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33: Forestalled

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« on: January 20, 2023, 05:31:23 am »

TRAVELLING all that long summer day, first from the south-west of England to the Midlands, then from the Midlands to the north, Spargo and Breton came late at night to Hawes’ Junction, on the border of Yorkshire and Westmoreland, and saw rising all around them in the half-darkness the mighty bulks of the great fells which rise amongst that wild and lonely stretch of land. At that hour of the night and amidst that weird silence, broken only by the murmur of some adjacent waterfall the scene was impressive and suggestive; it seemed to Spargo as if London were a million miles away, and the rush and bustle of human life a thing of another planet. Here and there in the valleys he saw a light, but such lights were few and far between; even as he looked some of them twinkled and went out. It was evident that he and Breton were presently to be alone with the night.

“How far?” he asked Breton as they walked away from the station.

“We’d better discuss matters,” answered Breton. “The place is in a narrow valley called Fossdale, some six or seven miles away across these fells, and as wild a walk as any lover of such things could wish for. It’s half-past nine now, Spargo: I reckon it will take us a good two and a half hours, if not more, to do it. Now, the question is—Do we go straight there, or do we put up for the night? There’s an inn here at this junction: there’s the Moor Cock Inn a mile or so along the road which we must take before we turn off to the moorland and the fells. It’s going to be a black night—look at those masses of black cloud gathering there!—and possibly a wet one, and we’ve no waterproofs. But it’s for you to say—I’m game for whatever you like.”

“Do you know the way?” asked Spargo.

“I’ve been the way. In the daytime I could go straight ahead. I remember all the landmarks. Even in the darkness I believe I can find my way. But it’s rough walking.”

“We’ll go straight there,” said Spargo. “Every minute’s precious. But—can we get a mouthful of bread and cheese and a glass of ale first?”

“Good idea! We’ll call in at the ‘Moor Cock.’ Now then, while we’re on this firm road, step it out lively.”

The “Moor Cock” was almost deserted at that hour: there was scarcely a soul in it when the two travellers turned in to its dimly-lighted parlour. The landlord, bringing the desired refreshment, looked hard at Breton.

“Come our way again then, sir?” he remarked with a sudden grin of recognition.

“Ah, you remember me?” said Breton.

“I call in mind when you came here with the two old gents last year,” replied the landlord. “I hear they’re here again—Tom Summers was coming across that way this morning, and said he’d seen ’em at the little cottage. Going to join ’em, I reckon, sir?”

Breton kicked Spargo under the table.

“Yes, we’re going to have a day or two with them,” he answered. “Just to get a breath of your moorland air.”

“Well, you’ll have a roughish walk over there tonight, gentlemen,” said the landlord. “There’s going to be a storm. And it’s a stiffish way to make out at this time o’night.”

“Oh, we’ll manage,” said Breton, nonchalantly. “I know the way, and we’re not afraid of a wet skin.”

The landlord laughed, and sitting down on his long settle folded his arms and scratched his elbows.

“There was a gentleman—London gentleman by his tongue—came in here this afternoon, and asked the way to Fossdale,” he observed. “He’ll be there long since—he’d have daylight for his walk. Happen he’s one of your party?—he asked where the old gentlemen’s little cottage was.”

Again Spargo felt his shin kicked and made no sign. “One of their friends, perhaps,” answered Breton. “What was he like?”

The landlord ruminated. He was not good at description and was conscious of the fact.

“Well, a darkish, serious-faced gentleman,” he said. “Stranger hereabouts, at all events. Wore a grey suit—something like your friend’s there. Yes—he took some bread and cheese with him when he heard what a long way it was.”

“Wise man,” remarked Breton. He hastily finished his own bread and cheese, and drank off the rest of his pint of ale. “Come on,” he said, “let’s be stepping.”

Outside, in the almost tangible darkness, Breton clutched Spargo’s arm. “Who’s the man?” he said. “Can you think, Spargo?”

“Can’t,” answered Spargo. “I was trying to, while that chap was talking. But—it’s somebody that’s got in before us. Not Rathbury, anyhow—he’s not serious-faced. Heavens, Breton, however are you going to find your way in this darkness?”

“You’ll see presently. We follow the road a little. Then we turn up the fell side there. On the top, if the night clears a bit, we ought to see Great Shunnor Fell and Lovely Seat—they’re both well over two thousand feet, and they stand up well. We want to make for a point clear between them. But I warn you, Spargo, it’s stiff going!”

“Go ahead!” said Spargo. “It’s the first time in my life I ever did anything of this sort, but we’re going on if it takes us all night. I couldn’t sleep in any bed now that I’ve heard there’s somebody ahead of us. Go first, old chap, and I’ll follow.”

Breton went steadily forward along the road. That was easy work, but when he turned off and began to thread his way up the fell-side by what was obviously no more than a sheep-track, Spargo’s troubles began. It seemed to him that he was walking as in a nightmare; all that he saw was magnified and heightened; the darkening sky above; the faint outlines of the towering hills; the gaunt spectres of fir and pine; the figure of Breton forging stolidly and surely ahead. Now the ground was soft and spongy under his feet; now it was stony and rugged; more than once he caught an ankle in the wire-like heather and tripped, bruising his knees. And in the end he resigned himself to keeping his eye on Breton, outlined against the sky, and following doggedly in his footsteps.

