There is an odour about a country-house which I love better than
any scent in the world. Mary used to say it was a mixture of lamp
and dog and wood-smoke, but at Fosse, where there was electric
light and no dogs indoors, I fancy it was wood-smoke, tobacco, the
old walls, and wafts of the country coming in at the windows. I
liked it best in the morning, when there was a touch in it of
breakfast cooking, and I used to stand at the top of the staircase
and sniff it as I went to my bath. But on the morning I write of I
could take no pleasure in it; indeed it seemed to tantalise me with
a vision of country peace which had somehow got broken. I couldn't
get that confounded letter out of my head. When I read it I had
torn it up in disgust, but I found myself going down in my
dressing-gown, to the surprise of a housemaid, piecing together the
fragments from the waste-paper basket, and reading it again. This
time I flung the bits into the new-kindled fire.
I was perfectly resolved that I would have nothing to do with
Bullivant or any of his designs, but all the same I could not
recapture the serenity which yesterday had clothed me like a
garment. I was down to breakfast before Mary, and had finished
before she appeared. Then I lit my pipe and started on my usual
tour of my domain, but nothing seemed quite the same. It was a soft
fresh morning with no frost, and the scillas along the edge of the
lake were like bits of summer sky. The moor-hens were building, and
the first daffodils were out in the rough grass below the clump of
Scots firs, and old George Whaddon was nailing up rabbit wire and
whistling through his two remaining teeth, and generally the world
was as clear and jolly as spring could make it. But I didn't feel
any more that it was really mine, only that I was looking on at a
pretty picture. Something had happened to jar the harmony between
it and my mind, and I cursed Bullivant and his intrusions.
I returned by the front of the house, and there at the door to
my surprise stood a big touring Rolls-Royce. Paddock met me in the
hall and handed me a card, on which I read the name of Mr. Julius
I knew it, of course, for the name of one of the richest men in
the world, the American banker who had done a lot of Britain's
financial business in the War, and was in Europe now at some
international conference. I remembered that Blenkiron, who didn't
like his race, had once described him to me as "the whitest Jew
since the Apostle Paul."
In the library I found a tall man standing by the window looking
out at our view. He turned as I entered, and I saw a thin face with
a neatly trimmed grey beard, and the most worried eyes I have ever
seen in a human countenance. Everything about him was spruce and
dapper—his beautifully-cut grey suit, his black tie and pink pearl
pin, his blue-and-white linen, his exquisitely polished shoes. But
the eyes were so wild and anxious that he looked dishevelled.
"General," he said, and took a step towards me.
We shook hands and I made him sit down.
"I have dropped the 'General,' if you don't mind," I said. "What
I want to know is, have you had breakfast?"
He shook his head. "I had a cup of coffee on the road. I do not
eat in the morning."
"Where have you come from, sir?" I asked.
Well, London is seventy-six miles from us, so he must have
started early. I looked curiously at him, and he got out of his
chair and began to stride about.
"Sir Richard," he said, in a low pleasant voice which I could
imagine convincing any man he tried it on, "you are a soldier and a
man of the world and will pardon my unconventionality. My business
is too urgent to waste time on apologies. I have heard of you from
common friends as a man of exceptional resource and courage. I have
been told in confidence something of your record. I have come to
implore your help in a desperate emergency."
I passed him a box of cigars, and he took one and lit it
carefully. I could see his long slim fingers trembling as he held
"You may have heard of me," he went on. "I am a very rich man,
and my wealth has given me power, so that Governments honour me
with their confidence. I am concerned in various important affairs,
and it would be false modesty to deny that my word is weightier
than that of many Prime Ministers. I am labouring, Sir Richard, to
secure peace in the world, and consequently I have enemies, all
those who would perpetuate anarchy and war. My life has been more
than once attempted, but that is nothing. I am well guarded. I am
not, I think, more of a coward than other men, and I am prepared to
take my chance. But now I have been attacked by a subtler weapon,
and I confess I have no defence. I had a son, who died ten years
ago at college. My only other child is my daughter, Adela, a girl
of nineteen. She came to Europe just before Christmas, for she was
to be married in Paris in April. A fortnight ago she was hunting
with friends in Northamptonshire—the place is called Rushford
Court. On the morning of the 8th of March she went for a walk to
Rushford village to send a telegram, and was last seen passing
through the lodge gates at twenty-minutes past eleven. She has not
been seen since."
