TRUE THOMAS by Stephen Wass
True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e'e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree
Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse's mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine
True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven
For thy peer on earth I never did see
Oh no, oh no, Thomas, she said
That name does not belong to me
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee
Hark and come, Thomas, she said
Hark and come along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be
Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunton me
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree
Now, ye maun go with me, she said
True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be
She mounted on her milk white steed
She's taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind
Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind
Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean you head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three
Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire
And see you not that broad, broad road
That lies across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven
And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae
But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You'll ne'er get back to you ain country
Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie
My tongue is my own, True Thomas said
A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be
I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady
Now hold thy peace, the lady said
For as I say, so it must be
He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
................. Thomas awoke, there was a moment of grace as
sleep drifted away, he was warm, he must be safe... then, gathering in
strength waves of pain and sickness arrived that made his bed seem to
pitch and roll like a small storm tossed boat. The agony induced nausea
slowly fell away and he was lying, in a bed. “Why?’ and “Where?” took
it in turns to batter at his mind as his senses gradually organised
themselves each sensation being pinpointed, recognised and labeled. A
feeling of time and place began to emerge from the lingering haze of
He felt the soft touch of sheets
wrapping him round and the gentle pressure of a pillow behind his head.
Thomas yawned and has he recovered his breath became aware of a faint
pungent odour… soap, carbolic soap, spiked and tarry, and mixed with
it the more appetising aroma of hot food. He heard a distant
clattering. The promise of someone serving something to fill the
emptiness inside him made him open his eyes for the first time and he
The wall opposite him was
pitted and painted cream and rose up to merge with a dim ceiling from
which hung a large bulbous light bulb below a white enameled metallic
shade shaped like a Chinese coolie’s hat. Seeing clearly now Thomas
noticed a fine gossamer of cobwebs draped over the light fitting and
made obvious by the specks of dust and particles of fluff festooned
along them. Thomas refocused on the wall’s uneven surface. It was
patterned with fine cracks like old china. Some of the cracks ran
together tracing out the lines of rivulets, small streams… rivers… and
finally deltas, emptying into a dry powdery sea…
Thomas jerked awake again, gripped by a sudden urgency. he tried
to move, to fling away the bedclothes, to roll off the mattress, to
fall to the floor but he was forced back by a crippling current of pain
and firm hand on his shoulder.
“And where do you think you’re off to young man, particularly as you’ve not had your breakfast yet?”
twisted his head around to face the starched white front of an apron.
He realised that the restraining hand belonged to a nurse who seemed to
be peering down on him from a height. She released him and lifted her
hand to press against his heated forehead. The vision of her long,
fine, capable fingers drifted like banks of cloud across his line of
sight and set his memory working. He was here because… no, it would not
come. But then he remembered: everything he had lost and everything he
had gained and once more the pain rose in waves to engulf him. As he
sank into unconsciousness he took with him a recollection of a large
brown polished leather suitcase with the initials T.J.V perched
precariously on the seat of the 7.15 Euston to Glasgow express…
The Train CHAPTER ONE - SUNDAY
Thomas James Verity cursed as bitterly as his fourteen years of
age would allow him to as he swung his heavy bag down from the platform
of the number 49 omnibus. The suitcase, with a ponderous life of its
own, twisted in between his legs and all but tripped him up. After
struggling for a few further steps he admitted defeat, lowered his
luggage to the ground and stood for a moment to take stock. The bus
ride from his parents’ home had been every bit as nightmarish as he had
feared. There had been a continual stream of passengers coming and
going all the way from Onslow Gardens, Kensington to the station and
every one of them had had to manoeuvre past Thomas and his jutting
suitcase which had been far too big to shift any further down the bus.
As the conductor had helpfully remarked, “If Borwick’s Buses were a
freight line we’d a taken all the seats out wouldn’t we?” Thomas could
only nod his head in miserable agreement.
here he was outside the massive portals of the station with life
bustling about him in a bewildering kaleidoscope of fluttering
garments, unfriendly faces and more baggage than he had ever seen
before in all his life. How he wished he had never left the peace and
comfort of the elegant tree lined terrace where his parents had made
their home, his home, his home for as long as he could remember. He
loved the order and ordinariness of everything, the clock like working
of cause and effect and the steady good fortune his circumstances
allowed. He had been happy at home, less happy had been his father.
are becoming lazy my boy, too much of a dreamer… ” Dreamer, that
terrible word, worse for his family, Thomas thought sometimes, than
liar or thief or even murderer or traitor!
“You really do not get
out and about enough, a lad of your age, you never meet new people and
just look at yourself, thin, pale. like some workhouse child.” How
could he explain about his… he was startled out of his reverie by the
near deafening rattle of an iron wheeled trolley clattering over the
cobble stones and missing the shiny tips of his newly polished
boots by a fraction of an inch. Thomas hefted his bag and bravely
His father had bought his ticket
for him in advance and given him careful instructions to make sure he
boarded the correct train and not one likely to take him to some less
exotic place like Tunbridge Wells or Ramsgate the venue for the
family’s last summer holiday. Thomas hauled himself and his bag up the
steps of the nearest footbridge to the top where be paused to catch his
breath and look around. Despite himself Thomas was impressed, he
harboured a secret hate of anything mechanical, especially those bits
his technical drawing classes had forced him face to face with, but
trains were somehow different. Although he knew that they could be no
more than the sum of thousands of cogs and wheels and bolts and pistons
the injection of steam somehow infused them with life. They were simply
beautiful. Underneath the broad curving span of the station roof there
must have been at least a dozen locomotives, lined up like runners at
the beginning of the great race north. The glowing brass bands round
the engines’ funnels caught his eye first, they were like beacons
shining through an early morning dimness compounded of smoke and steam.
They fixed the position of each engine and helped Thomas make sense of
the other fragments of highly polished metal that defined their
outlines. Then, lying behind the flash of brass and steel was the
sombre deeper glow of the rich brown livery offset by painted bands of
black and red. However, it was not their appearance that excited and
frightened Thomas, it was their potential power, hidden at the moment
but given away by the occasional exhalation of steam under pressure.
Then came the moment of departure when the coaches were shaken out of
their resting places and into motion. It was only, he knew, far out in
the countryside that they would reveal their true strength and then
they would sing of steel and steam as they cut their way into the
distant horizon. “Speed”, thought Thomas, “is the music of the future.”
Oy, shift yerself yer stupid little git!” Then over a departing
shoulder, “Ain’tcha got a train to catch?” And so he had, how long had
he been standing there? He peered round for the station clock, heavens,
three minutes to go! Dreaming again. He tore across the bridge and
bumped his bag unfeelingly down the next flight of steps, that would
teach it, and flung himself into the nearest carriage which at 7.15
precisely jerked its way along the platform then more smoothly
accelerated out of the station. Thomas’s much dreaded adventure had
In the drift of leaves and litter at the base of one of the
cast iron columns that supported the station roof a small figure
stirred. An impossibly small figure, with crumpled nut brown features,
whispy hair and pointed ears. It gazed up at the fire sprites entwined
about the locomotive, watched as the door to Thomas’s compartment swung
shut then smiled slowly.
It had taken all of
Thomas’s strength to lift his bag from the platform into the carriage
and onto the edge of the seat. As the train gathered speed it began to
sway unsteadily and Thomas rose to his feet in order to hoist it up to
the luggage rack over his head, an enterprise which defeated him
entirely. He dumped his bag back onto the seat before collapsing into a
place on the other side of the compartment. He eyed his luggage
ruefully, it had come to represent everything about this odious journey
that offended him most deeply. It was the latest in a line of purchases
his family had made, purchases designed to transform him into what?
Well practically anything that avoided him ending up the same way as
Grandfather Verity had, a sanatorium they had called it, surely a
sanatorium was for the sane?
The family, on
his father’s side, had always been a little strange, haunted some might
say, by their ability to, well, ‘see’ things, each in their own
particular and peculiar way. Take his sister Alice, six years Thomas’s
junior, she invariably ‘saw’ the solutions to riddles or conundrums
while everyone else was repeating the last line under their breath.
Thomas found her unbeatable at board or card games from Reversi to
chess and from ‘Drink the World Dry” to whist. She knew which moves
would bring her the greatest advantage and confuse her opponent and
packs of cards seemed perfectly transparent to her. When the inevitable
accusations of cheating arose Alice would perform her party piece.
Thomas had seen it several times but it still baffled him. Taking her
time and with just a ghost of a smile on her lips she would carefully
go through a pack of cards, examining each one, pausing at a few and
staring intently at them as if she had never seen a seven of hearts
before, then moving on until finally she lay them face down on the
table. She would then recite the names of all fifty two cards in the
correct order. Suspecting more trickery members of her impromptu
audience would examine the pack and perhaps demand that she named the
eighteenth card in the pack. She was never wrong. Now this might all be
put down to having an exceptional memory but when the pack was shuffled
and Alice was still able to identify any particular card then mother
would intervene making feeble protestations about female intuition or
suggesting it was something she was growing out of. Father knew better
and tried to steer her into more lady like pursuits such as embroidery
and piano practice.
In fact father found
Alice’s little displays more upsetting than most people realised for he
too shared the family gift, or curse as he saw it, he had something of
a special talent himself. Words were his province and he owned a most
extraordinary facility with then, rearranging them into anagrams,
teasing out shorter words buried within longer ones, offering a
plethora of puns, definitive definitions and finding the most
implausible rhymes you could imagine. As far as Thomas could gather his
father had first come to London from Carlisle with the intention of
making his way as a poet. Obviously his verses had not suited the
tastes of the day and he had eventually settled upon a career as a
journalist, his income enhanced to no inconsiderable degree by the
money he made from setting and occasionally solving crossword puzzles.
Beyond that Thomas had always felt there was more to the story, odd
occasional comments hinted at some long buried tragedy connected with
his father’s early years in the capital, but he wanted to know no more
for he admired his father enormously and held him in tremendous
respect. As a journalist he had worked for a number of important and
prestigious papers and periodicals including the world famous “London
Illustrated News”. He specialised in accounts of the latest
technological marvels of the day or advances in science including one
of his personal favourites: archaeology. His pieces were always
masterly, making even the most obscure principles clear to all and
revealing an astonishing eye for detail but somehow Thomas could never
shake off the feeling that his father was holding something back. His
writing, however worthy, were in an indefinable way, dull. It was as if
all the passion and drama had been washed out of his texts. Hard facts
and cold reason were his current stock in trade. And now he wanted
Thomas to follow…
Thomas was jolted upright
in his seat by a banging and clattering against the loose sliding door
that marked the limits of his solitary compartment. A gang of young men
in khaki uniforms were jostling against each other in the corridor. As
far as Thomas could gather they were extolling the virtues of their
respective regiments and forecasting loudly their likely successes in
the war to come. Thomas blanched in the expectation that they would
slide aside the fragile partition that gave him sanctuary and erupt in
on him, but they did not. In a good humoured turmoil of arms and legs
and kit bags they passed further down the train and out of Thomas’s
view. He stretched back in some relief and let his eyes rest on a gaudy
painting printed as part of an advertisement for some northern sea side
town. None of it looked right, neither the colours nor the perspective
which was strangely compressed so the buildings were dwarf like and
Thomas’s grandfather, Richard
Verity had been a painter, an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, a friend
of Turner, as far as anyone could be described as that old curmudgeon’s
friend, an artist of extraordinary ability known for the remarkable
realism of his images. There really had been truth in his art, too much
truth for some of his patrons who saw their secrets hinted at in his
pictures of their great houses and country estates and their true
characters revealed for all to see in his accurate but hardly
flattering portraits. Such verisimilitude made it hard for him to earn
a living in the right circles but what finally condemned him in the
minds of right thinking society was his absurd notion that somehow he
had opened a window into the future through which he spied and rendered
faithfully curious sleek vehicles and impossibly beautiful flying
machines. Such marvels were now becoming commonplace but in the 1840s
they had smacked of madness. Even more scandalous had been the rarely
unveiled but deeply disturbing pictures of figures dancing like savages
in clothes that were impossibly coloured, tight in all the wrong places
and disgustingly brief. However the most troubling images of all, to
Thomas’s mind, had hung in his father’s study. these were canvasses
which had for convention’s sake been labeled with Biblical titles like
“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorra” and “The Fall of the Tower of
Babel”. They showed landscapes reduced to ravaged wildernesses of
burning ash and rubble and dominating them both were rolling black
clouds, heavy with menace and seeming to rise from the ground below
like an evil fungal growth. Even the memory of these pictures made
Thomas shudder. Sadly his grandfather had become increasingly obsessed
with what he called , “his views of what tomorrow brings” and had one
day picked up his easel and beat a particularly sneering art critic to
death with it. Despite the passing sympathy that many had felt for the
beleaguered artist, the critic had not been a popular man, the
authorities were more pragmatic and a locked ward in an asylum for the
criminally insane had been grandfather’s last resting place. The impact
on Thomas’s family had been dramatic and far reaching, an artistic
temperament meant and unbalanced mind and hence Thomas’s current
predicament, if only he could…
son.” The voice woke Thomas from his doze and he sat up
with a start. The speaker was a broad, thick-set man dressed in a grey
woolen waistcoat, a rather old fashioned long black frock coat and a
shiny brown bowler with a high crown perched across a sweating brow. he
clambered past Thomas and his case and sat himself down on the other
side of the compartment placing a neat but bulky black leather bag on
the seat beside him. “Humph,” he breathed out noisily, “No where to sit
on this dammed train.” He inspected a large and efficient looking
silver pocket watch before jiggling it back into his waistcoat pocket
and settling back into his place with obvious relief and satisfaction.
“Breakfasted yet boy?” the intruder enquired not unkindly. “Would
you care to share a sandwich or two with me? The missus put them up for
me this morning so they’ll be fresh as you like” Thomas who normally
had the measure of most people before they even spoke to him had warmed
to the burly policeman sat in the corner.
“Er... thank you sir,
I’m much obliged to you.” Thomas helped himself to a thick slab of
bread, butter and cheese that had been unwrapped and offered him. Of
course the man was a police officer, it was written all over him, at
least it was to Thomas’s eyes. Why such matters were not clear to
others was something of a puzzle to Thomas. for him it was a game,
polished and refined by long hours sitting with his nose pressed
against the window of the first floor sitting room. He used to peer
down at the people in the street below scurrying past and invent for
each of them a story. “Where was that delivery boy going? Down to
number twenty three? Yes there he was, springing up the four steps to
the front door and ringing on the bell. And the coal man? Worried about
his back? That sack was down for a tumble... there it went! The young
soldier striding purposefully along will be turning right and then into
the chemists shop” It was all so obvious, it was written on their faces
and it had remained a game until that business with the pretty young
nurse maid from three doors down, just after his twelfth birthday. She
was out walking the latest arrival in the family perambulator, on the
corner a builders merchant was unloading a wagon full of bricks. Thomas
saw it all but managed not to panic, instead he threw up the sash
window and called out. She stopped, looked up saw Thomas and smiled and
waved at him and then turned to walk on. “No, er.. hang on, stop um a
moment... I wonder if, er...” She stopped once more and looked back at
him, still smiling but now rather quizzically. Thomas was floundering
badly. “I just wondered if you knew what um the time was.” She was
spared the difficulty of answering by the frightened neigh of a horse,
the muffled oath of a workman and the deafening roar of several
hundred bricks cascading over the side of the cart and onto the
pavement. Thomas, his ears burning red with embarrassment, pulled his
head back inside and slammed down the window, just catching a glimpse
of the nursemaid’s shocked expression as she turned to confront the
ruin which should have engulfed her had not he seen the truth of it…
A rattle as the train juddered over a set of points brought him
face to face with the hunk of bread and cheese he had been staring at
for the past couple of minutes.
“Not hungry lad? No appetite eh?” it was his traveling companion peering at him from across the compartment.
No, I’m sorry sir, no, I’m fine, just I suppose, well day dreaming, you know.”
I know all about day dreaming in my business. Parsons is my name,
William Parsons, gardener by trade, bound for bonny Scotland for new
employment”. He thrust out a heavy hand towards Thomas hastily switched
his sandwich from right hand to left before taking the policeman’s huge
paw and shaking it.
“Er... Thomas...”, he choked briefly as a flake
of crusty bread lodged in his throat, it was enough of a diversion to
cover his confusion, why was he being lied to, and by such and amiable
fellow, “Thomas James Verity. I’m a draftsman and I’m on my way to
Glasgow to work with professor Schofield, the archaeologist, we’ll be
digging on some sites along the east coast of Scotland.” Thomas
coloured slightly as he introduced himself, suddenly aware that he had
laid claim, possibly for the first time to the title of ‘man’ even if
it was really just a job description. Mr. Parsons seemed impressed and
a spark of curiosity was kindled behind his shrewd grey eyes. He leaned
“Now ain’t that interesting, and how does a young fellow
like yourself come to be involved with so, eminent”, he lingered over
the word, ” a gentleman?”
His tone and the faint grin that warmed
his face nettled Thomas slightly and we wondered how to respond. There
could be few people, at least amongst those who followed the popular
press who had not heard something of the Reverend Professor and his
diggings. His first quest which caught the public imagination had been
a search for the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden. Of course he
didn’t find it but three years of wondering in the deserts of Arabia
threw up the remains of many ancient civilisations and he was at least
able to prove by careful mapping of huge systems of ancient irrigation
channels that the area had once been green and fertile. In the years
that followed he searched unsuccessfully for the location of Moses’s
burning bush, the site of Sodom and of course the lost ark of the
covenant, whilst at the same time making a number of extraordinary
archaeological discoveries based on, “the proper ordering of facts by
scientific method.” He made news not only because of the nature of his
work but also on account of the rather racy accounts he sent back which
hinted at conduct not entirely becoming to a Church of England
clergyman. Three or four years ago he had returned to London after
practically thirty years, off and on, in the wilderness and now…
Thomas came to himself and realised Mr. Parsons was still waiting for a reply.
Actually I’m er… fourteen you know.” No that was not what he had wanted
to know. “It’s through my father, he works for the London papers and he
“Edited Schofield’s field notes and prepared them for
publication”, broke in Parsons. “ I read most of them, and your
father’s articles on heavier than air flight, the future of the
internal combustion engine and communicating with electricity.
Fascinating stuff and all explained so as to make them as plain as the
nose on your face.” For that moment Thomas realised that the keen eyed
police officer had escaped from behind the facade of the stolid
gardener and was intrigued.
“So what are you up to?” queried Parsons.
to?” Thomas started guiltily, “Oh you mean why am going to work for
him?” Feeling a little more relaxed Thomas plunged into his story.
“Well my father has known him for years. He used to receive huge
bundles of correspondence from places like Constantinople or Baghdad
and then he would work through them and write them up for publication
then when the professor finally returned to England he stayed with us
for a couple of months while he found himself some accommodation.” The
policeman nodded cheerfully to him to go on. “Now he’s settled down he
wants to be digging again but this time here, at home. he is following
the story of the early Celtic church and its saints and he thinks
that Saint Columba founded another monastery in Scotland before he
moved on to Iona and he thinks he knows where it is and we’re going to
dig it up!” concluded Thomas triumphantly.
“It’ll be pick and shovel
work then I expect”, suggested Parsons amused by Thomas’s enthusiasm
but looking doubtfully at his slight frame.
“No, I believe I
mentioned it. I’m to be a draftsman. I’m going along to draw any relics
the workmen dig up and give a hand in drawing maps and plans for the
excavation, the professor is very particular about that sort of thing.”
certainly was one of his talents, perhaps something he had inherited
from his grandfather but a talent to be exercised only under the
strictest of controls. When he was very young his mother would beam and
pass his sketches around groups of friends who had come to tea and call
him, “My little Michelangelo.” This all came to an abrupt end when one
of his father’s editors had come to call. Young Thomas was brought down
to view the great man and sat on a stool in the corner while his mother
fussed round serving tea. unfortunately Thomas had his sketch book and
simply drew what he saw with an inner eye. The resulting caricature was
devastating. The editor who was known throughout Fleet Street as a
grasping and rapacious man, never willing to pay and single penny above
the going rate had been pictured by Thomas as a vulture: nose drawn
forward into a vicious beak with glittering eyes, pinched and mean
looking. The head was perched unflatteringly on a thin scraggy neck
which poked out from a black business suit drawn in tatters so as to
resemble feathers. Thomas’s father, sauntering by, managed to catch
sight of drawing and in one movement sweep it up, off the pad, and into
an inside pocket, from where it later emerged at certain confidential
gatherings of journalists where it was extravagantly admired. From that
moment on Thomas was prohibited access to drawing equipment except when
under the direct supervision of a responsible adult.
An unwelcome pressure focused Thomas’s mind on more pressing needs. “Er.. excuse me I need to and um.”
