's library—in a dozen ways I endeavoured to relieve
the suspense which was becoming intolerable. My sister, I could see,
was suffering from the same feverish restlessness.
Again and again our good father remonstrated with us in his mild way
for our erratic behaviour and the continual interruption of his work
which arose from it.
At last, however, the tea was brought, and the tea was taken, the
curtains were drawn, the lamps lit, and after another interminable
interval the prayers were read and the servants dismissed to their
rooms. My father compounded and swallowed his nightly jorum of toddy,
and then shuffled off to his room, leaving the two of us in the parlour
with our nerves in a tingle and our minds full of the most vague and
yet terrible apprehensions.
It was a quarter past ten o'clock by the parlour timepiece when my
father went off to his room, and left Esther and myself together. We
heard his slow steps dying away up the creaking staircase, until the
distant slamming of a door announced that he had reached his sanctum.
The simple oil lamp upon the table threw a weird, uncertain light
over the old room, flickering upon the carved oak panelling, and
casting strange, fantastic shadows from the high-elbowed,
straight-backed furniture. My sister's white, anxious face stood out in
the obscurity with a startling exactness of profile like one of
We sat opposite to each other on either side of the table with no
sound breaking the silence save the measured ticking of the clock and
the intermittent chirping of a cricket beneath the grate.
There was something awe-inspiring in the absolute stillness. The
whistling of a belated peasant upon the high road was a relief to us,
and we strained our ears to catch the last of his notes as he plodded
At first we had made some pretence—she of knitting and I of
reading— but we soon abandoned the useless deception, and sat uneasily
waiting, starting and glancing at each other with questioning eyes
whenever the faggot crackled in the fire or a rat scampered behind the
wainscot. There was a heavy electrical feeling in the air, which
weighed us down with a foreboding of disaster.
I rose and flung the hall door open to admit the fresh breeze of the
night. Ragged clouds swept across the sky, and the moon peeped out at
times between their hurrying fringes, bathing the whole countryside in
its cold, white radiance. From where I stood in the doorway I could see
the edge of the Cloomber wood, though the house itself was only visible
from the rising ground some little distance off. At my sister's
suggestion we walked together, she with her shawl over her head, as far
as the summit of this elevation, and looked out in the direction of the
There was no illumination of the windows tonight. From roof to
basement not a light twinkled in any part of the great building. Its
huge mass loomed up dark and sullen amid the trees which surrounded it,
looking more like some giant sarcophagus than a human habitation.
To our overwrought nerves there was something of terror in its mere
bulk and its silence. We stood for some little time peering at it
through the darkness, and then we made our way back to the parlour
again, where we sat waiting—waiting, we knew not for what, and yet
with absolute conviction that some terrible experience was in store for
It was twelve o'clock or thereabout when my sister suddenly sprang
to her feet and held up her fingers to bespeak attention.
“Do you hear nothing?” she asked.
I strained my ears, but without success.
“Come to the door,” she cried, with a trembling voice. “Now can you
In the deep silence of the night I distinctly heard a dull,
murmuring, clattering sound, continuous apparently, but very faint and
“What is it?” I asked, in a subdued voice.
“It's the sound of a man running towards us,” she answered, and
then, suddenly dropping the last semblance of self-command, she tell
upon her knees beside the table and began praying aloud with that
frenzied earnestness which intense, overpowering fear can produce,
breaking off now and again into half-hysterical whimperings.
I could distinguish the sound clearly enough now to know that her
quick, feminine perception had not deceived her, and that it was indeed
caused by a running man.
On he came, and on down the high road, his footfalls ringing out
clearer and sharper every moment. An urgent messenger he must be, for
he neither paused nor slackened his pace.
The quick, crisp rattle was changed suddenly to a dull, muffled
murmur. He had reached the point where sand had been recently laid down
for a hundred yards or so. In a few moments, however, he was back on
hard ground again and his flying feet came nearer and ever nearer.
He must, I reflected, be abreast of the head of the lane now. Would
he hold on? Or would he turn down to Branksome?
The thought had hardly crossed my mind when I heard by the
difference of the sound that the runner had turned the corner, and that
his goal was beyond all question the laird's house.
Rushing down to the gate of the lawn, I reached it just as our
visitor dashed it open and fell into my arms. I could see in the
moonlight that it was none other than Mordaunt Heatherstone.
“What has happened?” I cried. “What is amiss, Mordaunt?”
“My father!” he gasped—“my father!”
His hat was gone, his eyes dilated with terror, and his face as
bloodless as that of a corpse. I could feel that the hands which
clasped my arms were quivering and shaking with emotion.
“You are exhausted,” I said, leading him into the parlour. “Give
yourself a moment's rest before you speak to us. Be calm, man, you are
with your best friends.”
I laid him on the old horsehair sofa, while Esther, whose fears had
all flown to the winds now that something practical was to be done,
dashed some brandy into a tumbler and brought it to him. The stimulant
had a marvellous effect upon him, for the colour began to come back
into his pale cheeks and the light of recognition in his eyes,
He sat up and took Esther's hand in both of his, like a man who is
waking out of some bad dream and wishes to assure himself that he is
really in safety.
“Your father?” I asked. “What of him?”
“He is gone.”
“Yes; he is gone; and so is Corporal Rufus Smith. We shall never set
eyes upon them again.”
“But where have they gone?” I cried. “This is unworthy of you,
Mordaunt. What right have we to sit here, allowing our private feelings
to overcome us, while there is a possibility of succouring your father?
Up, man! Let us follow him. Tell me only what direction he took.”
“It's no use,” young Heatherstone answered, burying his face in his
hands. “Don't reproach me, West, for you don't know all the
circumstances. What can we do to reverse the tremendous and unknown
laws which are acting against us? The blow has long been hanging over
us, and now it has fallen. God help us!”
“In Heaven's name tell me what has happened?” said I excitedly. “We
must not yield to despair.”
“We can do nothing until daybreak,” he answered. “We shall then
endeavour to obtain some trace of them. It is hopeless at present.”
“And how about Gabriel and Mrs. Heatherstone?” I asked. “Can we not
bring them down from the Hall at once? Your poor sister must be
distracted with terror.”
“She knows nothing of it,” Mordaunt answered. “She sleeps at the
other side of the house, and has not heard or seen anything. As to my
poor mother, she has expected some such event for so long a time that
it has not come upon her as a surprise. She is, of course, overwhelmed
with grief, but would, I think, prefer to be left to herself for the
present. Her firmness and composure should be a lesson to me, but I am
constitutionally excitable, and this catastrophe coming after our long
period of suspense deprived me of my very reason for a time.”
“If we can do nothing until the morning,” I said, “you have time to
tell us all that has occurred.”
“I will do so,” he answered, rising and holding his shaking hands to
the fire. “You know already that we have had reason for some time—for
many years in fact—to fear that a terrible retribution was hanging
over my father's head for a certain action of his early life. In this
action he was associated with the man known as Corporal Rufus Smith, so
that the fact of the latter finding his way to my father was a warning
to us that the time had come, and that this 5th of October—the
anniversary of the misdeed—would be the day of its atonement. I told
you of our fears in my letter, and, if I am not mistaken, my father
also had some conversation with you, John, upon the subject. When I saw
yesterday morning that he had hunted out the old uniform which he had
always retained since he wore it in the Afghan war, I was sure that the
end was at hand, and that our forebodings would be realised.
“He appeared to be more composed in the afternoon than I have seen
him for years, and spoke freely of his life in India and of the
incidents of his youth. About nine o'clock he requested us to go up to
our own rooms, and locked us in there—a precaution which he frequently
took when the dark fit way upon him. It was always his endeavour, poor
soul. to keep us clear of the curse which had fallen upon his own
unfortunate head. Before parting from us he tenderly embraced my mother
and Gabriel, and he afterwards followed me to my room, where he clasped
my hand affectionately and gave into my charge a small packet addressed
“To me?” I interrupted.
