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The Man Going North







From: The Mystery Of The Green Ray

We "made" Richmond about half-past eleven, and completed the necessary
arrangements for the housing of the boats and the disposal of our
superfluous fodder, as Jack called it, for by this time we had all
made up our minds that the war was inevitable.

The bustle of mobilisation had already taken possession of the
streets, and as we stepped out of Charing Cross Station we stumbled
into a crowd of English Bluejackets and Tommies and French reservists
in Villiers Street. We parted for the afternoon, each to attend to his
private affairs, and arranged to meet again at the Grand Hotel Grill
Room for an early dinner, as I had to catch the 7.55 from King's
Cross.

I dashed out to Hampstead to my flat, and packed the necessary wearing
apparel, taking care to include my fly-book and my favourite
split-cane trout rod in my kit. I should only be in Scotland for a
couple of days, but I knew that I should be fishing with Myra at least
one of them, and no borrowed rod is a patch on one's own tried
favourite. I snatched an half-hour or so to write to the few relatives
I have and tell them that I was joining the army after a hurried visit
to Scotland to say good-bye to Myra. And then I got my kit to Dennis's
rooms in Panton Street, Haymarket, just in time to have a chat with
him before we joined the others at the Grand Hotel. I found him
hopefully getting things ready for a long absence, sorting out
unanswered letters, putting away papers, etc. On the table was an open
copy of a stores catalogue. He had been trying to find suitable
presents for his two small step-sisters. Dennis invariably thought of
himself last of all, and then usually at someone else's request.

"Well, old man," I asked, "how do you feel about it now?"

"Rotten, Ronnie," he replied, with a rueful smile. "I've been on the
'phone to my silly doctor chap, and he shouted with laughter at me.
Still, I shall have a jolly good shot at it as soon as the thing is
definite."

"I only pray to heaven," I said seriously, "that no slipshod fool of a
doctor lets you through."

"They won't let me in, old chap; no such luck. It's a ghastly outlook.
What on earth am I to do with myself while the war lasts?"

"My dear chap," I exclaimed, "it won't be as bad as all that. There
will be thousands of men who won't go to the war. I shan't be
surprised if you see very little difference about town even when the
war's in full swing. You can't go, although you want to, and it's
jolly bad luck, old man. Don't think I don't understand, but, believe
me, you won't be the only man left in London by a million or two."

"I know," he said penitently, "I'm grousing and worrying you. Sorry!
But I can see you setting out for the Temple in the morning and
leaving your house on fire. It wouldn't make it easier simply because
you knew you weren't able to do anything to put out the fire. In fact,
it would make it a jolly lot worse. Still, we'll cut that and change
the subject. When you get back from Invermalluch give me a look up. I
expect I shall be here. And, of course, give my kindest regards to
Miss McLeod--oh, and the General," he added, as an afterthought.

"I will, indeed," I promised readily, "and I'll wire you the train I'm
coming back by. I should like you to meet it, and we can spend the few
remaining days I have together. If you don't get past the doctor I
should like you to keep your eye on one or two things for me while I'm
away."

"Of course, anything you like. The more the merrier," he answered
readily; and the poor fellow brightened visibly at the thought of
being able to do something for a pal.

We taxied round the corner with my kit, and joined the others at the
grill room. They were both in the highest of spirits, Jack, of course,
in particular. He had been told that his intimate knowledge of motors
and motor-cycles would be of great advantage to him, and he had been
advised on all hands to join as a despatch-rider. In imagination he
already saw himself up to the most weird pranks on his machine, many
of which, much to the gratification of his friends, and just as much
to his own astonishment, were proved later to have a solid foundation
in fact. Over dinner we discussed the question of applying for
commissions.

"Oh, dash it, no," said Jack; "I'm going to Berlin on the old
snorter."

"Commissions are off--quite out of the question," Tommy agreed with
emphasis. "To begin with, it means waiting, which is absurd; and in
the second place I object to any attempt to travel first-class. It's
silly and snobbish, to put the kindest construction on it. If I've got
to join this excursion I'm willing to go where they like to put me,
and if necessary I'll hang on behind."