“Was there no other way than this?” he asked after a long interval of silence. “Do you mean to say those two—Elphick and Cardlestone—would take this way?”

“There is another way—down the valley, by Thwaite Bridge and Hardraw,” answered Breton, “but it’s miles and miles round. This is a straight cut across country, and in daylight it’s a delightful walk. But at night—Gad!—here’s the rain, Spargo!”

The rain came down as it does in that part of the world, with a suddenness that was as fierce as it was heavy. The whole of the grey night was blotted out; Spargo was only conscious that he stood in a vast solitude and was being gradually drowned. But Breton, whose sight was keener, and who had more knowledge of the situation dragged his companion into the shelter of a group of rocks. He laughed a little as they huddled closely together.

“This is a different sort of thing to pursuing detective work in Fleet Street, Spargo,” he said. “You would come on, you know.”

“I’m going on if we go through cataracts and floods,” answered Spargo. “I might have been induced to stop at the ‘Moor Cock’ overnight if we hadn’t heard of that chap in front. If he’s after those two he’s somebody who knows something. What I can’t make out is—who he can be.”

“Nor I,” said Breton. “I can’t think of anybody who knows of this retreat. But—has it ever struck you, Spargo, that somebody beside yourself may have been investigating?”

“Possible,” replied Spargo. “One never knows. I only wish we’d been a few hours earlier. For I wanted to have the first word with those two.”

The rain ceased as suddenly as it had come. Just as suddenly the heavens cleared. And going forward to the top of the ridge which they were then crossing, Breton pointed an arm to something shining far away below them.

“You see that?” he said. “That’s a sheet of water lying between us and Cotterdale. We leave that on our right hand, climb the fell beyond it, drop down into Cotterdale, cross two more ranges of fell, and come down into Fossdale under Lovely Seat. There’s a good two hours and a half stiff pull yet, Spargo. Think you can stick it?”

Spargo set his teeth.

“Go on!” he said.

Up hill, down dale, now up to his ankles in peaty ground, now tearing his shins, now bruising his knees, Spargo, yearning for the London lights, the well-paved London streets, the convenient taxi-cab, even the humble omnibus, plodded forward after his guide. It seemed to him that they had walked for ages and had traversed a whole continent of mountains and valley when at last Breton, halting on the summit of a wind-swept ridge, laid one hand on his companion’s shoulder and pointed downward with the other.

“There!” he said. “There!”

Spargo looked ahead into the night. Far away, at what seemed to him to be a considerable distance, he saw the faint, very faint glimmer of a light—a mere spark of a light.

“That’s the cottage,” said Breton, “Late as it is, you see, they’re up. And here’s the roughest bit of the journey. It’ll take me all my time to find the track across this moor, Spargo, so step carefully after me—there are bogs and holes hereabouts.”

Another hour had gone by ere the two came to the cottage. Sometimes the guiding light had vanished, blotted out by intervening rises in the ground; always, when they saw it again, they were slowly drawing nearer to it. And now when they were at last close to it, Spargo realized that he found himself in one of the loneliest places he had ever been capable of imagining—so lonely and desolate a spot he had certainly never seen. In the dim light he could see a narrow, crawling stream, making its way down over rocks and stones from the high ground of Great Shunnor Fell. Opposite to the place at which they stood, on the edge of the moorland, a horseshoe like formation of ground was backed by a ring of fir and pine; beneath this protecting fringe of trees stood a small building of grey stone which looked as if it had been originally built by some shepherd as a pen for the moorland sheep. It was of no more than one storey in height, but of some length; a considerable part of it was hidden by shrubs and brushwood. And from one uncurtained, blindless window the light of a lamp shone boldly into the fading darkness without.

Breton pulled up on the edge of the crawling stream.

“We’ve got to get across there, Spargo,” he said. “But as we’re already soaked to the knee it doesn’t matter about getting another wetting. Have you any idea how long we’ve been walking?”

“Hours—days—years!” replied Spargo.

“I should say quite four hours,” said Breton. “In that case, it’s well past two o’clock, and the light will be breaking in another hour or so. Now, once across this stream, what shall we do?”

“What have we come to do? Go to the cottage, of course!”

“Wait a bit. No need to startle them. By the fact they’ve got a light, I take it that they’re up. Look there!”

As he spoke, a figure crossed the window passing between it and the light.

“That’s not Elphick, nor yet Cardlestone,” said Spargo. “They’re medium-heighted men. That’s a tallish man.”

“Then it’s the man the landlord of the ‘Moor Cock’ told us about,” said Breton. “Now, look here—I know every inch of this place. When we’re across let me go up to the cottage, and I’ll take an observation through that window and see who’s inside. Come on.”

He led Spargo across the stream at a place where a succession of boulders made a natural bridge, and bidding him keep quiet, went up the bank to the cottage. Spargo, watching him, saw him make his way past the shrubs and undergrowth until he came to a great bush which stood between the lighted window and the projecting porch of the cottage. He lingered in the shadow of this bush but for a short moment; then came swiftly and noiselessly back to his companion. His hand fell on Spargo’s arm with a clutch of nervous excitement.

“Spargo!” he whispered. “Who on earth do you think the other man is?”

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