Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 5 The Adventure of the Spectacled Roadman

  • I sat down on the very crest of the pass and took stock of my position.
  • Behind me was the road climbing through a long cleft in the hills, which wa_he upper glen of some notable river. In front was a flat space of maybe _ile, all pitted with bog-holes and rough with tussocks, and then beyond i_he road fell steeply down another glen to a plain whose blue dimness melte_nto the distance. To left and right were round-shouldered green hills a_mooth as pancakes, but to the south — that is, the left hand — there was _limpse of high heathery mountains, which I remembered from the map as the bi_not of hill which I had chosen for my sanctuary. I was on the central boss o_ huge upland country, and could see everything moving for miles. In th_eadows below the road half a mile back a cottage smoked, but it was the onl_ign of human life. Otherwise there was only the calling of plovers and th_inkling of little streams.
  • It was now about seven o'clock, and as I waited I heard once again tha_minous beat in the air. Then I realized that my vantage- ground might be i_eality a trap. There was no cover for a tomtit in those bald green places.
  • I sat quite still and hopeless while the beat grew louder. Then I saw a_eroplane coming up from the east. It was flying high, but as I looked i_ropped several hundred feet and began to circle round the knot of hill i_arrowing circles, just as a hawk wheels before it pounces. Now it was flyin_ery low, and now the observer on board caught sight of me. I could see one o_he two occupants examining me through glasses.
  • Suddenly it began to rise in swift whorls, and the next I knew it was speedin_astward again till it became a speck in the blue morning.
  • That made me do some savage thinking. My enemies had located me, and the nex_hing would be a cordon round me. I didn't know what force they could command, but I was certain it would be sufficient. The aeroplane had seen my bicycle, and would conclude that I would try to escape by the road. In that case ther_ight be a chance on the moors to the right or left. I wheeled the machine _undred yards from the highway, and plunged it into a moss-hole, where it san_mong pond-weed and water-buttercups. Then I climbed to a knoll which gave m_ view of the two valleys. Nothing was stirring on the long white ribbon tha_hreaded them.
  • I have said there was not cover in the whole place to hide a rat. As the da_dvanced it was flooded with soft fresh light till it had the fragran_unniness of the South African veld. At other times I would have liked th_lace, but now it seemed to suffocate me. The free moorlands were priso_alls, and the keen hill air was the breath of a dungeon.
  • I tossed a coin — heads right, tails left — and it fell heads, so I turned t_he north. In a little I came to the brow of the ridge which was th_ontaining wall of the pass. I saw the highroad for maybe ten miles, and fa_own it something that was moving, and that I took to be a motor-car. Beyon_he ridge I looked on a rolling green moor, which fell away into wooded glens.
  • Now my life on the veld has given me the eyes of a kite, and I can see thing_or which most men need a telescope … Away down the slope, a couple of mile_way, several men were advancing. like a row of beaters at a shoot …
  • I dropped out of sight behind the sky-line. That way was shut to me, and _ust try the bigger hills to the south beyond the highway. The car I ha_oticed was getting nearer, but it was still a long way off with some ver_teep gradients before it. I ran hard, crouching low except in the hollows, and as I ran I kept scanning the brow of the hill before me. Was i_magination, or did I see figures — one, two, perhaps more — moving in a gle_eyond the stream? If you are hemmed in on all sides in a patch of land ther_s only one chance of escape. You must stay in the patch, and let your enemie_earch it and not find you. That was good sense, but how on earth was I t_scape notice in that table-cloth of a place? I would have buried myself t_he neck in mud or lain below water or climbed the tallest tree. But there wa_ot a stick of wood, the bog-holes were little puddles, the stream was _lender trickle. There was nothing but short heather, and bare hill bent, an_he white highway.
  • Then in a tiny bight of road, beside a heap of stones, I found the roadman.
  • He had just arrived, and was wearily flinging down his hammer. He looked at m_ith a fishy eye and yawned.
  • 'Confoond the day I ever left the herdin'!' he said, as if to the world a_arge. 'There I was my ain maister. Now I'm a slave to the Goavernment, tethered to the roadside, wi' sair een, and a back like a suckle.'
  • He took up the hammer, struck a stone, dropped the implement with an oath, an_ut both hands to his ears. 'Mercy on me! My heid's burstin'!' he cried.
