The House by the Loch

by


There was a snapping fire in the chimney. I was cold through and I was glad to stand close beside it on the stone hearth. My greatcoat had kept out the rain, but it had not kept out the chill of the West Highland night. I shivered before the fire, my hands held out to the flame.

It was a long, low room. There was an ancient guncase on one side, but the racks were empty except for a service pistol hanging by its trigger-guard from the hook. There were some shelves of books on the other side. But the conspicuous thing in the room was an image of Buddha in a glass box on the mantelpiece.

It was about four inches high, cast in silver and, I thought, of immense age.

I had to wait for my uncle to come in. But I had enough to think about. Every event connected with this visit seemed to touch on some mystery. There was his strange letter to me in reply to my note that I was in England and coming up to Scotland. Surely no man ever wrote a queerer letter to a nephew coming on a visit to him.

It dwelt on the length of the journey and the remoteness of the place. I was to be discouraged in every sentence. I was to carry his affectionate regards to the family in America and say that he was in health.

It stood out plainly that I was not wanted.

This was strange in itself, but it was not the strangest thing about this letter. The strangest thing was a word written in a shaky cramped hand on the back of the sheet: the letters huddled together: "Come!"

I would have believed my uncle justified in his note. It was a long journey. I had great difficulty to find anyone to take me out from the railway station. There were idle men enough, but they shook their heads when I named the house. Finally, for a double wage, I got an old gillie with a cart to bring me as far on the way as the highroad ran. But he would not turn into the unkept road that led over the moor to the house. I could neither bribe nor persuade him. There was no alternative but to set out through the mist with my bag on my shoulder.

Night was coming on. The moor was a vast wilderness of gorse. The house loomed at the foot of it and beyond the loch that made a sort of estuary for the open sea. Nor was this the only thing. I got the impression as I tramped along that I was not alone on the moor. I don't know out of what evidences the impression was built up. I felt that someone was in the gorse beyond the road.

The house was closed up like a sleeping eye when I got before it. It was a big, old, rambling stone house with a tangle of vines half torn away by the winds: I hammered on the door and finally an aged man-servant holding a candle high above his head let me in.

This was the manner of my coming to Saint Conan's Landing.

I had some supper of cold meat brought in by this aged servant. He was a shrunken derelict of a human figure. He was disturbed at my arrival and ill at ease. But I thought there was relief and welcome in his expression. The master would be in directly; he would light a fire in the drawing-room and prepare a bedchamber for me.

One would hardly find outside of England such faithful creatures clinging to the fortunes of descending men. He was at the end of life and in some fearful perplexity, but one felt there was something stanch and sound in him.

I had no doubt that there, under my eye, was the hand that had added the cramped word to my uncle's letter.

I stood now before the fire in the long, low room. The flames and a tall candle at either end of the mantelpiece lit it up. I was looking at the Buddha in the glass box. I could not imagine a thing more out of note. Surely of all corners of the world this wild moor of the West Highlands was the least suited to an Oriental cult. The elements seemed under no control of Nature. The land was windswept, and the sea came crying into the loch.

I suppose it was the mood of my queer experiences that set me at this speculation.

One would expect to find some evidences of India in my uncle's house. He had been a long time in Asia, on the fringes of the English service. Toward the end he had been the Resident at the court of an obscure Rajah in one of the Northwest Provinces. It was on the edge of the Empire where it touches the little-known Mongolian states south of the Gobi.

The Home Office was only intermittently in touch with him. But something, never explained, finally drew its attention and he was put out of India. No one knew anything about it; "permitted to retire," was the text of the brief official notice.

And he had retired to the most remote place he could find in the British islands. There was no other house on that corner of the coast. The man was as alone as he would have been in the Gobi.

If he had planned to be alone one would have believed he had succeeded in that intention. And yet from the moment I got down from the gillie's cart I seemed drawn under a persisting surveillance. I felt now that some one was looking at me. I turned quickly. There was a door at the end of the room opening onto a bit of garden facing the sea. A man stood, now, just inside this door, his hand on the latch. His head and shoulders were stooped as though he had been there some moments, as though he had let himself noiselessly in, and remained there watching me before the fire.

But if so, he was prepared against my turning. He snapped the latch and came down the room to where I stood.

He was a big stoop-shouldered Englishman with a pale, pasty face beginning to sag at the jowls. There was a queer immobility about the features as though the man were always in some fear. His eyes were a pale tallow color and seemed too small for their immense sockets. One could see that the man had been a gentleman. I write it in the past, because at the moment I felt it as in the past. I felt that something had dispossessed him.