I record this remark because it was the last that I ever heard poor
Tommy Evans make in this connection; and I think the reader will agree
it was just what one would have expected of him.

We said good-bye after dinner. They all wanted to come to the station
to see me off, but I was anxious to be alone with Dennis.

The others in any case had plenty to do, and I could scarcely let them
sacrifice their "last few hours of liberty" to come and see me off. I
rather expected that the excitement of the war would have prevented a
lot of people travelling, but the reverse was the case. There seemed
to be more people than ever on the platform, and I could not get a
corner seat even in the Fort William coach. I bundled my things into
a carriage and took up as much room as I could, and then Dennis and I
strolled about the platform until the train was due to start.

"Strange mixtures of humanity you see on a railway platform," Dennis
remarked presently.

"Very," I agreed. "I daresay there are some very curious professions
represented here."

"This chap, for instance," said Dennis, indicating a youth in a tweed
jacket and flannel trousers. "He might be anything from an M.P.'s
private secretary to an artist's model, for all we know. I should say
he's a journalist; he knows his way through a crowd as only
journalists do."

"A typical Yorkshire cattle-dealer in his Sunday best," I suggested,
as we passed another passenger. And so we went the length of the
platform making rough guesses as to the professions of my fellow
travellers. Suddenly I noticed a tall man, wearing a tweed cap and a
long covert-coat, his hands in his pockets, a stumpy cigar stuck in
the corner of his mouth. His hair was gray, and his face bore signs of
a tough struggle in early youth. His complexion was of that curious
gray-yellow one sees frequently in America and occasionally in
Denmark--something quite distinct from the bronze-gray of many
colonials. I nudged Dennis.

"What did you make of that?" I asked him after we had passed.

"I should be much more interested to know what 'that' made of us," he
replied.

"Nothing, I should think," I answered carelessly. "Why, the man's eyes
were nearly closed, he was half asleep. I bet he hasn't taken the
slightest notice of anyone for the past ten minutes. You could commit
a murder under his nose and he wouldn't see it."

"I think not," said Dennis quietly. "I fancy that if you took out a
cigarette-case as you passed him he would be able to tell you
afterwards how many cigarettes you had left in the case, what brand
they were, and what the monogram on the front was. If you've any
murders to commit, Ronnie, I should be careful to see that our
American friend is some thousands of miles away."

"Good heavens, you old sleuth!" I exclaimed in astonishment. "I never
saw a more innocent-looking man in my life."

"I hate innocent people," said Dennis emphatically; "they are usually
dangerous, and seldom half as innocent as they look."

"But what makes you think this man is only pretending to look like a
dreaming, unobservant idiot, and why do you call him American so
definitely?"

"He may or may not be American; but we have to give him a name for
purposes of classification," Dennis explained. "In any case his
overcoat was made in the States; the cut of the lapels is quite
unmistakable. I knew an American who tried everywhere to get a coat
cut like that over here, and failed. As to his being observant, you
seem to have overlooked one important fact. There the man stands,
apparently half asleep. Occasionally he displays a certain amount of
life--tucks his papers more tightly under his arms, and so on. Now,
the man who has been dreaming on a station platform and is obviously
going by the train would wake up to look at the clock, or glance round
to see how many are travelling, and generally take an interest in the
bustle of the station. But this man doesn't. Why? Because he only
wakes up when his interest wanders, and that is only when he has seen
all he wants to see for the moment. When we pass him the second time
he will probably appear to be more awake, unless there is someone else
passing him in the other direction, simply because he has seen us and
sized us up and dismissed us as of no interest; or, more likely,
stowed us away in his capacious memory, and, having no further use for
us, he forgets to appear disinterested."

"Good Lord, Dennis!" I exclaimed, "I'd no idea you ever noticed things
so keenly. What do you think he is--a detective?"

"Either that or a criminal. They are the same type of mind. One is
positive and the other negative, that's all. We'll turn back and test
him as we pass him. Talk golf, or fishing, or something."

