the man who said it
Over lunch at The Three Choughs at Yeovil, Gregory George Gordon Green read through again the letter that had started him on his journey from London. Had he been in any hurry to complete that journey, he would have taken the Dorchester road out from Salisbury, but the letter suggested an appointment that gave him plenty of time, and, on the word of his friend Tony Briggs of the Foreign Office, the cuisine and cellar of The Three Choughs justified one in making a point of lunching there. So, over coffee and a spot of liqueur brandy in the dining room—and a cigarette, of course—Gees took out the letter and read again—
Troyarbour Hall, Blandford,
Messrs. Gees (G. Green, Esq.) Confidential Agents
37 Little Oakfield Street London, S.W.1.
I have been recommended to you by a Mr. Hunter, of Denlandham, Shropshire, whose name and address will, I believe, be easy for you to recall to memory.
Mr. Hunter, on hearing the story I had to tell him, at once recommended me to you, as one who had carried out for him a most unusual and difficult series of investigations and brought them to a highly satisfactory end.
I should be glad if you could see your way to call on me at the above address at the earliest possible date, with a view to giving me, at the least, your advice, and if possible your aid in connection with a problem which I have no intention of putting in writing. If you can see your way to visiting me, not before mid-afternoon (which would involve putting up for the night, probably) I should be happy to pay all your expenses, and, in addition, the two guineas which I understand is your fee for an initial consultation.
Yours very truly,
J. St. Pol Naylor.
Gregory George Gordon Green, otherwise known as “Gees,” refolded the letter and put it in his pocket. It was undated, he had noted on first reading it: if he had not been naturally observant—which he was—the two years he had spent in the police force would have taught him to note trifles, whether apparent or real. In actual fact, the letter was a week old: he had had what looked like another promising investigation on hand, and thus had not troubled to answer this communication until, this same autumn morning, he had found himself at a loose end owing to the fizzling out—as he would have expressed it—of that other affair, and so had wired J. St. Pol Naylor to announce that he would arrive at 3.30 to 4 p.m. Whether that were convenient or no to this possible client was not a point over which Gees troubled himself: if people wanted to consult him, they could fit it in at such time as he chose: otherwise—well, they did not want to consult him, obviously.
He spread his very large but well-shaped hands out on the table-cloth, cocked his cigarette-holder at an angle beside his long nose, and reflected. Eve Madeleine, his secretary—Miss Brandon, when he addressed her, and “Eve Madeleine” only in her absence—had looked up this Naylor person for him, and had ascertained that he was what Gees would have called a big noise in Nigerian tin. That is to say, he was not a mere landowner, like Gees’ own father, finding his possessions more of liabilities than assets. It appeared that, if he wanted a thing, he could afford to pay for it, which for a man living in a country mansion designated as “hall” is a rare thing to-day. Unmarried, aged forty-five, member of Quinlon’s, one of the most exclusive clubs in London, also of the Junior Counties—that caravanserai of elderly bores—and a fellow of two societies entitled to call themselves “Royal,” he appeared enviably placed. All these things, and some others which for the moment Gees forgot, the highly efficient and also very attractive Eve Madeleine had dug out and placed before her employer, and then, lacking other occupation at the time, had gone back to her desk and got on reading Winston Churchill’s monumental work on his ancestor Marlborough. She had read so many novels to pass the time in that Little Oakfield Street office that she was satiated with fiction, and so turned to more serious stuff.
Now, having considered the potentialities of this possible client, Gees called for and paid his bill, after which he pushed back his chair and got up, displaying a pair of feet which hinted, to say the least of it, that he ought not to have resigned from the police force. Presently, one of those noteworthily though not abnormally large feet was playing on the accelerator pedal of the grey, black-winged Rolls-Bentley which helped to prove that Gees had made a financial success of his first case, and the nose of the open car pointed southeast by south as its owner—and driver—cogitated over the man who had written that letter. That is to say, he cogitated part of the time.