“To you. I shall fulfill my commission when I have told you my
story. I conjured him to allow me to sit up with him and share any
danger which might arise, but he implored me with irresistible
earnestness not to add to his troubles by thwarting his arrangements.
Seeing that I was really distressing him by my pertinacity, I at last
allowed him to close the door and to turn the key upon the outside. I
shall always reproach myself for my want of firmness. But what can you
do when your own father refuses your assistance or co-operation? You
cannot force yourself upon him.”
“I am sure that you did all you could do,” my sister said.
“I meant to, dear Esther, but, God help me, it was hard to tell what
was right. He left me, and I heard his footsteps die away down the long
corridor. It was then about ten o'clock, or a little after. For a time
I paced up and down the room, and then, carrying the lamp to the head
of my bed, I lay down without undressing, reading St. Thomas a Kempis,
and praying from my heart that the night might pass safely over us.
“I had at last fallen into a troubled sleep when I was suddenly
aroused by a loud, sonorous sound ringing in my ears. I sat up
bewildered, but all was silent again. The lamp was burning low, and my
watch showed me that it was going on to midnight. I blundered to my
feet, and was striking a match with the intention of lighting the
candles, when the sharp, vehement cry broke out again so loud and so
clear that it might have been in the very room with me. My chamber is
in the front of the house, while those of my mother and sister are at
the back, so that I am the only one who commands a view of the avenue.
“Rushing to the window I drew the blind aside and looked out. You
know that the gravel-drive opens up so as to form a broad stretch
immediately in front of the house. Just in the centre of this clear
space there stood three men looking up at the house.
“The moon shone full upon them, glistening on their upturned
eyeballs, and by its light I could see that they were swarthy-faced and
black-haired, of a type that I was familiar with among the Sikhs and
Afridis. Two of them were thin, with eager, aesthetic countenances,
while the third was kinglike and majestic, with a noble figure and
“Ram Singh!” I ejaculated.
“What, you know of them?” exclaimed Mordaunt in great surprise. “You
have met them?”
“I know of them. They are Buddhist priests,” I answered, “but go
“They stood in a line,” he continued, “sweeping their arms upwards
and downwards, while their lips moved as if repeating some prayer or
incantation. Suddenly they ceased to gesticulate, and broke out for the
third time into the wild, weird, piercing cry which had roused me from
my slumber. Never shall I forget that shrill, dreadful summons swelling
and reverberating through the silent night with an intensity of sound
which is still ringing in my ears.
“As it died slowly away, there was a rasping and creaking as of keys
and bolts, followed by the clang of an opening door and the clatter of
hurrying feet. From my window I saw my father and Corporal Rufus Smith
rush frantically out of the house hatless and unkempt, like men who are
obeying a sudden and overpowering impulse. The three strangers laid no
hands on them, but all five swept swiftly away down the avenue and
vanished among the trees. I am positive that no force was used, or
constraint of any visible kind, and yet I am as sure that my poor
father and his companion were helpless prisoners as it I bad seen them
dragged away in manacles.
“All this took little time in the acting. From the first summons
which disturbed my sleep to the last shadowy glimpse which I had of
them between the tree trunks could hardly have occupied more than five
minutes of actual time. So sudden was it, and so strange, that when the
drama was over and they were gone I could have believed that it was all
some terrible nightmare, some delusion, had I not felt that the
impression was too real, too vivid, to be imputed to fancy.
“I threw my whole weight against my bedroom door in the hope of
forcing the lock. It stood firm for a while, but I flung myself upon it
again and again, until something snapped and I found myself in the
“My first thought was for my mother, I rushed to her room and turned
the key in her door. The moment that I did so she stepped out into the
corridor in her dressing-gown, and held up a warning finger.
“'No noise, she said,' Gabriel is asleep. They have been called
“'They have,' I answered.
“'God's will be done!' she cried. 'Your poor father will be happier
in the next world than he has ever been in this. Thank Heaven that
Gabriel is asleep. I gave her chloral in her cocoa.'
“'What am I to do?' I said distractedly.
“'Where have they gone? How can I help him? We cannot let him go
from us like this, or leave these men to do what they will with him.
Shall I ride into Wigtown and arouse the police?'
“'Anything rather than that', my mother said earnestly. 'He has
begged me again and again to avoid it. My son, we shall never set eyes
upon your father again. You may marvel at my dry eyes, but it you knew
as I know the peace which death would bring him, you could not find it
in your heart to mourn for him. All pursuit is, I feel, vain, and yet
some pursuit there must be. Let it be as private as possible. We cannot
serve him better than by consulting his wishes.'
“'But every minute is precious,' I cried. 'Even now he may be
calling upon us to rescue him from the clutches of those dark-skinned
“The thought so maddened me that I rushed out of the house and down
to the high road, but once there I had no indication in which direction
to turn. The whole wide moor lay before me, without a sign of movement
upon its broad expanse. I listened, but not a sound broke the perfect
stillness of the night.
“It was then, my dear friends, as I stood, not knowing in which
direction to turn, that the horror and responsibility broke full upon
me. I felt that I was combating against forces of which I knew nothing.
All was strange and dark and terrible.
“The thought of you, and of the help which I might look for from
your advice and assistance, was a beacon of hope to me. At Branksome,
at least, I should receive sympathy, and, above all, directions as to
what I should do, for my mind is in such a whirl that I cannot trust my
own judgment. My mother was content to be alone, my sister asleep, and
no prospect of being able to do anything until daybreak. Under those
circumstances what more natural than that I should fly to you as fast
as my feet would carry me? You have a clear head, Jack; speak out, man,
and tell me what I should do. Esther, what should I do?”
He turned from one to the other of us with outstretched hands and
eager, questioning eyes.
“You can do nothing while the darkness lasts,” I answered. “We must
report the matter to the Wigtown police, but we need not send our
message to them until we are actually starting upon the search, so as
to comply with the law and yet have a private investigation, as your
mother wishes. John Fullarton, over the hill, has a lurcher dog which
is as good as a bloodhound. If we set him on the general's trail he
will run him down if he had to follow him to John o' Groat's.”
“It is terrible to wait calmly here while he may need our
“I fear our assistance could under any circumstances do him little
good. There are forces at work here which are beyond human
intervention. Besides, there is no alternative. We have, apparently, no
possible clue as to the direction which they have taken, and for us to
wander aimlessly over the moor in the darkness would be to waste the
strength which may be more profitably used in the morning. It will be
daylight by five o'clock. In an hour or so we can walk over the hill
together and get Fullarton's dog.”
“Another hour!” Mordaunt groaned, “every minute seems an age.”
“Lie down on the sofa and rest yourself,” said I. “You cannot serve
your father better than by laying up all the strength you can, for we
may have a weary trudge before us. But you mentioned a packet which the
general had intended for me.”
“It is here,” he answered, drawing a small, flat parcel from his
pocket and handing it over to me, “you will find, no doubt, that it
will explain all which has been so mysterious.”
The packet was sealed at each end with black wax, bearing the
impress of the flying griffin, which I knew to be the general's crest.
It was further secured by a band of broad tape, which I cut with my
pocket-knife. Across the outside was written in bold handwriting: “J.
Fothergill West, Esq.,” and underneath: “To be handed to that gentleman
in the event of the disappearance or decease of Major-General J. B.
Heatherstone, V.C., C.B., late of the Indian Army.”
So at last I was to know the dark secret which had cast a shadow
over our lives. Here in my hands I held the solution of it.
With eager fingers I broke the seals and undid the wrapper. A note
and a small bundle of discoloured paper lay within. I drew the lamp
over to me and opened the former. It was dated the preceding afternoon,
and ran in this way:
MY DEAR WEST,—
I should have satisfied your very natural curiosity on the subject
which we have had occasion to talk of more than once, but I refrained
for your own sake. I knew by sad experience how unsettling and
unnerving it is to be for ever waiting for a catastrophe which you are
convinced must befall, and which you can neither avert nor accelerate.
