The Lone Hand - Harold Bindloss - ebook

The Lone Hand ebook

Harold Bindloss

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Mark was an engineer and is currently out of work. The landscape was colorless and dreary, but Mark was young, and after the pulsating workshop he liked the space and tranquility. The Croziers owned the soil they cultivated on the hills. They held tenaciously everything that belongs to them

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Liczba stron: 373

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Contents

I. Sea Fog

II. The Spring Tide

III. The Millhouse

IV. Isaac Hesitates

V. Useful Friends

VI. Mark Follows His Bent

VII. The Flood

VIII. An Amateur Fireman

IX. Mark Finishes His Job

X. The Dominant Partner

XI. Mark Sees His Line

XII. Tranquillity

XIII. The Sawmill

XIV. Miss Wellwin Investigates

XV. The Burst Tube

XVI. Pictures of the Woods

XVII. Mark Goes North

XVIII. The Woods

XIX. Mark Finds His Man

XX. Turnbull's Story

XXI. Mark Follows the Clue

XXII. Isaac's Soft Spot

XXIII. Isaac's Luck Turns

XXIV. A Daleswoman

XXV. Reaction

XXVI. Flora Meddles

XXVII. The Breaking Strain

XXVIII. A Modern Stoic

XXIX. The Last Interview

XXX. The Head of the House

XXXI. Mark's Inheritance

CHAPTER I

SEA FOG

Dusk had begun to fall, but for February the evening was mild. A gentle southwest wind blew across the Solway flats, and Mark Crozier’s long rubber boots, thick clothes, and fishing mackintosh embarrassed him. The road was soft and he carried a heavy gun, cartridges, some sandwiches, a vacuum flask, and pajamas in his waterproof game-bag. Moreover, if the lag geese were on the marshes, he might carry his load all night. If not, he hoped to reach an inn he knew before the landlord went to bed. In the morning, he must look over the Howbarrow sheep.

The flock was his uncle’s, Isaac Crozier’s; Mark himself was an engineer, and at present out of a job. All the same, he sprang from yeoman stock and Howbarrow, twenty miles off, was for long his father’s. The old house occupied a hollow in the bleak Border hills, where even the hardy black-faced sheep got thin in winter, and Mark had engaged to see how the flock had thriven on the salt-marsh grass.

Two or three miles off, dark woods cut the long flats rolling back to the Scottish hills; in front, the plain was level as the sea and melted into the blurred horizon. Water glimmered in the flooded ditch along the road, the sky was gray, and a gray trail of smoke floated across the boggy field from a stack of burning thorns. The landscape was colorless and dreary, but Mark was young, and after the throbbing workshop, he liked the spaciousness and calm. Then, he carried a good gun, and loneliness and gloom do not bother a dalesman.

The Croziers owned the soil they cultivated in the uplands where Northumbria and Scotland join, but they were not gentlemen farmers. The eldest son took Howbarrow; the younger sons got a small sum, and as a rule, prospered in the market towns. It was typical that they engaged in trade and carried scriptural names. They were shopkeepers, auctioneers, cattle-salesmen, and so forth, and although they went to good schools, none was remarkably cultivated.

For the most part, the Croziers were strongly built, stubborn, laborious, and frugal. None was keen to dispute, but they did not forgive an injury, and they held tenaciously all that was theirs. In the towns they used colloquial English; in the hills their talk was marked by words Danish and Frisian pirates had carried across the North Sea. After a thousand years, the Border dalesmen are frankly Vikings.

By contrast with his relations’ sober frugality, Mark’s father, Thomas Crozier, was characterized by a humorous extravagance that his elder son inherited. Both were dead, and Thomas’s half-brother, Isaac, now ruled at Howbarrow. Mark had got three or four hundred pounds, which had melted during his apprenticeship at a Newcastle foundry. Now the foundry was shut and he looked about for a post.

In the meantime, he hoped to shoot a goose, and when he passed a cluster of white houses he pulled out his watch. Six o’clock, and the night was going to be dark! Well, if he did not find the geese in two or three hours, he must come back to the inn, where a fire burned cheerfully behind the curtains.

The village melted in the gloom, the light wind touched the naked branches in a wood, and Mark, pushing on, threw back the gate at the end of a muddy lane. In front, as far as he could see, level grass, pierced by a wide river-channel, rolled back into the growing dark. In the distance, he heard plover and black-backed gulls call.