So we commenced a half-hearted conversation on trout flies, and as we
approached "the American" I was explaining the deadly nature of the
Red Palmer after a spate and the advisability of including Greenwell's
Glory on the same cast. Unfortunately, as we passed our man there were
three other people coming towards us, and he was gazing over the top
of the carriage with the same dreaming look that had, according to
Dennis, deceived me before. But we were hardly abreast of him when his
stick shot up in front of us. His arm never moved at all; it was done
with a quick jerk of the wrist.

"You've dropped a paper, sir," he said to Dennis, to my utter
astonishment, for I had seen no paper dropped. Dennis turned quickly,
and picked up a letter which was lying on the platform behind him.

"I'm very much obliged, sir; thank you," said Dennis, as he put the
letter in his pocket.

"I never saw you drop that," I exclaimed when we were safely out of
earshot. "Did you?"

"There you are," my friend cried triumphantly. "You were walking
beside me and you didn't spot it, and he was some distance away and he
did; and you say he was half asleep."

"I say, Den," I exclaimed, laughing, "d'you think it's going to be
safe to travel on this train? I wonder where he's going?"

Then we dismissed the man from our minds. The train was going in six
minutes, and I joined the crowd round the rug and pillow barrow, and
prepared to make myself comfortable. Leaving everything to the last
minute, as most travellers do, we had a hurried stirrup-cup in view of
the fact that I was about to "gang awa'," and as the train glided out
of the station Dennis turned to wire for my breakfast-basket at
Crianlarich. The one thing that it is important to do when travelling
on the West Highland Railway I had forgotten! We had not passed
Potter's Bar before I decided that it would be impossible to sleep, so
I ferreted out the attendant and bribed him to put me into a
first-class carriage. Better still, he showed me into a sleeper. I was
dog-tired, and in ten minutes fell fast asleep. I awoke for a moment
or two as the train snorted into a station and drew up. I dozed again
for some time, and then the door of my sleeper opened and who should
look in but "the American."

"Say, I beg your pardon," he exclaimed apologetically. "My mistake."

"Not at all," I replied. "Where are we now?" For the train was still
standing.

"Edinburgh," he answered. "Just leaving. Sorry to disturb you."

I again assured him that there was no harm done, and he turned and
left me, the tassels of his Jaeger dressing-gown trailing after him.
Then I fell asleep again, and woke up as we left Whistlefield. I had
finished my wretched ablutions--for an early morning wash on a train
is always a wretched business--as we reached Crianlarich. I was not
long in claiming my breakfast; and when the passengers in the
refreshment-room had finished their coffee--which seems to be the time
when the train is due to leave, and not vice-versa, as might be
expected--the guard was standing on the platform, flag in hand, on the
point of blowing his whistle. Suddenly the head of the American shot
out of the window of his carriage--no other expression describes it.

"Say, conductor," he exclaimed angrily, "where's my breakfast?"

Surely Dennis had been right about the nationality.

"What name might it be, sir?" asked the guard.

"Hilderman--J. G. Hilderman. Ordered by telegraph."

"I'll see, sir," said the guard, dashing into the refreshment-room. It
did not seem to matter when the train started; but, after a further
heated argument, in which the official refused to wait while a couple
of eggs were being fried, Mr. Hilderman was supplied with a pot of
coffee, some cold ham, and dried toast, and we recommenced our belated
journey. I reached Fort William and changed on to the Mallaig train,
as did Mr. Hilderman, on whom, after the breakfast episode, I had
begun to look with an affectionate and admiring regard. The man who
can keep a train waiting in Great Britain while the guard gets him his
breakfast must be very human after all. Most of the way on the
beautiful journey through Lochaber I leaned with my head out of the
window, drinking in the gorgeous air and admiring the luxurious
scenery of the mountain side. But, in view of the hilly nature of the
track and the quality of the coal employed, it is always a dangerous
adventure on the West Highland Railway, and presently I found myself
with a big cinder in my eye. I was trying to remove the cause of my
discomfort, and at the same time swearing softly, I am afraid, when
Hilderman came up.