Though it affects me specially, as being the person most concerned,
I am still conscious that the natural sympathy which I have observed in
you, and your regard for Gabriel's father, would both combine to render
you unhappy if you knew the hopelessness and yet the vagueness of the
fate which threatens me. I feared to disturb your mind, and I was
therefore silent, though at some cost to myself, for my isolation has
not been the least of the troubles which have weighed me down.
Many signs, however, and chief among them the presence of the
Buddhists upon the coast as described by you this morning, have
convinced me that the weary waiting is at last over and that the hour
of retribution is at hand. Why I should have been allowed to live
nearly forty years after my offence is more than I can understand, but
it is possible that those who had command over my fate know that such a
life is the greatest of all penalties to me.
Never for an hour, night or day, have they suffered me to forget
that they have marked me down as their victim. Their accursed astral
bell has been ringing my knell for two-score years, reminding me ever
that there is no spot upon earth where I can hope to be in safety. Oh,
the peace, the blessed peace of dissolution! Come what may on the other
side of the tomb, I shall at least be quit of that thrice terrible
There is no need for me to enter into the wretched business again,
or to detail at any length the events of October 5th, 1841, and the
various circumstances which led up to the death of Ghoolab Shah, the
I have torn a sheaf of leaves from my old journal, in which you will
find a bald account of the matter, and an independent narrative was
furnished by. Sir Edward Elliott, of the Artillery, to the Star of
India some years ago—in which, however, the names were suppressed.
I have reason to believe that many people, even among those who knew
India well, thought that Sir Edward was romancing, and that he had
evolved his incidents from his imagination. The few faded sheets which
I send you will show you that this is not the case, and that our men of
science must recognise powers and laws which can and have been used by
man, but which are unknown to European civilisation.
I do not wish to whine or to whimper, but I cannot help feeling that
I have had hard measure dealt me in this world. I would not, God knows,
take the life of any man, far less an aged one, in cold blood. My
temper and nature, however, were always fiery and headstrong, and in
action when my blood is up, I have no knowledge of what I am about.
Neither the corporal nor I would have laid a finger upon Ghoolab Shah
had we not seen that the tribesmen were rallying behind him. Well,
well, it is an old story now, and there is no profit in discussing it.
May no other poor fellow ever have the same evil fortune!
I have written a short supplement to the statements contained in my
journal for your information and that of any one else who may chance to
be interested in the matter.
And now, adieu! Be a good husband to Gabriel, and, if your sister be
brave enough to marry into such a devil-ridden family as ours, by all
means let her do so. I have left enough to keep my poor wife in
When she rejoins me I should wish it to be equally divided between
the children. If you hear that I am gone, do not pity, but congratulate
Your unfortunate friend,
JOHN BERTHIER HEATHERSTONE.
I threw aside the letter and picked up the roll of blue foolscap
which contained the solution of the mystery. It was all ragged and
frayed at the inner edge, with traces of gum and thread still adhering
to it, to show that it had been torn out of a strongly bound volume.
The ink with which it had been written was faded somewhat, but across
the head of the first page was inscribed in bold, clear characters,
evidently of later date than the rest: “Journal of Lieutenant J. B.
Heatherstone in the Thull Valley during the autumn of 1841,” and then
This extract contains some account of the events of the first week
of October of that year, including the skirmish of the Terada ravine
and the death of the man Ghoolab Shah.
I have the narrative lying before me now, and I copy it verbatim. If
it contains some matter which has no direct bearing upon the question
at issue, I can only say that I thought it better to publish what is
irrelevant than by cutting and clipping to lay the whole statement open
to the charge of having been tampered with.
Thull Valley, Oct. 1, 1841.—The Fifth Bengal and Thirty-third
Queen's passed through this morning on their way to the Front. Had
tiffin with the Bengalese. Latest news from home that two attempts had
been made on the Queen's life by semi-maniacs named Francis and Bean.
It promises to be a hard winter. The snow-line has descended a
thousand feet upon the peaks, but the passes will be open for weeks to
come, and, even if they were blocked, we have established so many
depots in the country that Pollock and Nott will have no difficulty in
holding their own. They shall not meet with the fate of Elphinstone's
army. One such tragedy is enough for a century.
Elliott of the Artillery, and I, are answerable for the safety of
the communications for a distance of twenty miles or more, from the
mouth of the valley to this side of the wooden bridge over the Lotar.
Goodenough, of the Rifles, is responsible on the other side, and
Lieutenant-Colonel Sidney Herbert of the Engineers, has a general
supervision over both sections.
Our force is not strong enough for the work which has to be done. I
have a company and a half of our own regiment, and a squadron of
Sowars, who are of no use at all among the rocks. Elliott has three
guns, but several of his men are down with cholera, and I doubt if he
has enough to serve more than two.
[Note: capsicum for cholera—tried it]
On the other hand, each convoy is usually provided with some guard
of its own, though it is often absurdly inefficient. These valleys and
ravines which branch out of the main pass are alive with Afridis and
Pathans, who are keen robbers as well as religious fanatics. I wonder
they don't swoop down on some of our caravans. They could plunder them
and get back to their mountain fastnesses before we could interfere or
overtake them. Nothing but fear will restrain them.
If I had my way I would hang one at the mouth of every ravine as a
warning to the gang. They are personifications of the devil to look at,
hawk-nosed, full-lipped, with a mane of tangled hair, and most Satanic
sneer. No news today from the Front.
October 2.—I must really ask Herbert for another company at the
very least. I am convinced that the communications would be cut off if
any serious attack were made upon us.
Now, this morning two urgent messages were sent me from two
different points more than sixteen miles apart, to say that there were
signs of a descent of the tribes.
Elliott, with one gun and the Sowars, went to the farther ravine,
while I, with the infantry, hurried to the other, but we found it was a
false alarm. I saw no signs of the Hillmen, and though we were greeted
by a splutter of jezail bullets we were unable to capture any of the
Woe betide them if they fall into my hands. I would give them as
short a shrift as ever a Highland cateran got from a Glasgow judge.
These continued alarms may mean nothing or they may be an indication
that the Hillmen are assembling and have some plan in view.
We have had no news from the Front for some time, but to-day a
convoy of wounded came through with the intelligence that Nott had
taken Ghuznee. I hope he warmed up any of the black rascals that fell
into his hands.
No word of Pollock.
An elephant battery came up from the Punjab, looking in very good
condition. There were several convalescents with it going up to rejoin
their regiments. Knew none of them except Mostyn of the Hussars and
young Blakesley, who was my fag at Charterhouse, and whom I have never
Punch and cigars al_fresco up to eleven o'clock.
Letters to-day from Wills &Co. about their little bill forwarded on
from Delhi. Thought a campaign freed a man from these annoyances. Wills
says in his note that, since his written applications have been in
vain, he must call upon me in person. If he calls upon me now he will
assuredly be the boldest and most persevering of tailors.
A line from Calcutta Daisy and another from Hobhouse to say that
Matilda comes in for all the money under the will. I am glad of it.
October 3.—Glorious news from the Front today. Barclay, of the
Madras Cavalry, galloped through with dispatches. Pollock entered Cabul
triumphantly on the 16th of last month, and, better still, Lady Sale
has been rescued by Shakespear, and brought safe into the British camp,
together with the other hostages. Te_Deum_laudamus!
This should end the whole wretched business—this and the sack of
the city. I hope Pollock won't be squeamish, or truckle to the
hysterical party at home. The towns should be laid in ashes and the
fields sown with salt. Above all, the Residency and the Palace must
come down. So shall Burnes, McNaghten, and many another gallant fellow
know that his countrymen could avenge if they could not save him!
It is hard when others are gaining glory and experience to be stuck
in this miserable valley. I have been out of it completely, bar a few
petty skirmishes. However, we may see some service yet.