For a time he plowed through belts of rushes, and then splashed across the short salt-grass. Sheep, with draggled wool, scattered before his advance, and flitting redshanks screamed. The grass was boggy, and one could not go straight, because a salt marsh is drained by miry creeks, and their tributary runners loop and twist. Some were spanned by rude, sod-covered bridges, but since two converging rivers bordered the green flat, Mark’s plan was, as far as possible, to keep the watershed.

At length, by a pool, he saw feathers and the marks of broad webbed feet. The geese had fed there recently and might come back, and the bank of a neighboring creek was a good spot to hide. Mark took a square of oilcloth from his bag, and pulling a turf from the bank, sat down; the gun on his knee, and his rubber boots in the mud. If his luck were good, he might get a shot, but he might wait for daybreak and not see a goose. Indeed, since the moon was new, he must rather use his ears than his eyes. The gray lag is a noisy bird and the creak of its broad wings carries far.

For a time, all was quiet. Thin vapor, moving from the southwest, floated across the sky, and Mark saw the flats got blurred. Fog might be awkward, but when the tide flowed across the sands a breeze ought to spring up and the night would clear. He lighted his pipe and began to muse.

On a February night ten years since, his father and a herd went out to move some sheep. A snowstorm raged across the moors, but Crozier had long fronted the hardest weather England knows. Although he was forced to cross a flooded burn and was entangled in the drifts, he saved most of his flock, and crawling home half-frozen in the bitter morning, died two days afterwards. When his widow died, Mark went to the Newcastle foundry, and Jim took the farm. Jim was by five years the older son, but he was young for the load he carried. Although they had thought their father prosperous, he had speculated rashly in cattle and owed his half-brother, Isaac, much.

Jim, however, was hopeful, and since Isaac promised he would not embarrass him, engaged to put all straight. For the most part, Mark was at Newcastle, but Isaac and his wife were much at Howbarrow. He declared that he was not a hard creditor, but his nephew was young, and he wanted, if possible, to get his money back. So far as Mark knew, where Isaac meddled the line he indicated was economically sound, but it began to look as if the job Jim had undertaken was harder than he thought.

Four years since, Jim one February evening started across the moor to shoot ducks at Blackshaw tarn. At nine o’clock he called at the Packhorse Inn, and admitted he had not got a shot and was cramped and cold. He got some hot drink; the landlord declared he could not state how much, and Turnbull, the Howbarrow cowman, did not remember, although he reckoned Mr. Crozier had had enough. At the bottom of Mark’s trunk was a market town newspaper, in which the report of the inquest occupied a column.

Jim refused to wait for Turnbull, who had driven some cattle up the dale. He set off in the fog across the moor, and in the morning a herd found him, broken by the fall, in a limestone quarry half a mile from Howbarrow.

It looked as if that was all anybody knew, and the coroner was satisfied, but somehow Mark was not. For one thing, of the three or four men at the Packhorse only Turnbull thought his master had perhaps used too much liquor. Well, Jim was not altogether abstemious, but Mark had not known him drunk. Then, Isaac and his wife were at the farm, and when the coroner inquired why he waited for morning, he replied, as if unwillingly, that his nephew sometimes was away at night.

Mark doubted. When Jim was not at Howbarrow everybody knew he was at the cattle sales in the market town and he stopped at the George. Yet the replies accounted for the accident and for his lying where he fell until daybreak. When the trustees investigated, Mark got a fresh knock. The debt Jim inherited had got larger, and they agreed for Isaac to take the farm. Their lawyer imagined one could not dispute his claim and advised Mark to take the small sum he offered. Mark did not like his uncle’s tight-lipped, parsimonious wife; but when he got a holiday Howbarrow was home. Anyhow, it was done with four years since, and he must concentrate on getting a job.

Curlew called. The flock was flying low and fast; one heard the fanning wings, but when Mark jumped up they circled and were gone. Now he was on his feet, he saw the mist got thicker. All was very quiet, but in the distance something throbbed like a train on a bridge. Mark pulled out his watch and rubbed a match. He imagined the southwest wind blew fresh in the Irish Sea and pushed the surf across the Solway shoals, seven or eight miles off. For him to hear the tide’s advance was ominous, and in about two hours it would reach the marsh. Solway tides flow savagely, the moon was new, and when the current ran up the creeks he must not be on the marsh. Sometimes, before a gale reached the firth, the water rose several feet above its calculated level.