"This will be Robin," he said. "My dear fellow, it was fine of you to travel all this way to see me."

He had a nervous cold hand with hardly any pressure in the grasp of it. His thin black hair was brushed across the top of his bald head, and the distended, apprehensive expression on his face did not change.

He made me sit down by the fire and asked me about the family in America. But there was, I thought, no real interest in this interrogation until he came to a reflective comment.

"I should like to go to America," he said; "there must be great wastes of country where one would be out of the world."

The sincerity of this expression stood out in the trivial talk. It indicated something that disturbed the man. He was as isolated as he could get in England, but that was not enough.

He sat for a moment silent, the fingers of his nervous hand moving on his knee. When he glanced up, with a sudden jerk of his head, he caught me looking at the little image of Buddha in its glass box on the mantelpiece.

Was this longing for solitude the influence of this mysterious religion?

Remote, lonely isolation was a cult of Buddha. The devotees of that cult sought the waste places of the earth for their meditations. To be out of the world, in its physical contact, was a prime postulate in the practice of this creed.

"Ah, Robin," he cried, as though he were in a jovial mood and careless of the subject, "do you have a hobby?"

I answered that I had not felt the need of one. The inquiry was a surprise and I could think of nothing better to reply with.

"Then, my boy," he went on, "what will you do when you are old? One must have something to occupy the mind."

He got up and turned the glass box a little on the mantelpiece.

"This is a very rare image," he said; "one does not find this image anywhere in India. It came from Tibet. The expression and the pose of the figure differ from the conventional Buddha. You might not see that, but to any one familiar with this religion these differences are marked. This is a monastery image, and you will see that it is cast, not graven."

He beckoned me to come closer, and I rose and stood beside him. He went on as with a lecture:

"The reason given by the natives why this image is not found in Southern Asia is that it cannot be cast anywhere but in the Tibetan monasteries. A certain ritual at the time of casting is necessary to produce a perfect figure. This ritual is a secret of the Khan monasteries. Castings of this form of image made without the ritual are always defective; so I was told in India."

He moved the glass box a little closer to the edge of the mantelpiece.

"Naturally," he went on, "I considered this story, to be a mere piece of religious pretension. It amused me to make some experiments, and to my surprise the castings were always defective. I brought the image to England."

He shrugged his shoulders as with a careless gesture.

"In my idle time here I tried it again. And incredibly the result was always the same; some portion of the figure showed a flaw. My interest in the thing was permanently aroused. I continued to experiment."

He laughed in a queer high cackle.

"And presently I found myself desperately astride a hobby. I got all the Babbitt metal that I could buy up in England and put in the days and not a few of the nights in trying to cast a perfect figure of this confounded Buddha. But I have never been able to do it."

He opened a drawer of the gun-case and brought over to the fire half a dozen castings of the Buddha in various sizes.

Not one among the number was perfect. Some portion of the figure was in every case wanting. A hand would be missing, a portion of a shoulder, a bit of the squat body or there would be a flaw where the running metal had not filled the mold.

"I'm hanged," he cried, "if the beggars are not right about it. The thing can't be done! I've tried it in all sorts of dimensions. You will see some of the big figures in the garden. I've used a ton of metal and every sort of mold."

Then he flung his hand out toward the bookcase.

"I've studied the art of molding in soft metal. I have all the books on it, and I've turned the boathouse into a sort of shop. I've spent a hundred pounds - and I can't do it!"

He paused, his big face relaxed.

"The country thinks I'm mad, working with such outlandish deviltry. But, curse the thing, I have set out to do it and I am not going to throw it up."

And suddenly with an unexpected heat he damned the Buddha, shaking his clenched hand before the box.

"Your pardon, Robin," he cried, the moment after. "But the thing's ridiculous, you know. The ritual story would be sheer rubbish. The beggars could not affect a metal casting with a form of words."

I have tried to set down here precisely what my uncle said. It was the last talk I ever had with the man in this world, and it profoundly impressed me. He was in fear, and his jovial manner was a ghastly pretence. I left him sitting by the fire drinking neat whisky from a tumbler.

The old man-servant took me up to my room. It was a big room in a wing of the house looking out on the garden and the sea. I saw that it had been cleaned and made ready against my coming; clearly the old man expected me.

He put the candle on the table and laid back the covers of the bed. And suddenly I determined to have the matter out with him.

"Andrew," I said, "why did you add that significant word to my uncle's letter?"

He turned sharply with a little whimpering cry.

"The master, sir!" he said, and then he stopped as though uncertain in what manner to go on. He made a hopeless sort of gesture with his extended hands.