A jemidar of ours brought in a Hillman today, who says that the
tribes are massing in the Terada ravine, ten miles to the north of us,
and intend attacking the next convoy. We can't rely on information of
this sort, but there may prove to be some truth in it. Proposed to
shoot our informant, so as to prevent his playing the double traitor
and reporting our proceedings. Elliott demurred.
If you are making war you should throw no chance away. I hate
half-and- half measures. The Children of Israel seem to have been the
only people who ever carried war to its logical conclusion—except
Cromwell in Ireland. Made a compromise at last by which the man is to
be detained as a prisoner and executed if his information prove to be
false. I only hope we get a fair chance of showing what we can do.
No doubt these fellows at the Front will have C.B.'s and knighthoods
showering upon them thick and fast, while we poor devils, who have had
most of the responsibility and anxiety, will be passed over completely.
Elliott has a whitlow.
The last convoy left us a large packet of sauces, but as they forgot
to leave anything to eat with them, we have handed them over to the
Sowars, who drink them out of their pannikins as if they were liqueurs.
We hear that another large convoy may be expected from the plains in
the course of a day or two. Took nine to four on Cleopatra for the
October 4.—The Hillmen really mean business this time, I think. We
have had two of our spies come in this morning with the same account
about the gathering in the Terada quarter. That old rascal Zemaun is at
the head of it, and I had recommended the Government to present him
with a telescope in return for his neutrality! There will be no Zemaun
to present it to if I can but lay hands upon him.
We expect the convoy tomorrow morning, and need anticipate no attack
until it comes up, for these fellows fight for plunder, not for glory,
though, to do them justice, they have plenty of pluck when they get
started. I have devised an excellent plan, and it has Elliott's hearty
support. By Jove! if we can only manage it, it will be as pretty a ruse
as ever I heard of.
Our intention is to give out that we are going down the valley to
meet the convoy and to block the mouth of a pass from which we profess
to expect an attack. Very good. We shall make a night-march to-night
and reach their camp. Once there I shall conceal my two hundred men in
the waggons and travel up with the convoy again.
Our friends the enemy, having heard that we intended to go south,
and seeing the caravan going north without us, will naturally swoop
down upon it under the impression that we are twenty miles away. We
shall teach them such a lesson that they would as soon think of
stopping a thunderbolt as of interfering again with one of Her
Britannic Majesty's provision trains. I am all on thorns to be off.
Elliott has rigged up two of his guns so ingeniously that they look
more like costermongers' barrows than anything else. To see artillery
ready for action in the convoy might arouse suspicion. The artillerymen
will be in the waggons next the guns, all ready to unlimber and open
fire. Infantry in front and rear. Have told our confidential and
discreet Sepoy servants the plan which we do not intend to adopt.
N.B.—If you wish a thing to be noised over a whole province always
whisper it under a vow of secrecy to your confidential native servant.
8.45 P.M.—Just starting for the convoy. May luck go with us!
October 5.—Seven o'clock in the evening. Io_triumphe! Crown
us with laurel—Elliott and myself! Who can compare with us as vermin
I have only just got back, tired and weary, stained with blood and
dust, but I have sat down before either washing or changing to have the
satisfaction of seeing our deeds set forth in black and white—if only
in my private log for no eye but my own. I shall describe it all fully
as a preparation for an official account, which must be drawn up when
Elliott gets back. Billy Dawson used to say that there were three
degrees of comparison—a prevarication, a lie, and an official account.
We at least cannot exaggerate our success, for it would be impossible
to add anything to it.
We set out, then, as per programme, and came upon the camp near the
head of the valley. They had two weak companies of the 54th with them
who might no doubt have held their own with warning, but an unexpected
rush of wild Hillmen is a very difficult thing to stand against. With
our reinforcements, however, and on our guard, we might defy the
Chamberlain was in command—a fine young fellow. We soon made him
understand the situation, and were all ready for a start by daybreak
though his waggons were so full that we were compelled to leave several
tons of fodder behind in order to make room for my Sepoys and for the
About five o'clock we inspanned, to use an Africanism, and by six we
were well on our way, with our escort as straggling and unconcerned as
possible—as helpless-looking a caravan as ever invited attack.
I could soon see that it was to be no false alarm this time, and
that the tribes really meant business.
From my post of observation, under the canvas screens of one of the
waggons, I could make out turbaned heads popping up to have a look at
us from among the rocks, and an occasional scout hurrying northward
with the news of our approach.
It was not, however, until we came abreast of the Terada Pass, a
gloomy defile bounded by gigantic cliffs, that the Afridis began to
show in force, though they had ambushed themselves so cleverly that,
had we not been keenly on the look-out for them, we might have walked
right into the trap. As it was, the convoy halted, upon which the
Hillmen, seeing that they were observed, opened a heavy but
ill-directed fire upon us.
I had asked Chamberlain to throw out his men in skirmishing order,
and to give them directions to retreat slowly upon the waggons so as to
draw the Afridis on. The ruse succeeded to perfection.
As the redcoats steadily retired, keeping behind cover as much as
possible, the enemy followed them up with yells of exultation,
springing from rock to rock, waving their jezails in the air, and
howling like a pack of demons.
With their black, contorted, mocking faces, their fierce gestures,
and their fluttering garments, they would have made a study for any
painter who wished to portray Milton's conception of the army of the
From every side they pressed in until, seeing, as they thought,
nothing between them and victory, they left the shelter of the rocks
and came rushing down, a furious, howling throng, with the green banner
of the Prophet in their van.
Now was our chance, and gloriously we utilised it.
From every cranny and slit of the waggons came a blaze of fire,
every shot of which told among the close-packed mob. Two or three score
rolled over like rabbits and the rest reeled for a moment, and then,
with their chiefs at their head, came on again in a magnificent rush.
It was useless, however, for undisciplined men to attempt to face
such a well-directed fire. The leaders were bowled over, and the
others, after hesitating for a few moments, turned and made for the
It was our turn now to assume the offensive. The guns were
unlimbered and grape poured into them, while our little infantry force
advanced at the double, shooting and stabbing all whom they overtook.
Never had I known the tide of battle turn so rapidly and so
decisively. The sullen retreat became a flight, and the flight a
panic-stricken rout, until there was nothing left of the tribesmen
except a scattered, demoralised rabble flying wildly to their native
fastnesses for shelter and protection.
I was by no means inclined to let them off cheaply now that I had
them in my power. On the contrary, I determined to teach them such a
lesson that the sight of a single scarlet uniform would in future be a
passport in itself.
We followed hard upon the track of the fugitives and entered the
Terada defile at their very heels. Having detached Chamberlain and
Elliott with a company on either side to protect my wings, I pushed on
with my Sepoys and a handful of artillerymen, giving the enemy no time
to rally or to recover themselves. We were so handicapped, however, by
our stiff European uniforms and by our want of practice in climbing,
that we should have been unable to overtake any of the mountaineers had
it not been for a fortunate accident.
There is a smaller ravine which opens into the main pass, and in
their hurry and confusion some of the fugitives rushed down this. I saw
sixty or seventy of them turn down, but I should have passed them by
and continued in pursuit of the main body had not one of my scouts come
rustling up to inform me that the smaller ravine was a cul-de-sac, and that the Afridis who had gone up it had no possible means of
getting out again except by cutting their way through our ranks.
Here was an opportunity of striking terror into the tribes. Leaving
Chamberlain and Elliott to continue the pursuit of the main body, I
wheeled my Sepoys into the narrow path and proceeded slowly down it in
extended order, covering the whole ground from cliff to cliff. Not a
jackal could have passed us unseen. The rebels were caught like rats in
The defile in which we found ourselves was the most gloomy and
majestic that I have ever seen. On either side naked precipices rose
sheer up for a thousand feet or more, converging upon each other so as
to leave a very narrow slit of daylight above us, which was further
reduced by the feathery fringe of palm trees and aloes which hung over
each lip of the chasm.
