Chapter 2 Of the Strange Manner in Which a Tenant Came to Cloomber
Branksome might have appeared a poor dwelling-place when compared with th_ouse of an English squire, but to us, after our long residence in stuff_partments, it was of regal magnificence.
The building was broad-spread and low, with red-tiled roof, diamond-pane_indows, and a profusion of dwelling rooms with smoke-blackened ceilings an_aken wainscots. In front was a small lawn, girt round with a thin fringe o_aggard and ill grown beeches, all gnarled and withered from the effects o_he sea-spray. Behind lay the scattered hamlet of Branksome-Bere—a doze_ottages at most— inhabited by rude fisher-folk who looked upon the laird a_heir natural protector.
To the west was the broad, yellow beach and the Irish Sea, while in all othe_irections the desolate moors, greyish-green in the foreground and purple i_he distance, stretched away in long, low curves to the horizon.
Very bleak and lonely it was upon this Wigtown coast. A man might walk many _eary mile and never see a living thing except the white, heavy- flappin_ittiwakes, which screamed and cried to each other with their shrill, sa_oices.
Very lonely and very bleak! Once out of sight of Branksome and there was n_ign of the works of man save only where the high, white tower of Cloombe_all shot up, like a headstone of some giant grave, from amid the firs an_arches which girt it round.
This great house, a mile or more from our dwelling, had been built by _ealthy Glasgow merchant of strange tastes and lonely habits, but at the tim_f our arrival it had been untenanted for many years, and stood with weather- blotched walls and vacant, staring windows looking blankly out over the hil_ide.
Empty and mildewed, it served only as a landmark to the fishermen, for the_ad found by experience that by keeping the laird's chimney and the whit_ower of Cloomber in a line they could steer their way through the ugly ree_hich raises its jagged back, like that of some sleeping monster, above th_roubled waters of the wind-swept bay.
To this wild spot it was that Fate had brought my father, my sister, an_yself. For us its loneliness had no terrors. After the hubbub and bustle of _reat city, and the weary task of upholding appearances upon a slender income, there was a grand, soul-soothing serenity in the long sky-line and the eage_ir. Here at least there was no neighbour to pry and chatter.
The laird had left his phaeton and two ponies behind him, with the aid o_hich my father and I would go the round of the estate doing such light dutie_s fall to an agent, or "factor" as it was there called, while our gentl_sther looked to our household needs, and brightened the dark old building.
Such was our simple, uneventful existence, until the summer night when a_nlooked-for incident occurred which proved to be the herald of those strang_oings which I have taken up my pen to describe.
It had been my habit to pull out of an evening in the laird's skiff and t_atch a few whiting which might serve for our supper. On this well-remembere_ccasion my sister came with me, sitting with her book in the stern-sheets o_he boat, while I hung my lines over the bows.
The sun had sunk down behind the rugged Irish coast, but a long bank o_lushed cloud still marked the spot, and cast a glory upon the waters. Th_hole broad ocean was seamed and scarred with crimson streaks. I had risen i_he boat, and was gazing round in delight at the broad panorama of shore an_ea and sky, when my sister plucked at my sleeve with a little, sharp cry o_urprise.
"See, John," she cried, "there is a light in Cloomber Tower!".
I turned my head and stared back at the tall, white turret which peeped ou_bove the belt of trees. As I gazed I distinctly saw at one of the windows th_lint of a light, which suddenly vanished, and then shone out once more fro_nother higher up. There it flickered for some time, and finally flashed pas_wo successive windows underneath before the trees obscured our view of it. I_as clear that some one bearing a lamp or a candle had climbed up the towe_tairs and had then returned into the body of the house.
"Who in the world can it be?" I exclaimed, speaking rather to myself than t_sther, for I could see by the surprise upon her face that she had no solutio_o offer. "Maybe some of the folk from Branksome-Bere have wanted to look ove_he place."
My sister shook her head.
"There is not one of them would dare to set foot within the avenue gates," sh_aid. "Besides, John, the keys are kept by the house-agent at Wigtown. Wer_hey ever so curious, none of our people could find their way in"
When I reflected upon the massive door and ponderous shutters which guarde_he lower storey of Cloomber, I could not but admit the force of my sister'_bjection. The untimely visitor must either have used considerable violence i_rder to force his way in, or he must have obtained possession of the keys.
Piqued by the little mystery, I pulled for the beach, with the determinatio_o see for myself who the intruder might be, and what were his intentions.
Leaving my sister at Branksome, and summoning Seth Jamieson, an ol_an-o'-war's-man and one of the stoutest of the fishermen, I set off acros_he moor with him through the gathering darkness.
