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From MAKER OF SHADOWS
shadows surround us
It was noon, but the twisting road that led beyond the Clyde was greasy with an almost impenetrable mist. The big gray Rolls-Bentley poked its way northward into the Highlands at a snail’s uncertain, dragging pace. Its unwonted slowness seemed to match the instinctive reluctance of its driver to proceed.
Gees—his real name was Gregory George Gordon Green —could almost feel a danger in the gloomy air that thickened as he drove, as if wishing to bar his way. He regarded the winding, bumpy road with distaste, and struggled manfully to overcome a keen desire to turn back.
He shifted his position at the wheel, and as he did, the letter in the side-pocket of his well-cut tweeds crackled almost pleadingly.
It was written in a delicate, well-bred hand; and its tone was one of courtesy and gentleness, but it spoke in accents of carefully repressed fear. It was signed, Margaret Aylener; and contained a simple request that Gees visit her at The Rowans. She had enclosed the two guineas that was Gees’ customary charge for an initial consultation, but she had neither made any inquiry as to the fees for his services nor hinted at what she wanted him to do for her.
The whole thing was tantalizingly mysterious, more for what it hinted than for the usual details it omitted; and Gees, with the clammy moistness of the fog thick on his tongue, discovered that the curiosity he had felt on first reading of the Aylener woman’s note had now returned to shove his vague uneasiness out of the driver’s seat.
May was half over. Behind him in England were blossoming chestnuts and hawthorns. But here, when the fog parted for a moment, only sullen, peaty desolation met his eye. Even the breeze was harsh and unfriendly.
The confidential agency—nobody had ever defined a limit as to what that term might cover, Gees least of all—which he had set up two or three years ago had kept him reasonably busy and moderately prosperous. The haphazard way in which it was run permitted him to pick only the cases that definitely intrigued his fancy.
Just as he was considering how entertaining his life had been since he had started on this harebrained career, the figure of a shepherd loomed up before him on the road. Gees braked sharply and stuck his long, homely face out the side-window.
“I want to get to Brachmornalachan,” he said.
“Aye,” said the shepherd.
“Could you tell me the road?”
“Aye,” said the shepherd, again.
“Well then, would you please?”
“Aye,” said the shepherd. “Tak’ the second on the left and you’ll come to a fork o’ three ways. Tak’ the middle and ye’ll come to Brachmornalachan. It’s aboot nine mile.”
Gees thanked him dazedly, and drove on. The directions were less hazy than they sounded, and Gees found the middle fork without difficulty. He paused a moment, drew a deep breath, then tramped down hard on the gas and sent the big car shooting down the road.
He found the puddled town with the unpronounceable name, got his directions for The Rowans, and soon he saw, set some fifty yards or more back from the bumpy track, an old granite house, two-storied, and a mansion by comparison with all else in the neighborhood. A low stone wall took in an acre or so of the peaty plain about this dwelling, and some twenty yards distant from the frontage, from each side, and from the back of the house, reared up a noble mountain ash, just coming into flower.
All the deeply-sunken windows that showed were lace-curtained, and, gray and old though it was, the house looked cheerful. A gate in the stone wall stood open, and beyond it a well-kept drive of fine granite chips contrasted with the badly-kept track by which Gees had approached.
He turned in, and found width enough to draw up abreast the front door, which, he saw, was composed of two wide planks of great age, bound together by a pair of great hinges of iron scrollwork. Beside it he saw as he got out from the car, a black chain confined by two eyelets hung down, terminating in an iron handle, and a pull at this set a bell clanging somewhere inside until the noise was abruptly stilled, as if somebody had grasped the tongue of the bell.
Then the door swung open slowly, heavily, silently, and a woman looked out.
She lacked only an inch or so of Gees’ own height, and he was just over six feet. She might have been forty, or sixty. High cheekboned, freckle-faced, hard-mouthed, and with deep-blue, glassy eyes, she surveyed him with as little interest as the shepherd on the road. A big-boned, long-armed, strong woman, she waited for him to speak. “Miss Aylener?”
“Aye, she’s expectin’ ye,” the woman said. “And the luggage?” She glanced past him at the car before the door.
“I’ll get it.” The woman took it from him when he had fetched it and her way of handling it suggested that the weight was nothing to her. “And is this all?” she asked.
“It is,” he answered.
“Then ye’d better come in,” she told him. “Ye can put the wee car away after ye’ve seen Miss Margaret, mayhap.”
Still carrying his case, she took his hat and raincoat and opened a door on the right of the wide hallway, and, without having asked his name, announced him.
“Mr. Green, Miss Margaret.”
He saw a big room, with two windows giving on to the front of the house, and another on the side. He saw a glowing peat fire on a wide hearth, and had an impression that the room was beautifully furnished.
Facing him as if just risen from one of the armchairs by the fire, stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
She was of middle height; slenderly, regally proportioned, with dainty hands and finely-moulded feet and ankles. Her face was perfectly-modeled, her eyes of the softest, most liquid deep blue, and the slight smile that parted her lips revealed even, perfect little teeth.