The cliffs were not more than a couple of hundred yards apart at the
entrance, but as we advanced they grew nearer and nearer, until a half
company in close order could hardly march abreast.
A sort of twilight reigned in this strange valley, and the dim,
uncertain light made the great, basalt rocks loom up vague and
fantastic. There was no path, and the ground was most uneven, but I
pushed on briskly, cautioning my fellows to have their fingers on their
triggers, for I could see that we were nearing the point where the two
cliffs would form an acute angle with each other.
At last we came in sight of the place. A great pile of boulders was
heaped up at the very end of the pass, and among these our fugitives
were skulking, entirely demoralised apparently, and incapable of
resistance. They were useless as prisoners, and it was out of the
question to let them go, so there was no choice but to polish them off.
Waving my sword, I was leading my men on, when we had a most
dramatic interruption of a sort which I have seen once or twice on the
boards of Drury Lane, but never in real life.
In the side of the cliff, close to the pile of stones where the
Hillmen were making their last stand, there was a cave which looked
more like the lair of some wild beast than a human habitation.
Out of this dark archway there suddenly emerged an old man—such a
very, very old man that all the other veterans whom I have seen were as
chickens compared with him. His hair and beard were both as white as
snow, and each reached more than half-way to his waist. His face was
wrinkled and brown and ebony, a cross between a monkey and a mummy, and
so thin and emaciated were his shrivelled limbs that you would hardly
have given him credit for having any vitality left, were it not for his
eyes, which glittered and sparkled with excitement, like two diamonds
in a setting of mahogany.
This apparition came rushing out of the cave, and, throwing himself
between the fugitives and our fellows, motioned us back with as
imperious a sweep of the hand as ever an emperor used to his slaves.
“Men of blood,” he cried, in a voice of thunder, speaking excellent
English, too—“this is a place for prayer and meditation, not for
murder. Desist, lest the wrath of the gods fall upon you.”
“Stand aside, old man,” I shouted. “You will meet with a hurt if you
don't get out of the way.”
I could see that the Hillmen were taking heart, and that some of my
Sepoys were flinching, as if they did not relish this new enemy.
Clearly, I must act promptly if I wished to complete our success.
I dashed forward at the head of the white artillerymen who had stuck
to me. The old fellow rushed at us with his arms out as if to stop us,
but it was not time to stick at trifles, so I passed my sword through
his body at the same moment that one of the gunners brought his carbine
down upon his head. He dropped instantly, and the Hillmen, at the sight
of his fall, set up the most unearthly howl of horror and
The Sepoys, who had been inclined to hang back, came on again the
moment he was disposed of, and it did not take us long to consummate
our victory. Hardly a man of the enemy got out of the defile alive.
What could Hannibal or Caesar have done more? Our own loss in the
whole affair has been insignificant—three killed and about fifteen
wounded. Got their banner, a green wisp of a thing with a sentence of
the Koran engraved upon it.
I looked, after the action, for the old chap, but his body had
disappeared, though how or whither I have no conception. His blood be
upon his own head! He would be alive now if he had not interfered, as
the constables say at home, “with an officer in the execution of his
The scouts tell me that his name was Ghoolab Shah, and that he was
one of the highest and holiest of the Buddhists. He had great fame in
the district as a prophet and worker of miracles—hence the hubbub when
he was cut down. They tell me that he was living in this very cave when
Tamerlane passed this way in 1399, with a lot more bosh of that sort.
I went into the cave, and how any man could live in it a week is a
mystery to me, for it was little more than four feet high, and as damp
and dismal a grotto as ever was seen. A wooden settle and a rough table
were the sole furniture, with a lot of parchment scrolls with
Well, he has gone where he will learn that the gospel of peace and
good will is superior to all his Pagan lore. Peace go with him.
Elliott and Chamberlain never caught the main body—I knew they
wouldn't—so the honours of the day rest with me. I ought to get a step
for it, anyhow, and perhaps, who knows? some mention in the Gazette. What a lucky chance! I think Zemaun deserves his telescope after all
for giving it to me. Shall have something to eat now, for I am half
starved. Glory is an excellent thing, but you cannot live upon it.
October 6, 11 A.M.—Let me try to set down as calmly and as
accurately as I can all that occurred last night. I have never been a
dreamer or a visionary, so I can rely upon my own senses, though I am
bound to say that if any other fellow had told me the same thing I
should have doubted him. I might even have suspected that I was
deceived at the time had I not heard the bell since. However, I must
narrate what happened.
Elliott was in my tent with me having a quiet cheroot until about
ten o'clock. I then walked the rounds with my jemidar, and having seen
that all was right I turned in a little before eleven.
I was just dropping off to sleep, for I was dog-tired after the
day's work, when I was aroused by some slight noise, and, looking
round, I saw a man dressed in Asiatic costume standing at the entrance
of my tent. He was motionless when I saw him, and he had his eyes fixed
upon me with a solemn and stern expression.
My first thought was that the fellow was some Ghazi or Afghan
fanatic who had stolen in with the intention of stabbing me, and with
this idea in my mind I had all the will to spring from my couch and
defend myself, but the power was unaccountably lacking.
An overpowering languor and want of energy possessed me. Had I seen
the dagger descending upon my breast I could not have made an effort to
avert it. I suppose a bird when it is under the influence of a snake
feels very much as I did in the presence of this gloomy-faced stranger.
My mind was clear enough, but my body was as torpid as though I were
I shut my eves once or twice and tried to persuade myself that the
whole thing was a delusion, but every time that I opened them there was
the man still regarding me with the same stony, menacing stare.
The silence became unendurable. I felt that I must overcome my
languor so far as to address him. I am not a nervous man, and I never
knew before what Virgil meant when he wrote “adhoesit faucibus ora.” At
last I managed to stammer out a few words, asking the intruder who he
was and what he wanted.
“Lieutenant Heatherstone,” he answered, speaking slowly and gravely,
“you have committed this day the foulest sacrilege and the greatest
crime which it is possible for man to do. You have slain one of the
thrice blessed and reverend ones, an arch adept of the first degree, an
elder brother who has trod the higher path for more years than you have
numbered months. You have cut him off at a time when his labours
promised to reach a climax and when he was about to attain a height of
occult knowledge which would have brought man one step nearer to his
Creator. All this you have done without excuse, without provocation, at
a time when he was pleading the cause of the helpless and distressed.
Listen now to me, John Heatherstone.
“When first the occult sciences were pursued many thousands of years
ago, it was found by the learned that the short tenure of human
existence was too limited to allow a man to attain the loftiest heights
of inner life. The inquirers of those days directed their energies in
the first place, therefore, to the lengthening of their own days in
order that they might have more scope for improvement.
“By their knowledge of the secret laws of Nature they were enabled
to fortify their bodies against disease and old age. It only remained
to protect themselves against the assaults of wicked and violent men
who are ever ready to destroy what is wiser and nobler than themselves.
There was no direct means by which this protection could be effected,
but it was in some measure attained by arranging the occult forces in
such a way that a terrible and unavoidable retribution should await the
“It was irrevocably ordained by laws which cannot be reversed that
any one who should shed the blood of a brother who had attained a
certain degree of sanctity should be a doomed man. Those laws are
extant to this day, John Heatherstone, and you have placed yourself in
their power. King or emperor would be helpless before the forces which
you have called into play. What hope, then, is there for you?
“In former days these laws acted so instantaneously that the slayer
perished with his victim. It was judged afterwards that this prompt
retribution prevented the offender from having time to realise the
enormity of his offence.
“It was therefore ordained that in all such cases the retribution
should be left in the hands of the chelas, or immediate
disciples of the holy man, with power to extend or shorten it at their
will, exacting it either at the time or at any future anniversary of
the day when the crime was committed.
“Why punishment should come on those days only it does not concern
you to know. Suffice it that you are the murderer of Ghoolab Shah, the
thrice blessed, and that I am the senior of his three chelas
commissioned to avenge his death.