"I thought your coming might interrupt the thing . . . . You are of his family and would be silent."

"What threatens my uncle?" I cried, "What is the thing?"

He hesitated, his eyes moving about the floor.

"Oh, sir," he said, "the master is in some wicked ,and dangerous business. You heard his talk, sir; that would not be the talk of a man at peace . . . . He has strange visitors, sir, and the place is watched. I cannot tell you any more than that, except that something is going to happen and I am shaken with the fear of it."

I looked out through the musty curtains before I went to bed. But the whole world was dark, packed down in the thick mist. Once, in the direction of the open sea, I thought I saw the flicker of a light.

I was tired and I slept profoundly, but somewhere in the sleep I saw my uncle and a priest of Tibet gibbering over a ladle of molten silver.

It was nearly midday when I awoke. The whole world had changed as under some enchantment; there was brilliant sun and afresh stimulating air with the salt breath of the sea in it. Old Andrew gave me some breakfast and a message.

His manner like everything else seemed to have undergone some transformation. He was silent and, I thought, evasive. He repeated the message without comment, as though he had committed it to memory from an unfamiliar language:

"The master directed me to say that he must make a journey to Oban. It is urgent business and will not be laid over."

"When does my uncle return," I said.

The old man shifted his weight from one foot to the other; he looked out through the open window onto the strip of meadow extending into the loch. Finally he replied

"The master did not name the hour of his return."

I did not press the interrogation. I felt that there was something here that the old man was keeping back; but I had an impression of equal force that he ought to be allowed the run of his discretion with it. Besides, the brilliant morning had swept out my sinister impressions.

I got my cap and stick from the rack by the door and went out. The house was within a hundred paces of the loch, in a place of wild beauty on a bit of moor, yellow with gorse, extending from the great barren mountains behind it right down into the water. Immense banners of mist lay along the tops of these mountain peaks, and streams of water like skeins of silk marked the deep gorges in dazzling whiteness.

The loch was a crooked finger of the sea hooked into the land. It was clear as glass in the bright morning. The open sea was directly beyond the crook of the finger, barred out by a nest of needlepointed rocks. On this morning, with the sea motionless, they stood up like the teeth of a harrow, but in heavy weather I imagined that the waves covered them. To the eye they were not the height of a man above the level water; they glistened in the brilliant sun like a sheaf of black pikes.

This was Saint Conan's Landing, and it occurred to me that if the holy man came in rough weather from the Irish coast he required, in truth, all the perspicacity of a saint to get his boat in without having it impaled on these devil's needles.

There was no garden to speak of about the house. It was grown up like the moor. Two or three images of Buddhas stood about in it; one of them was quite large - three feet in height I should say at a guess. They were on rough stone pedestals. I examined them carefully. They were all defective; the large one had an immense flaw in the shoulder. The gorse nearly covered them; the unkept hedge let the moor in and there were no longer any paths, except one running to the boathouse.

I did not follow the path. But I looked down at the boathouse with some interest. This was the building that my uncle had turned into a sort of foundry for his weird experiments. There was a big lock on the door and a coal-blacked chimney standing above the roof.

It was afternoon. The whole coast about me was like an undiscovered country. I hardly knew in what direction to set out on my exploration. I stood in the path digging my stick into the gravel and undecided. Finally I determined to cross the bit of moor to the high ground overlooking the loch. It was the sloping base of one of the great peaks and purple with heather. It looked the best point for a full sweep of the sea and the coast.

I jumped the hedge and set out across the moor to the high ground.

There was no path through the gorse, but when I reached the heather where the foot of the mountain peak descended into the loch there was a sort of newly broken trail. The heather was high and dense and I followed the trail onto the high ground overlooking the sweep of the coast.

The loch was dappled with sun. The air was like wine. The mountains above the moor and the heather were colored like an Oriental carpet. I was full of the joy of life and swung into an immense stride, when suddenly a voice stopped me.

"My lad," it said, "which one of the Ten Commandments is it the most dangerous to break?"

Before me, at the end of the trail, seated on the ground, was a big Highlander. He was knitting a woolen stocking and his needles were clicking like an instrument. I was taken off my feet, but I tried to meet him on his ground.

"Well," I answered, "I suppose it would be the one against murder, the sixth."

"You suppose wrong," he replied. "It will be the first. You will read in the Book how Jehovah set aside the sixth. Aye, my lad, He ordered it broken when it pleased Him. But did you ever read that He set aside the first or that any man escaped who broke it?"

He spoke with the deep rich burr of his race and with a structure of speech that I cannot reproduce here.

