THE Hermit was an old friend of ours, as I have already told you. He was a very peculiar person. Far out on the marshes he lived in a little bit of a shack—all alone except for his brindle bulldog. No one knew where he came from—not even his name. Just “Luke the Hermit” folks called him. He never came into the town; never seemed to want to see or talk to people. His dog, Bob, drove them away if they came near his hut. When you asked anyone in Puddleby who he was or why he lived out in that lonely place by himself, the only answer you got was, “Oh, Luke the Hermit? Well, there’s some mystery about him. Nobody knows what it is. But there’s a mystery. Don’t go near him. He’ll set the dog on you.”
Nevertheless there were two people who often went out to that little shack on the fens: the Doctor and myself. And Bob, the bulldog, never barked when he heard us coming. For we liked Luke; and Luke liked us.
This afternoon, crossing the marshes we faced a cold wind blowing from the East. As we approached the hut Jip put up his ears and said,
“What’s funny?” asked the Doctor.
“That Bob hasn’t come out to meet us. He should have heard us long ago—or smelt us. What’s that queer noise?”
“Sounds to me like a gate creaking,” said the Doctor. “Maybe it’s Luke’s door, only we can’t see the door from here; it’s on the far side of the shack.”
“I hope Bob isn’t sick,” said Jip; and he let out a bark to see if that would call him. But the only answer he got was the wailing of the wind across the wide, salt fen.
We hurried forward, all three of us thinking hard.
When we reached the front of the shack we found the door open, swinging and creaking dismally in the wind. We looked inside. There was no one there.
“Isn’t Luke at home then?” said I. “Perhaps he’s out for a walk.”
“He is always at home,” said the Doctor frowning in a peculiar sort of way. “And even if he were out for a walk he wouldn’t leave his door banging in the wind behind him. There is something queer about this—What are you doing in there, Jip?”
“Nothing much—nothing worth speaking of,” said Jip examining the floor of the hut extremely carefully.
“Come here, Jip,” said the Doctor in a stern voice. “You are hiding something from me. You see signs and you know something—or you guess it. What has happened? Tell me. Where is the Hermit?”
“I don’t know,” said Jip looking very guilty and uncomfortable. “I don’t know where he is.”
“Well, you know something. I can tell it from the look in your eye. What is it?”
But Jip didn’t answer.
For ten minutes the Doctor kept questioning him. But not a word would the dog say.
“Well,” said the Doctor at last, “it is no use our standing around here in the cold. The Hermit’s gone. That’s all. We might as well go home to luncheon.”
As we buttoned up our coats and started back across the marsh, Jip ran ahead pretending he was looking for water-rats.
“He knows something all right,” whispered the Doctor. “And I think he knows what has happened too. It’s funny, his not wanting to tell me. He has never done that before—not in eleven years. He has always told me everything—Strange—very strange!”
“Do you mean you think he knows all about the Hermit, the big mystery about him which folks hint at and all that?”
“I shouldn’t wonder if he did,” the Doctor answered slowly. “I noticed something in his expression the moment we found that door open and the hut empty. And the way he sniffed the floor too—it told him something, that floor did. He saw signs we couldn’t see—I wonder why he won’t tell me. I’ll try him again. Here, Jip! Jip!—Where is the dog? I thought he went on in front.”
“So did I,” I said. “He was there a moment ago. I saw him as large as life. Jip—Jip—Jip—JIP!”
But he was gone. We called and called. We even walked back to the hut. But Jip had disappeared.
“Oh well,” I said, “most likely he has just run home ahead of us. He often does that, you know. We’ll find him there when we get back to the house.”
But the Doctor just closed his coat-collar tighter against the wind and strode on muttering, “Odd—very odd!”