“It is no personal matter between us. Amid our studies we have no
leisure or inclination for personal matters. It is an immutable law,
and it is as impossible for us to relax it as it is for you to escape
from it Sooner or later we shall come to you and claim your life in
atonement for the one which you have taken.
“The same fate shall be meted out to the wretched soldier, Smith,
who, though less guilty than yourself, has incurred the same penalty by
raising his sacrilegious hand against the chosen of Buddha. If your
life is prolonged, it is merely that you may have time to repent of
your misdeed and to feel the full force of your punishment.
“And lest you should be tempted to cast it out of your mind and to
forget it, our bell—our astral bell, the use of which is one of our
occult secrets—shall ever remind you of what have been and what is to
be. You shall hear it by day and you shall hear it by night, and it
will be a sign to you that do what you may and go where you will, you
can never shake yourself clear of the chelas of Ghoolab Shah.
“You will never see me more, accursed one, until the day when we
come for you. Live in fear, and in that anticipation which is worse
With a menacing wave of the hand the figure turned and swept out of
my tent into the darkness. The instant that the fellow disappeared from
my sight I recovered from my lethargy which had fallen upon me.
Springing to my feet, I rushed to the opening and looked out. A Sepoy
sentry was standing leaning upon his musket, a few paces off.
“You dog,” I said in Hindustani. “What do you mean by letting people
disturb me in this way?”
The man stared at me in amazement. “Has any one disturbed the
sahib?” he asked.
“This instant—this moment. You must have seen him pass out of my
“Surely the Burra Sahib is mistaken,” the man answered, respectfully
but firmly. “I have been here for an hour, and no one has passed from
Puzzled and disconcerted, I was sitting by the side of my couch
wondering whether the whole thing were a delusion, brought on by the
nervous excitement of our skirmish, when a new marvel overtook me. From
over my head there suddenly sounded a sharp, tinkling sound, like that
produced by an empty glass when flipped by the nail, only louder and
I looked up, but nothing was to be seen. I examined the whole
interior of the tent carefully, but without discovering any cause for
the strange sound. At last, worn out with fatigue, I gave the mystery
up, and throwing myself on the couch was soon fast asleep.
When I awoke this morning I was inclined to put the whole of my
yesternight's experiences down to imagination, but I was soon disabused
of the idea, for I had hardly risen before the same strange sound was
repeated in my very ear as loudly, and to all appearance as causelesly,
as before. What it is or where it comes from I cannot conceive. I have
not heard it since.
Can the fellow's threats have something in them and this be the
warning bell of which he spoke? Surely it is impossible. Yet his manner
was indescribably impressive.
I have tried to set down what he said as accurately as I can, but I
fear I have omitted a good deal. What is to be the end of this strange
affair? I must go in for a course of religion and holy water. Not a
word to Chamberlain or Elliott. They tell me I am looking like a ghost
Evening.—Have managed to compare notes with Gunner Rufus
Smith of the Artillery, who knocked the old fellow over with the butt
of his gun. His experience has been the same as mine. He has heard the
sound, too. What is the meaning of it all? My brain is in a whirl.
Oct. 10 (four days later).—God help us!
This last laconic entry terminated the journal. It seemed to me
that, coming as it did after four days' complete silence, it told a
clearer tale of shaken nerve and a broken spirit than could any more
elaborate narrative. Pinned on to the journal was a supplementary
statement which had evidently been recently added by the general.
“From that day to this,” it said, “I have had no night or day free
from the intrusion of that dreadful sound with its accompanying train
of thought. Time and custom have brought me no relief, but on the
contrary, as the years pass over my head my physical strength decreases
and my nerves become less able to bear up against the continual strain.
“I am a broken man in mind and body. I live in a state of tension,
always straining my ears for the hated sound, afraid to converse with
my fellows for fear of exposing my dreadful condition to them, with no
comfort or hope of comfort on this side of the grave. I should be
willing. Heaven knows, to die, and yet as each 5th of October comes
round, I am prostrated with fear because I do not know what strange and
terrible experience may be in store for me.
“Forty years have passed since I slew Ghoolab Shah, and forty times
I have gone through all the horrors of death, without attaining the
blessed peace which lies beyond.
“I have no means of knowing in what shape my fate will come upon me.
I have immured myself in this lonely country, and surrounded myself
with barriers, because in my weaker moments my instincts urge me to
take some steps for self-protection, but I know well in my heart how
futile it all is. They must come quickly now, for I grow old, and
Nature will forestall them unless they make haste.
“I take credit to myself that I have kept my hands off the
prussic-acid or opium bottle. It has always been in my power to
checkmate my occult persecutors in that way, but I have ever held that
a man in this world cannot desert his post until he has been relieved
in due course by the authorities. I have had no scruples, however,
about exposing myself to danger, and, during the Sikh and Sepoy wars, I
did all that a man could do to court Death. He passed me by, however,
and picked out many a young fellow to whom life was only opening and
who had everything to live for, while I survived to win crosses and
honours which had lost all relish for me.
“Well, well, these things cannot depend upon chance, and there is no
doubt some deep reason for it all.
“One compensation Providence has made me in the shape of a true and
faithful wife, to whom I told my dreadful secret before the wedding,
and who nobly consented to share my lot. She has lifted half the burden
from my shoulders, but with the effect, poor soul, of crushing her own
life beneath its weight!
“My children, too, have been a comfort to me. Mordaunt knows all, or
nearly all. Gabriel we have endeavoured to keep in the dark, though we
cannot prevent her from knowing that there is something amiss.
“I should like this statement to be shown to Dr. John Easterling",
of Stranraer. He heard on one occasion this haunting sound. My sad
experience may show him that I spoke truth when I said that there was
much knowledge in the world which has never found its way to England.
“J. B. HEATHERSTONE.”
It was going on for dawn by the time that I had finished this
extraordinary narrative, to which my sister and Mordaunt Heatherstone
listened with the most absorbed attention. Already we could see through
the window that the stars had begun to fade and a grey light to appear
in the east. The crofter who owned the lurcher dog lived a couple of
miles off, so it was time for us to be on foot. Leaving Esther to tell
my father the story in such fashion as she might, we thrust some food
in our pockets and set off upon our solemn and eventful errand.
It was dark enough when we started to make it no easy matter to find
our way across the moors, but as we advanced it grew lighter and
lighter, until by the time we reached Fullarton's cabin it was broad
Early as it was, he was up and about, for the Wigtown peasants are
an early rising race. We explained our mission to him in as few words
as possible, and having made his bargain—what Scot ever neglected that
preliminary?—he agreed not only to let us have the use of his dog but
to come with us himself.
Mordaunt, in his desire for privacy, would have demurred at this
arrangement, but I pointed out to him that we had no idea what was in
store for us, and the addition of a strong, able-bodied man to our
party might prove to be of the utmost consequence.
Again, the dog was less likely to give us trouble if we had its
master to control it. My arguments carried the day, and the biped
accompanied us as well as his four-footed companion.
There was some little similarity between the two, for the man was a
towsy-headed fellow with a great mop of yellow hair and a straggling
beard, while the dog was of the long-haired, unkempt breed looking like
an animated bundle of oakum.
All our way to the Hall its owner kept retailing instances of the
creature's sagacity and powers of scent, which, according to his
account, were little less than miraculous. His anecdotes had a poor
audience, I fear, for my mind was filled with the strange story which I
had been reading, while Mordaunt strode on with wild eyes and feverish
cheeks, without a thought for anything but the problem which we had to
Again and again as we topped an eminence I saw him look eagerly
round him in the faint hope of seeing some trace of the absentee, but
over the whole expanse of moorland there was no sign of movement or of
life. All was dead and silent and deserted.
Our visit to the Hall was a very brief one, for every minute now was
of importance. Mordaunt rushed in and emerged with an old coat of his
father's, which he handed to Fullarton, who held it out to the dog.