"Did you observe," he added, "the graven images that your uncle has set up? . . . Where is the man the noo?"

"He is gone to Oban," I said.

He sprang up and thrust the stocking and needles into his sporran.

"To Oban!" He stood a moment in some deep reflection. "There will be ships out of Oban." Then he put another question to me:

"What did auld Andrew say about it?"

"That my uncle was gone to Oban," I answered, "and had set no time for his return."

He looked at me queerly for a moment, towering above me in the deep heather.

"Do you think, my lad, that your uncle could be setting out for heathen parts to learn the witch words for his hell business in the boathouse?"

The suggestion startled me. The thing was not beyond all possibility.

But I felt that I had come to the end of this examination. I was not going to be questioned further like a small boy overtaken on the road I had answered a good many questions and I determined to ask one.

"Who are you?" I said. "And what have you got to do with my uncle's affairs?"

He cocked his eye at me, looking down as one looks down at a child.

"The first of your questions," he said, "you will find out if you can, and the second you cannot find out if you will." And he was gone, striding past me in the deep heather.

"I have some business with your uncle, of a pressing nature," he called back. "I will just take a look through Oban, the night and the morn's morn."

I was utterly at sea about the big Highlander. He might be a friend or an enemy of my uncle. But clearly he knew all about the man and the mysterious experiment in which he was engaged. He was keeping the place well within his eye; that was also evident. From his seat in the heather the whole place was spread out below him.

And his queer speech fitted with old Andrew's fear. Surely the Buddha was a heathen image and my uncle had set it up. The stern Scotch conscience would be outraged and see the Decalogue violated in its injunctions. This would explain the dread with which my uncle's house was regarded and the reason I could find no man to help me on the way to it. But it would not explain my uncle's apprehension.

But my adventure on this afternoon did not end with the big Highlander. I found out something more.

I returned along the edge of the loch and approached the boathouse from the waterside.

Here the path passed directly along the whole wall of the building. The path was padded with damp sod, and as it happened I made no sound on it. It was late afternoon, the shadows were beginning to extend, there was no wind and the whole world was intensely quiet. Midway of the wall I stopped to listen.

The house was not empty. There was some one in it. I could hear him moving about.

It was of no use to try to look in through the wall; every joint and crack of the stones was plastered. I went on.

Old Andrew was about setting me some supper. He came over and stood a moment by the window looking at the shadows on the loch. And I tried to take him unaware with a sudden question:

"Has my uncle returned from Oban?"

But I had no profit of the venture.

"The master," he said, "is where he went this morning."

The strange elements in this affair seemed on the point of converging upon some common center. The thing was in the air. Old Andrew voiced it when he went out with his candle.

"Ah, sir," he said, "it was the fool work of an old man to bring you into this affair. The master will have his way and he must meet what waits for him at the end of it."

I saw how he hoped that my visit might interrupt some plan that my uncle was about to put into effect, but realized that it was useless.

Clearly my uncle had not left the place; he had been at work all day in the boathouse. The journey was to account to me for his disappearance. I had passed the lie along to the queer sentinel that sat watching in the heather and I wondered whether I had sent a friend or an enemy into Oban on an empty mission, and whether I had fouled or forwarded my uncle's enterprise.

I put out the candle and sat down by the window to keep watch, for the boathouse, the loch and the open sea were under the sweep of it. But, alas, Nature overreaches our resolves when we are young. It was far into the night when I awoke.

A wind was coming up and I think it was the rattle of the window that aroused me. There was no moon, but under the open stars the world was filled with a thin, ghostly light, and the scene below the window was blurred a little like an impalpable picture.

A low-masted sailing ship lay in the open sea; there was a boat at the edge of the loch, and human figures were coming out of the boathouse with burdens which they were loading into the boat. Almost immediately the boat, manned with rowers, turned about and silently traversed the crook of the loch on its way to the ship. But certain of the human figures remained. They continued between the boathouse and the beach.

And I realized that I had opened my eyes on the loading of a ship. The boat was taking off a cargo."

Something stored in the boathouse was being transferred to the hold of the sailing ship. The scene was inconceivably unreal. There was no sound but the intermittent puffs of the wind, and the figures were like phantoms in a sort of lighted mist. Directly as I looked two figures came out of the boathouse and along the path to the drawing-room door under my window. I took off my shoes and crept carefully out of the room and down the stairway. The door from the hall into the long, low room was ajar. I stood behind it, and looked in through the crack.

My uncle was burning letters and papers in the fireplace with a candle, and in the chair beyond him sat the strangest human creature that I had ever seen in the world.