"Good God!" I exclaimed, and rose from my chair. Mr. Victor was
looking out of the window, so I walked to the other end of the room
and fiddled with the books on a shelf. There was silence for a
second or two, till I broke it.
"Do you suppose it is loss of memory?" I asked.
"No," he said. "It is not loss of memory. I know—we have
proof—that she has been kidnapped by those whom I call my enemies.
She is being held as a hostage."
"You know she is alive?"
He nodded, for his voice was choking again. "There is evidence
which points to a very deep and devilish plot. It may be revenge,
but I think it more likely to be policy. Her captors hold her as
security for their own fate."
"Has Scotland Yard done nothing?"
"Everything that man could do, but the darkness only grows
"Surely it has not been in the papers. I don't read them
carefully but I could scarcely miss a thing like that."
"It has been kept out of the papers—for a reason which you will
"Mr. Victor," I said, "I'm most deeply sorry for you. Like you,
I've just the one child, and if anything of that kind happened to
him I should go mad. But I shouldn't take too gloomy a view. Miss
Adela will turn up all right, and none the worse, though you may
have to pay through the nose for it. I expect it's ordinary
blackmail and ransom."
"No," he said very quietly. "It is not blackmail, and if it
were, I would not pay the ransom demanded. Believe me, Sir Richard,
it is a very desperate affair. More, far more is involved than the
fate of one young girl. I am not going to touch on that side, for
the full story will be told you later by one better equipped to
tell it. But the hostage is my daughter, my only child. I have come
to beg your assistance in the search for her."
"But I'm no good at looking for things," I stammered. "I'm most
awfully sorry for you, but I don't see how I can help. If Scotland
Yard is at a loss, it's not likely that an utter novice like me
"But you have a different kind of imagination and a rarer kind
of courage. I know what you have done before, Sir Richard. I tell
you you are my last hope."
I sat down heavily and groaned. "I can't begin to explain to you
the bottomless futility of your idea. It is quite true that in the
War I had some queer jobs and was lucky enough to bring some of
them off. But, don't you see, I was a soldier then, under orders,
and it didn't greatly signify whether I lost my life from a crump
in the trenches or from a private bullet on the backstairs. I was
in the mood for any risk, and my wits were strung up and
unnaturally keen. But that's all done with. I'm in a different mood
now and my mind is weedy and grass-grown. I've settled so deep into
the country that I'm just an ordinary hayseed farmer. If I took a
hand—which I certainly won't—I'd only spoil the game."
Mr. Victor stood looking at me intently. I thought for a moment
he was going to offer me money, and rather hoped he would, for that
would have stiffened me like a ramrod, though it would have spoiled
the good notion I had of him. The thought may have crossed his
mind, but he was clever enough to reject it.
"I don't agree with a word you say about yourself, and I'm
accustomed to size up men. I appeal to you as a Christian gentleman
to help me to recover my child. I am not going to press that
appeal, for I have already taken up enough of your time. My London
address is on my card. Good-bye, Sir Richard, and believe me, I am
very grateful to you for receiving me so kindly."
In five minutes he and his Rolls-Royce had gone, and I was left
in a miserable mood of shame-faced exasperation. I realised how Mr.
Julius Victor had made his fame. He knew how to handle men, for if
he had gone on pleading he would only have riled me, whereas he had
somehow managed to leave it all to my honour, and thoroughly
unsettle my mind.