“I beg your pardon young fellow, it’s down there on the right.”
rose to his feet, slid the rattling partition to one side and started
to make his way unsteadily down the swaying corridor towards the
toilet. Having achieved the necessary relief from the five cups of tea
he had nervously downed before leaving home he was starting to make
tracks back towards his place when he suddenly froze in place. Pushing
their way towards him were three men whose very presence took his
breath away as if he had been punched in the stomach. He reeled back a
few paces into the narrow space next to an outside door. It was all he
could do to not cower down. The men who were deep in a hushed
conversation did not seem to notice Thomas’s strange behaviour at all.
The leader of the group seemed hardly much older than Thomas himself
although he must have been over thirty. He had a small perfectly round
face with a full chin and swollen cheeks which reminded Thomas of a
baby. This impression was heightened by the man’s fine wispy blonde
hair which was all but invisible from a distance. His eyes were of the
lightest blue and wide open and staring with something of the innocence
and sense of wonder that Thomas had observed in very young children
discovering the world for the first time. But Thomas knew with complete
certainty that this was deeply and profoundly misleading. Thomas saw a
character so steeped in his own perverse brand of evil that his very
soul must have reeked of corruption. A sneer of cold command stamped
across his face sickened him. Whatever he was he was not quite human… A
couple of henchmen followed behind his exquisitely heeled shoes, both
of them also meticulously turned out with crisp white collars and cuffs
showing beneath dark well cut heavy coats. All very respectable but
carrying with them an air of barely suppressed violence. They all
brushed past, ignorant of Thomas’s perspective, and continued on their
way to the first class dining car.
and gasping for breath Thomas turned and forced up the sliding window
on the door. He collapsed against it breathing deeply and it swung open
beneath him! Head and shoulders half through the window Thomas kicked
wildly as he tried to gain purchase with his feet and pull himself
back. It was no good. the well oiled door moved smoothly on its hinges
and Thomas found himself swinging helplessly out from the side of the
carriage. He sagged so that his whole body weight was caught underneath
his armpits. The rush of air as the train steamed callously on toe any
remaining breath from Thomas's lungs and he gasped and struggled like a
landed fish. His wide eyed downward stare showed the unforgiving iron
rails and tarred wooden sleepers blurred beneath his scuffed boots. He
slumped lower, could hold on no longer, was slipping, when a heavy hand
grasped him by the collar and hauled him back in. The door slammed shut
and the train’s howling wake was excluded.
“A bit of a daft trick
that son.” It was Mr. Parsons. Thomas gaped at him, speechless
with shock. “I’d just thought I’d take a look around and see what
them... well anyhow, good job I came along and reeled you in.”
thanks, I’m really most grateful,” puffed Thomas. As Mr. Parsons helped
him back to seat Thomas racked his brains for an explanation, could the
latch have been faulty, the door already partly open, could he have
opened it himself somehow? He sunk back onto the plush upholstered seat
and wondered, why hadn’t he seen it coming? He peered out of the window
as if seeking inspiration.
The worst of
London had long been left behind and they were now speeding through
pleasant countryside towards Watford. Twenty or more years ago there
had been tremendous rivalry between the London and North Western
Railway running the west coast route and the Great Northern Railway
snaking up the east coast. the scheduled services had become little
less than races. the trains would leave their respective stations of
Euston and Kings Cross at ten o’clock sharp and then battle northwards,
neck and neck to Edinburgh. they cut the time for the journey to seven
and a half hours before a truce was called. Thomas’s trip would be
leisurely by comparison, he was not expecting to arrive in Glasgow
before twenty past six that evening. The day wore on. By mid-morning
they were just past Rugby and the warm June sun was beginning to glint
dazzlingly on the curve of the polished iron rails that were guiding
Thomas from one end of the country to the other. He imagined himself to
be a point on a map slowly crawling like a lazy pencil.....
Thomas had on the whole enjoyed his schooling,
the continual coming and going of fresh faces was something of a trial,
new people to weigh up and assess and then generally avoid, but his
studies were always illuminating and he liked to do well. This did not
immediately endear him to his school fellows, neither did his
penetrating gaze or his appalling tendency towards honesty. At a time
when a school boy’s religion was based on not snitching Thomas seemed
incapable of telling even a half truth. This meant that he was
invariably left out of any japes, jokes or wheezes that were being
perpetrated leaving him even more isolated. Not that this had bothered
him over much, it was better than seeing everyone’s life writ large in
their eyes and then having to make small talk. From elementary school
Thomas’s father had moved him to a technical college, a surprising
choice perhaps but one perfectly in keeping with his father’s desire to
quell any leanings towards the fanciful or romantic that a grammar
school education might bring on. No everything was to be as down to
earth and practical as possible so that Thomas could become employed in
some useful and productive capacity unspoilt by the taint of art.
Whatever Thomas’s natural gifts were exactly they only really supported
his work in the drawing classes. This was of course technical drawing,
nothing even remotely creative here, and it was taught by a dapper
little man, one Mr. Tomlinson. He had a passion for sharp pencils and
tee squares and saw in Thomas’s clarity of vision a hint of a
prospective genius of the drawing board. Extra classes and additional
private tuition took him to heights never before seen in the studio,
surely a glittering career awaited Thomas with one of the
nation’s major engineering firms, a top architect perhaps or even in
the War Office drafting out plans for weapons of mass destruction? None
of it appealed over much to Thomas so it had come as something of a
relief when we was spared the agony of making a career choice by being
packed of to Scotland, at such short notice...
A shriek of a whistle and a clattering down the length of the train brought Thomas back to himself.
Crewe my boy,” Mr. Parsons informed him, “Care to join me for a spot of
lunch?” They adjourned to the station buffet and settled down to a
generous plate of ham and eggs. No mention had been made by Mr. Parsons
of his background in policing, he had maintained the fiction of being a
gardener in everything he had said. It was not until they got onto the
subject of favourite reading material that any hint of his true
interests surfaced. Thomas’s father had taken on a job for a popular
magazine called the Strand and in doing so had brought some back issues
to browse through. Thomas, as an avid reader joined him and was soon
enthralled by the adventures of a remarkable character with the
unlikely name of Sherlock Holmes. Thomas recognised in Holmes a kindred
spirit, someone who saw through people the same way that he did. In
would walk a client and before two minutes were up Holmes would have
deduced that he was a left handed billiard cue maker from the Brompton
Road whose uncle had just died of a snake bite! This all left Thomas
feeling tremendously reassured, there was nothing particularly special
about his abilities to read people, he was simply making unconsciously
the kinds of observation Holmes made professionally. Perhaps he should
have paid more attention to the fact that Holmes was a character out of
fiction but none of this mattered as he and Mr. Parsons compared notes
and speculated on the doings of the great detective with equal
Back on board the train they fell
once again into companionable conversation. As the time went by Thomas
found he was revealing more and more about himself to Mr. Parsons who
kept up a succession of questions, partly to keep the conversation
going and partly, Thomas thought, out of pure habit. What, on the other
hand was remarkable was how little Mr. Parsons had given away about
himself over the past two hundred miles. There were no clues at all as
why a police officer, and a fairly senior one at that, was traveling
north in disguise. As always, Thomas was reluctant to probe to deeply,
making snap judgments about perfect strangers was fun but using his
gift on acquaintances seemed somehow impolite, like lifting someone’s
wallet and rifling through the contents. Thomas had talked at length
about his family, his schooling and his future prospects as a
draftsman. The only topic that had not been covered, simply because he
never spoke of it was his determination to become a poet.
Of course nothing could have been further removed from the course
his father had charted out for him. ‘Poetry’ had been a bad word in
their household, in some ways similar to the swear words yelled out by
the scruffy urchins who sometimes invaded his road to play in the
gutters. Nowhere in the house, which was well stocked with books, had
Thomas ever seen the kind of slim volumes of verse that were all the
fashion in other cultured families. It had been a shattering discovery
that Thomas had made when a battered copy of “The Golden Treasury of
the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language” selected and
arranged by Francis Turner Palgrave had first been dropped down onto
his desk at school. Most of it, at that stage, meant very little to him
but he was instantly attracted to a poem by a certain Percy Shelley.
The title was “Ozymandius of Egypt” and the poet had said pretty well
everything about the ruins of ancient Egypt that needed to be said; the
sense of decayed power, the ever shifting sands of the desert, and the
sense of time passing on the grand scale were all there. Knowing
instinctively that this kind of reading material would not be approved
of al home Thomas began painfully to commit it to memory reading it
through again and again until he had it all. Gradually by careful
enquiry at school and secret examination of books at the homes of
family friends Thomas started to build up an extraordinary library of
poetry, all of it carried inside his head. His habit of closing his
eyes and browsing through his collection firmly established his
reputation as a dreamer. He even began ‘writing’ poetry of his own, not
on paper for that carried with it the threat of discovery, but into
that dark space behind his eyes. His secret poems would be his
salvation in an otherwise humdrum world but how much better it would be
if he could share his poetry, if there could be someone who…
With a shriek of its whistle the train thundered over the steel
girdered bridge across the River Sark and into Scotland. Thomas felt a
shudder pass through him almost as if for a second the train had jumped
the lines or his life had lurched onto a new track. Here was Scotland
slowly growing and unfolding before him. He had not been over enthused
by the thought of visiting Scotland but now a strange excitement
gripped him as he watched the mossy hillsides roll by and peered into
deep gorges cut by peat stained waters and hidden from the sun. Mr.
Parsons seemed to note a change in the boy.
“Are you feeling quite right son? It’s been a fair old journey.”
Thomas could only smile feebly and nod his head.
don’t you get some real sleep? Put your feet up, get your head down,
it’ll be another hour or so until we pull in to Glasgow. I’ll keep an
eye on things, make sure you don’t miss your stop.”
himself a little by trusting Parsons, as he now thought him, completely
and needed no second urging before curling himself up on his seat to
sleep and, for the very first time in his life, to dream.
At first there was a black sea below a black sky where spirits
floated above the wreck of happiness and all was still. Then, across
the surface of the water, disturbing its mirror like sheen, came a
small flotilla of boats, each one carrying a coffin. The boats glided
silently towards a beach of black sand and then ploughed on, up the
beach, across the dunes and into the woods beyond. The sea, troubled by
their passing, had whipped itself into a frenzy of white capped waves
was now in turmoil as far as the eye could see, and then came the
terror of the white ghost with the friendly lights of home growing
closer.... but Thomas remembered nothing of this.
High up on
the purpled mountaintops there was a fluttering of interest. A waking
and a shaking, almost bird like movements, as the news rippled onward
CHAPTER 2 - MONDAY
The sun filtered in past the taut canvas of the roof of Thomas’s
tent bathing everything in a warming golden glow. However, the icy tip
of his nose poking out beyond the blankets told Thomas that this was an
illusory warmth designed to lure him into leaping out of his camp bed.
The professor had warned him that the nights could be cold up here on
the hill and that even on sunny days it took some time for the sun to
take the chill of the morning dew. All was quiet except for the trill
of birdsong from the woods that Thomas knew lay down the slope past the
camp site and a distant murmur of waves breaking gently on the rocky
shore beyond the village. No one else seemed to be stirring so Thomas
decided to award himself the luxury of a few more minutes in bed and a
chance to go over the events which had lead to his arrival the previous
Parsons had been as good as his word
and had woken Thomas fifteen minutes before they were due to pull into
Queens Street station in the heart of Glasgow. He had helped the still
slightly dazed Thomas to unload his suitcase and had then stood with
him until Professor Schofield had appeared to take charge of him with a
firm handshake. Thomas screwed up his sleep laden eyes and peered up at
the great man. There was nothing about him that immediately suggested
that here was a hero who had fought off Turkish bandits, frightened off
Egyptian tomb robbers and bought off grasping officials and bureaucrats
in half the world’s capitals. Instead he cultivated the appearance of a
scholarly, slightly unworldly gentleman who was at his happiest when
buried in a book; nothing could be further from the truth. His skin was
surprisingly pale and pink for a person who had lived for many years
under the fierce sun of the Middle East - “Always kept myself well
covered up you see” he had once remarked but as he had also explained
that his baldness was the result of the hot sun having burnt his hair
away Thomas was unsure what to believe. As if to make up for the lack
of hair on top of his head he had a long straggly white beard which
reached downwards from his chin almost as far as his swollen midriff,
the product of what he called the easy life back in Britain. He wore a
close fitting brown tweed Norfolk jacket that had pockets on every
possible surface, slightly baggy matching plus fours, still with traces
of mud on the knees, no doubt from the excavation, and tough woolen
stockings above even tougher looking brown leather boots. The whole
outfit was rounded off with a flat tweed cap pulled well forward
and a khaki haversack slung over one shoulder. Fluttering about
behind him was a friendly looking young man smartly dressed in a rich
dark suit and tie with a slightly incongruous straw boater clamped to
the back of his head.
“The car is waiting don’t you know. I’ve
had the devil of a job finding somewhere to leave the thing, there’s
carters and carriers and draymen, how I could have made that wretched
beast shy I have no idea, it simply whispers along this new Rover quiet
as you like and...’
“Jimmy,” broke in the professor, “please, let me
introduce to you our latest recruit, I would like you to meet Thomas
James Verity. Thomas, this is James Cunningham, fourteenth Lord
Fairlie, but you can call him Jimmy.”
“Er.. yes, well, pleased to
meet you er.. Tommy, now we must hurry along, I have really no idea
what they will have been doing to the motor car while I’ve been gone.”
his nap Thomas was by now feeling too tired to do anything but follow
wearily in the footsteps of the professor and his protégé, or was
it patron, to where the car was waiting. At least he reflected he
had been relieved of the burden of his suitcase which meant that...
that was queer, Mr. Parsons was nowhere to be seen. He must have
slipped away quietly while the introduction was being made, but how odd
not to say a goodbye after the long journey they had shared together,
he had made himself scarce soon enough once the professor had appeared.
The car had not been tampered with by irate cabbies and Thomas
lowered himself gratefully into its deep padded leather interior,
perfectly prepared to sleep away the remaining thirty or so miles to
his final destination. Jimmy had fussed about stowing the luggage while
the professor settled himself onto the front seat with a satisfied
grunt, and then slid himself into the driver’s seat.
twenty horse power, you just watch her go....” but then as he eased the
car into gear and began to pull forward a sleek black shape erupted
from the other side of the station yard, plunged through the crowd of
porters, and pedestrians and cut across their front with only inches to
spare before disappearing in a cloud of dust down the road.
“By Jove”, breathed Jimmy, “will you look at that? A Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, and the blighters have painted it black!”
remembered little of the drive, he dozed on and off waking up just
enough to find himself in a large farmhouse kitchen gulping down a bowl
of hot soup before being lead to his tent. Once inside he collapsed
into a rickety camp bed by the light of a smelly old paraffin lamp
which someone had then kindly extinguished.
A growing chorus of creaks, groans and bangs from the rest of the camp
site told him that the remainder of the staff were braving the early
morning chill and lurching into action. Quickly peeling off his blanket
and pulling on his boots Thomas slipped out of his tent to brave the
bustle of the morning routine. The campsite was on the seaward side of
a steepish hill which was capped by the remains they were here to dig
up. It was protected from the prevailing winds by the rise of the land
to the north and a massive tumbled turf and stone bank that appeared to
encircle the hill’s summit. Offering further shelter was a band of
woodland to the west which ran down the hill side before mingling with
the small village of Portenburgh. Over the tops of the trees Thomas
could just catch a glimpse of the sea, sparkling in the morning sun and
dotted with the purple masses of small islands, the more distant ones
vanishing into the haze that lay over the Firth of Clyde. The
short sheep cropped grass was springy underfoot and made damp by the
dew so it was easy for Thomas to trace the footsteps of the rest of the
group who had obviously lost no time in making there way down for
The professor had arranged that his expedition be
catered for by a Mrs. Lennox, the wife of the farmer whose land they
were camped on. The farmhouse itself was further down the slope tucked
into a small wooded glen just on the outskirts of the village.
Thomas had no difficulty following the track that wound down towards
the farm and his bounding run soon brought him within earshot of the
chattering campers. Grabbing a passing branch to slow and steady
himself he skidded to a halt just at the point where the track
opened into the farmyard. The yard was partly cut into the hill side
and flanked on the down side of the slope by a long low range of what
appeared to be a single story farmhouse and outbuildings all cut from a
solid grayish red granite. Closer examination revealed that because of
the way the land fell away there was actually another floor below where
he was standing, the open front door he was facing was on the first
floor! Thomas crossed the cobbled yard and sidled in nervously, hard on
the heels of the last few stragglers from the main party. He was
greeted by a good natured bellow from the professor and a chorus of
assorted good mornings, hellos and how are yous from the rest of the
company. They were seating themselves round a broad expanse of scrubbed
pine table top and were helping themselves to porridge from a large tub
like pot that stood at its centre. Room was made for Thomas and a
portion labeled out for him.
As he puffed and
blew on his porridge to cool it down Thomas had time to study the
people around him. The professor and his Lordship, Jimmy rather, he
already knew, most of the others were young men, obviously students,
who had been drawn to this corner of Scotland by the professor’s
reputation. There were also two women students from an Edinburgh art
college, the last letter he had had from the professor explained that
they were to be responsible for drawing any finds that were made and
that Thomas would be expected to work closely with them. The women were
lodging at the farmhouse and appeared much more tidily turned out
that the rest of the group.
“They’re very pretty, their drawings I
mean,” confided the professor leaning towards Thomas, “but they’re not
accurate enough, fine for a drawing room wall, but not for a work of
“He just cannot stand the idea of us making something
beautiful out of the handfulls of muddy finds he keeps turning up for
us,” returned one of the two young women cheerfully, “take a look
around you at this lot, the one thing we’re really short of is works of
Thomas weighed up his companions, nice
people, all of them, but there was something lacking, the young men in
particular were weighed down, their humour seemed false and forced. The
group now amounted to a round dozen including Thomas and everyone was
tucking in determinedly to the rest of breakfast: bacon and eggs, toast
and huge mugs of strong tea.
“You’ll find this dig runs on tea”,
remarked the young man on his right, “Jimmy runs an urn up in his motor
car at least four times a day and we soak it up like sponges.” Thomas
was about to reply when the professor called for order.
most of you saw Thomas here last night at supper but now he’s properly
awake I shall introduce you to him.” He went round the table putting
names to the faces that were already starting to become familiar to
Thomas, Thomas added his own silent commentary.
“Some of you I
know expressed a certain amount of surprise that I should invite
someone of such tender years to join our enterprise,” Thomas blushed
and looked down into his tea stirring it vigorously, “Well all I can
say is just wait until you’ve seen him at work, you will find it quite
an education.” he made his last remark in the direction of his two
female artists who, refusing to be squashed, pulled faces back at him.
see, you’ll see,’ he countered jovially,” now I think we should begin
the day with a site tour to er… put Thomas in the picture as it were,”
he paused for a polite chuckle from the assembled students, “and to
discover what, if anything, the rest of you have learned about what’s
going on up there.’
The professor lead the
way out of the kitchen bowing slightly to Mrs. Lennox who stood
scowling next to the massive sink in which the debris breakfast was
piled. Well there was a lot of washing up to do but when Thomas looked
back he was appalled at what he saw, how could the others not realise.
the woman was terrified, something was wrong, gravely so, something
deeply disturbing over which she had no control. Could it be the
digging that was going on practically above her head? She seemed so
outwardly calm and competent, small and neat with her grey hair tied
back and her work red hands clasped in front of her but something...
She jerked her head round at the clatter of hooves in the yard and
Thomas stood aside as she followed the last of the students outside.
Mr. Lennox, for Thomas saw immediately that that was who it was, had
dismounted and handed the reins of a fine hunter to one of the lads
employed on the farm. If anything he was slightly shorter than his
wife, he had a thin bony face deeply and darkly lined and shadowed by a
flat cap pulled well over his eyes. A racing man, Thomas thought, a
jockey, but not a successful one, out of the business some ten years so
and turned a reluctant and not terribly successful farmer. Fraud and
deceit hung in the air about him but that was not the trouble now, it
was more to do with... Thomas’s attention was torn away as he was poked
purposefully between the shoulder blades.
“Come on slow coach, can’t stand there all day dreaming, the
professor won’t start without you.” It was Elizabeth the younger of the
two art students. She grabbed him good naturedly by the arm and almost
hauled him up the hill. The professor and the rest of the party had
stopped where the track that was now climbing upwards came to an abrupt
end. Thomas could see that it had originally continued onward through a
large gap in the bank which crowned the hill but the ground was now
divided up by a number of square box like pits from which the soil had
been dug out to the depth of a couple of feet. The boxes formed an
array which appeared to take in an area ten or fifteen yards square.
The ground between the pits had been carefully preserved and now stood
out as a grid of raised pathways. Thomas had never seen anything like
it before in his life.
“This,” said the professor
proudly,” is Schofield’s System Number One!” Now that he had approached
more closely Thomas could see that the bottoms of the dug out areas
were marked with a variety of shallow ruts, hollows and thin scatters
of slab like stones.