For his way, after he had got well out from Yeovil, lay over the downlands that, perhaps, are richest in all that history of Britain which is so old as to be out of history, and, a sensitive, as he undoubtedly was, he felt the influences by which he was surrounded. For there on the downs sleep the very old dead, the first reasoning beings to tread and hunt and fight over the land which then was part of Europe—when Dover cliffs and Gris-Nez facing them reared high and distant over the river that flowed toward the fertile valleys now lying fathoms down under the English Channel. Sometimes they sleep uneasily, those old ones. Gees, driving past their resting places, sensed their unease, felt them as not dead at all, but sentient, watchful—of what? He put that question to himself as the letter in his pocket recurred to his mind: the letter of a pedant, almost, of a man careful of his words, of his dignity—over-careful of all that maintained him in his place. Troyarbour Hall. Troyarbour. Obviously—trois arbres. A corruption from the old French. And Naylor? Nailer—one who nailed things, or possibly made nails: until Doctor Johnson compiled his “dixonary,” there was no standardised spelling for the English language, and “Nailer” might spell himself anyhow—as might “Smith” spell himself “Smythe” or “Smyth” or any other variation that appealed to him. “Naylor” was in old time merely a nailer, an artisan, and so his descendant, risen to “county” rank, was mightily jealous of his dignity: if he married, his descendants also would be very jealous of their dignity: it was in the blood, that of the enriched commoner, who sought to make himself level with Howards, and Neviles, and St. Olaves, and—maybe—Voronzoff-Dashkoffs, de Polignacs, Cabots and Lapeyracs. Gees grinned as he thought of these later names: it would be all one to a Naylor, to whom a “Green” would be a mere circumstance. Strictly non-committal, that “Green”. Ah, well!
Trois arbres. The three trees would have vanished, long since. They had probably rotted away ages before Naylors got hold of the hall—thanks to Eve Madeleine, Gees knew that Naylors had inhabited there since the days of the second Charles—admirable girl, Eve Madeleine: she got just the facts he wanted, the things that facilitated his quest for atmosphere. He felt that he knew what to expect in meeting this J. St. Pol Naylor before seeing the man—knew what type of being he would find. Through his secretary, and also through the writing and phrasing of that letter: not that he visioned the physical personality of the man, but that he knew the mentality, the spiritual essence, so to speak, of the one who wanted his advice. And, possibly, his aid. That remained to be seen: meanwhile, he would sting this Naylor—St. Pol Naylor—in the matter of expenses, and so make certain that he was fully two guineas to the good, even if nothing further came of the adventure. He told himself, rather jesuitically, that two guineas was his fee for an initial consultation in his own office: if he took the trouble of driving a hundred miles or so out of London, and bit pieces out of two days to visit a possible client, that two ought to be increased to ten, a sum which to such a man as this Naylor would not even amount to a fleabite.
This Naylor! Gees told himself that he was in danger of going to this interview with a prejudice against the man: something in the phrasing of that letter was ruffling, irritant: he sensed pomposity . . .
And saw, on a signpost—“Troyarbour, 3. Blandford, 15.” Indicating that the village was twelve miles distant from its post town. Well, these Dorset villages were widely spaced—it was not a populous county: the open downland stretched for miles with hardly a house in view, and such towns as existed—like Blandford—snuggled down in the valleys for the sake of water—and, secondarily, for shelter. The very old ones had lived differently: such monuments of theirs as could be traced—mere lines on the face of the downs, except for such tremendous and enduring works as Mai-Dun by Dorchester—pointed to settlements on the uplands. They had had to guard their sheep, and had made the misnamed dew-ponds to get water. For some few centuries they had had a different climate, too much rain rather than too little, and in that period many of the valleys would have been untenable.
Another signpost, marking the divergence of a mere lane from the well-tended road Gees had so far followed, bore the legend—“Troyarbour Only. No Through Road.” He took to the lane, and eased his rate of travel for the sake of his springs and shock absorbers. Ruts had been partly filled in with granite chips, loose and crunchy under the tyres of the car. There was width for vehicles to pass each other only at intervals, and, if two met between the widenings, one or other would be compelled to back. The lane went up and down, winding not too steeply until shoulders of the bare downland folded it into a windless stillness.