I went for a short walk, cursing the world at large, sometimes
feeling horribly sorry for that unfortunate father, sometimes
getting angry because he had tried to mix me up in his affairs. Of
course I would not touch the thing; I couldn't; it was manifestly
impossible; I had neither the capacity nor the inclination. I was
not a professional rescuer of distressed ladies whom I did not know
A man, I told myself, must confine his duties to his own circle
of friends, except when his country has need of him. I was over
forty, and had a wife and a young son to think of; besides, I had
chosen a retired life, and had the right to have my choice
respected. But I can't pretend that I was comfortable. A hideous
muddy wave from the outer world had come to disturb my little
sheltered pool. I found Mary and Peter John feeding the swans, and
couldn't bear to stop and play with them. The gardeners were
digging in sulphates about the fig trees on the south wall, and
wanted directions about the young chestnuts in the nursery; the
keeper was lying in wait for me in the stable-yard for instructions
about a new batch of pheasants' eggs, and the groom wanted me to
look at the hocks of Mary's cob. But I simply couldn't talk to any
of them. These were the things I loved, but for a moment the gilt
was off them, and I would let them wait till I felt better. In a
very bad temper I returned to the library.
I hadn't been there two minutes when I heard the sound of a car
on the gravel. "Let 'em all come," I groaned, and I wasn't
surprised when Paddock entered, followed by the spare figure and
smooth keen face of Macgillivray.
I don't think I offered to shake hands. We were pretty good
friends, but at that moment there was no one in the world I wanted
less to see.
"Well, you old nuisance," I cried, "you're the second visitor
from town I've had this morning. There'll be a shortage of petrol
"Have you had a letter from Lord Artinswell?" he asked.
"I have, worse luck," I said.
"Then you know what I've come about. But that can keep till
after luncheon. Hurry it up, Dick, like a good fellow, for I'm as
hungry as a famished kestrel."
He looked rather like one, with his sharp nose and lean head. It
was impossible to be cross for long with Macgillivray, so we went
out to look for Mary. "I may as well tell you," I told him, "that
you've come on a fool's errand. I'm not going to be jockeyed by you
or anyone into making an ass of myself. Anyhow, don't mention the
thing to Mary. I don't want her to be worried by your
So at luncheon we talked about Fosse and the Cotswolds, and
about the deer-forest I had taken—Machray they called it—and about
Sir Archibald Roylance, my co-tenant, who had just had another try
at breaking his neck in a steeplechase. Macgillivray was by way of
being a great stalker and could tell me a lot about Machray. The
crab of the place was its neighbours, it seemed; for Haripol on the
south was too steep for the lessee, a middle-aged manufacturer, to
do justice to it, and the huge forest of Glenaicill on the east was
too big for any single tenant to shoot, and the Machray end of it
was nearly thirty miles by road from the lodge. The result was,
said Macgillivray, that Machray was surrounded by unauthorised
sanctuaries, which made the deer easy to shift. He said the best
time was early in the season when the stags were on the upper
ground, for it seemed that Machray had uncommonly fine high
pastures… . Mary was in good spirits, for somebody had been
complimentary about Peter John, and she was satisfied for the
moment that he wasn't going to be cut off by an early consumption.
She was full of housekeeping questions about Machray, and revealed
such spacious plans that Macgillivray said that he thought he would
pay us a visit, for it looked as if he wouldn't be poisoned, as he
usually was in Scotch shooting-lodges. It was a talk I should have
enjoyed if there had not been that uneasy morning behind me and
that interview I had still to get over.
There was a shower after luncheon, so he and I settled ourselves
in the library. "I must leave at three-thirty," he said, "so I have
got just a little more than an hour to tell you my business
"Is it worth while starting?" I asked. "I want to make it quite
plain that under no circumstances am I open to any offer to take on
any business of any kind. I'm having a rest and a holiday. I stay
here for the summer and then I go to Machray."
"There's nothing to prevent your going to Machray in August," he
said, opening his eyes. "The work I am going to suggest to you must
be finished long before then."
I suppose that surprised me, for I did not stop him as I had
meant to. I let him go on, and before I knew I found myself getting
interested. I have a boy's weakness for a yarn, and Macgillivray
knew this and played on it.
He began by saying very much what Dr. Greenslade had said the
night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that
involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All
the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well
accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far
greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man,
could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved
ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a
sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and
throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly
wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted
poetry and drunk with rhetoric—a hideous, untamable breed had been
engendered. You found it among the young Bolshevik Jews, among the
young gentry of the wilder Communist sects, and very notably among
the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland.