The intelligent brute sniffed at it all over, then ran whining a
little way down the avenue, came back to sniff the coat again, and
finally elevating its stump of a tail in triumph, uttered a succession
of sharp yelps to show that it was satisfied that it had struck the
trail. Its owner tied a long cord to its collar to prevent it from
going too fast for us, and we all set off upon our search, the dog
tugging and training at its leash in its excitement as it followed in
the general's footsteps.
Our way lay for a couple of hundred yards along the high road, and
then passed through a gap In the hedge and on to the moor, across which
we were led in a bee-line to the northward.
The sun had by this time risen above the horizon, and the whole
countryside looked so fresh and sweet, from the blue, sparkling sea to
the purple mountains, that it was difficult to realise how weird and
uncanny was the enterprise upon which we were engaged.
The scent must have lain strongly upon the ground, for the dog never
hesitated nor stopped, dragging its master along at a pace which
rendered conversation impossible.
At one place, in crossing a small stream, we seemed to get off the
trail for a few minutes, but our keen-nosed ally soon picked it up on
the other side and followed it over the trackless moor, whining and
yelping all the time in its eagerness. Had we not all three been fleet
of foot and long of wind, we could not have persisted in the
continuous, rapid journey over the roughest of ground, with the heather
often well-nigh up to our waists.
For my own part, I have no idea now, looking back, what goal it was
which I expected to reach at the end of our pursuit. I can remember
that my mind was full of the vaguest and most varying speculations.
Could it be that the three Buddhists had had a craft in readiness
off the coast, and had embarked with their prisoners for the East? The
direction of their track seemed at first to favour this supposition,
for it lay in the line of the upper end of the bay, but it ended by
branching off and striking directly inland. Clearly the ocean was not
to be our terminus.
By ten o'clock we had walked close upon twelve miles, and were
compelled to call a halt for a few minutes to recover our breath, for
the last mile or two we had been breasting the long, wearying slope of
the Wigtown hills.
From the summit of this range, which is nowhere more than a thousand
feet in height, we could see, looking northward, such a scene of
bleakness and desolation as can hardly be matched in any country.
Right away to the horizon stretched the broad expanse of mud and of
water, mingled and mixed together in the wildest chaos, like a portion
of some world in the process of formation. Here and there on the
dun-coloured surface of this great marsh there had burst out patches of
sickly yellow reeds and of livid, greenish scum, which only served to
heighten and intensify the gloomy effect of the dull, melancholy
On the side nearest to us some abandoned peat-cuttings showed that
ubiquitous man had been at work there, but beyond these few petty scars
there was no sign anywhere of human life. Not even a crow nor a seagull
flapped its way over that hideous desert.
This is the great Bog of Cree. It is a salt-water marsh formed by an
inroad of the sea, and so intersected is it with dangerous swamps and
treacherous pitfalls of liquid mud, that no man would venture through
it unless he had the guidance of one of the few peasants who retain the
secret of its paths.
As we approached the fringe of rushes which marked its border, a
foul, dank smell rose up from the stagnant wilderness, as from impure
water and decaying vegetation—an earthy, noisome smell which poisoned
the fresh upland air.
So forbidding and gloomy was the aspect of the place that our stout
crofter hesitated, and it was all that we could do to persuade him to
proceed. Our lurcher, however, not being subject to the delicate
impressions of our higher organisation, still ran yelping along with
its nose on the ground and every fibre of its body quivering with
excitement and eagerness.
There was no difficulty about picking our way through the morass,
for wherever the five could go we three could follow.
If we could have had any doubts as to our dog's guidance they would
all have been removed now, for in the soft, black, oozing soil we could
distinctly trace the tracks of the whole party. From these we could see
that they had walked abreast, and, furthermore, that each was about
equidistant from the other. Clearly, then, no physical force had been
used in taking the general and his companion along. The compulsion had
been psychical and not material.
Once within the swamp, we had to be careful not to deviate from the
narrow track, which offered a firm foothold.
On each side lay shallow sheets of stagnant water overlying a
treacherous bottom of semi-fluid mud, which rose above the surface here
and there in moist, sweltering banks, mottled over with occasional
patches of unhealthy vegetation. Great purple and yellow fungi had
broken out in a dense eruption, as though Nature were afflicted with a
foul disease, which manifested itself by this crop of plague spots.
Here and there dark, crab-like creatures scuttled across our path,
and hideous, flesh-coloured worms wriggled and writhed amid the sickly
reeds. Swarms of buzzing, piping insects rose up at every step and
formed a dense cloud around our heads, settling on our hands and faces
and inoculating us with their filthy venom. Never had I ventured into
so pestilent and forbidding a place.
Mordaunt Heatherstone strode on, however, with a set purpose upon
his swarthy brow, and we could but follow him, determined to stand by
him to the end of the adventure. As we advanced, the path grew narrower
and narrower until, as we saw by the tracks, our predecessors had been
compelled to walk in single file. Fullarton was leading us with the
dog, Mordaunt behind him, while I brought up the rear. The peasant had
been sulky and surly for a little time back, hardly answering when
spoken to, but he now stopped short and positively refused to go a step
“It's no' canny,” he said, “besides I ken where it will lead us
“Where, then?” I asked.
“Tae the Hole o' Cree,” he answered. “It's no far frae here, I'm
“The Hole of Cree! What is that, then?”
“It's a great, muckle hole in the ground that gangs awa' doon so
deep that naebody could ever reach the bottom. Indeed there are folk
wha says that it's just a door leadin' intae the bottomless pit itsel'“
“You have been there, then?” I asked.
“Been there!” he cried. “What would I be doin' at the Hole o' Cree?
No, I've never been there, nor any other man in his senses.”
“How do you know about it, then?”
“My great-grandfeyther had been there, and that's how I ken,”
Fullarton answered. “He was fou' one Saturday nicht and he went for a
bet. He didna like tae talk aboot it afterwards, and he wouldna tell a'
what befell him, but he was aye feared o' the very name. He's the first
Fullarton that's been at the Hole o' Cree, and he'll be the last for
me. If ye'll tak' my advice ye'll just gie the matter up and gang name
again, for there's na guid tae be got oot o' this place.”
“We shall go on with you or without you,” Mordaunt answered. “Let us
have your dog and we can pick you up on our way back.”
“Na, na,” he cried, “I'll no' hae my dog scaret wi' bogles, and
running down Auld Nick as if he were a hare. The dog shall bide wi'
“The dog shall go with us,” said my companion, with his eyes
blazing. “We have no time to argue with you. Here's a five-pound note.
Let us have the dog, or, by Heaven, I shall take it by force and throw
you in the bog if you hinder us.”
I could realise the Heatherstone of forty years ago when I saw the
fierce and sudden wrath which lit up the features of his son.
Either the bribe or the threat had the desired effect, for the
fellow grabbed at the money with one hand while with the other he
surrendered the leash which held the lurcher. Leaving him to retrace
his steps, we continued to make our way into the utmost recesses of the
The tortuous path grew less and less defined as we proceeded, and
was even covered in places with water, but the increasing excitement of
the hound and the sight of the deep footmarks in the mud stimulated us
to push on. At last, after struggling through a grove of high
bulrushes, we came on a spot the gloomy horror of which might have
furnished Dante with a fresh terror for his “Inferno.”
The whole bog in this part appeared to have sunk in, forming a
great, funnel-shaped depression, which terminated in the centre in a
circular rift or opening about forty feet in diameter. It was a
whirlpool—a perfect maelstrom of mud, sloping down on every side to
this silent and awful chasm.
Clearly this was the spot which, under the name of the Hole of Cree,
bore such a sinister reputation among the rustics. I could not wonder
at its impressing their imagination, for a more weird or gloomy scene,
or one more worthy of the avenue which led to it, could not be
The steps passed down the declivity which surrounded the abyss, and
we followed them with a sinking feeling in our hearts, as we realised
that this was the end of our search.