  • He was a wild figure, about my own size but much bent, with a week's beard o_is chin, and a pair of big horn spectacles.
  • 'I canna dae't,' he cried again. 'The Surveyor maun just report me. I'm for m_ed.'
  • I asked him what was the trouble, though indeed that was clear enough.
  • 'The trouble is that I'm no sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down t_he drinkin', and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when it wa_ed!'
  • I agreed with him about bed. 'It's easy speakin',' he moaned. 'But I got _ostcard yestreen sayin' that the new Road Surveyor would be round the day.
  • He'll come and he'll no find me, or else he'll find me fou, and either way I'_ done man. I'll awa' back to my bed and say I'm no weel, but I doot that'l_o help me, for they ken my kind o' no-weel-ness.'
  • Then I had an inspiration. 'Does the new Surveyor know you?' I asked.
  • 'No him. He's just been a week at the job. He rins about in a wee motor-cawr, and wad speir the inside oot o' a whelk.'
  • 'Where's your house?' I asked, and was directed by a wavering finger to th_ottage by the stream.
  • 'Well, back to your bed,' I said, 'and sleep in peace. I'll take on your jo_or a bit and see the Surveyor.'
  • He stared at me blankly; then, as the notion dawned on his fuddled brain, hi_ace broke into the vacant drunkard's smile.
  • 'You're the billy,' he cried. 'It'll be easy eneuch managed. I've finishe_hat bing o' stanes, so you needna chap ony mair this forenoon. Just take th_arry, and wheel eneuch metal frae yon quarry doon the road to mak anithe_ing the morn. My name's Alexander Turnbull, and I've been seeven year at th_rade, and twenty afore that herdin' on Leithen Water. My freens ca' me Ecky, and whiles Specky, for I wear glesses, being waik i' the sicht. Just you spea_he Surveyor fair, and ca' him Sir, and he'll be fell pleased. I'll be back o_id-day.'
  • I borrowed his spectacles and filthy old hat; stripped off coat, waistcoat, and collar, and gave him them to carry home; borrowed, too, the foul stump o_ clay pipe as an extra property. He indicated my simple tasks, and withou_ore ado set off at an amble bedwards. Bed may have been his chief object, bu_ think there was also something left in the foot of a bottle. I prayed tha_e might be safe under cover before my friends arrived on the scene.
  • Then I set to work to dress for the part. I opened the collar of my shirt — i_as a vulgar blue-and-white check such as ploughmen wear — and revealed a nec_s brown as any tinker's. I rolled up my sleeves, and there was a forear_hich might have been a blacksmith's, sunburnt and rough with old scars. I go_y boots and trouser-legs all white from the dust of the road, and hitched u_y trousers, tying them with string below the knee. Then I set to work on m_ace. With a handful of dust I made a water-mark round my neck, the plac_here Mr Turnbull's Sunday ablutions might be expected to stop. I rubbed _ood deal of dirt also into the sunburn of my cheeks. A roadman's eyes woul_o doubt be a little inflamed, so I contrived to get some dust in both o_ine, and by dint of vigorous rubbing produced a bleary effect.
  • The sandwiches Sir Harry had given me had gone off with my coat, but th_oadman's lunch, tied up in a red handkerchief, was at my disposal. I ate wit_reat relish several of the thick slabs of scone and cheese and drank a littl_f the cold tea. In the handkerchief was a local paper tied with string an_ddressed to Mr Turnbull — obviously meant to solace his mid-day leisure. _id up the bundle again, and put the paper conspicuously beside it.
  • My boots did not satisfy me, but by dint of kicking among the stones I reduce_hem to the granite-like surface which marks a roadman's foot-gear. Then I bi_nd scraped my finger-nails till the edges were all cracked and uneven. Th_en I was matched against would miss no detail. I broke one of the bootlace_nd retied it in a clumsy knot, and loosed the other so that my thick gre_ocks bulged over the uppers. Still no sign of anything on the road. The moto_ had observed half an hour ago must have gone home.
  • My toilet complete, I took up the barrow and began my journeys to and from th_uarry a hundred yards off.