"Poor devils," Macgillivray repeated. "It is for their Maker to
judge them, but we who are trying to patch up civilisation have to
see that they are cleared out of the world. Don't imagine that they
are devotees of any movement, good or bad. They are what I have
called them, moral imbeciles, who can be swept into any movement by
those who understand them. They are the neophytes and hierophants
of crime, and it is as criminals that I have to do with them. Well,
all this desperate degenerate stuff is being used by a few clever
men who are not degenerates or anything of the sort, but only evil.
There has never been such a chance for a rogue since the world
Then he told me certain facts, which must remain unpublished, at
any rate during our life-times. The main point was that there were
sinister brains at work to organise for their own purposes the
perilous stuff lying about. All the contemporary anarchisms, he
said, were interconnected, and out of the misery of decent folks
and the agony of the wretched tools certain smug
entrepreneurs were profiting. He and his men, and indeed
the whole police force of civilisation—he mentioned especially the
Americans—had been on the trail of one of the worst of these
combines and by a series of fortunate chances had got their hand on
it. Now at any moment they could stretch out that hand and gather
But there was one difficulty. I learned from him that this
particular combine was not aware of the danger in which it stood,
but that it realised that it must stand in some danger, so it had
taken precautions. Since Christmas it had acquired hostages.
Here I interrupted, for I felt rather incredulous about the
whole business. "I think since the War we're all too ready to jump
at grandiose explanations of simple things. I'll want a good deal
of convincing before I believe in your international clearing-house
"I guarantee the convincing," he said gravely. "You shall see
all our evidence, and, unless you have changed since I first knew
you, your conclusion won't differ from mine. But let us come to the
"One I know about," I put in. "I had Mr. Julius Victor here
Macgillivray exclaimed. "Poor soul! What did you say to
"Deepest sympathy, but nothing doing."
"And he took that answer?"
"I won't say he took it. But he went away. What about the
"There are two more. One is a young man, the heir to a
considerable estate, who was last seen by his friends in Oxford on
the 17th day of February, just before dinner. He was an
undergraduate of Christ Church, and was living out of college in
rooms in the High. He had tea at the Gridiron and went to his rooms
to dress, for he was dining that night with the Halcyon Club. A
servant passed him on the stairs of his lodgings, going up to his
bedroom. He apparently did not come down, and since that day has
not been seen. You may have heard his name—Lord Mercot."
I started. I had indeed heard the name, and knew the boy a
little, having met him occasionally at our local steeplechases. He
was the grandson and heir of the old Duke of Alcester, the most
respected of the older statesmen of England.
"They have picked their bag carefully," I said. "What is the
"The cruellest of all. You know Sir Arthur Warcliff. He is a
widower—lost his wife just before the War, and he has an only
child, a little boy about ten years old. The child—David is his
name—was the apple of his eye, and was at a preparatory school near
Rye. The father took a house in the neighbourhood to be near him,
and the boy used to be allowed to come home for luncheon every
Sunday. One Sunday he came to luncheon as usual, and started back
in the pony-trap. The boy was very keen about birds, and used to
leave the trap and walk the last half-mile by a short cut across
the marshes. Well, he left the groom at the usual gate, and, like
Miss Victor and Lord Mercot, walked into black mystery."
This story really did horrify me. I remembered Sir Arthur
Warcliff—the kind, worn face of the great soldier and
administrator, and I could imagine his grief and anxiety. I knew
what I should have felt if it had been Peter John. A much-travelled
young woman and an athletic young man were defenceful creatures
compared to a poor little round-headed boy of ten. But I still felt
the whole affair too fantastic for real tragedy.
"But what right have you to connect the three cases?" I asked.