“ I’ll go over the method with you Thomas
later on,” he continued, “but first why all this madness? What on earth
are we doing scrabbling about in the dirt like this? Is it simply to
amaze and amuse the local population? No. Are we treasure hunters lured
by the promise of gold? No such luck, all we are finding is discoloured
patches of soil, old broken walls and the merest scattering of broken
pottery.” The professor was lecturing now in grand style and no one
would have dreamed of interrupting him.
“There was a gateway here once.” blurted out Thomas, interrupting him. Everyone turned and looked at him curiously.
yes, been listening at keyholes have we?” rejoined the professor
amiably. The students let out the collective breath they had been
holding, his good mood had not been spoiled but Thomas had been lucky
to get away with that one. The professor picked up his thread.
these faint clues I er.... we hope to show that Portenburgh Hill the
site of the first Christian settlement in Scotland, founded by no less
a personage that Saint Columba himself. Every school boy knows that
Columba went first to Iona but a newly discovered set of ballads by the
early Scots poet Thomas Learmouth suggests a different story. He
retired to the monastery of Saint Colm, otherwise known as Columba, on
the island of Cumbrae, behind us over there,” he gestured vaguely out
to sea, “ and wrote that that the monks made an annual pilgrimage to
this very hill in remembrance of Columba’s first landfall on Scottish
soil.” Thomas whose attention had begun to wonder had looked up at the
mention of his own name and just for an instant his vision wavered. the
professor seemed to grow in stature, his beard became full and bushy
and his jacket was overlain by a homespun habit of undyed wool, and
then he spoke again and the image collapsed into the everyday
appearance of things.
“The conclusion is
inescapable, there were intact buildings here in the thirteenth century
which were recognisably ancient, we still see the standing line of a
defensive rampart around the hill’s top, this has to be Columba’s first
mainland monastery but now, how do we prove it?” The professor’s gaze
rested on Thomas for a second, already rather shaken by the old man’s
apparent transformation thought for one dreadful moment that a question
and answer session was about to begin to test how well he was keeping
:”I... um... er...” but having drawn breath the professor rumbled on.
course in a strictly scientific sense we can not prove it
absolutely. Even if we found a stone carved with the words “Columba was
here” it could have been some other Columba.” There was a muted laugh,
this was obviously an old joke. “However, if we can show that in the
sixth century there was a settlement here which was monastic in
character we will have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that these
very stones were the first to see the cross of Christ raised upon these
dark shores.” He finished with a flourish and Thomas was almost tempted
to applaud this virtuoso performance, it was as well that he did not
for the others were standing around with expressions of polite
indifference. He was still puzzled as to how the professor planned to
make sense of the jumbled fragments around them, presumably Schofield’s
System Number One held the key. Thomas raised his hand questioningly.
“Ah, Thomas, I know what you are going to ask.”
“Do you?” thought Thomas.
do we use the spade to coax this information from the ground?”
but before the professor could begin to answer his own question
he was interrupted by the tramp of boots as a group of men in almost
military formation swung round a curve in the stony track below. A work
force of dour looking men in cloth caps and heavy corduroy trousers
squatted down on the edge of the excavation while their foreman
approached the professor for the day’s instructions. The students
breathed a collective sigh of relief, work would have to begin now
sparing them the remainder of the lecture that most of them now knew by
The workmen had been recruited both from
local farms and quarries and from the nearby town of Killbride. They
had been hand picked by the professor who insisted on paying them the
top rate for job. In return he expected complete honesty and a
willingness to follow his instructions to the letter. Some of them had
considered it a considerable blow to their professional pride when
after the first few days of cutting turf and removing top soil their
spades had been taken away and small masons trowels pressed into their
hands. The professor was adamant, spades were fine for shifting earth
by the foot’s depth but now he wanted it removing by the inch and only
a trowel could do the work safely. They had scratched their heads,
hitched their trousers up, shuffled about a bit and then made up their
minds. The work was light, the money was good and if the crazy old
Englishman wanted them to work with a teaspoon or even an eye dropper,
well that was good enough for them.
After a few minutes everyone had
moved away to their allocated tasks and the day’s labours had begun.
Having watched carefully to check that everything was going to plan the
professor sauntered over to Thomas who had been waiting by a spoil heap
of earth tipped by the diggers.
“Good, there’s the day well begun,
everyone seemed very keen to get going this morning, at least I can
take the time to show you the lie of the land properly, come on, step
Thomas and the professor scrambled
to the top of one of the banks that flanked the original excavation
from where they could look across the whole wind swept site. Thomas
could see that their corner of the hill top had at some time been cut
off from the rest by a massive earth bank or rampart. He could see that
the material for the rampart must have been quarried out from the ditch
that lay before it. A few scattered stones littered the hill top beyond
the bank which surely must have been some great defensive work. it was
nothing like the romantic ruin he had half been expecting when he had
first heard the professor was digging on the site of an abbey.
place it er... reminds me of Caesar’s camp, on Wimbledon Common.” He
was remembering the great circular earthwork that his father had
taken him to see. The workmen had been in the process of lowering
the banks and landscaping the area for a new golf course.
are quite right, sites with these massive defensive banks were built by
the ancient Britons, as people who should know better insist on calling
them, perhaps two or three centuries before the Romans invaded. They
were put up during a period which is becoming known as the iron age for
it covers the time when iron tools and weapons were spreading
throughout the land and peaceful farming folk were driven into warfare
and conflict fuelled by the power of this new metal which could be made
sharp and hard. Tribe after tribe rose up attempting to bring pillage
and slaughter to their neighbours door steps. They all needed safe
refuges to protect their families and possessions and so built new
settlements of round stone huts on hill tops like this one and then
defended them with iron weapons. They cut deep ditches and threw up
banks with stout timber fences or dry stone walls and the strange thing
is it turned into a kind of race. Groups vied with each other to see
who could take most time and trouble to make their fortification more
powerful that the one on the next hill top, and all brought about by
iron. Small wonder the fairy folk were so frightened of the stuff.”
looked up in confusion, not quite believing what he had heard. he
paused for a moment and then decided to get the professor back on track.
“But where is the abbey? What is the connection with Saint Columba and his monks?”
at present we can only imagine what might have happened but I believe
that Columba and his party landed hereabouts, most likely at Ardneil
Bay, possibly by accident. Their boat may have been damaged by a storm
or perhaps they were fleeing from pirates, whatever the case they
decided to stay but put yourself in their place. Here they are stranded
on an unknown shore, surrounded by potentially hostile pagans. Now
although men of peace they are not complete fools so they look for a
secure place to set up camp. Where could be better that an abandoned
village with a strong stone wall around…. “
“So you think,” broke in Thomas,” that the er... iron age people no longer lived here?”
am certain of it and later on I will show you the evidence. So now, the
saint and his followers move in, they repair the wall although the huts
are too ruinous to afford much shelter so they reuse the stones to
build themselves small individual rectangular cells for each monk...”
you can tell the difference by looking and the plan of their
foundations, on the ground?” interrupted Thomas again. Thomas felt he
was catching on quickly and was rewarded by an encouraging smile.
monks must have impressed the natives with their peaceful ways for they
were left unmolested for several years. However, being on the mainland
they were bound, sooner or later to come to the attention of some more
aggressive band. I believe that the monastery they built here was
destroyed by raiders, the monks themselves barely escaping with their
lives. they must have had a boat prepared or perhaps were helped by
friendly fishermen. At any rate, they made their get away and not
wishing to be caught out twice find themselves as remote an island as
you could wish for to found their abbey for a second time. It was
called Iona.” As they walked slowly round the hill top Thomas went over
the story again imaging the monks going about their daily tasks, an
oasis of peace in a strife torn land. Then there would have been the
terrible day when blood thirsty tribesmen had attacked. perhaps they
had come at night commanding fires of death to light the darkness...
Thomas jumped and spun round. Jimmy’s Rover had appeared rattling
towards them with the tea urn in the rear seat, the engine back firing
as it came.
“Come on, time for morning tea break then we can take a
careful look at what I’ve uncovered so far.” Thomas welcomed the chance
to warm his hands round the mug of steaming tea
their vantage point
had been exposed to the full force of the wind and al though he hadn't
noticed the cold during the professor's grim tale now he felt chilled
and shivery. The rich dark brown sweet liquid slipped down his throat
in a. most satisfying way and warmed him right through. Someone handed
round the biscuits and Thomas turned his attention to Jimmy who also
brought up the local gossip from the village each morning.
should see her, she's a hundred and twenty foot if she's an inch, and
beautiful, sparkling paintwork, not a rope out of place. Shame about
the surly crew though, you know I strolled down to pay my compliments
to the owner or captain or whatever and this hulking great seaman
snarls at me in some incomprehensible language, waves his fist around
and generally makes it clear that I'm not welcome. - well no one has
ever said that I can't take a hint so I pushed off, a shame because it
was a beautiful boat ... "
People began to loose interest and eventually everybody returned to work.
should go and see her, "went on Jimmy, turning to Thomas, "she's moored
down by the quayside at the north end of the village, we'll walk down
there after supper if you like."
Having obtained Thomas's approval Jimmy began gathering the mugs up.
on now, we'll go and see now why archaeologists ought to go round with
dirty knees if they're doing their jobs properly." The professor guided
Thomas back towards the grid like nest of boxes dug out around the
entrance to the site.
"We've almost finished excavating here and the results have been most promising. "
They stepped out along the ridges of earth left standing between the excavated areas.
call these baulks, not only are they useful for getting about on but if
we look at their cut sides it gives us a cross section down through the
Thomas squatted down, they were looking down into the
centre-most square where two workmen were actually sweeping the surface
of the soil with hand brushes while another one was similarly occupied
on a right angled corner of roughly built wall. His disbelief at the
sight must have shown on his face.
"They are cleaning up the site
ready for a photograph, the loose particles of soil obscure the details
of shade and texture I wish to record and apart from that they just
look down right messy, so we brush them away." One of the workers
caught Thomas's eye and shrugged, crazy old man he was thinking.
for an explanation, the most important feature is this section of
walling here, you'll notice it carries on to the north until it meets
with the butt end of the rampart, come and look at this." Thomas
stepped gingerly along the baulk until he was in front of the excavated
face of the rampart. A well laid dry stone wall curved round before him
and then vanished under the tail of the bank. The less impressive piece
of wall that they had followed across was clearly built up against the
more substantial work.
"Here," went on the professor pointing to
the face of the bank is the original wall of the iron age fort, as you
can see obviously well built by craftsmen who knew what they were doing
and had plenty of time. Originally the gap would have been closed by
massive timber gates, we know they were here because we have found dark
patches of loose soil that mark the position of massive upright posts
that carried the weight of the gates. Given time the posts rot and the
gates collapse or else are taken away for firewood. When Columba and
his monks turn up what do they do?" It was a rhetorical question.
“Close the gap with a hastily built rough stone wall leaving an
entrance just wide enough for one person to come in or out of and
easily blocked off," answered Thomas. The professor, used to numerous
uninterrupted lectures, had obviously not expected a reply and was
momentarily taken aback.
“Er yes, very good, that's exactly right, perhaps we should go and look at the habitation site.”
then a call came for the professor, a contractor had arrived to deliver
several yards of fencing and a dozen sturdy planks.
"Go over and
see our resident artistes and get yourself set up for drawing while I
go and haggle with this fellow, I expect he wants cash on delivery.
I'll see you later on to talk about the rest of the dig."
happened the professor was busy all morning and then after lunch had to
drive into town to make arrangements with a local photographer who was
coming out to the site. Thomas had made his way over to the pair of
marquees that were pitched in the shelter of the rampart near a second
area that the professor was working on but hadn't yet introduced him
to. One of the large tents was being used for washing any items that
the diggers found and thought were worth keeping, fragments of bone, a
few rusty bits of metal and a couple of boxes of broken pieces of
pottery. Not exactly a fabulous haul of treasure but then Thomas was
beginning to know enough of the professor's methods to suspect that
they were important in some way. It was obvious that great care was
being taken with the finds, after washing and drying each one was
marked with a serial number in waterproof black Indian ink.
next tent was completely open along one side to let plenty of light in
for the people working there. In one corner the girls were occupied at
their easels, one of them was making water colour sketches of a
collection of bits and pieces of broken pots in an attempt to record
details of their fabric and decoration while the other had a broken
piece of carved stone and was turning it this way and that attempting
to find the best angle to draw it from. Spread out along two long
trestle tables were a series of plans of the excavated areas and some
other drawings which looked to Thomas as if someone had taken a large
and many layered sponge cake, cut it down the middle and then drawn the
cut surface. Frederick and Vincent, the two students who were mainly
responsible for surveying the site were outside doing something
complicated with a gadget mounted on a tripod that Thomas recalled was
a theodolite. Whatever it was that they were doing they seemed to be
making a mess of it and Thomas decided to let them get on with it. By
now Hannah, Elizabeth's companion at the easel had noticed Thomas's
arrival and called him over.
"Here, we better show you where
everything is kept." They guided him over to a battered chest of
drawers that stood in one corner of the marquee.
practically everything you need here, pencils, mapping pens, inks,
compasses, rulers, India-rubbers. The drawing boards are over the tent
pole there." Thomas thanked her in an absent minded sort of a way, he
was eager to make a start.
The professor with his usual passion
for recording every detail of, the dig had asked Thomas to begin by
drawing the face of the monks’ blocking wall and its junction with the
earlier Iron age one. He chose a suitably sized board, pocketed an
assortment of other odds and ends that might come in useful and headed
for the wall.
This was certainly a new problem, the professor had
explained that he wanted the wall drawn with mathematical accuracy yet
there wasn't a straight edge or right angle to even start from. Thomas
thought about the difficulties and then slowly and methodically started
work. First he took out a length of builders line and two six inch
nails. By jamming the nails into the loose joints between the stones
and tying a small pocket spirit level to the line he was able to adjust
the positions of the nails until the line running across the face of
the wall from one nail to the other was perfectly horizontal. He then
unwound a long linen tape measure, slipped the ring on the end over the
right hand nail and clipped the tape in place at the other end. With a
second smaller hand tape he was able to measure up or down from the
line at a given distance along it. He drew a line to scale on his paper
that stood for the builder's line and tape and then began to draw in
the individual stones in the wall. Although they were all oddly shaped
Thomas was able to measure in the position of their corners and then
draw in their irregular edges by eye. While this was going on a small
crowd had gathered behind him. The girls had passed the word that
Thomas was about to start on a task that many of them regarded as
impossible. Common opinion was that the professor had given Thomas this
particular assignment as a test that would cut him down to size a bit
when he failed it. They were of course wrong he had far more respect
for Thomas's abilities and character than to attempt such a mean trick,
on the other hand he was curious himself to see how Thomas would tackle
Harvey, who was the eldest of the volunteers was
spokesman for them all, "Bravo young 'un, at least half of us have lost
sleep about sketching, that wall, drawing it this way and that and then
having to do it all again because some blessed rock was out of place.
We were beginning to think we'd have to dismantle the wall entirely and
take it away with us to finish.”
His joking approach defused what
could have been an awkward situation although Thomas didn't enjoy being
spoken to as the ‘young 'un'.
"Yes, I can see he's got something
to teach all of us.” The professor was back with another marquee and
the back of Jimmy's Rover looking like a chemist's shop. "Mr. Herbert
the photographer has kindly agreed to set up a darkroom on site for us
so we can check each plate almost as soon as it's taken, He'll be
arriving with his assistant in the morning.”
The professor rounded
up the onlookers and set about organising them to put up the new tent
and unload the car. Thomas was relieved to left to work by himself, he
felt that their praise was quite undeserved, after all he was only
doing what came naturally, and anyway he worked much better without an
audience. The afternoon wore on, Jimmy had made his third tea run of
the day and Thomas was settling down to another couple of hours work
before the sun dipped below the trees and stopped him. He had drawn
about six feet of the wall. There came a sudden clattering behind him
and he looked round impatiently. As he turned the first thing he saw
was somebody's bicycle, propped against a fencing post, and twisting
his head still further he saw its owner, standing almost directly
behind him. Thomas gasped as though he had been slapped in the face,
his right hand shot out convulsively to steady himself as, caught off
balance he began to topple over. The point of his pencil dug into his
paper tearing it across diagonally as his hand slammed painfully into
the solid stone of the wall.
The girl laughed, "I don't usually
have that effect on people, I'm sorry I startled you, you were so
intent on your work. I’m sorry, is there something wrong?" Her smile
faded. She could see that Thomas was as white as a sheet and trembling
all over. "Are you injured?"
What could he say, that he had looked
into her eyes and seen a lifetime of lonely misery, that the people she
trusted had woven a web of evil around her, that death was a constant
companion, either her death or his own? He said nothing but fought to
regain control of himself, the force of his vision was passing now and
he made himself breath in slowly and deeply a few times. Slightly
reassured now the girl sat down on the edge of the trench and looked
sideways at Thomas, “Are you an epileptic?" she asked cheerfully.
brushed himself off, propped his drawing board against the wall and
unthinkingly climbed up to sit by her. He really needed to sit down.
not really, I suppose it was just sitting up quickly like that after
I’ve been crouched over drawing all afternoon. The blood rushed to my
head or my feet I'm not sure which."
She laughed again. Thomas was
glad, he needed to dispel the pall of gloom that he felt hovering
around his shoulders after his sudden fright. He carefully avoided
looking at her directly again and so had only the vaguest impression of
long dark brown hair capped by a yellowed straw boater, a close fitting
white blouse with puffed out sleeves gathered to tightly buttoned
cuffs, a broad black elasticated belt fastened round her waist and a
full skirt spread out over the grass. He had an excellent view of her
boots which stuck out in front of her over the edge of the excavation.
They were brown and badly scuffed and dusty where she had been peddling
“You’re new here aren't you? I generally come up every
couple of days or so to see how things are coming along. The professor
has promised that I can help him lift some loom weights from one of the
Iron age hut circles when he has finished photographing them, and
perhaps help wash and mark them."
Thomas was intrigued by her
knowledge about the site and the professor's methods, as she talked it
became clear that she knew more about the subject than Thomas did
“ …of course the professor learnt most of his technique
from General Pitt Rivers, have you read his volumes on excavations on
Cranborne Chase?" Thomas had to admit he hadn't and having broken into
the conversation that was becoming increasingly one sided took the
opportunity to ask if she lived nearby and, thinking it best to slip
another question before she started up again, how it was she knew so
much about archaeology.
“Oh I live with my uncle, in the big house over towards town there just behind the belt of trees."
craning his neck Thomas could just about make out the chimney pots and
steeply pitched slate roof of the large property about a mile away.
first met Professor Schofield last year when he came to see my uncle to
get permission to dig. Uncle took a lot of persuading, I suppose he
values his privacy, he doesn't encourage casual callers ... " Her voice
faltered slightly and then picked up as she went on brightly, "I don't
suppose he would ever have agreed if it hadn't have been for the
professor suggesting that the London newspapers might be interested in
a story about a wealthy recluse who was refusing archaeologists access
to what could be the most important site in all Scotland. Then when he
went on about the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works and inspectors
and a statutory ancient monument perhaps open to the public my uncle
nearly fell over himself to be helpful as long as the whole business
was handled by the professor from beginning to end and there was no
undue publicity. The professor and I got on famously and as I was
interested he said he would send me some books from London about
digging. Well with them and a few others I found in the library at home
I taught myself all about modern archaeology and read up about the
local monuments. We've got rather a fine library you know, it was left
behind when the last owner died and came with the house when my uncle
bought it, there's lots of books about local history - and I've read
ail of them, "she added half to herself.
"Nearly five o'clock, time to pack up, clear up your loose everyone."
The voice drifted across the site.
is that the time, I must fly. Normally", she explained as she hurried
towards her bicycle, "Uncle doesn't give tuppence where I am or what
I'm doing as long as I stay out of his way and don't waste the
domestics’ time, but today we're having visitors, very important
people, so he's expecting me to put on my best dress and entertain them
all at dinner tonight, goodness knows what he expects me to do, juggle
perhaps, I've had as much practice at that as I have at holding a
dinner party, I expect I'll drop by tomorrow if I don't die of boredom
tonight. Goodbye." The last part of her speech had been delivered over
her shoulder as she wobbled precariously down the track to the village.
Just for a moment Thomas met her eyes again and was almost as shocked
as he had been at their first meeting for this time he saw a promise of
life and a hint that whatever it might bring they would be facing it
Everyone started to pack up. The
workmen cleaned and stowed their tools, boxes were packed and the flaps
on the marquees secured against the wind. In a straggling line the
diggers traced their stpes across the hillside and down towards the
woods. On the margin of the woods standing tall and unseen were three
cloaked figures. The gray green hues of their clothing made them almost
impossible to see in the darkening woods and moments later they were
not there to see anyway.
That evening after a more than ample
farmhouse tea, Jimmy and Thomas followed the lane down through he
village then out along the tree shaded track that lead to the small tee
shaped jetty. The steam yacht was there, magnificent as Jimmy promised.
"I told you, isn't she wonderful, I wonder how many miles an hour
she does?" Jimmy's enthusiasm for things mechanical was just about
matched by his ignorance.
"Knots," suggested Thomas," you measure the speed of boats in knots."