  • I remember an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in hi_ay, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yoursel_nto it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage t_onvince yourself that you were it. So I shut off all other thoughts an_witched them on to the road- mending. I thought of the little white cottag_s my home, I recalled the years I had spent herding on Leithen Water, I mad_y mind dwell lovingly on sleep in a box-bed and a bottle of cheap whisky.
  • Still nothing appeared on that long white road.
  • Now and then a sheep wandered off the heather to stare at me. A heron floppe_own to a pool in the stream and started to fish, taking no more notice of m_han if I had been a milestone. On I went, trundling my loads of stone, wit_he heavy step of the professional. Soon I grew warm, and the dust on my fac_hanged into solid and abiding grit. I was already counting the hours til_vening should put a limit to Mr Turnbull's monotonous toil. Suddenly a cris_oice spoke from the road, and looking up I saw a little Ford two-seater, an_ round-faced young man in a bowler hat.
  • 'Are you Alexander Turnbull?' he asked. 'I am the new County Road Surveyor.
  • You live at Blackhopefoot, and have charge of the section from Laidlawbyres t_he Riggs? Good! A fair bit of road, Turnbull, and not badly engineered. _ittle soft about a mile off, and the edges want cleaning. See you look afte_hat. Good morning. You'll know me the next time you see me.'
  • Clearly my get-up was good enough for the dreaded Surveyor. I went on with m_ork, and as the morning grew towards noon I was cheered by a little traffic.
  • A baker's van breasted the hill, and sold me a bag of ginger biscuits which _towed in my trouser- pockets against emergencies. Then a herd passed wit_heep, and disturbed me somewhat by asking loudly, 'What had become o'
  • Specky?'
  • 'In bed wi' the colic,' I replied, and the herd passed on … just about mid-da_ big car stole down the hill, glided past and drew up a hundred yards beyond.
  • Its three occupants descended as if to stretch their legs, and sauntere_owards me.
  • Two of the men I had seen before from the window of the Galloway inn — on_ean, sharp, and dark, the other comfortable and smiling. The third had th_ook of a countryman — a vet, perhaps, or a small farmer. He was dressed i_ll-cut knickerbockers, and the eye in his head was as bright and wary as _en's.
  • 'Morning,' said the last. 'That's a fine easy job o' yours.'
  • I had not looked up on their approach, and now, when accosted, I slowly an_ainfully straightened my back, after the manner of roadmen; spat vigorously, after the manner of the low Scot; and regarded them steadily before replying.
  • I confronted three pairs of eyes that missed nothing.
  • 'There's waur jobs and there's better,' I said sententiously. 'I wad rathe_ae yours, sittin' a' day on your hinderlands on thae cushions. It's you an_our muckle cawrs that wreck my roads! If we a' had oor richts, ye sud be mad_o mend what ye break.'
  • The bright-eyed man was looking at the newspaper lying beside Turnbull'_undle.
  • 'I see you get your papers in good time,' he said.
  • I glanced at it casually. 'Aye, in gude time. Seein' that that paper cam' ou_ast Setterday I'm just Sax days late.'
  • He picked it up, glanced at the superscription, and laid it down again. One o_he others had been looking at my boots, and a word in German called th_peaker's attention to them.
  • 'You've a fine taste in boots,' he said. 'These were never made by a countr_hoemaker.'
  • 'They were not,' I said readily. 'They were made in London. I got them fra_he gentleman that was here last year for the shootin'. What was his nam_ow?' And I scratched a forgetful head. Again the sleek one spoke in German.
  • 'Let us get on,' he said. 'This fellow is all right.'
  • They asked one last question.
  • 'Did you see anyone pass early this morning? He might be on a bicycle or h_ight be on foot.'
  • I very nearly fell into the trap and told a story of a bicyclist hurrying pas_n the grey dawn. But I had the sense to see my danger. I pretended t_onsider very deeply.
  • 'I wasna up very early,' I said. 'Ye see, my dochter was merrit last nicht, and we keepit it up late. I opened the house door about seeven and there wa_aebody on the road then. Since I cam' up here there has just been the bake_nd the Ruchill herd, besides you gentlemen.'
  • One of them gave me a cigar, which I smelt gingerly and stuck in Turnbull'_undle. They got into their car and were out of sight in three minutes.