"Three people disappear within a few weeks of each other in widely
separated parts of England. Miss Victor may have been kidnapped for
ransom, Lord Mercot may have lost his memory, and David Warcliff
may have been stolen by tramps. Why should they be all part of one
scheme? Why, for that matter, should any one of them have been the
work of your criminal combine? Have you any evidence for the
"Yes." Macgillivray took a moment or two to answer. "There is
first the general probability. If a band of rascals wanted three
hostages they could hardly find three better—the daughter of the
richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the
only child of a national hero. There is also direct evidence."
Again he hesitated.
"Do you mean to say that Scotland Yard has not a single clue to
any one of these cases?"
"We have followed up a hundred clues, but they have all ended in
dead walls. Every detail, I assure you, has been gone through with
a fine comb. No, my dear Dick, the trouble is not that we're
specially stupid on this side, but that there is some superlative
cunning on the other. That is why I want you. You have a
kind of knack of stumbling on truths which no amount of ordinary
reasoning can get at. I have fifty men working day and night, and
we have mercifully kept all the cases out of the papers, so that we
are not hampered by the amateur. But so far it's a blank. Are you
going to help?"
"No, I'm not. But, supposing I were, I don't see that you've a
scrap of proof that the three cases are connected, or that any one
of them is due to the criminal gang that you say you've got your
hand on. You've only given me presumptions, and precious thin at
that. Where's your direct evidence?"
Macgillivray looked a little embarrassed. "I've started you at
the wrong end," he said. "I should have made you understand how big
and desperate the thing is that we're out against, and then you'd
have been in a more receptive mood for the rest of the story. You
know as well as I do that cold blood is not always the most useful
accompaniment in assessing evidence. I said I had direct evidence
of connection, and so I have, and the proof to my mind is
"Well, let's see it."
"It's a poem. On Wednesday of last week, two days after David
Warcliff disappeared, Mr. Julius Victor, the Duke of Alcester, and
Sir Arthur Warcliff received copies of it by the first post. They
were typed on bits of flimsy paper, the envelopes had the addresses
typed, and they had been posted in the West Central district of
London the afternoon before."
He handed me a copy, and this was what I read:
"Seek where under midnight's sun
Laggard crops are hardly won;—
Where the sower casts his seed in
Furrows of the fields of Eden;—
Where beside the sacred tree
Spins the seer who cannot see."
I burst out laughing, for I could not help it—the whole thing
was too preposterous. These six lines of indifferent doggerel
seemed to me to put the coping-stone of nonsense on the business.
But I checked myself when I saw Macgillivray's face. There was a
slight flush of annoyance on his cheek, but for the rest it was
grave, composed, and in deadly earnest. Now Macgillivray was not a
fool, and I was bound to respect his beliefs. So I pulled myself
together and tried to take things seriously.
"That's proof that the three cases are linked together," I said.
"So much I grant you. But where's the proof that they are the work
of the great criminal combine that you say you have got your hand
Macgillivray rose and walked restlessly about the room. "The
evidence is mainly presumptive, but to my mind it is certain
presumption. You know as well as I do, Dick, that a case may be
final and yet very difficult to set out as a series of facts. My
view on the matter is made up of a large number of tiny indications
and cross-bearings, and I am prepared to bet that if you put your
mind honestly to the business you will take the same view. But I'll
give you this much by way of direct proof—in hunting the big show
we had several communications of the same nature as this doggerel,
and utterly unlike anything else I ever struck in criminology.
There's one of the miscreants who amuses himself with sending
useless clues to his adversaries. It shows how secure the gang
"Well, you've got that gang anyhow. I don't quite see why the
hostages should trouble you. You'll gather them in when you gather
in the malefactors."
"I wonder. Remember we are dealing with moral imbeciles. When
they find themselves cornered they won't play for safety. They'll
use their hostages, and when we refuse to bargain they'll take
their last revenge on them."
I suppose I stared unbelievingly, for he went on: "Yes. They'll
murder them in cold blood—three innocent people—and then swing
themselves with a lighter mind. I know the type. They've done it
before." He mentioned one or two recent instances.
"Good God!" I cried. "It's a horrible thought! The only thing
for you is to go canny, and not strike till you have got the
victims out of their clutches."