Her snow-white hair waved softly over her head and if any art went to the making of her perfect, rose-tinged white skin, it was imperceptible.
Sixty years of age, Gees would have said at that first sight of her. Later, he came to know that he had underestimated by nearly ten years, and then, knowing more of the soul of her, knew that he had underestimated her beauty fully as much as her age.
“I am glad to see you, Mr. Green.” She held out her hand. “But you will be very tired after the long drive. Elizabeth shall show you your room, and we can talk after you have rested awhile.” She pressed a bell push beside the fireplace. “Callum—my manservant—has gone to get the necessaries that a guest involves, but Elizabeth”—she broke off as the door opened—“Elizabeth, show Mr. Green where to put his car, please.”
“Aye, madam,” said Elizabeth.
At the back of the house, she opened for him the double doors of an old stable from which the stalls had been removed. Obeying her gesture, he drew the car over to right of the entrance, leaving room for another beside it. Oil and petrol cans showed that the stable was already in use as a garage.
“And now, your room,” said Elizabeth after they had re-entered the house. “I’ve taken the bag there.”
After only a momentary hesitation he followed her. The stair-carpeting, old and faded though it appeared, was of heavy, costly pile, and the stone floor of the corridor to which he ascended was equally well carpeted. Elizabeth opened a door as massive as that in the front entrance, and revealed a large room, in which Gees saw a canopied double bed and heavy, old-fashioned furniture.
The woman pointed to a door in one corner. “Yon’s the bath,” she said, “and ye’ll know the way doun.” And, with that, she left him to himself.
As nearly as he could tell, the house faced east, and this room was at the southeast corner, with windows on opposite sides. Through either window he could see a mountain ash, though but dimly, because of the thickened reek that drove visibly from the west.
The silence was absolute, almost malignant. And the reek outside appeared to pass in waves, as if it carried shadows in its impalpable, driving mass.
Yes, that was it. Shadows, passing with the mist that made the trees appear unreal. Shadows, following each other from the west.
He went down the carpeted stairway, and back to the room in which he had left Margaret Aylener. She pointed him to an armchair beside the fire and seated herself across from him. Through the window behind her he could see another of the four rowans, but the dusk and driving mist made it little more than a ghost tree.
“You are wondering,” Margaret Aylener said with a slight smile, “what an old woman like me can want of a man like you, in a place like this.”
“Not quite,” and he too smiled. “Questioning, say, why you live in such a place as this. Its remoteness, I mean.”
“I might question why you live in London,” she countered.
She paused. “Will you tell me—you call yourself a confidential agent. What is that exactly?”
“For a time, until my father objected too much over it, I ran an advertisement in the personal columns of newspapers,” he answered. “The chief line of it was—‘Consult Gees for anything from mumps to murder.’ You may take that literally as answer to your question, Miss Aylener.”
“That is, from medicine to crime,” she suggested. “Taking in every other form of anti-social activity by the way, I suppose?”
“Pretty much,” he assented. “Your letter interested me so much that I drove here without writing to ask what is your particular need. Now I am here I’m not sorry, though I nearly was, back on the road.”
She gave him a look of awakened interest. “Could you tell me how long ago?” she asked. “The time at which you felt that?”
“About three o’clock,” he answered. “Or just before three—a few minutes before.”
“Yes.” She brooded over it, grave-eyed and still.
“And now—what do you want of me?” he asked.
She smiled again. “I am—forgive me for not answering directly—I am trying to sense you,” she said. “To—to value you, estimate you, say. Whether, now you are here, to ask you how much I must pay you for the mere journey from London, or—you see, Mr. Green, you are altogether different from what I imagined you. And I don’t know—”
She broke off, no longer smiling, but with trouble clouding her lovely eyes.
“What I want done is so indefinite. Outside all normal beliefs. Mr. Green, my man Callum—I want you to talk to him. He and Elizabeth have been with me here a very long time, and this—my reason for writing to you, involves a far longer time. Goes almost out of Time, I might say. Callum has great knowledge, strange knowledge. Whether you are capable of believing—” Again she broke off, thoughtfully.
“Most things,” he ended for her. “I have learned, especially since I established my agency, not to disbelieve—most things. I wonder—I want you to tell me something, Miss Aylener.”
“And that is—?” She gazed full at him as she put the question.
“Looking past you, through the window behind you—it’s nearly dark now, so the illusion I get is not so strong. But I got it from the window of my room. As if there were an intermittent darkening of the mist outside, not so much thickening as darkening—shadows. As if, in the mist, shadows are passing, one after another. Is it an illusion?”
Yet again she smiled.“Your question answers mine, Mr. Green,” she said. “It completes my estimate, and I know now I was right to send for you. But I think, if I could answer your question fully, you would not be here to ask it.”
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