"It hasna a guid name after dark, yon hoose," remarked my companion, slackening his pace perceptibly as I explained to him the nature of ou_rrand. "It's no for naething that him wha owns it wunna gang within a Scotc_ile o't."
"Well, Seth, there is some one who has no fears about going into it," said I, pointing to the great, white building which flickered up in front of u_hrough the gloom.
The light which I had observed from the sea was moving backwards and forwar_ast the lower floor windows, the shutters of which had been removed. I coul_ow see that a second fainter light followed a few paces behind the other.
Evidently two individuals, the one with a lamp and the other with a candle o_ushlight, were making a careful examination of tile building.
"Let ilka man blaw his ain parritch," said Seth Jamieson doggedly, coming to _ead stop. "What is it tae us if a wraith or a bogle minds tae tak' a fanc_ae Cloomber? It's no canny tae meddle wi' such things."
"Why, man," I cried, "you don't suppose a wraith came here in a gig? What ar_hose lights away yonder by the avenue gates?"
"The lamps o' a gig, sure enough!" exclaimed my companion in a less lugubriou_oice. "Let's steer for it, Master West, and speer where she hails frae."
By this time night had closed in save for a single long, narrow slit in th_estward. Stumbling across the moor together, we made our way into the Wigtow_oad, at the point where the high stone pillars mark the entrance to th_loomber avenue. A tall dog-cart stood in front of the gateway, the hors_rowsing upon the thin border of grass which skirted the road.
"It's a' richt!" said Jamieson, taking a close look at the deserted vehicle.
"I ken it weel. It belongs tae Maister McNeil, the factor body fra_igtown—him wha keeps the keys."
"Then we may as well have speech with him now that we are here," I answered.
"They are coming down, if I am not mistaken."
As I spoke we heard the slam of the heavy door and within a few minutes tw_igures, the one tall and angular, the other short and thick came towards u_hrough the darkness. They were talking so earnestly that they did not observ_s until they had passed through the avenue gate.
"Good evening, Mr. McNeil," said I, stepping forward and addressing th_igtown factor, with whom I had some slight acquaintance.
The smaller of the two turned his face towards me as I spoke, and showed m_hat I was not mistaken in his identity, but his taller companion sprang bac_nd showed every sign of violent agitation.
"What is this, McNeil?" I heard him say, in a gasping, choking voice. "Is thi_our promise? What is the meaning of it?"
"Don't be alarmed, General! Don't be alarmed!" said the little fat factor in _oothing fashion, as one might speak to a frightened child. "This is young Mr.
Fothergill West, of Branksome, though what brings him up here tonight is mor_han I can understand. However, as you are to be neighbours, I can't do bette_han take the opportunity to introduce you to each other. Mr. West, this i_eneral Heatherstone, who is about to take a lease of Cloomber Hall."
I held out my hand to the tall man, who look it in a hesitating, half- reluctant fashion.
"I came up," I explained, "because I saw your lights in the windows, and _ought that something might be wrong. I am very glad I did so, since it ha_iven me the chance of making the general's acquaintance."
Whilst I was talking, I was conscious that the new tenant of Cloomber Hall wa_eering at me very closely through the darkness. As I concluded, he stretche_ut a long, tremulous arm, and turned the gig-lamp in such a way as to throw _lood of light upon my face.
"Good Heavens, McNeil!" he cried, in the same quivering voice as before, "th_ellow's as brown as chocolate. He's not an Englishman. You're not a_nglishman—you, sir?"
"I'm a Scotchman, born and bred," said I, with an inclination to laugh, whic_as only checked by my new acquaintance's obvious terror.
"A Scotchman, eh?" said he, with a sigh of relief. "It's all one nowadays. Yo_ust excuse me, Mr.—Mr. West. I'm nervous, infernally nervous. Come along, McNeil, we must be back in Wigtown in less than an hour. Good-night, gentlemen, good-night!"
The two clambered into their places; the factor cracked his whip, and the hig_og-cart clattered away through the darkness, casting a brilliant tunnel o_ellow light on either side of it, until the rumble of its wheels died away i_he distance.
"What do you think of our new neighbour, Jamieson?" I asked, after a lon_ilence.
"'Deed, Mr. West, he seems, as he says himsel', to be vera nervous. Maybe hi_onscience is oot o' order."
"His liver, more likely," said I. "He looks as if he had tried hi_onstitution a bit. But it's blowing chill, Seth, my lad, and it's time bot_f us were indoors."
I bade my companion good-night, and struck off across the moors for th_heery, ruddy light which marked the parlour windows of Branksome.