A little way from the downward path was the return trail made by the
feet of those who had come back from the chasm's edge. Our eyes fell
upon these tracks at the same moment, and we each gave a cry of horror,
and stood gazing speechlessly at them. For there, in those blurred
footmarks, the whole drama was revealed.
None shall ever know the details of that strange tragedy. There was
no mark of struggle nor sign of attempt at escape. We knelt at the edge
of the Hole and endeavoured to pierce the unfathomable gloom which
shrouded it. A faint, sickly exhalation seemed to rise from its depths,
and there was a distant hurrying, clattering sound as of waters in the
bowels of the earth.
A great stone lay embedded in the mud, and this I hurled over, but
we never heard thud or splash to show that it had reached the bottom.
As we hung over the noisome chasm a sound did at last rise to our
ears out of its murky depths. High, clear, and throbbing, it tinkled
for an instant out of the abyss, to be succeeded by the same deadly
stillness which had preceded it.
I did not wish to appear superstitious, or to put down to
extraordinary causes that which may have a natural explanation. That
one keen note may have been some strange water sound produced far down
in the bowels of the earth. It may have been that or it may have been
that sinister bell of which I had heard so much. Be this as it may, it
was the only sign that rose to us from the last terrible resting-place
of the two who had paid the debt which had so long been owing.
We joined our voices in a call with the unreasoning obstinacy with
which men will cling to hope, but no answer came back to us save a
hollow moaning from the depths beneath. Footsore and heart-sick, we
retraced our steps and climbed the slimy slope once more.
“What shall we do, Mordaunt?” I asked, in a subdued voice. “We can
but pray that their souls may rest in peace.”
Young Heatherstone looked at me with flashing eyes.
“This may be all according to occult laws,” he cried, “but we shall
see what the laws of England have to say upon it. I suppose a chela
may be hanged as well as any other man. It may not be too late yet to
run them down. Here, good dog, good dog-here!”
He pulled the hound over and set it on the track of the three men.
The creature sniffed at it once or twice, and then, falling upon its
stomach, with bristling hair and protruding tongue, it lay shivering
and trembling, a very embodiment of canine terror.
“You see,” I said, “it is no use contending against those who have
powers at their command to which we cannot even give a name. There is
nothing for it but to accept the inevitable, and to hope that these
poor men may meet with some compensation in another world for all that
they have suffered in this.”
“And be free from all devilish religions and their murderous
worshippers!” Mordaunt cried furiously.
Justice compelled me to acknowledge in my own heart that the
murderous spirit had been set on foot by the Christian before it was
taken up by the Buddhists, but I forbore to remark upon it, for fear of
irritating my companion.
For a long time I could not draw him away from the scene of his
father's death, but at last, by repeated arguments and reasonings, I
succeeded in making him realise how useless and unprofitable any
further efforts on our part must necessarily prove, and in inducing him
to return with me to Cloomber.
Oh, the wearisome, tedious journey! It had seemed long enough when
we had some slight flicker of hope, or at least of expectation, before
us, but now that our worst fears were fulfilled it appeared
We picked up our peasant guide at the outskirts of the marsh, and
having restored his dog we let him find his own way home, without
telling him anything of the results of our expedition. We ourselves
plodded all day over the moors with heavy feet and heavier hearts until
we saw the ill-omened tower of Cloomber, and at last, as the sun was
setting, found ourselves once more beneath its roof.
There is no need for me to enter into further details, nor to
describe the grief which our tidings conveyed to mother and to
daughter. Their long expectation of some calamity was not sufficient to
prepare them for the terrible reality.
For weeks my poor Gabriel hovered between life and death, and though
she came round al last, thanks to the nursing of my sister and the
professional skill of Dr. John Easterling, she has never to this day
entirely recovered her former vigour. Mordaunt, too, suffered much for
some time, and it was only after our removal to Edinburgh that he
rallied from the shock which he had undergone.
As to poor Mrs. Heatherstone, neither medical attention nor change
of air can ever have a permanent effect upon her. Slowly and surely,
but very placidly, she has declined in health and strength, until it is
evident that in a very few weeks at the most she will have rejoined her
husband and restored to him the one thing which he must have grudged to
The Laird of Branksome came home from Italy restored in health, with
the result that we were compelled to return once more to Edinburgh.
The change was agreeable to us, for recent events had cast a cloud
over our country life and had surrounded us with unpleasant
associations. Besides, a highly honourable and remunerative appointment
in connection with the University library had become vacant, and had,
through the kindness of the late Sir Alexander Grant, been offered to
my father, who, as may be imagined, lost no time in accepting so
congenial a post.
In this way we came back to Edinburgh very much more important
people than we left it, and with no further reason to be uneasy about
the details of housekeeping. But, in truth, the whole household has
been dissolved, for I have been married for some months to my dear
Gabriel, and Esther is to become Mrs. Heatherstone upon the 23rd of the
month. If she makes him as good a wife as his sister has made me, we
may both set ourselves down as fortunate men.
These mere domestic episodes are, as I have already explained,
introduced only because I cannot avoid alluding to them.
My object in drawing up this statement and publishing the evidence
which corroborates it, was certainly not to parade my private affairs
before the public, but to leave on record an authentic narrative of a
most remarkable series of events. This I have endeavoured to do in as
methodical a manner as possible, exaggerating nothing and suppressing
The reader has now the evidence before him, and can form his own
opinions unaided by me as to the causes of the disappearance and death
of Rufus Smith and of John Berthier Heatherstone, V.C., C.B.
There is only one point which is still dark to me. Why the chelas
of Ghoolab Shah should have removed their victims to the desolate Hole
of Cree instead of taking their lives at Cloomber, is, I confess, a
mystery to me.
In dealing with occult laws, however, we must allow for our own
complete ignorance of the subject. Did we know more we might see that
there was some analogy between that foul bog and the sacrilege which
had been committed, and that their ritual and customs demanded that
just such a death was the one appropriate to the crime.
On this point I should be sorry to be dogmatic, but at least we must
allow that the Buddhist priests must have had some very good cause for
the course of action which they so deliberately carried out.
Months afterwards I saw a short paragraph in the Star_of_India
announcing that three eminent Buddhists—Lal Hoomi, Mowdar Khan, and
Ram Singh—had just returned in the steamship Deccan from a
short trip to Europe. The very next item was devoted to an account of
the life and services of Major-General Heatherstone, “who has lately
disappeared from his country house in Wigtownshire, and who, there is
too much reason to fear, has been drowned.”
I wonder if by chance there was any other human eye but mine which
traced a connection between these paragraphs. I never showed them to my
wife or to Mordaunt, and they will only know of their existence when
they read these pages.
I don't know that there is any other point which needs clearing up.
The intelligent reader will have already seen the reasons for the
general's fear of dark faces, of wandering men (not knowing how his
pursuers might come after him), and of visitors (from the same cause
and because his hateful bell was liable to sound at all times).
His broken sleep led him to wander about the house at night, and the
lamps which he burnt in every room were no doubt to prevent his
imagination from peopling the darkness with terrors. Lastly, his
elaborate precautions were, as he has himself explained, rather the
result of a feverish desire to do something than in the expectation
that he could really ward off his fate.
Science will tell you that there are no such powers as those claimed
by the Eastern mystics. I, John Fothergill West, can confidently answer
that science is wrong.
For what is science? Science is the consensus of opinion of
scientific men, and history has shown that it is slow to accept a
truth. Science sneered at Newton for twenty years. Science proved
mathematically that an iron ship could not swim, and science declared
that a steamship could not cross the Atlantic.
Like Goethe's Mephistopheles, our wise professor's forte is “stets
verneinen.” Thomas Didymus is, to use his own jargon, his prototype.
Let him learn that if he will but cease to believe in the infallibility
of his own methods, and will look to the East, from which all great
movements come, he will find there a school of philosophers and of
savants who, working on different lines from his own, are many thousand
years ahead of him in all the essentials of knowledge.