He was a big Oriental with a sodden, brutal face fixed as by some sorcery into an expression of eternal calm. He wore the uniform of an English skipper. It was dirty and sea-stained as though picked up at some sailor's auction. He was speaking to my uncle and his careful precise sentences in the English tongue, coming from the creature, seemed thereby to take on added menace.

"Is it wise, Sahib," he said, "to leave any man behind us in this house?"

"We can do nothing else," replied my uncle.

The Oriental continued with the same carefully selected words:

"Easily we can do something else, Sahib," he said, "with a bar of pig securely lashed to the ankles, the sea would receive them."

"No, no," replied my uncle, busy with his letters and the candle. The big Oriental did not move.

"Reflect, Sahib," he went on. "We are entering an immense peril. The thing that will be hunting us has innumerable agencies everywhere in its service. If it shall discover that we have falsified its symbols, it will search the earth for us. And what are we, Sahib, against this thing? It does not die, nor wax old, nor grow weary."

"The lad knows nothing," replied my uncle, "and old Andrew will keep silent."

"Without trouble, Sahib," the creature continued, "I can put the young one beyond all knowledge and the old one beyond all speech. Is it permitted?"

My uncle got up from the fireplace, for he had finished with his work.

"No," he said, "let there be an end of it."

He turned about, and under the glimmer of the candle I could see that the man had changed; his big pale face was grim with some determined purpose, and there was about him the courage and the authority of one who, after long wavering, at last hazards a desperate venture. He broke the-glass box and put the Buddha into his pocket.

"It is good silver," he said, "and it has served its purpose."

The Oriental got softly onto his feet like a great toy of cotton wood. His face remained in its expression of equanimity, and he added no further word of gesture to his argument.

My uncle held the door open for him to pass out, and after that he extinguished the candle and followed, closing the door noiselessly behind him.

The thing was like a scene acted in a playhouse. But it accomplished what the playhouse fails in. It put the fear of death into one who watched it. To me in the dark hall, looking through the crack of the door, the placid Oriental in his English uniform, and with his precise words like an Oxford don, was surely the most devilish agency that ever urged the murder of innocent men on an accomplice.

The wind was continuing to rise and the mist now covered the loch and the open sea. It was of no use to stand before the window, for the world was blotted out. I was cold and I lay down on the bed and wrapped the covers around me. It seemed only a moment later when old Andrew's hand was on me, and his thin voice crying in the room.

"Will you sleep, sir, and God's creatures going to their death!"

He ran, whimpering in his thin old voice, down the stair, and I followed him out of the house into the garden.

It was midmorning. A man was standing before the door, his hands behind him, looking out at the sea. In his long trousers and bowler hat I did not at once recognize him for the Highlander of my yesterday's adventure.

The coast was in the tail of a storm. The wind boomed, as though puffed by a bellows, driving in gusts of mist.

The ship I had seen in the night was hanging in the sea just beyond the crook of the loch. It fluttered like a snared bird. One could see the crew trying every device of sail and tacking, but with all their desperate ingenuities the ship merely hung there shivering like a stricken creature.

It was a fearful thing to look at. Now the mist covered everything and then for a moment the wind swept it out, and all the time, the silent, deadly struggle went on between the trapped ship and the sea running in among the needles of the loch. I don't think any of us spoke except the Highlander once in comment to himself.

"It's Ram Chad's tramp . . . . So that's the craft the man was depending on!"

Then the mist shut down. When it lifted, the doom of the ship was written. It was moving slowly into the deadly maw of the loch.

Again the mist shut down and, when again the wind swept it out, the ship had vanished.

There was the open sea and the long swells and the murderous current boiling around the sharp points of the needles; but there was no ship nor any human soul of the crew. Old Andrew screamed like a woman at the sight.

"The ship!" he cried. "Where is the ship and the master?"

The thing was so swift and awful that I spoke myself.

"My God!" I said. "How quickly the thing they feared destroyed them!"

The big Highlander came over where I stood. The burr of his speech and its sacred imagery were gone with his change of dress.

"No," he said, "they escaped the thing they feared . . . . What do you think it was?"

"I don't know," I answered. "The creature in the English uniform said that it did not die, nor wad old, nor grow weary."

"Ram Chad was right," replied the Highlander. "The British government neither dies, ages, nor tires out. Do you realize what your uncle was doing here?"

"Molding images of Buddha," I said.

"Molding Indian rupees," he retorted.

"The Buddha business was a blind . . . . I'm Sir Henry Marquis, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard . . . . We got track of him in India."

Then he added:

"There's a hundred thousand sterling in false coin at the, bottom of the loch yonder!"


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