Oh yes that's right. I wonder if there's anyone aboard." As if in
answer to the thought a shadowy figure appeared from behind a
ventilator and stood looking in their direction. There was a scuffling
sound on their left and a second figure stood up from behind a bollard
where he had been resting.
"What do you want?" came the surly
greeting from the first figure, his companion had closed in on them and
was standing close to Jimmy's shoulder but just out of his view.
Thank goodness there's someone who speaks English here this time
whispered Jimmy and then raising his voice, "The name is Cunningham,
James Cunningham, might we come aboard?" He began to take a few steps
forward, "I'm afraid I've forgotten my visiting card but I'll quite
happily to introduce myself and my … " His voice died away as he found
himself staring at a double barreled shotgun, its twin blue steel
muzzles glinting wickedly in the setting sun.
"This here's private
property, private valuable property see. The owner's off on business
and he don't want no one tampering with anything', right?"
could only gulp in agreement. He backed off, pulling Thomas’s sleeve,
"Well if that's the way it is I'll, bid you good evening gentlemen."
There was a replying grunt as the guards padded back into the
shadows. Thomas was amazed and troubled for the third time that
day. The two sinister characters they had just tangled with were the
same two brothers he had seen descending from the Glasgow train
yesterday morning. He would have probably brooded about this all the
way back to the camp site if Jimmy, who had tired of making comments
about how jolly rude some people were, hadn't moved onto a new topic of
"Was that Tess I saw you speaking to this afternoon at the dig?" For a moment Thomas was at a loss, "Sorry?"
"You know Tess Dunbar, the girl with the bike."
"Oh yes, she was telling me about her uncle and the trouble there had been in persuading him to give us permission to dig."
don't know the half of it old son, you've no idea the trouble that
we’ve had." Jimmy said in a vexed voice. "He sent his lawyer round on
the first day of the dig with a piece of paper for the professor to
sign, there were a list of conditions as long as my arm that we had to
agree to before he'd let us cut the first turf, London Papers or no
"What were they?" enquired Thomas strangely eager for any news that reflected on Tess's anti-social guardian.
there were to be no press reports without his lawyer vetting the text
first, no objects of any description were to be removed from his
property unless he or his agent had seen it and given their approval,
no trespassing on any other part of his property, and believe me that
isn't easy as he owns almost all the land for three of four miles
around, and what else was there?" Jimmy had been ticking the items off
on his fingers." That's right, he said on no account must any of us
approach the house or he would have us seen of in no uncertain manner,
if we wanted to contact him it had to be through his lawyer's office in
Kilbride. The only good thing as far as I can see is that he hasn't
forbidden Tess's visits. She's a real favourite with all of us,
difficult to see how she has grown up so sweet tempered and kind
hearted living with an old curmudgeon like that."
"Why is she living there? queried Thomas.
believe she has no where else to go, mother and father died young, out
in India I think she said, went to live with mother's older sister,
sister died, Tess was left in the care of her husband who had been away
at the time so there you are. I've no doubt he's as eager to see the
back of her as she is to see the back of him ... "
"So how long
has she been living there?" interrupted Thomas, "Bledington, that's her
uncle's name by the way, Bledington bought the estate about six years
ago and so as far as we know Tess only stays there at holiday times,
for the rest of the year she is away at school somewhere, she has only
been back a week."
They walked the rest of the way in silence,
Thomas preoccupied with the events of the day and Jimmy still scheming
as to how he could get himself invited on board the steam launch. Later
that night Thomas wriggled down underneath his blankets expecting to
have trouble getting to sleep after such an incident packed day but no
sooner did his head touch his pillow then he drifted off into sleep
that became deeper and deeper. His second dream came wreathed
in black. There was a huge empty room, its walls draped in black velvet
and at its centre a wide black table. Some where in the distance was a
faint booming and as if it were a signal doors at the far end of the
room swung open and a ghastly procession of skeletal figures draped in
black entered the room and gathered round the table. Each figure held a
shining ebony bowl and in each bowl were thousands and thousands of
tiny human corpses. By the solitary window which lit the dreadful scene
with pale moonlight was a little white ghost beating against the glass
like a trapped bird and trying to get out and in the dark behind it
were two massive eyes, lit up like lamps and blazing balefully at
The view from the hill top
CHAPTER THREE - TUESDAY
awoken by a dry coughing and wondering who the invalid was stuck his
head out through the flaps at the end of his tent. The morning was
slightly misty and he was alarmed to see dim white shapes moving about
between the tents. Thomas laughed at himself. They were sheep, Lennox
had told then last night over supper in the farmhouse that he would be
moving a flock onto the hill to graze although, of course, they would
be fenced off from the dig. He made soft clicking noises with his
tongue and several of those nearest to him turned a stared blankly at
him. 'And sheep may safely graze', the line came to him from somewhere
and a deep feeling of peace and comfort swept away the unease that had
been in the back of his mind ever since he had woken.
followed the same sort of pattern as yesterday. Thomas, no longer the
newcomer listened to the lively chatter as a saucepan of boiled eggs
was passed round for everyone to help themselves from. Somebody had got
hold of yesterday's newspaper and were discussing the headlines.
in Bosnia. Austria Prepares Counter-measures. Turkish Protests in
Sofia. Sounds as if they're getting ready to slog it out between them,
can't really see any of those little Balkan States standing up to
Germany and the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire … "
"And Italy, "chipped in another voice.
don't forget,” said Vincent entering into the conversation, "any
expansion into Serbia and Romania will be opposed by the Russians."
the Russians won't stop them, they will never get their armies to
fight, there's revolution in the air." This was from Euan, the only
Scott on the staff he was from Glasgow and a bit of a fire brand in
"You're all making it sound as if it's a million
miles away,” said one of the girls, "If Germany goes to the trouble of
mobilising for war you don't think it will stop with some piffling
little Balkan state that nobody has ever heard of do you? The Germans
are due to have another crack at France and I dare say the French will
be only to keen to settle a few scores with the Germans and if France
goes to war that means Britain too."
A thoughtful silence fell at
the end of her remarks that was broken by the professor who had slumped
back into his chair and was peering at the young people over his beard.
"People are ready for war," there came a chorus of protests, "Oh I know
not you lot but others are. Everywhere I've been folk seem to be
infected with a species of rabid nationalism that makes them see no
further than their own back yard and the day after tomorrow. Naturally
the generals plan ahead and plot their lines of advance and scheme to
redraw the map of Europe but even they don't know what will happen when
millions of men are armed and on the move, that's a situation where
there are no winners. The only people who will show any profit are the
arms and munitions dealers. They have been behind the pressure to
rearm, how else could they make more money. If anyone's finger rests on
the trigger that will plunge Europe into a new Dark Age it's the men
who own the factories that produce machines for killing." The professor
rose to his feet, "And on that cheerful note we'll finish, we have our
own battle to fight on the site, my spies tell me the sheep are
planning a major offensive against our chestnut paling fence.”
was a rather subdued crowd that made their way up the hill to begin the
day's work. Thomas had carefully pulled together the edges of his torn
drawing and had traced it onto a fresh piece of paper. He was able to
put in a couple of hours work before the photographer arrived at eleven
The elevation was almost complete so Thomas wasn't
unhappy about taking a break when he saw a sour faced Mr. Lennox
escorting an unlikely looking pair who were labouring up the hill under
the weight of two largish tripods with cameras attached. Having
deposited them within the fence the farmer bustled away as if involved
in some errand of his own. The photographers were left to introduce
themselves to the company who had all stopped work and were gazing in
"Good morning to you all, "came a voice in a
rolling Scott's brogue, "I am Mr. Herbert and here to assist me is Mr.
McGillivray." Thomas was reminded of a stage magician he had once seen
who introduced his act with a similar flourish. Mr. Herbert even looked
the part, he was tall and thin and wrapped in a black cape that looked
like a school master's gown. He seemed to need to wave his arms about
whenever he spoke which made him look as if he were weaving a spell to
clear his equipment of lurking devils and demons who might conspire to
ruin his pictures. His assistant was much shorter and if as in contrast
to his employer Mr. McGillivray held his portly little body rigidly
still like a soldier on parade. The professor who had met them both
yesterday when he collected their equipment now lead them over to it
and invited them to begin work. While his assistant checked the stores
in the marquee Mr. Herbert began positioning his camera for the first
series of photographs of the area round the entrance and Thomas's wall.
"He'll be at least twenty minutes getting that thing set up and the
workmen need to give every thing a final clean before the pictures are
taken, come and have a good look at the rest of the dig." The professor
brought Thomas over until they were standing on the edge of a slightly
larger excavated area about thirty yards north of the entrance way.
Although Thomas had had a quick look over this part of the site
yesterday he had not had it explained to him in detail.
have a lot to do here but now the entrance way is almost finished we
can shift all the labour over here and get on much more quickly."
Thomas looked out over the jumble of low fragmentary walls and felt
that for once his vision had clouded over and was no longer making
"You see part of the problem we have in understanding this
part of the site is that there are remains from at least four different
periods here … "
"Four, but I thought there was the iron age fort
and then it was repaired by the monks in the er.. sixth century, and
that's just two," finished Thomas rather lamely.
" True, but in addition we are blessed with mysterious beginnings and endings."
politely acknowledged this unusually cryptic statement with a look
which he hoped was both intelligent and encouraging so the professor
went on. "Under the iron age floor levels there is a deposit of blown
sand that is in turn covering some patchy spreads of ash and charcoal,
the iron age tribesmen were clearly not the first to occupy this hill,
there was an earlier population who they must have driven away.” At his
words the air around them seemed to compress and them release itself in
a great gust which swept through the surrounding tree tops.
the there were the er… very last occupants, apart from us, of course.”
The professor shook his head from side to side as if bothered by some
very troublesome fly and waved in the general direction of the
excavated area. "Just beyond the first hut over there we came upon a
pile of stones, a cairn it's called, just below the turf. I can't for
the life of me see why anyone should have gone to the trouble to
collect the rocks and pile them up here, but we do have a date for it."
“We do… er you do ?" Thomas enquired.
"Certainly, we found a
bronze belt buckle near the centre of the heap, it must have torn off
somebody's belt as they were at work and it was decorated in the manner
of the thirteenth century."
Thomas remembered his lesson from yesterday and began, "Perhaps the monks from Cumbrae during their pilgrimages to the site… “
I think," the professor cut in, "hardly the kind of monument you would
expect the monks to erect, why it's more like a pagan burial mound.
Anyway we have saved the stones and I would like to give you a try at
drawing some of them, once you have finished the wall that is." He
back over his shoulder to check that all was going well
with the preparations for the photographs then resumed the tour of the
site. "Now you will recall looking over the site by the gate and the
fact that I categorised the work as being according to Schofield's
System number one ?"
"I do,” admitted Thomas.
"Well now you are looking at the fruits of Schofield's System number two," the professor said proudly.
surveyed the ground in front of him then turned back to look at the
area where he had been working before. "You've stopped digging in
boxes, you've just dug one great pit that covers the whole site!"
is correct, the remains are far harder to disentangle at this end of
the hill and with the old system it was just like peeping through
keyholes, we could never see the whole picture and you could be quite
sure that any really important evidence remained hidden underneath the
ridges that we left so we adopted the motto, 'If in doubt, dig it all
After thinking for a moment Thomas raised a tentative
protest. "But what about those section drawings, the ones that were
like the layers in a cream cake, there's nothing left to draw there
apart from round the very outside edges of the excavation."
"You have a point there and I have the answer... "
what that answer was Thomas never heard for their conversation was
disturbed by an uproar from the direction of the photographers marquee.
The professor hurried over and Thomas followed him. The small but angry
crowd gathered in front of the marquee drew apart as they approached to
reveal the two opposing factions. One the one hand, defending the entry
to the large tent, were Messers Herbert and McGillivray and most of the
excavation's staff. On the other hand were a group of strangers
accompanied by Mr. Lennox. At their head was a tall thickset man whose
features were hidden partly by bristly black hair that seemed to sprout
from all over his face and partly by a thick black muffler that was
wrapped around his neck. He looked like a bad tempered bear.
dear Bledington, "said the professor, advancing with his hand
outstretched welcomingly, "to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit
Thomas, who pushed forward to stand closer to the threatening
figure who must surely be Tess's uncle and guardian, was right in the
line of fire when Bledington replied.
"I was under the
impression," he thundered, "that I had made my wishes quite clear in
the respect of taking photographs." Even the professor seemed taken
aback by the violence of his tone, standing and staring as Bledington
got into his stride. "As owner of this property I expect to be able to
bring my guests here to enjoy the prospect without having our
likenesses taken by every cheapjack who can afford a box of stinking
chemicals and a few glass plates to swill them about on!"
Mr. Herbert flapped his arms ineffectually at the insult but was lost for words so he turned to the professor for support.
me if I am wrong but I thought my expedition had had all the necessary
permissions for our work and I understood this to include the taking of
photographs subject, naturally, to your lawyer approving the final
prints." The professor's even tones seemed to enrage Bledington and
spur him on to new levels of invective.
"And did that permission
extend to photographing my friends and colleagues as if they were a
heap of old pots or a pile of mouldering bones ?" He gesticulated
towards the rest of his party and for the first time Thomas realized
that he knew at least one of Bledington's associates, it was the evil
little man with the cherub's face he had first seen boarding the
Glasgow express. He now stepped forward and raised his hands in a
"Now I am quite sure we can settle this dispute
without the need for further argument." His voice was soft and
whispering but had a poisonous quality that held everyone's attention."
We are shy and retiring men who have come here to avoid the glare of
publicity. As an eminent person yourself professor I am sure you can
appreciate how it is that public figures, active in the world of
finance and business, value their privacy.”
He nodded his head and
turned away. As he did so one of the massive figures lurking beside him
- one of the ex-boxers Thomas thought - stepped forward and without
saying a word grabbed first one camera then the other and threw them on
the ground where they cracked and splintered in the sudden silence. He
them solemnly and deliberately crushed the remains under his outsize
boots and turned to follow the others.
No one spoke for several
seconds then with a cry Mr. Herbert dropped to his knees and began
scrabbling amongst the debris as if trying to spread apart the pieces
of a jig-saw. His partner Mr. McGillivray stood solidly by, unmoving
but swearing bitterly to himself under his breath. Then everybody tried
to speak at once except Thomas who had drifted away from the stunned
group to follow with his eyes the path Bledington's party took down the
He sank down onto his knees, allowed the chattering voices
behind him to fade away and thought hard about the things that he had
learnt in the last few minutes. In reviewing events he thought at first
that his 'gift’ had deserted him for there had been no sudden insights
or flashes of understanding. Then he remembered that moment when he had
first set eyes on Bledington, there was the key to the man, he had
'seen' nothing for there was nothing to see, just au icy void, an empty
nothingness, a man with no soul, and what about his companions? Thomas
counted the bobbing heads just before they disappeared from view over
the curve of the hill, seven in all. Bledington the massive figure
swathed in a black top coat, ‘Angel Face’, as Thomas had named him, at
his side, three other business associates expensively and soberly
dressed but anonymous in the uniform of their chosen profession, and
the two bodyguards lumbering along behind with Lennox sandwiched
between them. Two questions demanded answers. Why were they so
intent on preserving their privacy and if privacy was so important why
expose themselves to public view on the top of one of the most open and
populated hill tops for miles around?
By the time Thomas returned
to the debate that was raging across the photographer’s shattered
equipment it had reached a point where a sizeable majority were in
favour of driving into Kilbride to summon the police constable. "No, it
just won't do," interrupted the professor, "any move like that on our
part and he will just refuse us permission to carry on digging. I am
afraid the excavation must take precedence, we will settle the score
once our results are published and the finds safely stored. Jimmy, help
them clear up and find out how much it will cost to replace their
He turned to the two photographers, "Do not despair
gentlemen, next time you are ready to take your pictures we will have
look outs posted. Now back to work all of you!"
that there was little chance of the professor being in the right frame
of mind to continue their tour and that the instruction 'back to work'
was meant to apply to him too. There were only one or two stones to be
plotted on to his drawing of the wall then he could start to ink in the
finished product. He was obviously keen to get the job done so that he
could take a look at the stones from pile that he had heard about that
Lunch break, when it came, was very welcome as Thomas had
really exerted himself to get the inking in completed and the effort of
intense concentration had left him feeling tired and faintly irritable.
He grabbed his pack of sandwiches and settled on the grass a little way
away from the others who were still chattering on about the morning's
events. When he had eaten he stretched back and closed his eyes to rest
them. It was an awareness that there had been a definite change in the
tone of the remarks that were being made that caused him to open them
again. Adjusting his eyes to the bright light he made out a bent figure
toiling up the hill on her bicycle. It was Tess. Thomas guessed that
she was unaware of the ugly scenes her uncle had caused and the
possible hostile reception that awaited her so he stood up and waved.
"Hello Tess, hello. Here, over here!" She dumped her bicycle by the
side of the track and scrambled up the slope directly towards where he
As she drew nearer Thomas noticed that she looked
pale and distressed, she did not seem to realise that everyone was
following her progress up the hill. She stopped and with an effort
appeared to pull herself together, tossing her hair back out of her
eyes she challenged the questioning gazes. “What's got into them? " she
"You better sit down, I'll tell you all about it." Tess
settled herself down on the grass beside Thomas while gradually the
others resumed their conversations. Tess had taken advantage of the few
moments it took to spread her skirts and seat herself comfortably to
regain some of the good humour she had shown the day before. "What is
the matter with everybody then?"
Thomas told her the story of her uncle's sudden appearance on site and the havoc that was wreaked on their equipment.
of the people here feel pretty bad about it," he explained, "apart from
the bad taste it's left in everyone's mouths there's a risk that we may
not be allowed to finish the dig. You would be surprised at how
committed they all are to the project, even the workmen from Kilbride
feel that they have got a stake in its success."
Tess bit her lower lip thoughtfully, "And I suppose they think that I've been sent as a spy in their camp."
"Well they have been talking but I think they are just feeling resentful in a general kind of way when you came along."
was an awkward pause. Thomas felt that he had not done a terribly good
job of reassuring her and was about to try again when she leapt to her
feet and strode over to the rest of the diggers. Placing herself
squarely in front of the professor she began in a clear voice,
has just been good enough to tell me about my uncle's behaviour here
this morning, I would like to apologise to you if I may and give you my
assurance that I will speak most forcibly to my uncle about the matter
this evening, however," and here she dropped her voice, "I am quite
unable to give you any assurance that such incidents will not be
repeated." The professor heaved himself onto his feet and clasped her
by the shoulder while several of the students peered sheepishly down at
the remains of their lunches.
"Think nothing of it my dear, and
remember, no matter what happens here you will be amongst friends," and
he leaned down and gave her a brisk peck on the cheek, “Now go and get
Thomas to show you the drawing he finished before lunch, it is superb.”
Tess was back at Thomas's side and had pulled him to his feet, less
than a minute had passed since she got up. "Phew," breathed Thomas,
"you wasted no time in sorting that out, are you always so direct?"
"Only when I have to be," she said quiet1y,"Come on, I have a story for you now and I think you will be interested."
They clambered up over the rampart and once they were out of sight of the others Tess began.
such a strange story that I'm desperate to tell someone about it and as
you were sitting around looking useless you get the job." She laughed
but it sounded uneasy and mirthless in Thomas's ears. Indeed the
further they walked from the seated diggers the more solemn became her
expression and her shoulders hunched as if carrying a load.
back home about half past five. I would have got in earlier but I was
stopped outside the lodge at the top of our drive! Can you imagine,
being prevented from entering my own home?" There was the briefest of
pauses before Thomas realised that he was expected to answer.
"Er… who stopped you?" he enquired.
that was the odd thing, I had never seen him before, he was dressed in
some white canvas trousers and a blue jumper so I guessed he was some
kind of seaman. Then I remembered that some of uncle’s guests had
arrived on board the yacht tied up down by the quay. I was just about
to make my protest when a voice called out and he just stepped back
into the bushes by the side of the drive and vanished."
"Who was it calling?" Thomas asked.
really don't know, I didn't see them, but they had spoken in German,
I'm reasonably proficient in German and I thought he said, 'Leave her
alone, she will not be making.., or causing I suppose, any trouble.’
Well I was a little shaken and then just as I was about to remount my
bicycle I looked over my shoulder and saw the new gardener, of all
people, peering at me out of the shrubbery on the other side of the
drive! I don't mind telling you I thought it a very strange place to be
playing hide and seek and I pedalled down the drive as quickly as I
could. Then, when I got round the back of the house to put my bicycle
away in the coach house, it was locked up, it has never been locked."
"Perhaps the door was jammed," suggested Thomas helpfully.
"Yes with half inch thick iron chain and a shiny new brass padlock."
"Oh," said Thomas.
what is more, "went on Tess, "as soon as I began to give the chain a
good rattle a couple more of those seamen types came rushing round the
corner and bundled me across the back yard and into the kitchen door.
