"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
In 1890, when Halliday was a boy of eight, his family went on holiday in Scotland. The holiday was a memorable one, but for the wrong reasons
“Wanted, a detective – to arrest the flight of time.”
These strange words, heard by me as a boy of eight, were spoken by a man who lodged one summer at the farmhouse in the Highlands of Scotland, where my father, mother and sister, three years my junior, usually spent our holidays. The name of the man was Mr. Cox. His bedroom was over our sitting-room, and, on fine mornings, Ellen, the farmer’s daughter, a woman of twenty-five, carried his wicker armchair out into the field near the house – and there the tall, silent man, with white and often unshaven face, would sit with a rug over his knees and a deer-stalker cap on his head. At meal-times Ellen went out to fetch him, and he followed her back like a tame animal.
Once when crossing the field, I passed near to his chair and heard him mutter: “Wanted, a detective – to arrest the flight of time.” I asked my mother why he said it, and she said told me that Mr. Cox was not quite well. My father, who was a doctor, said: “He has no right to be here,” and also told me that Mr Cox had won his blue for boxing at a great English University.
There was fishing in the river below the house and in the mountain burns, rabbits to be shot on the farm, and game to be poached. Mr. Cox did none of these things; he never even went for walks, nor, so far as I knew, did he ever read books or newspapers. He sat in the field all day looking down at the grass, but if any of the wandering barnyard fowls came near he would rise, waving his stick and shouting words which I knew to be oaths. All the dogs about the farm avoided him and horses grazing in the field never approached his chair.
The house stood on a small plateau on the south bank of the swift-running river that flowed down the glen, and from the other bank there rose a barrier of rugged hills and volcanic rocks. On the hills were large purple patches of heather and smaller green patches of bracken and grasses, and here and there little woods of birch and of fir scrambled up the slopes. High and solitary above the crags was a silver birch – the tree that grows at greater heights than all other trees – and on sunny days pieces of quartz sparkled in the rocks. On the other side of the hills was an inland loch, very long, very narrow and very deep, and from its farther shore rose the side of a great mountain crowned by a precipice. In clear weather the top of this crag could be seen from the house.
The great inland loch was almost out of sight and also the little steamers that passed through it on their way from one shore of Scotland to the other along the Caledonian Canal. Behind the house were rising moors, glens, and mountains where the mists of morning linger. Over these mountains and under the clouds was a wild country, where in late autumn the glens echoed to the roaring of stags, There I once found a great stone, and on the top, as on a savage altar, the skin and bones of a sheep picked clean by eagles.
Down the glen westwards ran the river in a series of broad shallows, narrow rapids, and deep pools. Just below the house was a salmon pool through which the water ran black and swirling. On our side of the pool was a sandy beach and at the top end a little sandy bay of still shallow water. Between the bay and the entrance of the rapids into the pool was a small plantation of bushes and trees. In dry weather this was a peninsula jutting into the pool, but when the river was in spate it was an island, and the water poured around it into the sandy bay. At the end of the peninsula was a withered ash with smooth trunk and branches which it was easy to climb naked. I would walk along a branch over-hanging the place where the rapids poured into the pool, and from there dive into the stream. It was a very deep pool, and not always did I manage to reach the smooth rocks at the bottom. When I did, it seemed a long time before I got back to the surface and found that the moving wall of water had carried me to the tail end of the pool. What did I hope to find at the bottom? A salmon lying quiet, to be seized by the gills and dragged to the surface after a desperate struggle. The other thing I dreamt to find was the under-water entrance to a secret cave into which I could swim and find myself in a cavern under the rocks on the farther bank. These were animal instincts, in childhood not altogether lost.
In the depths of the pool I found neither the salmon nor hidden caverns. The light was so dim that all I could see was the blurred outline of rocks past which the current carried me.
The water of the river and of the burns which feed it was peaty, but in the woods on either side were many springs clear as crystal on a floor of glistening pebbles.
Up and down the glen were farms and crofts, a mile or more apart, and beside each was a field or two of corn and a small walled-in garden, flanked at each corner by rowan trees, which kept away certain evil things that dwelt in the mountains. On calm days blue smoke from peat fires in the houses rose in the still air, and the silence of the hills was broken by the sound of running water, and now and then by the bleating of sheep, the crowing of the cock on a distant farm, the sharp, startled cry of the grouse – “Go-o back, go-o back” – or by the wail of a curlew.
On each side of the river was a road. The one on the other side was a real road with milestones, and the mail-coach passed by every day. But the road on our side was a peaceful, moss-covered road overhung by bracken on either side. There were no milestones here, but you knew the distances by the houses you passed or by the burns which ran across the road at the foot of little gullies.
Cameron was the name of the farmer with whom we lodged. He was sixty-five years of age; a short, white-bearded man with gnarled hands. His wife was ten years younger and the family consisted of Ellen, Alec, Davy and Donald, a lad of sixteen. Their features were rough cast, but the men had rosy faces and the women quiet eyes. In expression they looked serious, as do those who win their daily bread by tilling an unfertile soil and think deeply because they are very near to the three great mysteries of life: he was born; he begat children; he died.