"We can't," he said solemnly. "That is precisely the tragedy of
the business. We must strike early in June. I won't trouble you
with the reasons, but believe me, they are final. There is just a
chance of a settlement in Ireland, and there are certain events of
the first importance impending in Italy and America, and all depend
upon the activities of the gang being at an end by midsummer. Do
you grasp that? By midsummer we must stretch out our hand. By
midsummer, unless they are released, the three hostages will be
doomed. It is a ghastly dilemma, but in the public interest there
is only one way out. I ought to say that Victor and the Duke and
Warcliff are aware of this fact, and accept the situation. They are
big men, and will do their duty even if it breaks their
There was silence for a minute or two, for I did not know what
to say. The whole story seemed to me incredible, and yet I could
not doubt a syllable of it when I looked at Macgillivray's earnest
face. I felt the horror of the business none the less because it
seemed also partly unreal; it had the fantastic grimness of a
nightmare. But most of all I realised that I was utterly
incompetent to help, and as I understood that I could honestly base
my refusal on incapacity and not on disinclination I began to feel
"Well," said Macgillivray, after a pause, "are you going to help
"There's nothing doing with that Sunday-paper anagram you showed
me. That's the sort of riddle that's not meant to be guessed. I
suppose you are going to try to work up from the information you
have about the combine towards a clue to the hostages."
"Now, look here," I said; "you've got fifty of the quickest
brains in Britain working at the job. They've found out enough to
put a lasso round the enemy which you can draw tight whenever you
like. They're trained to the work and I'm not. What on earth would
be the use of an amateur like me butting in? I wouldn't be half as
good as any one of the fifty. I'm not an expert, I'm not
quick-witted, I'm a slow patient fellow, and this job, as you
admit, is one that has to be done against time. If you think it
over, you'll see that it's sheer nonsense, my dear chap."
"You've succeeded before with worse material."
"That was pure luck, and it was in the War when, as I tell you,
my mind was morbidly active. Besides, anything I did then I did in
the field, and what you want me to do now is office-work. You know
I'm no good at office-work—Blenkiron always said so, and Bullivant
never used me on it. It isn't because I don't want to help, but
because I can't."
"I believe you can. And the thing is so grave that I daren't
leave any chance unexplored. Won't you come?"
"No. Because I could do nothing."
"Because you haven't a mind for it."
"Because I haven't the right kind of mind for it."
He looked at his watch and got up, smiling rather ruefully.
"I've had my say, and now you know what I want of you. I'm not
going to take your answer as final. Think over what I've said, and
let me hear from you within the next day or two."
But I had lost all my doubts, for it was very clear to me that
on every ground I was doing the right thing.
"Don't delude yourself with thinking that I'll change my mind,"
I said, as I saw him into his car. "Honestly, old fellow, if I
could be an atom of use I'd join you, but for your own sake you've
got to count me out this time."
Then I went for a walk, feeling pretty cheerful. I settled the
question of the pheasants' eggs with the keeper, and went down to
the stream to see if there was any hatch of fly. It had cleared up
to a fine evening, and I thanked my stars that I was out of a
troublesome business with an easy conscience, and could enjoy my
peaceful life again. I say "with an easy conscience," for though
there were little dregs of disquiet still lurking about the bottom
of my mind, I had only to review the facts squarely to approve my
decision. I put the whole thing out of my thoughts and came back
with a fine appetite for tea.
There was a stranger in the drawing-room with Mary, a slim
oldish man, very straight and erect, with one of those faces on
which life has written so much that to look at them is like reading
a good book. At first I didn't recognise him when he rose to greet
me, but the smile that wrinkled the corners of his eyes and the
slow deep voice brought back the two occasions in the past when I
had run across Sir Arthur Warcliff… . My heart sank as I shook
hands, the more as I saw how solemn was Mary's face. She had been
hearing the story which I hoped she would never hear.
I thought it best to be very frank with him. "I can guess your
errand, Sir Arthur," I said, "and I'm extremely sorry that you
should have come this long journey to no purpose." Then I told him
of the visits of Mr. Julius Victor and Macgillivray, and what they
had said, and what had been my answer. I think I made it as clear
as day that I could do nothing, and he seemed to assent. Mary, I
remember, never lifted her eyes.