For a few minutes he pondered. He was on the watershed, and nearer an inn on the north shore than the village he had passed. His plan was to find the river on the north side of the marsh, and since he fronted west, he must follow the first large creek running down on his right hand.

After five or ten minutes, he plunged from a rotten bank and found a creek before he thought. The sticky mud held his boots, and, snapping the cartridges from his gun, he used the butt to help him up the slope. He began to doubt if he would get a shot, but if he did so, a clot of mud at the muzzle might tear the barrel. Crawling out, rather shaken and breathing hard, he followed the creek, although every hundred yards he was forced to circle round a crooked tributary.

At length, he reached the marsh-top and looked down on a belt of sand. He had thought to see water shine, but he did not. The mist flowed past him and since the wind was in his face, he fronted southwest. He, however, ought to have fronted north. Baffled by the fog, instead of crossing the marsh, he had come back to the side from which he started. He might follow the bank to the end of the peninsula, and then keep the other side, but he thought the end two or three miles off, the creeks were numerous, and where they crossed the sands the bottom was treacherous. Besides, the wind was freshening.

Mark swore. The moon was new, and the wind helped the tide. By and by the current would flow across the lower belts of marsh. Well, when the salt-grass melted in the flood he must not be there; and, trying to keep the wind on his left shoulder, he steered north. For a time, the ground was firm and level; and then he stopped by a gully three or four feet deep. It looked as if he had reached the head of another creek and the creek went north. The trouble was, if he tried to follow it to the sands, he must cross the network of runners that fed the main channel. All the same, he must not stop and ponder. The throb too of the advancing tide had got ominously loud, and February was not a lucky month for the Croziers.

He jumped two or three runners; and then a rotten bank broke and, sliding down a steep incline, he plunged into a foot of water and holding mud. When he scrambled up the other side he was frankly anxious. He was now entangled among the creek’s numerous forks, but since it went to the north sands, he must push across its basin. Jumping, and wading where he was forced, he savagely plowed ahead. His thick clothes embarrassed him and his skin was wet by sweat, but speed was important, and when he reached firm ground he began to run.

After a few minutes, his advanced foot got no support, and he plunged down into the dark. When he stopped with an awkward jolt, water splashed, and since he could not reach the top, he knew he was in the main creek’s channel. The mud, however, was not remarkably soft, and he had stuck to his gun. He doubted if he could get up the bank, and he kept the channel. By and by the marsh rolled back and wet sand shone in front.

Mark had crossed the peninsula, but that was all he knew, and he must yet cross the creek. Although he doubted if the water was a foot deep, the sand the current flowed across was treacherous, and sometimes cattle were mired. For a hundred yards, he followed the water; and then set his mouth and pushed across. His long boots sank in the yielding bottom, his legs got cold, and he knew the water had run over the top of one boot. Then his other leg got cold, and although he floundered savagely, the quicksand held his feet. If he stopped a few moments longer, he might stop for good, and, leaning forward, he pushed down the gun. The flat heel-plate gave him some support; he pulled his boots from the clinging stuff, found firmer bottom, and splashed ahead. When he stopped, on hard, ribbed sand, his heart thumped and to get his breath hurt.

The wind was strong and the fog rolled across the flats in waves, but Mark saw a belt of sky. He heard geese; a gaggle was flying up the firth. Then oyster-catchers screamed, redshanks whistled, and wings beat in the dark. Something had disturbed the feeding birds, and two or three hundred yards off a gun exploded. Mark heard two quick shots and then another. If the sportsman had tried to stop a cripple, he would not get a third shot. Somebody on the sands was lost, and signaled for help.

Mark shouted, and after a time an indistinct object loomed in the fog. The queer thing was, now he knew the fog baffled another, his anxiety began to go.

“Hallo!” said the stranger. “To hear a shout was some relief. I want to make the waterfoot. Am I heading right?”

“On the whole, I think not,” Mark replied. “I imagine you are steering down the firth for Scotland.”

“Then, you know where you are?”

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