"I guess I'm just the man you're looking for," he said. "Show me."

In less time than it takes to tell the offending cinder was removed,
and I was amazed at the delicacy and certainty of his touch. I thanked
him profusely, and indeed I was really grateful to him. Naturally
enough, we fell into conversation--the easy, broad conversation of two
men who have never seen each other before and expect never to see each
other again, but are quite willing to be friends in the meantime.

"Terrible news, this," he said presently, pulling a copy of the
Glasgow Herald from his pocket. "I suppose you got it at Fort
William?"

"No," I said. "I didn't leave the train. I wasn't thinking of
newspapers. What is it?"

"A state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from
twelve o'clock last night."

"Ah!" said I. "It has come, then." And I was surprised that I had
forgotten all about the war, which was actually the cause of my
presence there. I noticed with some curiosity that Hilderman looked
out of the window with a strangely tense air, his lips firmly pressed
together, his eyes wide open and staring. He was certainly awake now.
But in a moment he turned to me with a charming smile.

"You know, I'm an American," he said. "But this hits me--hits me hard.
There's a calm and peaceful, friendly hospitality about this island of
yours that I like--like a lot. My own country reminds me too much of
my own struggles for existence. For nearly forty years I fought for
breath in America, and, but that I like now and again to run over and
have a look round, you can keep the place as far as I'm concerned.
I've been about here now for a good many years--not just this part,
for this is nearly new to me, but about the country--and I feel that
this is my quarrel, and I should like to have a hand in it."

"Perhaps America may join in yet," I suggested.

"Not she," he cried, with a laugh. "America! Not on your life. Why,
she's afraid of civil war. She don't know which of her own citizens
are her friends and which ain't. She's tied hand and foot. She can't
even turn round long enough to whip Mexico. Don't you ever expect
America to join in anything except family prayer, my boy. That's safe.
You know where you are, and it don't matter if you don't agree about
the wording of a psalm. If an American was told off to shoot a German,
he'd ten to one turn round and say: 'Here, hold on a minute; that's my
uncle!'"

"You think all the Germans in the States prefer their fatherland to
their adopted country, or are they most of them spies?"

"Spies?" said Hilderman, "I don't believe in spies. It stands to
reason there can't be much spying done in any country. Over here, for
instance, for every German policeman in this country--for that's all a
spy can be--there are about a thousand British policemen. What chance
has the spy? You don't seriously believe in them, do you?" he added,
smiling, as he offered me a Corona cigar.

"I don't know," I said doubtfully. I didn't want to argue with my good
Samaritan. "There is no doubt a certain amount of spying done; but, of
course, our policemen are hardly trained to cope with it. I daresay
the whole business is very greatly exaggerated."

"You bet it is, my boy," he replied emphatically. "Going far?" he
asked, suddenly changing the subject.

"North of Loch Hourn," I answered.

"Oh!" said Hilderman, with renewed interest. "Glenelg?"

"I take the boat to Glenelg and then drive back," I explained. I was
in a mood to tell him just where I was going, and why, and all about
myself; but I recollected, with an effort, that I was talking to a
total stranger.

"Drive back?" he repeated after me, with a sudden return to his dreamy
manner. Then, just as suddenly, he woke up again. "Where are we now?"
he asked.

"Passing over Morar bridge," I explained.

"Dear me--yes, of course!" he exclaimed, with a glance out of the
window. "Well, I must pack up my wraps. Good-bye, Mr. Ewart; I'm so
glad to have met you. Your country's at war, and you look to me a very
likely young man to do your best. Well, good-bye and good luck. I only
wish I could join you."

"I wish you could," I replied heartily. "I shall certainly do my best.
And many thanks for your kind assistance."

And so we parted, and returned to our respective compartments to put
our things together; for our journey--the rail part of it, at any
rate--was nearly over. And it was not until long afterwards that I
realised that he had called me by my name, and I had never told him
what it was.





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Previous: Beside Still Waters



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