Sir Arthur had also looked at the ground while I was speaking,
and now he turned his wise old face to me, and I saw what ravages
his new anxiety had made in it. He could not have been much over
sixty and he looked a hundred.
"I do not dispute your decision, Sir Richard," he said. "I know
that you would have helped me if it had been possible. But I
confess I am sorely disappointed, for you were my last hope. You
see—you see—I had nothing left in the world but Davie. If he had
died I think I could have borne it, but to know nothing about him
and to imagine terrible things is almost too much for my
I have never been through a more painful experience. To hear a
voice falter that had been used to command, to see tears in the
steadfastest eyes that ever looked on the world, made me want to
howl like a dog. I would have given a thousand pounds to be able to
bolt into the library and lock the door.
Mary appeared to me to be behaving very oddly. She seemed to
have the deliberate purpose of probing the wound, for she
encouraged Sir Arthur to speak of his boy. He showed us a miniature
he carried with him—an extraordinarily handsome child with wide
grey eyes and his head most nobly set upon his shoulders. A grave
little boy, with the look of utter trust which belongs to children
who have never in their lives been unfairly treated. Mary said
something about the gentleness of the face.
"Yes, Davie was very gentle," his father said. "I think he was
the gentlest thing I have ever known. That little boy was the very
flower of courtesy. But he was curiously stoical, too. When he was
distressed, he only shut his lips tight, and never cried. I used
often to feel rebuked by him."
And then he told us about Davie's performances at school, where
he was not distinguished, except as showing a certain talent for
cricket. "I am very much afraid of precocity," Sir Arthur said with
the ghost of a smile. "But he was always educating himself in the
right way, learning to observe and think." It seemed that the boy
was a desperately keen naturalist and would be out at all hours
watching wild things. He was a great fisherman, too, and had killed
a lot of trout with the fly on hill burns in Galloway. And as the
father spoke I suddenly began to realise the little chap, and to
think that he was just the kind of boy I wanted Peter John to be. I
liked the stories of his love of nature and trout streams. It came
on me like a thunderclap that if I were in his father's place I
should certainly go mad, and I was amazed at the old man's
"I think he had a kind of genius for animals," Sir Arthur said.
"He knew the habits of birds by instinct, and used to talk of them
as other people talk of their friends. He and I were great cronies,
and he would tell me long stories in his little quiet voice of
birds and beasts he had seen on his walks. He had odd names for
them too… ."
The thing was almost too pitiful to endure. I felt as if I had
known the child all my life. I could see him playing, I could hear
his voice, and as for Mary she was unashamedly weeping.
Sir Arthur's eyes were dry now, and there was no catch in his
voice as he spoke. But suddenly a sharper flash of realisation came
on him and his words became a strained cry: "Where is he now? What
are they doing to him? Oh, God! My beloved little man—my gentle
That fairly finished me. Mary's arm was round the old man's
neck, and I saw that he was trying to pull himself together, but I
didn't see anything clearly. I only know that I was marching about
the room, scarcely noticing that our guest was leaving. I remember
shaking hands with him, and hearing him say that it had done him
good to talk to us. It was Mary who escorted him to the car, and
when she returned it was to find me blaspheming like a Turk at the
window. I had flung the thing open, for I felt suffocated, though
the evening was cool. The mixture of anger and disgust and pity in
my heart nearly choked me.
"Why the devil can't I be left alone?" I cried. "I don't ask for
much—only a little peace. Why in Heaven's name should I be dragged
into other people's business? Why on earth—"
Mary was standing at my elbow, her face rather white and
"Of course you are going to help," she said.
Her words made clear to me the decision which I must have taken
a quarter of an hour before, and all the passion went out of me
like wind out of a pricked bladder.
"Of course," I answered. "By the way, I had better telegraph to
Macgillivray. And Warcliff too. What's his address?"
"You needn't bother about Sir Arthur," said Mary. "Before you
came in—when he told me the story—I said he could count on you. Oh,
Dick, think if it had been Peter John!"