A lone farmhouse with its outbuildings appeared on an acre or so of flat, unfenced from the lane, and hens chirrawked away from the passing car, while an enormous sow with her litter of piglets eyed the vehicle momentarily, and then ignored it. Down and yet down, with the farmstead invisible behind, and Gees reflected that the man who had measured off that three miles must have ignored the windings of the lane and marked up the crow-flight distance. Well, the afternoon was young, yet, and in the placid October sunshine this valley was a pleasant thing, with a mildness in its still air that was also invigorating.
At the end of the twisted descent the shouldering heights that had enclosed the lane receded, leaving a pocket of almost-flatness in which were set an inn, with a signboard picturing three hawthorn trees in the full bloom of May—it was a fairly well-executed piece of work, with no lettering on the board: a general store and post-office—three wires came over the downs to descend to its roof and mark it a telegraph office, and two wires went on up the ascent to which Gees faced: five cottages, and a bay-windowed, rather modern-looking house standing by itself to face all the rest. And this, Gees decided, was Troyarbour.
When he got out from the car to inquire the whereabouts of the Hall, the post-office sign confirmed his belief, and also informed him that Martha Kilmain was the presiding genius there. Since the inn was closed at this hour he entered the store, and found that the goods for sale ranged from drapery and even shamelessly-displayed lingerie, by way of bread and cakes to cheese, bacon, and hob-nailed boots. It was quite impossible that a place of such meagre dimensions could hold and exhibit such a variety of wares, yet there they were, on show. And, emerging from a bacon-festooned doorway, a mighty female of middle age, a very Amazon of a woman with bare, muscular arms, an utterly expressionless face, and—almost an absurdity on such a one—a wealth of rippling, corn-coloured hair. Martha herself, Gees concluded.
“Could you be so good as to direct me to Troyarbour Hall?” he asked, and made the question as ingratiating as possible. Tobacco and cigarettes were among the articles purveyed here, and he might want to overhaul the stock, later—if a case resulted from his interview.
She pointed through the wall of the shop, in the direction which the Rolls-Bentley faced. She said, “Foller the road, you can’t go wrong.” Whereon he thanked her and went out again, for the manner of her reply had indicated that she did not want to be troubled any more.
He drove on. Beyond the valley bottom the lane, ascending again, was a mere cleft between two massy slopes, with abrupt windings that hid what lay ahead, and the pair of wires from the post-office carried on poles beside it. Here, though, it had been cut to two-vehicle width at some time. A half-mile or more of fairly steep ascent, and then the car bonnet faced a pair of iron gates swung on stone pillars, and beyond the gates was a short drive, gravelled and well-kept, rising gently to the Hall frontage, that too of grey stone. Two-storied, with ground-floor windows a good ten feet in height, the structure nested into the hills at the far side of a little plateau, on which were clumps of rhododendrons, yellow-leaved laurels, and single-standing monkey-puzzlers and other trees exotic to Dorset. Hawthorns, easily recognisable by their berries, flanked the drive and made it an avenue, and the place as a whole gave evidence of scrupulous tendance: here, it said in effect, is wealth, and one who does not fear to use it.
Gees said to himself as he got out to open the gates—there was no lodge at the entrance—“Yes, ten guineas, for a certainty—and expenses at top level!” and knew, as after driving through he got out again and closed the gates, that he had a distinct prejudice against the owner of this place—without having seen the man.
For a minute or less the scrollwork of the gates themselves held him: sixteenth or seventeenth-century Italian work, he felt sure: there was a delicate artistry, a strengthening balance in the work from top to bottom, such as English iron-fashioners seldom compass without a certain clumsiness, which betrays the intent to combine strength with decorative effect. Here, he knew as he gazed, was the work of an artist in iron, one sensitive enough to be content with nothing less than perfect work.
He got back into the car, and swung it to a standstill opposite the pillared portico, over which was a shield in low relief on the stone, bearing the initials—“I.R.N.” and the date “1701.” The panelled, black-green, massive door was in keeping with the date, and Gees, pulling a bell-handle beside it, noted that the door swung back as silently as easily, to reveal a parlourmaid, young and pretty, and rather over-daintily attired for her part—it was a stage costume, rather than a working dress.