They slammed it behind me and then I heard them lock it from the
outside. I was furious by now.” Her cheeks had begun to glow against
her earlier unnatural pallor as she went on with the story. “I rushed
upstairs, searching for my uncle and had been through several rooms
before yet another odd thing struck me, there were no staff about, the
kitchen and scullery had been empty, I had met nobody on the stairs and
the upstairs rooms were deserted! Then I turned a corner and ran
straight into my uncle and a pair of his visitors.”
“Do you mean… “
I ran full tilt into the middle of them and knocked one of the
gentlemen over. Uncle was raging and I was fairly mad too but before I
could say anything he had grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into his
study. I was getting tired of being pushed about and was just about
ready to burst when uncle suddenly became kindness and gallantry
personified! He showed me over to the great padded leather armchair
that stands in the corner of the study, re-arranged the cushions, sat
me down, poured me a glass of water, apologising profusely all the
time, and that was oddest of all for I doubt that my uncle has ever
spoken more than five words together to me in all the time that I have
Thomas shivered inwardly at this proof of Tess's loneliness and vulnerability.
then he explained it all, he said that he was engaged in negotiating a
vitally important business contract and that the final details were to
be discussed and an agreement signed that evening. He told me that
there were those who stood to loose millions if news of the evening’s
proceedings got abroad so he had asked his very good friend Herr Krebbs
to loan him members of his crew to keep an eye on the grounds.
Unfortunately he suspected that not all of the staff were totally
trustworthy so he had given them all the rest of the week off with a
cash hand out to spend on themselves!"
"To keep them all quiet
more like," muttered Thomas under his breath, then in a louder voice,
"and why the lock on the coach house?"
"Yes I did ask, he said
that there were valuable trade samples stored in there but he wouldn't
explain what they were or what the nature of this business deal was, or
why… " Tess's voice trailed away and she stood for a moment lost in her
" …and what happened next?" broke in Thomas.
very little really, the rest of the evening was dreadfully dull. Cook
had prepared a cold buffet table before she left so all I had to do to
play the part of hostess was to keep their plates filled, not that any
of them ate very much, some didn’t eat all.” She shuddered at the
recollection. “A little later on I was summoned into the lounge to play
the piano for them and that's all. The only other slightly strange
occurrence was that I fell asleep on the stairs."
"I beg your pardon."
that's right, I fell asleep on the last flight of stairs that leads up
to my room, it's at the very top of the tower on the east front of the
house, I chose it myself when I first moved in so I could get away from
everything. I can't imagine how it happened, I've never done anything
like it before."
"And you spent the night there?"
something woke me up, I have no idea when, it must have been the middle
of the night, sounds, I think, as if fire crackers were going off
I just managed to stagger up the remaining stairs and
fall across my bed before going to sleep again. I felt awful when I
awoke this morning, I've still got a headache.”
across at her and took her arm sympathetically but she shook him off,
there was more to come and she was still angry about it.
" I met
my uncle this morning, he was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs.
He told me that now his business in finished he will be going away, he
is closing the house and sending me back to school!"
"To school?" Thomas raised an eye brow enquiringly.
lodge with one of the house mistresses until term begins again." Thomas
was about to come out with some inane statement like ‘bad luck' or
'hard cheese' but fortunately Tess went on.
"It's not right I tell
you, I have never known my uncle do anything in a rush like this, he is
the most deliberate of men, and I will tell you something else, he is
frightened, terribly frightened and that is why he is leaving."
final sentence left Thomas with a feeling of chill close to his middle.
What on earth could have frightened a man like that? Then the thought
of his leaving and along with his departure that of Tess as well. He
could not let it happen. “Leaving? Leaving… when?"
evening, I'm going to be driven to Glasgow and put on the overnight
sleeper, I will get into London on Thursday morning and the porter from
school will collect me from the station."
By this time they had
walked half way round the top of the hill and were hidden from the rest
of the group by one of the large spoil heaps cast up by the excavators.
Tess seemed to have talked herself to a stand still so they stood
together staring out over the choppy waters of the Firth of Clyde.
Thomas looked gloomily down at the cropped turf. Tess moved so that she
was standing close by his side.
"Thomas, I don't want to go, all
my friends are here," she kicked moodily at a tussock of spiky grass,
"and I consider you to be my very best friend." Thomas found her hand
and she gave it a squeeze. He realised that even though this was only
their second meeting they had formed a partnership that neither of them
was willing to see broken.
"Well,” he said trying to put a decisive tone into his voice, "something will have to be done."
we will have to do something." Thomas was about to protest but she cut
him off. "You will have all sorts of ideas about going for help here or
advice there but think about it. What is there to say? What is there to
complain about? Will the police be interested in a girl being packed
off back to school a few weeks earlier? Will the newspapers be keen on
a story about, about… well, a gardener hiding in the shrubbery?"
mind had been circling round the problem of what could be done whilst
Tess had been telling him why it couldn't when he remembered the figure
that had sat opposite him all through the long journey north out of
London, suddenly several ideas seemed to rearrange themselves inside
his head like the shuffling of pack of cards but now instead of a
random gathering of facts he saw a pattern.
"This new gardener of yours, is he a Londoner?"
"Why… yes. "
" A short solid looking man, name of Parsons."
"That's right, how did you know?"
I just met him on the train," said Thomas airily. He wanted a few
minutes of quiet to review the facts as they had been presented to him
by his recent 'brainstorm' but Tess was persistent.
"Why did you
ask about him?" Thomas was silent. "I must say he didn’t strike me as
much of a gardener, he seemed to spend most of his time lounging about
downstairs talking to the other staff."
"No, " said Thomas slowly,
"he certainly is no gardener… " He recalled once more Parsons' honest,
ruggedsuggested face and returned to the insight he had had about
his true profession. Someone else was surely interested in the
irregularities of the Bledington household. If only they had one or two
other scraps of information, if only they… As he struggled to form the
idea Tess was there before him.
"Something that is not right, not,
I believe, entirely legal is going on at the house and before we can do
anything about it we must have some evidence…"
“…and the best place to get it, "went on Thomas picking up the idea," would be in the locked coach house."
what I was going to suggest and, "said Tess, "I know at least three
other ways to get in apart from through the doors!"
“Tonight then?", suggested Thomas as they drew even closer together in a conspiratorial huddle
uncle and his guests have all gone off to Glasgow for the day but there
are still plenty of crew men hanging round the place. I know that after
they get back later this afternoon they are all going over to the yacht
for dinner. I believe my uncle will be the only one returning to the
"Where shall we meet, I've never been near your place?"
lead him back around the spoil heap and along the edge of the hill
until they were facing inland and Thomas had a view of the surrounding
countryside almost as far as Kilbride.
Thomas had never taken a
hard look at the house that was the nearest thing to a home that Tess
had but now that he did he was not impressed by it. It was a modern
house built in an aggressive red brick with buff stone trimmings.
Although it was only a few years old it had been designed as a copy of
any one of the many baronial fortresses of the middle ages that
adorned Scotland. The basic four square brick box that was the house
had been tricked out with an artistic display of towers, turrets and
battlements together with a variety of steeply pitched roofs and gable
so Thomas could see the line of the drive leading towards the house but
then it was lost in the barrier of densely planted shrubs that
surrounded the premises.
"Look, there nearest to us, on the
corner,” Tess tugged his elbow and pointed, "can you see?" There, just
visible amongst the greenery was the glint of water.
“A pond?" asked Thomas.
quite, the person who built the house wanted to put a moat all around
it, they had just made a start when he went bankrupt, my uncle bought
it from him them, and got it very cheaply. That pond is the only
portion of the moat that was completed. There is a path that goes right
around it then leads towards the house. It comes out onto the driveway
just below my room. I'm sure that the drive and lodge will be guarded
but if you come across country, climb into the garden at the far end
and then find the pond and path, its very overgrown, You will be able
to get close to the house without anybody having a chance to spot you.
Then all I have to do is come down stairs and slip out through the
little side door at the bottom of my tower, I found the key for it ages
Thomas felt a little overwhelmed by this rapid flood of
instructions so he went over the plan again tracing his route by eye.
There were six or seven fields between the base of the hill and the
edge of the garden but they were only enclosed by low tumbled stone
walls and none of them contained anything more threatening that a few
head of sheep. He could barely see the fence around the garden so he
asked, "What exactly do I have to get through to get into the grounds?"
"Ah! There's a wire fence but it is barbed I believe, yes I'm sure,
l can remember plucking strands of sheep's wool of the points, but I
think you will be able to wriggle underneath."
"And once we’ve met up?"
you follow me, we get into the coach house, I keep watch, you help
yourself to whatever you can find, we get out, hide our evidence and
then decide what to do next." Tess had obviously thought it out. Thomas
having no first hand knowledge about the house and its surroundings
decided to go along with the plan and was about to check the details
once more when the cry went up,” Back to work! Lunch break is over."
is it time already, "Thomas was reluctant to see her go, … err,
why don't you stay around this afternoon, there's plenty to be done?"
Tess hesitated, "As long as the others won't think that I'm here as my uncle's agent."
won’t," said Thomas confidently, "besides you can help me with some
drawings I have to do, we'll keep right out of everybody's way."
strolled back towards the two large tents and met the professor outside
the one that was set up for drawing. If the professor had any thoughts
about Tess and her presence on site after the morning's unpleasant
incident he kept them to himself.
“Ah, now Thomas as you have
finished inking in your drawing of the wall I think it would be an
appropriate moment to turn your powers of representation loose on some
of our finds,” he turned and ushered them into the marquee. "Now
these," he said, waving a handful of water colour sketches,” are fine
as far as they go but I want something a little more precise, a little
more technical from you my boy. See what you can make of the stones
from the cairn we were looking at before lunch. I have sorted out the
most interesting looking ones, some of them seem to have been carved in
some way but I haven't had time to study them closely yet. See what you
can make of them." With a friendly half bow to Tess Professor Schofield
made to leave. "Oh, by the way Hannah and Elizabeth have gone into town
this afternoon with Jimmy for some more drawing materials so I don't
expect you to be disturbed or distracted."
Thomas waved towards
the drawing board he had already seated himself behind to show he had
got the drift of the professor's message. Thomas and Tess worked in
companiable silence for most of the afternoon. Thomas had decided that
he would approach these stones as he would a complex mechanical
component. First of all, with Tess's help, he set the stone up so that
its most interesting side was showing with the light falling diagonally
across any irregularities in the surface. Then he carefully measured
and drew the outline of the stone and with the aid of a large pair of
dividers plotted any surface details. Having drawn in all the lines
needed he began to add shading with patterns of small dots which viewed
together gave the impression of the highlights and shadows on the
stone. Tess, meanwhile, had been sorting through the stones and setting
on one side those she thought Thomas should draw next.
"It is important’,” she said weighing one of the pieces in her hand, "to examine these stones as thoroughly as possible."
yes, I mean, for example, if we knew exactly what sort of rock they
were quarried from we would know how important they were."
"I um… ," mumbled Thomas, immersed in his drawing.
at these,” Tess indicated a pile on the ground beside her,” these are
nothing like the rocks used to build walling hereabouts, they are much
darker with flecks of red in them, I’ve never seen anything like this
in the area so whatever it was someone must have gone to a lot of
trouble to bring it onto the hill, so it must have been important and
there's another thing ... "
Thomas decided to abandon any attempt to carry on drawing so he let his pen drop and turned to give Tess his full attention.
of these stones have got at least one flat face and most of their edges
look broken." Thomas was keenly interested now. "So if we lay them all
out like this." She moved the fragments round until all the flat faces
were uppermost and the stones were laid out side by side. "What have
Thomas peered at them, a pavement? No, on one slab that
had been broken patterns of spidery lines that crept across the surface
claimed his attention.
"It's an inscription!” he burst out excitedly.
right, I wondered at first but now that I’ve sorted them out you can
see that some of the pieces fit together. It's like a giant jig-saw,"
Tess concluded triumphantly.
"Yes, but what does it say?" ventured Thomas.
bit her lip and frowned turning her head one way then another, "I don't
know, the lettering is very worn and it's still all jumbled up. Give me
a while to put them in the right order and then we shall see."
Thomas turned back to his drawing. Now that the idea had taken hold he
began to make sense of the worn scratchings that had seemed to be just
a jumble of random markings a few minutes earlier. "You are right you
know, I do believe that there is an L and a V on this piece, perhaps
it's written in Latin." Tess agreed this was likely and they worked on
for another three quarters of an hour, Thomas at the drawing boards and
Tess at the table next to him. She had transferred the precious
fragments from the grass onto the flat working surface so that she
could reassemble the inscription.
She had almost finished when the
professor returned, just before tea break. She stood back and revealed
proudly with a sweep of her arm the almost complete slab laid out on
the table. The professor took it in with a glance. "Humph, Well, yes, I
thought it was something of this kind, you
get a feel for these
things you know after a life time's experience in the field." Tess and
Thomas exchanged an amused glance. "But you've done well to spot it and
to put it together, now what does it say?" This was the second time
that this particular question had been directed at Tess and she still
felt unable to give a sure answer.
"We think: that it is Latin… " she began.
a reasonable assumption about something found on an ecclesiastic site
of the early middle ages,” the professor interrupted.
"But… I … er…" she faltered.
rescued her, “but the lettering is very worn, some of it seems to have
been purposefully defaced and there are several bits still missing.
What would your translation be professor?"
"Ah … well it's still early days yet, what do you say to a cup of tea and we will take another look at it later on."
even after several large mugs of tea and the joint attentions of the
entire staff of the excavation, nobody was any the wiser by the end of
the afternoon, so the professor asked couple of workmen to pack the
pieces away in a stout wooden box for further study. Tess and Thomas
become so absorbed in their investigations that their plans for later
that night had been pushed to the back of their minds. Now that it was
time to clear away and time for Tess to return to the house their
present problems grew large once again and Thomas shivered a little
with excitement and fear.
"When shall we meet?" said Thomas in a
fierce aside as the others bustled round putting boards back on racks
and equipment away on shelves. Tess motioned him outside.
"Do you think they are going to let you go gallivanting about the countryside in the middle of the night?" she hissed.
"The middle of the night?" queried Thomas.
"Well I cannot see any point in making a move before say three o'clock, I will see you then, do you have a watch?"
admitted he had and after promising faithfully not to be late he stood
and watched her slight figure shrink and then vanish as she and her
bicycle turned the corner at the bottom of the hill where the track
entered the woods. He turned to join the others in their tramp down to
the Lennox farmhouse for a wash and a bite of supper. He would make
some excuse to return to the camp site early so that he could get a few
hours sleep before beginning his nocturnal adventure. He must remember
to wind his watch before falling asleep…Thomas was sat in a
huge circus tent but instead of the usual bright flags and colourful
bunting everything was swathed in black. The audience sat silently
leaning forward in their seats. They waited hungrily, then without any
preliminaries the first act began. A troupe of acrobats ran into the
ring, they were dressed in long sleeved white leotards. A hidden band
struck up a march and the acrobats began leaping off springboards and
trampolines and tumbling through the air but as each one flew first
their costume and then their flesh grew ragged and shredded and flaked
away. Each now blackened matchstick man fell to the ground with a puff
of dust and a tangle of wasted broken limbs. The crowd applauded
politely then big top seemed to collapse and Thomas found himself
wrestling with the enveloping white canvas and then someone turned the
spotlight upon him.
The House CHAPTER FOUR - WEDNESDAY
woke and reached for his watch. He had ritually banged his head twice
on his pillow so was reasonably confident that it was two o'clock or
thereabouts. Looking up from his camp bed he could see the dark line of
the ridge pole showing against a pale creamy light filtering through
the canvas. Of course, the moon was out, silly, they hadn't stopped to
consider that earlier, what would he have done if he had woken up to
find everything in pitch blackness. He shook off his blankets, he
hadn't bothered to get undressed, and pulled on his boots. He poked his
head out through the tent flap so as better to check the time on his
watch. The moonlight showed him that he had indeed a good hour in which
to make his way across the fields to Tess's house. After tucking his
watch inside his jacket pocket he carefully slipped out of his tent.
All was still around him, the silence broken only by the occasional Baa
of a restless sheep. Where were the sheep? The last thing he wanted to
do was draw attention himself by causing a flock of sheep to stampede
through the camp site.
He scrambled to the top of the rampart and
gazed around. The sheep had drifted over to the far side of the field.
He turned suddenly expecting to see one close behind him but there was
nothing to be seen. The countryside seemed brilliantly lit by the light
reflected off the moon, the fields and woods spread out below him
looked like the squares set out for playing some huge and sinister
board game and he was to be one of the pieces. The sheep had drifted
off to the far end of the hill so it was safe for him to begin to pick
his way down the slope towards the first wall. The game had begun and
he had moved into the first square.
An increasing sense of
unreality gripped him as he made his way from field to field. Sometimes
he felt that he was on stage and the moon a giant spotlight, then he
would feel like an insect fastened in a collector's case and the shaft
of moonlight was the pin that held him trapped, then he felt that the
moon was drawing away all his weight and that he could clear each field
with a single leap, then suddenly he was there. The two winged figures
who had silently and secretly accompanied him pulled back in the face
of strands of barbed iron wire. Thomas did not see them go.
edge of the garden was a fence with five horizontal strands of barbed
wire doing their best to keep him out. Over the top or underneath?
Thomas looked around for inspiration and found none. He could see the
waters of the pond glinting through the bushes in front of him, the
shimmering water was pulling at him with a magnetic attraction, through
the fence would do it! There was a gap of about nine inches between
each strand. Thomas cast around for a suitable stick, there were
several littering the ground. He chose one just over a foot in length
and inserted it between the middle two wires. Gingerly grasping the
lower wire with his fingers he stepped through the gap and was into the
garden. He stopped to listen. All was quiet. He pushed through the
banks of rhododendrons and azaleas till he stood on the path the
circled the failed moat. The garden was in no way a mature one and most
of the shrubs were still thin and straggly but several years of
neglect, presumably by a series of lazy gardeners, had allowed the
undergrowth to grow up and compete with the original planting. All in
all a fine tangle which hid Thomas from all but the most enquiring
eyes. He slipped sideways along the path through the narrow gaps that
must have been kept open by Tess's occasional trips to the pond. Soon
he was standing by the side of the gravel drive that ran right round
the house and he waited.
The spot he had chosen to stand was well
within the shadow of the house that cut him off from the moonlight's
influence. He felt neither uplifted nor afraid, just cold. It was
difficult to make out any details on the house that loomed darkly above
him, he thought he could recognize the windows that looked out from
Tess's room and he thought he had spotted the location of the small
side door from which Tess would make her exit. The gravel was raked and
weed free and the flower borders round the bottom of the house seemed
well kept. Mr. Parsons had done some honest work it appeared. Then
there was a flutter of movement and Thomas saw a white figure crouching
in the darkness at the tower's base. He took another look round then
stole across the gravel as silently as he could.
"You sound like a herd of advancing elephants,” Tess stifled a giggle.
"You try creeping about on that gravel without making a noise,” whispered Thomas, "and why are you out in your night gown?"
is my master plan," said Tess. Thomas looked at her.” If anyone hears
us and we can't get away you can lie low and I will sail majestically
out and if they don't think me a ghost then I will convince them I am a
"I'm not convinced,” began Thomas,” what if… "
hush, let's get on with it." Thomas had to admire the lengths to which
Tess had gone to achieve authenticity. He hoped that her bare feet were
tough enough to stand the wear and tear of their excursion.
lead the way, she seemed to glide across the ground in a truly ghost
like fashion Thomas feeling heavy and clumsy in his great boots. They
tip-toed up to the corner of the house and craned their necks to look
around it. The rear of the house and the back yard were brightly lit by
the moonlight but there was no one to be seen. The coach house stood
black and silent on the far side of the yard.
"How do we get in
then,” from where he was Thomas could see the gleam of a massive brass
padlock and chain, "and where are the guards?"
"I think they have
all gone back to the boat and it's round the back,” answered Tess
tackling the questions in reverse order, “follow me."
amazement she made a bee-line straight across the courtyard towards the
far corner of the coach house. He scurried after her, his back
prickling as he thought about hostile eyes gazing down at them from
above. "'That was a bit risky wasn't it, "Thomas asked breathlessly
once they were safely behind a water butt that stood between the coach
house and another out-building,” we could have been spotted."
alright, my uncle sleeps at the front of the house and I checked that
he wasn't stirring before I came out. I'm sure there's nobody else
indoors, come on." She scampered round towards the rear of the building
then disappeared under a low brick arch. Thomas followed her into the
"Where are we?"
"Shh! The outside stairs to the loft are above us, this was used once as a dog kennel, look."
looked but was quite unable to see anything then he sensed that Tess
was moving and heard a low creaking sound and a gentle rustle. Tess
turned and whispered in his ear. "They only put a wooden partion in
here, I found that it would push aside easily when I was exploring in
here, this way." Thomas followed once more, felt himself crawling over
a mound of stale smelling straw, brushed against the wooden edge of the
partition and was in. He stood up. Tess was a couple of feet in front
of him her nightdress shining in the moonlight that slipped in through
the few windows high up at the far end of the room. He reached out a
hand and touched her on the shoulder. She turned and met his eyes then
with a very theatrical finger to her lips she beckoned him on.