One evening we were having “high” tea; fried trout – caught by me that day in one of the mountain burns – home-made oatcakes and scones, fresh butter, strawberry jam, heather honey in the comb, and tea with cream.
Around the table sat my father, mother, sister and myself. There were two windows in the sitting room. The front window looked onto the rough lawn and the back window looked on to a kitchen-garden. It was daylight, although near sunset, but even at night there were no blinds or shutters to close. My father sat with his back to the kitchen-garden, my mother sat opposite, and on either side were my sister and myself.
My father was of medium height, broad shouldered, with strong features, black hair and brown moustache. He had large brown eyes, well set apart, and bushy eyebrows – they were honest eyes.
In the midst of our meal we heard the slight clatter of plates as Ellen went upstairs with Mr.Cox’s supper. Suddenly there was a scream and the high falsetto of a woman shrieking for help. From the kitchen old Mr. Cameron rushed along the corridor, shouting: “I’m coming lass,” followed by his two elder sons and three barking collies. The house shook as men and dogs ran up the narrow stairs.
My father had risen and reached the door, where he turned to say: “Stay here every one of you.” Then he left us and went upstairs too. There was a minute or two of silence followed by a thud which shook the ceiling. Something heavy had fallen on the floor upstairs. My mother moaned: “Your father will be killed.” Next moment came the tram of heavy feet, the piercing screams of Ellen the crash of falling furniture, and then another heavier thud on the floor. Again a moment of silence, broken by my father’s voice shouting from the top of the stairs: “Ropes! bring ropes, I say. Donald, bring ropes.”
Ellen ran down the stairs to help her youngest brother to find the rope, and from the kitchen came the cries of Mrs. Cameron: “O, woe is me!” From the room above all that we heard was the snarling of dogs and the oaths of Mr. Cox. It seemed like a long time before Ellen and Donald went upstairs with ropes training behind them. After another long interval those who had rushed upstairs came down slowly, and when my father re-entered the sitting-room blood was streaming down his face from a cut over the left eyebrow.
He had been the last to enter the room upstairs, where he found Mr.Cox holding Mr. Cameron by the neckband of his shirt and brandishing a razor at the old man’s throat. The two sons, dull-witted in an emergency, were standing inert, while the three dogs snarled and snapped round the legs of Mr. Cox. My father stepped forward: “How dare you threaten an old man with a razor. Put it down, sir!” Mr. Cox released Mr. Cameron, placed the open razor on the dressing-table, squared up, boxer that he was, and next moment sent my father to the floor with a blow that cut open his left eyebrow. That was the first thud on the ceiling. Then Mr. Cameron and his two sons closed on Mr. Cox and the struggle began. My father rose to his feet and went to their aid. Again there was a crash as four men and a madman fell together on the floor. When the ropes arrived, Mr. Cox was bound hand and foot, lifted onto his bed, and there bound down again.
My father sat down in the arm-chair, and my mother brought two handkerchiefs which made a pad and bandage for the cut. Then she found pen, ink and paper, and my father wrote a note to the doctor who visited Mr. Cox from time to time. The doctor’s house was eight miles away, and Donald had to ride there that night with the note. “Your patient,” wrote my father, “is a homicidal epileptic. We leave here in the morning. You must arrange for his immediate removal to the county asylum..” We then resumed our high tea, now cold and unattractive, and awaited Donald’s return. This was not a night on which children could be sent to bed early. Soon after ten o’clock Donald was back. The doctor would come in the morning with a wagonette and three men to take Mr. Cox away.
Having given Donald’s news, Mr. Cameron asked if Ellen might give Mr. Cox a drink of milk. “Yes, if she feeds him,” said my father. Ellen went upstairs with the glass of milk. She was there some time, and as she came down, father opened the door and asked: “Is he all right?”
“Yes, doctor, yes,” she answered, and ran along the corridor to the kitchen. The door of our sitting-room had not been closed for more than a moment when there was a thud on the ceiling and sounds of movement in the room above.
“My God, said my father, and Mr. Cameron rushed along the corridor shouting : Doctor, doctor? she’s loosed the ropes. Will ye no’ go up again?”
“The fool!” shouted my father. “Never again. Back to your kitchen and barricade yourselves in. We will stay in this room.”
There was no lock on the door, but we dragged a little bookcase from the wall and made it lean against the panels. Behind the bookcase we placed a small harmonium. Such was the barricade. My mother cleared the table, putting the dishes in the larder.
“You and the children had better go in there,” said my father, indicating the little room under the stairs, ” and lock the door. I stay here.” I wished to stay with him, so he said: “Very well.”
Once my mother and sister were in the little room my father moved the lamp from the table to the mantleshelf and drew the table nearer the back window. On the table he laid his twelve-bore gun and beside it a box of cartridges, and I noticed that he chose No. 00. That was buckshot, the heaviest charge. He laid his loaded gun on the table.
The horse-hair arm-chair stood by the hearth, and I was told to rest there.
From the room above came sounds of someone fumbling about in the dark, for the lamp had been removed from Mr. Cox’s room. Just then the door of the little bedroom opened. My mother came out and saw the gun on the table.