He asked, “Mr. Naylor?” and with no inquiry of any kind she asked in turn—“Will you come this way, sir?” took and deposited his shabby old felt hat and shabbier overcoat, and conducted him through the high-ceiled hall, decorated with stags’ heads and rams’ heads, moose heads and tiger heads—and even an elephant’s head—to another door in a corridor at the back of the hall, where she halted to ask—“Mr. Green, isn’t it?”
He said, “Yes,” and on that she opened the door and announced him. Entering, he saw the reverse of his expectation: he had looked for a beefy, Squire Westernish sort of man, and found himself facing one thin and small and delicate, with finely-shaped hands and feet, soft, appealing brown eyes, and very pale lips. A shy, anaemic sort of man, at first sight, who greeted his caller with a charming smile, and, offering his hand, said, “Mr. Green? I’m so glad you were able to get here. It’s rather early for tea, but—shall I ring?”
“Thank you, no,” Gees answered. “I’ve lunched not long since, and don’t feel like tea yet. If you don’t mind.”
“Why, certainly not. A business man, evidently, in spite of the nature of your business—I speak of that from hearsay, and you must forgive me if I trespass too far.”
Again Naylor smiled, that very charming expression of friendliness which Gees found a little disturbing. He had an instant’s memory of those entrance gates, all artistry, and yet concealed in it was tremendous strength. So here—perhaps! He was far from sure as to whether his first impressions of this man were to be trusted. Amba gachle, as the Zulus say—tread softly!
He said, “I don’t see where the trespass comes in. Do you mind my asking where you got those marvellous gates at your boundary?”
“Picked them up in Milan, for not merely a song, but one line of the first verse,” Naylor answered readily, and laughed a little. “I’m glad you noticed them. Not many people have the seeing eye.”
“Very few could miss such a pair,” Gees assured him. “But—you wanted—what?” He put it as bluntly as he could, being determined not to yield to any spell this strange man could weave. For the man was strange: he was as exotic, here, as the monkey-puzzlers in front of his Hall: he was small and frail, yet he had power: Gees felt it.
He said, “Ah, yes! You have not much time, perhaps. And that fee of yours for initial consultation—two guineas. All very well if one comes to you in London, but your coming here—taking the trouble, I mean. Shall we make that two into a ten?”
“My own idea,” Gees assured him promptly, and saw the thin, delicate features harden slightly at his apparent rapacity. “And expenses, of course. Eight, say—eighteen guineas for the total.”
He put it as brutally as he could, determined as he was to give this man not one inch of advantage—the prejudice against, with which he had driven here, was growing stronger and yet stronger. Naylor nodded a rather frigid assent to his estimate.
“Eighteen—yes. I will write you the cheque before you leave.”
“Very good of you,” Gees told him. “And now—what is it you want of me? Something you wouldn’t put in writing, I understood from your letter.” He saw the thin, delicate hands of the man facing him quiver as he put the blunt question, and divined that Naylor was afraid—of something. Though why one in his position should fear—
“I am going on what Hunter—Hunter of Denlandham—told me about you,” Naylor said slowly, as if he chose his words very carefully. “You—you can, it appears, lay ghosts. So I gathered, from what he told me. But—I am not afflicted by ghosts, but by something worse.”
“There are many worse things than ghosts,” Gees said soberly.
“Yes. Yes. Mr. Green, do you believe in witchcraft?”
“Believe in it—no,” Gees said promptly. “In the possibility that there is such a thing—yes. Obeah, Voodoo, the evidence is—”
“No!” Naylor interrupted rather peremptorily. “Not African magic—or hoodoo, if it is that. Witchcraft, for which women used to be drowned, and burned, and all the rest. That sort, I mean.”
“I believe it did exist,” Gees answered cautiously.
“Supposing I tell you it still exists?” Naylor said. “Here, in Troyarbour—and directed against me?”
“Then,” Gees answered steadily, “I’d advise you to consult a mental specialist, not a confidential agent like myself.”
“Will you let me try to convince you?” Naylor asked earnestly.
Gees nodded assent. “But I’m tough,” he pointed out. “I take an awful lot of convincing. Who and what is your witch—or wizard?”
“Witch!” Naylor made an exclamation of the word. “Witch, if ever there was one! Here, in Troyarbour, and—and—her ways are death!”