There, to their right, parked in front of the double doors was the
black Rolls Royce, further along were the outlines of two or three
"Look around." Tess gestured towards a wooden ladder
that disappeared through a hatch in the ceiling. “You try the attic,
I’ll search down here." Thomas had put his foot on the first rung of
the ladder when an excited hiss drew him back. “Over here."
was down on all fours and seemed to be burrowing under a large
tarpaulin humped in one corner. "There are boxes here." She backed out
dragging one behind her. To Thomas's eye it looked like a small coffin
but he didn't say anything.
"The lid is screwed down," exclaimed
Tess as she ran her fingers round the box,” there’s a tool kit in the
motor car I think… no wait a moment, we won't need it." Tess had
managed to worm her hand in through an oval cut out in the end of the
box, put there as a grip for those who had to handle the load. "I can
feel something, I’ve got it , oh…"
As Tess pulled her hand back
the object she had grasped slid out of the box and out from its oil
cloth wrappings, there gleamting evilly in the pale moonlight was the
blue steeled muzzle of a rifle.
"So that's why... "Thomas was
stopped by the sound of a cough. A small shower of straw fell about
their head and shoulders. Tess grasped him painfully by his upper arm.
"There's somebody up there,” she mouthed almost silently. Pausing only
to thrust the barrel of the gun back into the box with the toe of his
boot Thomas turned to follow Tess as she inched her way back towards
their dog kennel entrance. Hopefully it would now become their exit.
Whoever was sleeping above must have settled down again, there were no
other signs of movement. Scrambling back out through the brick lined
tunnel they found themselves standing in the long grass behind the
coach house once more.
"This way,” said Tess in a low voice,” we
can't risk crossing the courtyard now, we can work our way round
towards the front of the house through these bushes. The long crawl
seemed to go on for ever, Tess crept through round, over and under all
kinds of plant growth some of which pricked and some of which stung.
Thomas was feeling pretty much the worse for wear himself, he didn't
like to imagine what sort of state Tess was in but she insisted on
leading the way. Eventually they ducked under the last laurel and
Thomas realised that they were close to the spot where he had
originally stood and waited for Tess. She held herself back in the
"You must get back now,” she breathed,” there is just one
more thing ... " She hesitated, "I didn't want to tell you earlier, I
thought it might upset you, but I think my uncle is trying to poison
"He brought me a glass of warm milk just
before I went to bed this evening, he said that he was doing it on
account of the servants being away but it seemed so out of character
that I felt uneasy, then I remembered how terrible I had felt the night
before, I wondered if I had been given something during supper. Anyway
I took the milk up to my room and poured it away. At the bottom of the
glass there was the faintest trace of a scummy grey powder."
"You can't go back."
shall have to, otherwise he will be sure to suspect that I know what's
going on and he will make his escape before we can inform the
authorities, besides … I really can't go any further tonight." She
stepped out of the shadows and Thomas saw that her gown was ripped and
torn and her hands and knees battered and bruised.
"I shall slip
back indoors in a moment and clean myself up, I shan't need to get up
terribly early in the morning and uncle will expect me to spend most of
the day packing. I shall keep out of his way and everything will be
fine. You must tell our story to the professor, convince him and get
him to take you to the police in Kilbride, they can search the place
once we have left and arrest him, if they have, to when he returns."
had several reservations about this scheme but he said nothing. Having
turned the question over in his mind he felt sure that the mysterious
deposit in the glass was probably a sleeping draught of some sort,
there seemed no reason for Bressingham to add murder to his catalogue
of crimes, whatever those crimes might be.
"You can find me,” she
went on, "at Saint Agnes High School for Girls at Twickenham, good
luck." She turned and kissed him swiftly on the cheek before running
noiselessly across the driveway and vanishing into the shadows. Thomas
stood there stunned at the suddenness of her departure. He rubbed his
cheek thoughtfully then turned to retrace his steps back towards the
pond and out through the fence.
He hadn't gone ten paces when a
weight like a ton of coal fell on him and he toppled to the ground
underneath it. His face was pushed down into a pile of mouldering
leaves, he twisted his head, desperate for air and a broad hairy hand
clamped itself across his mouth. He found himself being pulled to his
feet then a voice behind him whispered, "My my hit's my favourite
heminent harchaeologist," then reverting to its normal brusque tone,
''What in God's name are you doing creeping around this den of thieves
in the dead of night? No don't tell me now, silly o£ me to ask, come
this way." Thomas followed Parsons off the track and through the
undergrowth until they emerged into what looked like a natural cave in
the middle of a clump of rhododendrons. "I've been holed up here since
his nibs sent the staff packing yesterday lunchtime, keeping my eye on
the comings and goings like." He guided Thomas onto what felt like an
old blanket spread on the ground. "Make yourself comfortable lad, I
have a story to tell and a favour to ask, the two go together you only
hear the story if you promise me the favour."
"Which is ?" asked Thomas.
an errand that needs running, a package to take to the office of the
Procurator Fiscal in Glasgow, I’m a police officer you see, I guessed
you knew that already although I'm dammed if I know how.”
“It's about the guns isn't it?" said Thomas.
"It is and you better tell me what you know and why you're here and then I'll fill you in with what details l can."
quickly went over the events of the past few days as they had occurred
finishing off with an account of the night's expedition to the coach
house. He then gave a breathless summing up of his deductions about the
goings on in and around Portencross.
"Bledington's business is
armaments, he has invited other dealers here to bid for or buy guns
that he has on offer, unfortunately for him he didn't count on having a
strong willed niece and a crowd on inquisitive archaeologists to
"Well you've got the best part of it, " agreed the
detective, "you have just underestimated the truly diabolical nature of
the man. The government foolishly entrusted part of the development of
a new rapid firing infantry rifle to his company. He was paid well
enough for the work but enough was not enough so he stole several cases
of the experimental rifle and brought then up here. There is no
question of an auction he is making examples of the gun available to
everyone here, providing of course they can pay. We know that there are
probably representatives of companies from America, Germany, Italy and
Russia in the area, and there may be others we know nothing about."
"He's a traitor then, why hasn't he been arrested?” demanded Thomas.
Perhaps , but to more than his own country, to the whole race if you
like. He isn't concerned who gets the rifle as long as he, and the rest
of his brethren make a fat profit. And arrest who and for what? I
suppose if it came to a court case a clever lawyer could argue he was
entitled to bring the rifles here, perhaps for further testing, and who
is to say what he may or may not have promised to his guests. Who is to
say that it isn’t a perfectly innocent social gathering of like minded
business men, presided over by Bledington's charming niece?"
"Well why not raid the house, search for evidence, question the suspects?"
hold it young fellow, you've been reading too many cheap crime novels.
In the first place we are dealing with some very influential and
important foreigners here, wouldn't want to spark off an international
incident now, would we? In the second place, you can be sure that if
they had put anything onto paper they would be sure to burn it before
we could get within sniffing distance and in the third place I’m here
Thomas made disbelieving noises.
"To tell the
truth we’ve all been taken by surprise, we knew things were going to
happen but I reckon that the situation in Europe has pushed them into
action before they were really ready. The world's poised at the edge of
war my boy, these characters have seen the opportunities, given half a
chance they would be only to happy to push it over then sit back and
make money, but they’re making mistakes and we'll nab then yet."
"But where is the rest of the force?"
yes… well that’s where we slipped up, I was sent here to spy out the
land as it were, we'd been waiting for an opportunity to come up to
fill a vacancy on the staff but we thought we would have two or three
months to settle in before things started getting exciting. I arrived
on Sunday, on Monday the balloon went up. Bledington certainly values
his privacy, there's no phone and I’d swear he’s got somebody watching
the Post Office in Kilbride. I can't be away long enough to communicate
with my superiors and the Scottish police don’t even know I'm here, and
a fine stink there’d be about it too if they heard."
"So where do I come in?"
that you've told me has confirmed what I suspected already, today's
trip to Glasgow was in order for them to complete their financial
transactions and tomorrow evening each dealer will take his 'sample'
and travel home with as little fuss as possible, most of them probably
on board the steam yacht. I've written out the details here,” he
pressed a crumpled envelope into Thomas's hand,” when you get back to
the site find someone you can trust to take you into Kilbride, then you
can catch the train to Glasgow ."
"I think I can persuade someone to take me all the way," interrupted Thomas thinking of Jimmy and his lovingly polished Rover.
sure you will get there one way or another, just deliver the package to
Procurator’s office in Argyle Street, there's proof inside of my
identity, a number to contact at the Home Office and a request for
assistance from the military. The plan is to move in tomorrow night
with just a few men and collar Bledington very quietly. The rest we are
going to let get away to sea, then the Royal Navy can take over, there
will be so much less bother that way.”
Thomas had misgivings about
being entrusted with such a responsibility but saw that it made sense
and was comforted by the fact that there would be someone close at hand
should Tess need help in an emergency. If all went well she would be on
the train and well on her way to safety by the time the authorities
closed in. "I'll do it.”
"Fine, I have every confidence in you
son. You ought to get going now, it will soon be getting light and we
want you well out of the way before anyone else is up and nosing
He guided Thomas back to the fence and held the wire
whilst he climbed through. Thomas took three steps into the field then
turned back for a final wave bur Parsons was gone. The journey back had
none of the magical qualities of his earlier trek. The lightening sky
was a kind of puddingy grey with the advancing dawn and a chilling
breeze had picked up. He was having to walk back up hill and the night
out was beginning to take its toll, he almost crawled the final few
feet to the top of the hill and regained his tent just as the rest of
the camp was beginning to stir. Thomas lay back on his camp bed, just
for a few moments to get his breath back, then he closed his eyes.
he opened them again he was dazzled by a shaft of sunlight driving in
through the open flap of his tent. He felt hot and stifled, whatever
was the time. Thomas fumbled for his watch, eleven o’clock! He had
slept the morning away, he should have been half way to Glasgow by now!
He threw himself out of bed and pushed his way out into the sun. The
brightness of it all took him by surprise and he stood and swayed for a
second or two before pulling himself together and hurrying over to the
The site was in its usual state of purposeful
confusion with some people down on hands and knees scraping, others
standing crouched swinging picks or shovels and a few bustling about on
some errand or other but no sign of the professor, perhaps he was in
one of the marquees, Thomas made his way over. Out on site nobody had
remarked on Thomas's appearance, torn and dirtied clothes were expected
as standard, but when he confronted Hannah and Elizabeth in the drawing
tent it was a different matter. They dropped their pencils and brushes
and gaped at him. Thomas, standing at the entrance to the tent looked
down at his battered body and dishevelled garments.
"What on earth have you been doing?" asked Elizabeth. "You look as if you've been poaching,” giggled Hannah
"Where is the professor?" demanded Thomas.
said that they'd called you this morning but they couldn't make you
hear, the professor said that you had probably been overdoing it and
should be allowed to sleep on. You have been overdoing it haven't you?"
Both girls taken by Thomas's untidy looks and woebegone expression
burst into howls of laughter, "You should see yourself"
"Yes but the professor?” tried Thomas again.
he has gone into Kilbride, "answered Hannah getting a grip on herself,
“something to do with insuring the equipment I think."
“He won’t be back until late afternoon,” added Elizabeth.
Thomas stood and thought for a moment. “And Jimmy, did he go too?”
“I don't think so, he was done at the farm tinkering with his motor car last I heard,” offered Hannah.
pausing for further explanations Thomas backed out of the marquee then
tore across the site towards the track down to the farm. He left behind
a chorus of protests as he trampled over cleaned surfaces, kicked over
at least two buckets and upset the tripod that had just been set up to
carry the theodolite, but none of it registered with Thomas. He ran
down the track and threw himself over the field gate rather than stop
to open it. Picking up his stride again ne hurtled down through the
woods taking leaps and bounds over the uneven surface It was some sort
of miracle that he didn't trip and tumble head over heels the rest of
the way down to the farmhouse. As it was he managed to keep his footing
and arrive with a skidding stop in the middle of the yard. Jimmy's
motor car was parked there alright but where was his Lordship? Thomas
decided to try the kitchen first. The back door was standing open and
sure enough there sat at the kitchen table polishing some piece of
brass work was the driver.
“Jimmy, you’ve got to help me,” sobbed Thomas collapsing into a chair.
“Alright, but take it easy old man, what's the panic about?”
got to take me to Glasgow, it's a matter of life and death,” panted
Thomas. “I'll explain it all to you on our way but I have to contact
“Right ho, sounds like just the kind of excitement
I've been waiting for, half a mo and I'll leave a little note for the
others to tell them where we've gone.” Jimmy pulled out an
expensive looking fountain pen and scribbled a few words on the corner
of a newspaper lying on the table. He tore it off and weighted it down
with the piece of metal that he had been polishing. “There that will
stop anyone worrying about where we've got to now let's go.”
was stopped by a gentle yet menacing click that came from the door to
the stair to the rest of the farmhouse. They both span round to see
Lennox standing in the opening with a shot gun pointing steadily at
“Well you've saved me a deal o' trouble, being so obliging
as to leave a note that explains your disappearance. Now I'll save you
the trouble of a long dusty journey tae Glasgow. In tae yon motor car.”
He swung the barrel of the gun indicating the way they were to go.
“Jimmy looked at Thomas. “He's in it too?”
Thomas could only shrug miserably and lead the way out to the Rover parked in the yard.
aboard then,” laughed Lennox, gesturing them into the front seat while
he climbed into the back.” Down into the village, first left, then
first right and behave yerselves else ye may have a wee accident.”
followed instructions and drove them through the largely deserted
village and along a bumpy track. Before them, on the edge of a low
cliff looking out to see was a squat square stone tower the exterior
broken only by a couple of narrow slit windows.
“I rent this tae
store the odd cart and a few auld tools ye understand, now we'll find a
quiet corner for yer motor car and yer guid selves o' course.”
the track swung round Thomas saw a massive pair of heavy wooden iron
studded doors standing half open. The tower was one of the many small
fortresses built in times of trouble, perhaps for some local lord and
his family to take shelter in. Thomas suspected that it would be as
hard to get out of as it had been to get into.
“Look here my good
man,” Jimmy had turned and half risen in his seat, “this is an
intolerable situation, if you think I am about to drive my motor car
into that shabby … “
Thomas realised at once that Jimmy was
playing the aristocratic fool to divert Lennox's attention. He
suspected that Lennox was a cheat and a bully when he had the chance,
but not a killer. It was a gamble he had to take. He reached for the
door and prepared to throw himself out and into the long grass by the
side of the track. He did not foresee that the handle would stick, nor
did he see the walnut stock of the shotgun swing through the air. The
world split apart and he dropped through into blackness…
The Tower There
were countless ranks of men standing stiff and straight as if on
parade, the lines stretched in all directions as far as the eye could
see. There was not a mutter in the ranks, not a tremor in the lines.
The uniforms were all clean and well pressed in shades of olive green
and drab brown and steely blue and the sky was heavy and grey. But
their boots could not be seen, they had sunk into the mud churned up by
the arrival of the million men. Slowly and silently the men continued
to sink, in up to their knees, their hips, their chests and nobody
called out, no one broke rank. Down they sank into the embracing mud,
over their shoulders, covering their impassive faces and finally
closing quietly over their heads and the field was empty. Then a
whispering from far away and a rumbling. The sky darkened, a storm was
approaching. Smoke began to issue from the ground, flashes fell from
the sky. Then cutting through the gathering gloom two bright lights an
on-coming shriek and a fragile fluttering white form in its path.
rolled over and willed his eyes to open, he felt as if small hands were
twitching and pulling on his clothes. As he turned the back of his head
touched the ground and he groaned and pushed his way back onto his
side. Then he was sick. After a few minutes he tried his eyes again.
This time they opened, his head was swimming and a pain pounded away
near the back of his neck. When his sight finally cleared he realised
that he was lying facing a stone wall, the large blocks of random
rubble filled his field of vision. They seemed to be unwilling to hold
themselves still, they were shifting and rearranging themselves before
his eyes, did they hold some message...The figure sat at the
desk put his head in his hands and groaned again. Thomas was standing
near his right shoulder but the person seemed unaware of him. He was an
elderly man, clearly once tall and powerful but now bowed by care and
age. He was perched on a crude wooden stool at a small tall table with
a slanting top. The room was tiny with bare stone walls with one
unglazed window looking out over the Firth of Clyde. There was some
sort of manuscript on the desk. Thomas found himself staring out
through the old man's eyes seeing the stormy sea and feeling the burden
that the old man was carrying. His eyes dipped to the manuscript, there
in scratchy black inked script was a poem and Thomas was able to read
it. He felt the fatigue and sickness in the old man's body, if only he
could live long enough to complete this final prophecy and inscribe it
permanently on stone as a warning to…
Thomas coughed and
stirred up, he was lying face down on the straw covered floor, a motion
of small figures scurrying away caught his attention. Rats? He
shuddered. His eyes focussed on the sun dried stalks lying this way and
that and mixed in with them were isolated grains of chaff. As he
twisted his head the lattice work of stems became organised into a
regular pattern of strokes some horizontal, some vertical and some
slanting and the grain provided the punctuation. Behind him Thomas
heard a muffled groan then passed out again… He was standing
on top of a wind swept hill, ragged clouds were passing overhead, it
was bitterly cold with a hint of snow in the air. He was surrounded by
low walls and ruined buildings, in front of him were a group of men
dressed in ankle length of robes of grey brown wool. They were on a
rough timber scaffolding and were prising a large inscribed stone slab
bearing the words of the prophecy from the front wall of one of the
buildings. They leapt aside as it fell to the ground and shattered they
fell on the fragments and began to smash them with hammers and other
stones. When they had had enough of that they stopped and collected up
the pieces and carried them away.
Thomas woke and sat up, the
words of a poem running through his brain. He let them run on paying
little attention to their meaning. The poem ended, he started to go
through it again.
“Hark and come, come and list to me Thomas the rhymer,
Hark and come, come and list to me Thomas the rhymer.
When the black bear and angel meet then is the time to run away.
With thunder, flames and clouds of smoke they usher in the final day.”
had been a determined banging that woke him this time, he raised his
aching head and looked around for the source of the rhythmic
disturbance. It must be late afternoon, the sun was low and streaming
in through one of the narrow window slits. The light picked out the
motes of dust dancing in the still air of the tower's cavernous
interior. Thomas looked carefully around without moving, in one corner
was a sack that seemed to be writhing about, it would sway forward then
to one side to bang against a large wooden chest then back again to
start the cycle once more. Thomas rose unsteadily to his feet and
tottered across the tower floor. He grasped the top corner of the sack
and pulled it up. It came away with his hand to reveal the bound and
gagged figure of James, the fourteenth Lord Fairlie. Thomas fell on his
knees beside him and with shaking hands fumbled the gap from off his
mouth and then began to work on the ropes that tied him.
heavens you came to your senses at long last,” said Jimmy gratefully,”
I seem to have been in that sack for hours,” he looked up, “come to
think of it I probably have, how are you?”
Thomas said nothing, he
was still concentrating on the knots and didn't trust his mouth to work
independently. Jimmy went on, “He fetched you a fearful crack with the
butt of that shotgun, I thought you had cashed in your chips for sure,
until you started moaning and groaning that is. Lennox dumped you in
here and forced me to drive the car in, then he left me trussed like a
turkey and went, locking the door behind him of course. I say you're
looking dreadfully pale old man, anything I can do to help?”
had freed him by now and they were kneeling up facing each other. Where
had he heard the lines of the poem before, who had written them? Were
they his own ? He sensed there were others… where? Close at hand,
listening to his unspoken words. Listening and urging him on,
encouraging him. Thomas was surprised as a large drop of water rolled
down his nose and dripped onto his lap. He raised his hand to his
forehead, it was running with sweat, strange, he must have a fever, yet
he felt so cold. He struggled to get to his feet but failed and slumped
back against a stone wall, exhausted by the effort. His head slumped
down onto his chest.
“Let me take a look at that head.” Obediently
Thomas turned round and heard a hiss of indrawn breath as Jimmy
examined the wound. “Oh, well I'm no expert but the best place for you
right now would be in a bed in a hospital, some hope at the moment!”
had not seen the strange fire burning in Thomas's eyes or seen it
flickering in and out of the shaded corners of the ancient tower or he
would have been considerably more worried than he was. “What about
getting out of here?”
“I think I've solved that already,” breathed
Thomas gazing upwards, feeling strong hands starting to lift him. “You
haven’t… “ Jimmy followed Thomas’s eyes upwards to the arrow slit far
above the ground, “Oh I say … “
But before he could protest Thomas
had scrambled to his feet and leapt at the wall. Fortunately the joints
between the stones were wide and the mortar decayed so Thomas found no
great difficulty in hauling himself up to the level of the old window.
It must originally have been on first floor level before the floor was
taken out or collapsed. There was a narrow niche just wide enough for
Thomas to crouch in and survey the outside.