“Jack, you’re not going to-to–?”
“Stay in that room and lock the door. I take no risks.”
As I watched my father sitting quietly at the table, I could have cried, because blood was trickling down from beneath the bandage, making a dark, black stain on the front of his Harris-tweed jacket. But there were times when he hated tears. This was such a time – and on his deathbed was the last. And yet he and I had shed tears over the sorrows of Les Misérables, which he had read aloud to me.
I began to think of the criminal, Jean Valjean, of Gavroche, the boy who slept with rats inside the belly of the stone elephant, of cruel Inspector Javert who rubbed the snow down poor Cosette’s back, and the kind Bishop Myriel whose door was never locked. Had my father been a bishop, I felt sure he would have been like Bishop Myriel. He was kind to criminals. There was the burglar he had saved from pneumonia in the Glasgow prison. On leaving jail the man had thanked him. One morning the police found a sack of stolen silver outside our front door. Had my father any idea who had left it there? The detectives thought it must be some thief he had treated in prison. A grateful thief? No; my father had no recollection of anyone likely to leave silver at his door. But at breakfast he made a cryptic remark: “Gratitude is very rare.” And, musing thus, I dozed in the arm chair.
It was past midnight when I awoke. There had been a crash upstairs. My father was sitting at the table as before, but now he held the gun in his hands. “Is he coming down?” I asked.
“Hist, I think so.”
The stairs creaked; Mr Cox was coming down very quietly. Intent on listening, we could scarcely hear a sound when he reached the foot of the stairs. Very gently the handle of our door was turned, the door was forced open an inch, and the little barricade moved slightly. My father’s voice rang clear and steady: “Go back to your room, or I shoot.”
There was not reply, but the footsteps moved away from our door. Next came the crash of broken glass, falling flower-pots, and a fumbling with the lock of the front door.
“In the porch. He’s going out of the house! Put the lamp out, or he’ll see us through the window.”
I turned down the wick, and pressed the extinguisher. My father moved to the wall opposite the fireplace, where he could watch both windows, and there I stood beside him. We heard the front door open. Mr Cox was outside. Again there was silence.
“Can you see where he is?” asked my father.
I moved to the middle of the room. “He’s standing in the middle of the grass. Now he’s coming to the window.” In a moment I was back beside my father. It was moonlight and the moon was over the mountains on the other side of the river. As Mr. Cox approached the window the light of the moon threw a dark shadow on the carpet. Then his body almost occluded the window, and through the upper pane I saw his face and staring eyes peering in – and above the face the outline of a deerstalker cap. I was afraid, although I knew I was safe. My father had raised the gun to his right shoulder and its barrels were levelled at the figure outside the window. It seemed quite natural that Mr. Cox was going to be shot. He was a wild animal who would kill us if he could; but my greatest sense of security came from the homely peat-smoke odour from my father’s Harris tweed. Suddenly Mr. Cox turned from the window, rushed back through the porch, and fled upstairs to his room. His door was slammed, and then began a new noise of snarling and tearing, My father sat down again and put the gun on the table. “He’ll soon tire himself out. Then he’ll sleep for hours. He’s tearing up his bedding.”
When I awoke in the arm-chair it was daylight. My mother was packing up our luggage, and the farmer’s gig stood on the lawn. It was seven o’clock, and after a hurried breakfast we set off on a two hours’ drive up the glen and round the hills, to a pier on the long inland loch where the steamer called. We were going further west, to friends. Before we left, words passed between Mr. Cameron and my father.
“It’s hard, doctor, for me to be losing all my summer visitors in a day. An yon Mr. Cox, with all his faults – his lawyers paid me well.”
“Lose your visitors!” said my father; “last night you nearly lost your life.”
On board the steamer, my mother and sister went down to rest in the cabin, while my father and I walked the deck. He wore a cap, and under the clean handkerchief round his forehead his left eye was black and swollen. It was not a pleasant sight, and one or two people looked at him as passed. One man on deck might have been going to a funeral. He was dressed in black and wore a black trilby hat. His waistcoat was cut low at the neck, showing an expanse of white front – an imitation white shirt with a single brass stud at the centre. He wore a low white collar and a black bow tie. He was pale, with watery blue eyes and had a short square yellow beard. Crossing to our side of the deck, he directly in my father’s way and smiled as he held out a leaflet. “May I offer you a tract, brother?”
“No thanks,” said my father. “I’m not interested,” and turned to walk off.
But the man walked alongside him and continued to talk, although my father ignored him. “Brother, when I saw you coming on board I said to myself: a brand to be plucked from the burning. You must think of your wife and children, brother. Last night the devil gained a victory. Thank God the injury was no worse! Strong drink, brother, is like a raving—”
“Be off,” shouted my father. “Be off, you damned scoundrel, or I’ll put you overboard.”
The man shook his head sadly, and left us, saying as he went: “I’ll pray for you, brother.”
There are people who walk about the earth asking to be murdered and there are times when homicide is justifiable.
From The Arches of the Years by Halliday Sutherland, published in 1933.