  • My heart leaped with an enormous relief, but I went on wheeling my stones. I_as as well, for ten minutes later the car returned, one of the occupant_aving a hand to me. Those gentry left nothing to chance.
  • I finished Turnbull's bread and cheese, and pretty soon I had finished th_tones. The next step was what puzzled me. I could not keep up this roadmakin_usiness for long. A merciful Providence had kept Mr Turnbull indoors, but i_e appeared on the scene there would be trouble. I had a notion that th_ordon was still tight round the glen, and that if I walked in any direction _hould meet with questioners. But get out I must. No man's nerve could stan_ore than a day of being spied on.
  • I stayed at my post till five o'clock. By that time I had resolved to go dow_o Turnbull's cottage at nightfall and take my chance of getting over th_ills in the darkness. But suddenly a new car came up the road, and slowe_own a yard or two from me. A fresh wind had risen, and the occupant wanted t_ight a cigarette. It was a touring car, with the tonneau full of a_ssortment of baggage. One man sat in it, and by an amazing chance I knew him.
  • His name was Marmaduke jopley, and he was an offence to creation. He was _ort of blood stockbroker, who did his business by toadying eldest sons an_ich young peers and foolish old ladies. 'Marmie' was a familiar figure, _nderstood, at balls and polo- weeks and country houses. He was an adroi_candal-monger, and would crawl a mile on his belly to anything that had _itle or a million. I had a business introduction to his firm when I came t_ondon, and he was good enough to ask me to dinner at his club. There h_howed off at a great rate, and pattered about his duchesses till the snobber_f the creature turned me sick. I asked a man afterwards why nobody kicke_im, and was told that Englishmen reverenced the weaker sex.
  • Anyhow there he was now, nattily dressed, in a fine new car, obviously on hi_ay to visit some of his smart friends. A sudden daftness took me, and in _econd I had jumped into the tonneau and had him by the shoulder.
  • 'Hullo, jopley,' I sang out. 'Well met, my lad!' He got a horrid fright. Hi_hin dropped as he stared at me. 'Who the devil are you?' he gasped.
  • 'My name's Hannay,' I said. 'From Rhodesia, you remember.'
  • 'Good God, the murderer!' he choked.
  • 'Just so. And there'll be a second murder, my dear, if you don't do as I tel_ou. Give me that coat of yours. That cap, too.'
  • He did as bid, for he was blind with terror. Over my dirty trousers and vulga_hirt I put on his smart driving-coat, which buttoned high at the top an_hereby hid the deficiencies of my collar. I stuck the cap on my head, an_dded his gloves to my get- up. The dusty roadman in a minute was transforme_nto one of the neatest motorists in Scotland. On Mr jopley's head I clappe_urnbull's unspeakable hat, and told him to keep it there.
  • Then with some difficulty I turned the car. My plan was to go back the road h_ad come, for the watchers, having seen it before, would probably let it pas_nremarked, and Marmie's figure was in no way like mine.
  • 'Now, my child,' I said, 'sit quite still and be a good boy. I mean you n_arm. I'm only borrowing your car for an hour or two. But if you play me an_ricks, and above all if you open your mouth, as sure as there's a God abov_e I'll wring your neck. Savez?'
  • I enjoyed that evening's ride. We ran eight miles down the valley, through _illage or two, and I could not help noticing several strange-looking fol_ounging by the roadside. These were the watchers who would have had much t_ay to me if I had come in other garb or company. As it was, they looke_ncuriously on. One touched his cap in salute, and I responded graciously.
  • As the dark fell I turned up a side glen which, as I remember from the map, led into an unfrequented corner of the hills. Soon the villages were lef_ehind, then the farms, and then even the wayside cottage. Presently we cam_o a lonely moor where the night was blackening the sunset gleam in the bo_ools. Here we stopped, and I obligingly reversed the car and restored to M_opley his belongings.
  • 'A thousand thanks,' I said. 'There's more use in you than I thought. Now b_ff and find the police.'
  • As I sat on the hillside, watching the tail-light dwindle, I reflected on th_arious kinds of crime I had now sampled. Contrary to general belief, I wa_ot a murderer, but I had become an unholy liar, a shameless impostor, and _ighwayman with a marked taste for expensive motor-cars.