“You'll go and fetch
help will you?” Jimmy’s voice floated up from below. “Hey, be careful!”
Thomas had turned sideways and was wriggling through the opening, it
was an extremely tight fit but oblivious to bruising and grazes he
forced himself through. “I say, you haven’t even told me what this is
all about... “ But Thomas just ignored him and began to lower himself
to the ground, after all he had a world to save.
and fell as he reached the last course of stones but the turf was close
cropped and springy so he rolled without taking any further hurt. The
effort of escaping from the tower left him temporarily exhausted so he
lay for a minute or two reviewing his options. The prophecy was clear,
the nations of Europe were waiting for war, a war that would have
unbearably bloody consequences. Thomas knew that Bledington’s finger
was on the trigger and poised to fire the first shot and now that he
had failed Parsons it was up to him to do something. It had been given
to him to see the job through to the end. He must get back to the house
as quickly as possible.
He jumped up and broke into an unsteady
lope back along the track towards the village. He was just rounding the
first corner by the village shop when he almost tripped over the
bicycle. He had seen it before, it belonged to the delivery boy who was
employed by the shopkeeper to take goods out to some of the out lying
farms. He must have finished for the day, he was probably inside
settling up with the proprietor before pedalling home. Thomas decided
that his need was the greater and without a second thought picked the
bicycle up, threw his leg over it and was away down the road. It was
about a mile and a half to the house along the road, then about another
quarter of a mile along the drive, it should take him about fifteen
minutes to get there and then he… He suddenly found himself shaking so
much that he nearly fell off the bicycle. He pulled on the brake and
came to a stop. A wave of nausea came on and passed by. He shook his
head to clear it and looked round. He was barely clear of the village.
The long shadow of an ancient stone cut across the roadway. The sun was
now dipping behind the distant purple mass of the Isle of Arran, unless
he pulled himself together it would be dark before he got there...
now he was seeing things, a dark form detached itself from the side of
the stone as if it had been leaning there waiting for him. The
cloaked figure advanced along the stone’s shadow. It spoke lightly and
gently in voice wrapped in silver. “Thomas ye are come again but ye
maun tread a parlous path but we’ll stand alongside ye. We’ll always
stand alongside whene’er we can. Look to owr help o’th’ road.” The
voice and the figure were absorbed into the gathering gloom. No,
this wasn’t happening, another dream perhaps? He wondered for a moment
where he was and leaned against the bicycle looking down at his boots,
which reminded him of another pair of scuffed brown boots, dusty from
riding along and before the thought was finished he was back in the
saddle and peddling furiously down the road.
By the time he
reached the point where the road turned a corner to head inland towards
Kilbride, dusk was well advanced. It seemed to Thomas’s clouded vision
to be darker than it should be and his balance was distinctly shaky.
The combination of these two disabilities caused him to wobble
erratically from side to side along the road and probably saved his
life. Tearing round the corner came a heavily laden truck, it must have
been doing at least twenty miles an hour, and it was being driven
without lights. A large black motor car was following behind but Thomas
did not see it. His last wobble before the truck arrived had taken him
right over to the far side of the road, as it passed he wrenched the
handlebars to one side a pitched headlong into the ditch that ran
Thomas lay winded and fought for breath. The
bicycle by the side of road looked twisted and useless. Surely no more
than half a mile to go now. He slogged on down the road. It was
completely dark by the time he reached the entrance lodge. There
appeared to be no one about but to be on the safe side Thomas kept off
the drive and hugged the border of shrubs that lined it. He was within
a couple of hundred yards of the house when a flurry of shouts and two
sharp cracks disturbed the evening calm. Thomas abandoned any attempt
to stay hidden and sprinted down the gravel drive towards the sounds of
men calling and shots spitting. Unfortunately silence fell once again
as suddenly as it had been broken and Thomas faltered then stopped
trying to penetrate the darkness in front of him. What to do now?
thoughts of caution found their way into Thomas's muddled thinking.
Ever since he had left the castle his only idea had been to get here.
Now he had arrived and destiny expected something more of him than
running around the first corner he came to into a hail of bullets. He
resumed a more cautious approach under the shelter of the surrounding
greenery. He was at a point where the drive swung round to the left in
order to skirt the house, he looked up towards Tess's room but all was
in darkness. Had she left yet? What was going on? There came another
chorus of shouting then a single voice, powerful above the others,
giving orders perhaps? Thomas knew that if he carried on pushing
through the shrubbery he would eventually work his way round to the
back of the house and get a view of what was going on, perhaps fate
would lend a hand. There was a rustling in the bushes off to his left,
something or someone was being dragged through the undergrowth towards
the clearing where the pond was. Thomas cast about for a heavy stick or
branch, a weapon of some kind but nothing came to hand so lie decided
to investigate any way. The noise from the yard behind the house had
died away again. Thomas dropped onto all fours and wriggled his way as
silently as he could down towards the pond. As he broke out into the
open ground at the edge of the pond he saw two figures crouching at the
water's edge. One was in white. It was Tess, the other doubled up with
pain and grasping his shoulder was Parsons. Thomas rushed over then
stopped appalled at what he saw.
Tess was standing slightly behind
the detective, her arms held limply at her side her head lolling. Her
eyes gazed sightlessly ahead and her mouth hung slackly open with
little flecks of saliva dotting her lips.
“What … what happened to her ... to you?” stuttered Thomas without taking his eyes from Tess's empty face.
been drugged somehow, I’m not sure what with, and I've been shot.”
Thomas looked and saw a dark stain spreading beneath Parsons's fingers.
“Listen, I haven't got a lot of time, they’ll be out searching the
grounds for us. I overheard Lennox telling Bledington that he'd
captured you earlier this afternoon, the news must have panicked them
and they started packing up a getting ready to leave almost
immediately, that must have been when they drugged the girl. I knew I
was on my own so I decided to try and slip into the house as it got
dark. In the confusion I was able to
find my way up to
Bledington’s study. Inside I found her and this.” He indicated with his
toe a black leather briefcase. “It's got the works in, enough detail to
send him to the gallows. We made our escape alright but I had to start
a small fire to distract their attention and I happened to stop a
bullet on the way out.”
Thomas listened in amazement then moved
forward to support Parsons as he slumped book against the bank.
“Neither of you is in a fit state to go any further,” said Thomas
taking charge,” give me the case, I'll get it away from here, if
you two keep your heads down and I make a song and dance about things
they'll come after me and leave you alone.”
you're not thinking straight,” said the detective shaking his head
painfully,” in the first place… “ but he was not allowed to finish his
warning. There was a crashing in the bushes behind them and Thomas had
seized the case and was haring off across the clearing towards the
“There he goes!” someone called and a shot rang out, but
Thomas was already through the fence and running as he had never run
before, after all he had he future of nations clasped to his chest.
CHAPTER FIVE - THURSDAY
must have been past midnight when Thomas took his first serious rest.
He had been running off an on for the past three hours or more. He had
left the grounds heading back towards the sea but he had felt sure that
someone would be sent ahead, perhaps by motor car to get between him
and his friends at the excavation. His idea was to work across country
to the north of the house then head in land towards Kilbride.
Unfortunately, there was a track way that ran north from the house and
Bledington had sent a party of men out along it with one of the motor
cars. They had used its powerful headlights to shine along the track.
Thomas felt his chances of crossing it without being seen were slim and
of course once that had had a clear view of him they would realise that
it was not Parsons' burly figure they were chasing. So the men on the
track stopped him turning inland and the sound of horses' hooves kept
him pushing on to the north. Judging by the odd glimpse he had had of
shapes outlined against the night sky there were at least three men on
horse back systematically searching the fields between the track and
the sea, fortunately they seem to have become confused by other lights
that were bobbing along back towards Portenburgh. Bobbing about and the
mysteriously extinguishing themselves before reappearing in a new
location, what on earth was going on over there? The sky had clouded
over as the night had worn on so there was little natural light to go
by. However, there was no risk of his losing his bearings with respect
to the house. Perhaps it was because all the available manpower was out
looking for him, perhaps it suited their purposes to let the house
burn, whatever the reason nothing seemed to have been done to control
the fire that Parsons had started and now the flames blazed out like a
beacon in the night.
Thomas had felt himself to have begun
climbing about half an hour ago, he realised that he was on the lower
slopes of Goldenberry Hill, on the other side of the hill was Brigand
Point and the sea again. The hillside was wooded in places and it was
in on of these small woods that Thomas had gone to earth. Despite the
feverish impulse that pushed him on his body had taken more than its
fair share of punishment and it had called a halt without consulting
his will. He now lay well concealed amongst the bracken and pressed
himself down into the scented earth. Lord, but he was tired. He dug his
fingers into the warm mulch of dried and partly decayed bracken fronds
and breathed deeply. The effect was strange as he felt something from
within the fertile earth rising towards him, something filling his
exhausted limbs and aching chest with fresh strength. Extraordinary, he
rolled over onto his back and debated his next move. There was still a
chance that he could cut inland now, the track seemed to have petered
out and he had seen the lights of the motor car left well behind and
then extinguished, to the north and the east lay the sea and unless he
could find a boat to steal. He had rapidly adjusted to the principle of
the end justifying the means. No, inland it would have to be but he was
well north of Kilbride now, perhaps he could strike out for the main
road and catch a lift from some early morning traveller.
him two or three hours to work his way over the crest of Goldenberry
Hill and down on the landward side. He occasionally heard voices
calling to one another or caught a glimpse of a probing light but on
the whole he felt he was gaining ground over his pursuers, after all,
the longer he remained free and on the move the greater the area they
had to search. His progress was helped when he stumbled into a broad
shallow drainage ditch that had been dug to dry out the meadows between
Goldenberry Hill and the Kilbride to Largs road. Because the summer had
been a reasonably dry one the water was only a few inches deep and the
bottom was firm and gravelly. Thomas was able to half run, half walk in
as direct a line as it was possible to take towards the road whilst at
the same time cutting down on the chance that anyone would spot him. It
was only for the last quarter of a mile or so that Thomas had to
forsake the cover of his ditch and cross a couple of fields on the
rising ground that ran up to the road. He used the dry stone walls for
shelter as much as he could and only scurried across any open gaps
after several moments of looking and listening. There was a low scrubby
hedge by the side of the road when Thomas reached it so he crouched
beneath it. There was a distinct lightening in the darkness above the
Glentane Hills away to the east beyond the road. He was sure that they
would have found a way to guard this avenue of escape but he had taken
about as much as anyone could take so the only way to put any distance
between himself and those hunting him was to find some form of
transport. On balance he would rather go north towards the town of
Largs than back into Kilbride but he would just have to see what came
along. One thing was sure, he would look over any passing motorist very
carefully before making a move.
He was momentarily startled to
hear a distant whistle then the on-coming rumble of a train. Then he
remembered that the mainline along the coast ran parallel with the road
for most of its length. Perhaps he could stop a train or jump on one if
was moving slowly enough. He listened carefully then shook his head as
it pounded past. He had only seen the faintest plume of smoke so he
guessed that the line must run past where he was in a cutting. As it
was still dark Thomas felt it was probably worthwhile setting out along
the road and taking cover when necessary. Footsore and light headed he
began to tramp along the dusty highway.
He had walked someway
before his first alarm. A motorcar on the road! It was coming up
quickly behind him. Thomas dodged behind an outcrop of rock, the
labouring note of the engine told him that whoever it was was in a
hurry and their vehicle has heavily laden He decided to watch it pass
from the safety of his hiding place. It was full of men, there were
even two perched precariously in an open trunk at the rear, they were
probably going on to Largs to meet him there should be foolish enough
to walk openly into town. The second vehicle gave him a greater shock,
another motor car, this time coming from the north, driving slowly
taking his time by the sound of it. Thomas was painfully crouched in
the middle of a large patch of gorse. There was enough thin grey light
in the sky by now to make out details at a distance. Surely it was a
Rover, like Jimmy’s, same colour, it was Jimmy's! He was about to leap
into the road to signal to his friend when a sudden hiss held him back,
where had that come from? He paused to listen again. Jimmy only knew
one way to drive and that was fast. This slow methodical progress was
not like him at all, much more like someone who had one eye on the road
and the other on the surrounding countryside. Thomas remained hidden
and as the car drew level pushed himself even deeper into his prickly
Thomas allowed the sound of the car's engine to die away
completely before he risked the road again. He walked on absent
mindedly picking small spears of gorse from his clothing with one hand
whilst retaining a firm grip on the case with his other. He tried to
pull his thoughts together so that he could make some sort of sensible
decision about the immediate future. There would be men waiting for him
in Largs. There were men waiting behind him in Kilbride. There were men
patrolling the road along which he was walking. Where could he go? What
could he do? He considered the burning building, the injured detective,
Tess… He went over the words of his prophecy.
“Hark and come, come and list to me Thomas the rhymer,
Hark and come, come and list to me Thomas the rhymer.
When the black bear and angel meet then is the time to run away.
With thunder, flames and clouds of smoke they usher in the final day.”
hadn’t intended to run away, quite the opposite, but the forces lined
up against him left no other choice. Time was passing, dawn was
breaking, the world was waiting, a million men were marching...
marching. Thomas watched his feet shuffle forward one step, then
another. His legs were carrying him forward quite independently of his
own wishes. But what were his wishes? Then there came a rattling and a
jingling from behind him. Thomas stopped and stood as still as he was
able to and waited. A small trap pulled by a sprightly looking pony
clattered past then pulled to a halt. A black coated figure turn
in the seat and regard him solemnly.
said nothing, the figure clambered down and leaving the pony grazing by
the roadside walked back towards him. Thomas saw that here was a
friend, the young man had a round
florid face and was peering at
him through round gold rimmed glasses. A heavy black coat was draped
across his rounded shoulders and a gold watch chain was stretched
across his stomach.
“You’re an early traveller, I can't see any
point being out at this hour of the morning without some urgent
reason.” He paused briefly to give Thomas a chance to comment then went
on. “Now take my case, as a doctor I’m frequently denied the comforts
of my bed at odd hours. Last night for example, up with her from ten
o'clock onwards with Mrs. Graham I was. It was her third child but the
last one hadn't been an easy delivery so I decided to be on hand,
nothing to it really of course.”
As he spoke the doctor circled
round behind Thomas taking in the details of his ragged appearance and
noting the profusion of bruises and scratches on his exposed skin.
''What kind of trouble are you in boy?” he asked.
Thomas tried to
summon up the words to begin to tell something of his story but the
words just would not come so he shook his head.
“Well you look fit
to drop to me, not to mention the fact that you've been pulled
backwards through several hedges several times by the state of your
clothes. Come on climb aboard, I'll take you back to my house, it's
only about a mile up the road. We will get you washed and fed and
rested then perhaps you'll tell me what this is all about.” He took
Thomas by the elbow and helped him onto the flat board seating then
settled himself down at his side. With a flick of the reins and a soft
“gee up” he set the trap in motion and soon they were swaying along the
Now that he was spared the exercise of walking Thomas felt
himself becoming rapidly chilled and he began to shiver. “Here, let's
wrap this around you.” The doctor fished about behind him for a moment
then pulled out a travelling rug. When he had got Thomas settled
comfortably with the rug around him so that he was all but enveloped
the doctor continued talking, almost as if to himself,” … and a strange
journey it has been this morning, that fire burning over Portencross
way, you can see it for miles, then there's all the traffic on the
roads, I must have seen five motor cars, at least, pass by, that’s more
than I generally see in a week. Whoa now, here's another one coming,
and at a fine lick too, steady girl. Whoa”
The vehicle had come up
quickly behind them, kept pace along side then pulled in front of them
and stopped. They had chosen their place well, at the far end of a
narrow bridge over a deep glen. The doctor, who was half way across,
was quite unable to turn the trap around. Thomas; who had huddled down
under the rug felt sure that they could not have spotted him, “Please,
please, don't tell them I'm here.”
“Don't fret boy, I'll sort this out. I don't take kindly to those who get between my breakfast and me.”
the time the pony had walked the final few yards up the obstruction
Thomas was well hidden, he looked like a shapeless bundle of soiled
laundry with the doctor's bag balanced on top. He had allowed himself
one small fold through which he could peep at the people now emerging
from the motor car. With a shudder he recognised one of the ex-boxer
body guards. The second person had climbed out of the other side of the
motor car and was hidden from Thomas's view by its body. Then he heard
a familiar voice, half whisper, half lisp and realised that they were
confronted by ‘Angel Face’,a man who wouldn't think twice about
murdering both of them to recover the papers in the case Thomas was
“l do beg your pardon sir, but I wonder if… “
be damned!” roared the doctor, “I've been up half the night with a
patient and you see fit to delay me now by your careless parking, move
your vehicle out of my way sir!” The doctor took held of the whip he
carried and shook it in a threatening way. ‘Angel Face’ prowled around
the trap, surveying its contents and looking suspiciously at the rug
that was covering Thomas, he was not quite sure. Then he spoke again.
a medical man, the answer to our prayers to be sure. We have a patient
for you doctor.” He gestured to the heavyweight who leaned into the car
and lifted out, almost at arm's length, Tess.
“Good God!,” the doctor let out a soft exclamation, “what's happened to her?”
squinted against the dazzle of the early morning sun, rising now just
above the peaks that lay beyond the road to the east. He could see the
shape of her body outlined in shadows against the thin cotton of her
gown. She was being held up by one shoulder, the other one drooped and
from it her arm hung listlessly. There was an ugly red stain across one
knee then down to the hem of the robe. Her head was tilted forward onto
her chest so Thomas could not see her face.
The doctor swung down from his seat and strode towards her.
her more gently man!” he barked at her captor. “Here, let me see.” He
put his hand under her chin and lifted her face towards his. As if in
response to the kindly pressure of the doctor's fingers Tess opened her
eyes. They were glassy and her gaze was fixed. Then some movement
her eye and the doctor watched as her pupils widened.
Somehow she had sensed Thomas's stare and was straining to respond to
it. She also saw that one of her persecutors had drawn out a long thin
wickedly pointed blade. He was taking advantage of the doctor's turned
back by lifting himself onto the seat so as to be able to thrust the
knife into what appeared to be a bundle of used linen. Her urgent need
to protect and defend Thomas momentarily broke through the chemical
bonds which had chained her . She screamed, “No! Run Thomas, run!”
Face' span round at the same moment as the doctor turned and they faced
each other across the road. There was a second or two of silence broken
only by Tess's shuddering sobs then the doctor spoke, “Put it away man,
whatever are you thinking of.” His soft words were backed
a hard expression in his eyes as he advanced towards the glittering
blade. Then everything seemed to happen at once. Tess screamed warning
again, the boxer who had produced a cosh from his pocket swung it at
the doctor's head and Thomas erupted from beneath the rug that had been
sheltering him and leapt down into the road. At the same time a
large black dog burst out from the hedge and pranced about yelping and
snarling and snapping at all and sundry. ‘Angel Face’ had been
completely distracted by the sudden turn events had taken and he waved
the knife wildly about. Thomas had dropped to the ground on the far
side of the trap, still holding the vital case. His duty was clear, he
sprinted off up the hill. As he looked back he saw the doctor sprawled
motionless on the road with the boxer standing over him. His boss was
pulling at his elbow angrily and pointing at the beats which had taken
station between them and Thomas’s escape route. The diversion that Tess
and the doctor had caused between them and the dog had contributed to,
was it the doctor’s, had bought him a hundred yard lead. He was free!
found that he was following the line of the mountain stream that flowed
beneath the bridge they had been stopped on. The narrow glen was still
dark and shadowed, but the tumbling water appeared almost luminous as
it washed around the rocks and over the boulders on the stream bed. The
flow was a powerful one, descending the hill side in a series of near
vertical steps and carving out for itself rounded polished bowls of
stone in which the waters swirled and churned. The rest of the hill was
open and bare. Thomas had no choice but to attempt to conceal himself
in amongst the exposed rocks and at the same time put as much distance
as he could between himself and the roadway. The climb was steep and he
must have been seventy or eighty feet above the road when next he
Another car had pulled up, more help for his
hunters. They had gathered in a small crowd next to the parapet of the
bridge. The dog had disappeared. Thomas squatted down behind one of the
large boulders next to the head of a small waterfall. What was going
on? Then the crowd parted and spread out to either end of the bridge.
Two men were left in the middle and between then them was Tess's limp
figure. Thomas watched in horror as they hefted her up and out and over
and held her with her feet dangling high above the angry waters and
“Come out from where ever you're hiding! Come
out and show yourself or it will be the worse for the girl.” The man's
voice had risen to an absurd shriek as he attempted to make Thomas
hear. “Bring us the case and we'll let you go free.” Thomas gripped the
case's handle convulsively. He knew that he must ignore their threats,
keep on climbing, close his mind to the teeth like rocks and the tongue
like water, he had a mission. His ancestor, yes he recognised it now,
his ancester had reached out to him across the centuries and handed him
a sacred trust. He held the means to prevent the first world wide war
men had ever seen fit to inflict upon themselves .... yet they held
Tess. He hesitated, he could see men fanning out along each side of the
valley. Suddenly Tess seemed to slip sideways and drop, they had
released one of her arms. were holding her know by just one hand.
Without being able to help himself Thomas lurched to his feet. A brisk
crack sliced through the early morning air and Thomas felt his head
burn and burst open then he was falling...
The rest was a dream. He
was floating, buoyed up by a gentle current of water. He turned over,
once, twice then lay still. The sky above him was the golden blue of
dawn. Why was he so cold? Whose hands were guiding him, steering him
towards an evenly sloping pebble bank over hung by a dwarf willow.
Somewhere close at hand people were shouting, beating the bushes,
making some sort of fuss. What did it have to do with him? He could not
remember. Soon it grew quiet again but he could not regain his former
sense of peace, of floating and being carried along. Rocks and pebbles
and gravel made his resting place feel increasingly uncomfortable and
as for the cold, why he was lying half submerged in the water. How
ridiculous. He rolled over and dragged himself up onto the bank. The
case was gone. So were the searchers so presumably they had found what
they were looking for. He felt somehow relieved to be rid of the
responsibility and almost allowed himself to drift back into
unconsciousness. Then he remembered Tess.
He had been shot and the
bullet had raked across his scalp, fortunately the chill water of the
burn seemed to had staunched the worst of the blood flow. His fall had
taken him down into one of the water warn basins that marked the course
of the stream. Was it chance that had brought him to rest on a narrow
gravelly bank just out of the main flow of water and hidden by some
overhanging vegetation? Thomas exerted all his will power and called on
what feeble reserves of energy he still had left and rose to his feet.
He took in the scene below him. The two motor cars were disappearing in
a cloud of dust down the road to Kilbride. The doctor's trap had been
driven further up the road and turned over and there was a black coated
figure stretched out on the verge beside it. But where was Tess?
his vantage point half way up the hill side he could see along the road
some way in each direction, nothing just the settling dust marking the
direction in which his pursuers had gone. Perhaps they had taken Tess
back with them, but why? She surely could be of no further use to them
now. He searched the hill side below him, it was empty. He brought
himself face to face with the possibility that she could have fallen,
or been dropped rather, into the water just as he had fallen, but what
chance of survival did she stand in her drugged condition? Beyond the
line of the road were a couple of fields laid down to pasture and
beyond that the line of the railway. He could see the cutting become
progressively deeper until it vanished underground. A tunnel? The frail
threatened figure draped all in white, the glare of the twin lights,
the rumble of an on-coming… steam train! Thomas knew where she was.
ran. He ran as if all his other running had cost him nothing. He ran
down the hill. He ran as if all his other running had been in
preparation for this final effort. But he ran effortlessly, something
carried him over the road, through the hedge across the field. A hare
jack-knifed out of the grass in front of him but was no kind of
competition for Thomas, perhaps his dreams drew him on. There was a low
wooden fence alongside the cutting, Thomas pounded over the grass
towards it, barely slowing at all he met the fence at speed and doubled
himself around the top bar. He fought for his breath and straightened
up. Where was she? He rolled over the fence and approached the sheer
edge of the cutting, he leaned out and looked along the lines
diminishing into the distance, first one way then the other, and there
she was, lying in a crumpled heap half across the line.
as he watched he saw her climb unsteadily to her feet and set off
towards the tunnel mouth that was close beside her. She must still be
heavily doped. Before sliding down the embankment Thomas looked up the
line towards Largs, he knew what to expect. There, sure enough, was a
tall white plume of smoke, the down train for Kilbride was about to
enter the tunnel at its far end. This was Thomas's final challenge, he
had failed in everything else but this he could not fail in. He slid
down the steep grass covered bank onto the railway line. Tess was
framed against the dark entrance to the tunnel, weaving slightly as she
walked but showing no sign of turning aside. Thomas wondered fleetingly
what sort of dream she was having then started after her.
he tried running alongside the track but the surface of crushed stone
chippings was loose beneath his feet and he stumbled continually, then
he tried adjusting his stride so that he could spring from sleeper to
sleeper but the spacing was wrong and he could not establish a rhythm.
He came to a full stop, he had covered barely a quarter of the distance
and already the rails were thrumming under the speeding mass of the
train. He could still make out Tess's dim white shape, now well into
the tunnel, but only just. Thomas had no choice but to stagger on. He
threw himself down the line relying on his own momentum to somehow keep
him on his feet. Some three hundred yards to go and he ran on. Every
fibre in his battered body was crying out for rest, his chest was
heaving his heart was pounding, the injuries to his head seemed to
encircle his skull with a ring of fire. His entire being was focussed
on and thrusting towards the black pit into which Tess had vanished.
Then Thomas realized that he was not alone. There was something running
beside him, just to his right and slightly behind his shoulder so that
he could not see what it was without taking his eyes from the goal in
front of him. But he sensed its strength, he sensed its rhytjm pounding
along like a galloping horse! A horse? Whatever it
was Thomas drew strength from it, someone who was urging Thomas on,
doing everything they could short of pick up and carry him. Thomas
measured distances with his eye and did a desperate calculation, he
would never get to her before her frail form fell beneath the shrieking
mass of hot and painted and polished metal.
Then he felt the
presence beside him lengthen its stride. Thomas saw nothing, his eyes
were full of sweated tears. He heard nothing except the rasping of his
own breath but he knew that something or someone had gone on ahead.
Thomas ran after them, a hundred yards to go, fifty. Thomas felt wholly
abandoned now and with out help when a figure emerged from the tunnel's
gloom, it was Tess. She had turned around and was walking towards him,
and there behind her like two enormous baleful lights, the headlamps of
the on rushing train. Just a few more yards for both of them, racing
together to see who would grasp the prize first. Why didn’t she do
something? She had seen him now, was smiling at him, had a hand
outstretched to greet him. And now right behind her, filling the tunnel
mouth, the engine, bellowing steam, trailing sparks, vomiting smoke.
Thomas flung himself forward and caught her arm, using his own body as
a pivot to swing her to one side, away from the line. He held on to
her, using her weight to pull himself sideways, for the briefest second
he saw her face clearly, she was looking at him, eyes wide open in
surprise. Then the noise overwhelmed him, fumes enveloped him, a great
gust of air tugged at him and he fell backwards throwing out his arm to
break his fall. Then once more he slept. CHAPTER SIX - FRIDAY
next time Thomas awoke it was to find the doctor he had met on the road
sat by his bedside. His ruddy face had paled and he wore a broad
bandage, slantwise across his head that gave him a comically piratical
look. He smiled at Thomas and Thomas felt himself smiling back.
suppose you're expecting me to ask you how you're feeling.” He
consulted a sheaf of notes on his lap. It's a silly question I suppose,
to ask someone with concussion, a bullet wound to the scalp, two broken
ribs, an assortment of scratches and bruises and severe exhaustion.
Why, you’re lucky that you're still breathing at all. There is
something else though ... “
A sound at the ward door made the
doctor turn. It opened and Professor Schofield limped through. As he
came nearer Thomas saw that his bushy beard was singed and curled and
his eyes red rimmed and full of worry.
“Ah, professor, I'm glad
you have arrived, please come and join us,” the doctor indicated a
chair on the other side of the bed. The professor met Thomas's eyes but
there was an anguished expression on his face and he said nothing.
Thomas thought of the worst thing that could have possibly happened.
“It's not Tess is it? She isn't dead?”
professor shook his head and smiled sadly, “No, no, nothing like
that... I have er... sent for your parents but they er... won't be with
you until tomorrow morning so as I am er... the nearest thing you have
to a guardian, so I er…”
“Thomas,” broke in the doctor, “you
received another injury. After you had pulled Tess out of the path of
the train you fell backwards... In saving her you lost your hand.”
realised that the blankets which swathed him held his arms close to his
side out of sight. He flexed his hands, all seemed as usual. “My hand?”
“Your right hand,” explained the doctor,” it was severed by the
wheels. It was a clean wound, you are in no danger now. I'm sorry.”
Somehow Thomas was not surprised. He didn't even feel particularly upset, yet. It was a small price to pay for ... for what?
“Tess where is she? I want to see her.” Thomas stirred uneasily.
“She is in the next ward, I’ll go and get her.” The doctor rose to his feet. “I'll be back in a minute.”
After he had gone there was an awkward silence, the professor began speaking as if to fill it.
can't begin to pretend that I understand half of what's been going on,”
he began, “the first I knew of trouble was when you and Jimmy failed to
return from Glasgow, well that's where we thought you were, we found
the note you see. Even then I wasn't too concerned, I thought the Rover
might have broken down somewhere… “
“But where is Jimmy?” interrupted Thomas, “we were locked in the tower together.”
know, he was able to escape later that night. The villains in the piece
had come back for the car. Jimmy wrapped himself up in ropes and lay
still but they hardly paid him any attention at all, they were in such
a rush that they took the car and didn't even bother to lock the doors
again after them. Jimmy showed up at the campsite just as all hell
broke loose at the house, we heard the shots then saw the flames begin
“So you went to investigate?” ventured Thomas.
did, I took the lads and we cut across the fields. We heard a car
pulling away as we entered the grounds then we found this chap, now
what was his name?”
“Parsons.” Thomas supplied the name he had been waiting to hear.
right, we found that out later on. When we came across him he was lying
in a pool of blood on the gravel drive, they must have left him for
dead but as it happened it was just a shoulder wound, he had collapsed
from loss of blood more than anything else. We tried to rouse him but
he could only mutter odd words to himself however he did mention Tess.
That's how I came by all this.” He pointed ruefully at the singed
remains of his once magnificent beard. “We had to make sure there was
nobody left in the house, we tried to save it but the fire had got too
good a hold so in the end we just had to watch it burn, apart from us
the place was deserted. I had sent one of the lads into Kilbride for
assistance and a rough time he had of it as well, why he was nearly run
down by speeding motorists twice!”
Grimly Thomas thought of his own experiences.
he met a couple of police officers sent out to investigate the fire and
from then on the authorities took over. We were just about all in then
we remembered about you.” The professor looked sheepish.” You see
having heard about the state you were in from Jimmy we thought you must
have collapsed somewhere near the village or the camp so we organised a
search of the area at first light. We were still looking when a police
constable cycled over with the news that you had been found and had
been injured.” The professor fell silent and looked at Thomas.
returned his gaze and attempted a reassuring smile. At that moment the
door at the end of the ward opened again and the doctor brought Tess
in. She was leaning against him and he was supporting her with his arm.
They made slow progress past the lines of empty beds. She was wearing a
clean hospital nightdress with a tartan blanket wrapped around her. Her
face was pale and there were dark pits below her eyes but to Thomas's
joy he saw that the eyes themselves were clear and that there was a
shadowy smile on her thin lips. They came to a halt at the foot of the
“Hello, I didn't think they would let me in to see you today, but I...”
doctor prescribes a ten minute conversation, but no more mind, “ he
said settling her down into the spare chair, “Come on professor, we
still have a few details to sort out.” The professor cleared his throat
as if he were about to speak but the doctor glared at him and he meekly
followed him out.
Tess and Thomas stared at each other in silence
for several seconds then, with a kind of sob, Tess reached under the
bedclothes and drew out Thomas's remaining hand and clasped it tightly
between her own.
“Tell me what happened, “Thomas asked as gently as he could.
took a moment to gulp back her tears then began in an unsteady voice,
“I spent all day, Wednesday, packing. My uncle wouldn't even allow me
downstairs, let alone outside, there were people and vehicles coming
and going all morning. Then, sometime after mid-day there was a
tremendous row going on downstairs. I crept to the top of the stairs
and could hear Lennox saying that he had had to lock someone away and
then someone else said it was time to clear out. Well the meeting
seemed to break up so I returned to my room and about ten minutes later
I heard the key turn in my door and I was locked in! I was there until
late afternoon, then around teatime the door was opened and my uncle
came in with a large glass of milk for me too drink... “
“It was poisoned!” exclaimed Thomas.
thought so too,” went on Tess,” so I tried to spill it on the carpet
but he saw what I was doing and grabbed me by the wrist.” She held out
her arm to show some ugly purple bruising. “Then a couple of men came
into the room behind me and held me while he pulled my head back and
poured it down my throat.” She shuddered at the memory. “It must have
been powerful stuff, I remember struggling for a couple of seconds and
then I was gone.”
“So you can’t remember anything about meeting Parsons and escaping from the house?”
a thing, I have a vague memory of being in a motor car in the dark.
Then we stopped and it was light again and I remember shouting
something out. Then it was if I was floating or flying, in mid-air. It
was very strange.”
Thomas thought of the scene as he had witnessed it but said nothing.
think the cool air must have revived me a little because I recall being
lead across some fields, then I fell and everything went black again.
When I came to my senses I realised I was lying across some railway
lines. Somehow I knew that I had to get help so I got up and started
walking down the line. Unfortunately,” she smiled a bitter little
smile, “I choose the wrong direction.”
Thomas reflected for a moment on the workings of fate then asked,” But what happened in the tunnel?”
that was the strangest thing of all. I wandered into the tunnel and
then I heard the sound of the train in the distance, but I didn't
realise at the time what it was. As the noise grew louder I became
frightened and confused and then… “ She paused for breath.
“Yes, go on,” said Thomas encouragingly.
then... well someone took me by the shoulders, very gently and turned
me round.” Tess bit her lip reflectively,” Or perhaps I turned myself
around, it’s difficult to say. I stumbled on towards the daylight and
then I saw you. I felt you take hold of me then I was being whisked
through the air. We both fell to the ground and the train thundered
past. When I looked up ...”
She faltered. “Go on, tell him the
rest,” came a quiet voice, it was the doctor. He had returned to take
Tess back to her room and had waited silently while she told her story.
“I saw that you were bleeding badly. Then I saw why. The shock must
have brought me completely to my senses. Suddenly I felt very calm. I'd
read about using tourniquets to stem severe flows of blood so I tore
the hem off my night dress and wrapped it tightly round your arm. I
didn't know what to do next, you were unconscious, so I just sat and
“Fortunately,” went on the doctor, taking up the
story, “I was still up on the road, in a fuddled state I grant you. I
was sat there in the dust trying to decide what was going on, when I
heard Tess here calling for help. a wonderful pair of lungs, if I may
say so,” he gazed at Tess admiringly. “When I stumbled down to the
mouth of the tunnel she had everything under control, why all I
to do was… well anyway it was done and now its my job to see that you
are both well on the way to recovery. You,” he said waving his finger
at Tess,” back to bed, and you Thomas, time for another nap I think.”
turned to go but Thomas held tightly onto her hand, “One more thing,
what happened to Tess's uncle and the others, did they get away?” The
“Now, that’s quite another story. There is a
lunatic policeman outside, he has been rushing round all morning with a
bullet hole in his shoulder, in fact the whole of Kilbride is swarming
with police, and he wants to see you… “ Thomas opened his mouth to
“But not until you have slept and had something to eat for
lunch, so get your head down.” With that he guided Tess out of the room
and the door swung shut on a silent ward for Thomas was already asleep.
It was a strange gathering, slim figures clustered in the half
light, at their feet smaller shapes gambolling about, some livestock, a
dog, a horse and rising head and shoulders above them all the rough cut
figure of a man, middle aged in years but with ancient eyes. “You have
done well my son, all will be well…” The vision faded and Thomas slept
It was the same nurse he had seen earlier in the
morning who woke him lunch and who supported him while he spooned up a
steaming bowl of soup. When he had finished the doctor reappeared and
after giving him a quick examination nodded to the nurse, “Bring in his
visitors.” She stepped smartly down to the end door and ushered in
Parsons with Tess pressed close to his side.
“She just won't stay
away,” said Parsons apologetically, “so I agreed that she could come in
and hear the end of the story.” He looked the least affected of all of
them, maybe a little whiter than usual, but still clearly, worrying
away at his case. He made himself comfortable on one side of the bed
while Tess settled on the other and reclaimed Thomas's arm.
“I'm sorry doctor, he said, “but some of this is like to be er... confidential if you take my meaning?”
do. I suppose I ought to be getting this changed, “he indicated the
dressing round his own head. “I’ll see you all a little later on.” With
a cheerful wave at them all he left.
Parsons eased himself round
and pulled out his small black leather bound notebook. Well it's time
for a reckoning and a sorry job we've made of it, that's for certain.”
Thomas felt dismayed,” So they got away with it?”
entirely,” he ticked off items in his notebook as he went through the
final account. “Now er... Bledington... your uncle, begging your pardon
miss but he's dead.”
Thomas felt her grasp his arm convulsively as she gasped,” No.”
afraid so miss. We found him in the coach house when we searched the
grounds yesterday afternoon, he probably stopped a bullet at about the
same time as I did, there were people firing wildly in all directions
in the dark too, a most unfortunate er... accident.”
been shocked at the abrupt manner in which Bledington’s death had been
announced but as Parsons continued in his 'matter of fact' tone Thomas
saw the wisdom of his approach.
“Of course you might say that he
got it easy, spared the indignity of a long trial with a rope at the
end of it, unlike his associate .. “
“Angel Face” cried Thomas.
“Oh, that's what you call him is it, not an inappropriate name for a crook like him.”
“He was a criminal.. “ began Tess.
the villains in London are in his pay, he doesn’t usually get his own
hands dirty but your uncle hired him to take care of the security
aspects of the job and he insisted on the personal touch. Bit of good
luck for us really.”
“You've caught him?” chorused Thomas and Tess together.
but we caught enough of his gang to put a hole in his operations for a
while, we should be able to put them all away for a good few years,
kidnapping, attempted murder, assault... “ His voice tailed away, “and
I’m sure we have got plenty of information to track him down.
“And his name?’ queried Thomas.
not going to believe this but we only know him as Moriaty!” revealed
Parsons with some slight embarrassment. They grinned at each other
recalling their discussions about the stories of Conan Doyle on the
train to the north.
“What about the others, the arms dealers, the people who visited us?” asked Tess.
almost clean away, I'm sorry to say. They had everything loaded and had
put to sea before midnight I've been told. Still they didn't have the
smooth voyage they were expecting. The navy intercepted them north of
Islay. Of course they threw everything incriminating overboard before
they were boarded so they had to let them go.”
“So the rifles are… “ began Thomas.
that's right where they belong, at the bottom of the North Sea, still
I've no doubt,” said Parsons rising to his feet,” that we'll invent
some equally efficient way of killing each other before too much
longer. Now you must excuse me, I have several loose ends to tie up,
statements to collect and I still have to make my apologies to the
local police for letting all this loose on them without so much as a
by-your-leave. I'll look in again tomorrow,” and he was gone.
lay silently thinking, so that was it, it was all over. A few petty
crooks had been arrested, a cargo of guns was rusting on the sea bed.
Tess had lost her home, such as it had been and he had lost…
“A penny for them?”
penny for your thoughts. You know you've heard everyone else's story
but nobody has heard how you really fitted into it all, we all know
little bits of it but what actually happened to you?”.
told her as much as he could remember. He found it difficult to put
into words exactly how he had felt, to explain exactly what it was that
kept him going, the sense that he had been helped along the way. When
he had finished Tess returned to the time that he had spent in the old
stone tower, hovering half way between consciousness and oblivion.
dreamed about the inscription we were trying to understand, you saw
someone writing it then you saw a group of people destroying it?”
“That's right.” agreed Thomas.
I still don't see why you felt you were going to save the world or
whatever, on the strength of a dream or two,” protested Tess.
“I thought it was a prophecy of some kind, a final and most important utterance and that it had been directed to me.”
Tess shook her head impatiently.
can see that I was wrong now, it must have been that crack on the head,
I wasn't thinking straight. One thing, if there is a war in a few years
time I shall be one of the few to miss it.”
But Tess had grown suddenly still. “So how did you know where to find me?”
you had been on the run all through the night, shot in the head and
plunged into an icy stream yet you came straight away and found me,
another dream? No, don’t tell me, I’m confused enough as it is, and
then in the tunnel... “ She fell silent pondering mysteries great, and
small, but not for long. Her practical nature soon reasserted itself.
“What will you do now?”
Thomas wasn't sure he was ready to
face the future just yet, he was only just beginning to appreciate the
scale of his injury and he was feeling tired again. “Well I suppose my
parents will take me home to London and I’ll rest until I'm well again
and then… “ Thomas stopped and reflected. “I'm certainly not going to
be going back to the drawing board,” he mused, “I could manage a
typewriter single handed though, perhaps I'll become a writer like my
“A journalist? A novelist?”
“No… I thought perhaps a poet.”
lit up, “Well in that case I shall be your publisher, who else will
trouble themselves over an unknown draftsman turned to literature?”
was shaken by her confidence that their paths lay together then his
thoughts went back to the shocking certainty he had felt at their first
“That's not such a bad idea after all,” he yawned.
They sat together quietly for a few minutes, it was growing dark.
Thomas's parents arrived a hour or so later they found them both
asleep, Tess in her chair, Thomas in his bed, hands clasping hand.