"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.
During a university holiday, Halliday Sutherland was sent on a holiday to the Shetland Islands. The doctor with whom he was staying lived five miles from a whaling station. His father, John Sutherland, told Halliday: “If you go to the whaling station you will probably meet the Planter. He is recluse – a retired Burma tea-planter, and there are a lot of stories about him because he lives alone. All rubbish. He may ask you to stay with him. He’s got a big house at the end of the Voe – that is Norse for an inlet of the sea.”
After a voyage on the whaling ship, the Sven Foyn, Halliday returned to the Voe.
On landing at the jetty I was met by the planter.
“Mr Sutherland, you look as though you wanted a wash up and a brush down. You will have dinner and stay the night: you will appreciate a comfortable bed.”
The Planter’s house was at the end of the Voe, half a mile from the whaling station. It was a large rectangular building of plain grey stone, and stood alone above the rocks in the centre of an ampitheatre of steep hills of grass. The windows were small, and most of them had no curtains. There were no trees, and the house looked empty and deserted, but in its gaunt, bleak outlines there was strength to withstand the full force of western gales.
The dining-room was large and, on the walls were faded portraits of men and women set in massive frames. Eighteen people could have dined at the long mahogany table, but we sat one at each end, and between us on either side were eight empty chairs. We dined by candlelight, the curtains having been drawn, and during dinner there was no conversation. It would have been difficult to talk without raising ones voice from one end of that table to the other. There was soup, fish, and a very hot curry, followed by fruit. Dinner was served by two boys, aged about twelve and dressed in white jackets. These two boys and a tall, dark, silent Highland woman were the only servants in the house. On the other side of the hall was another large room fitted up as a chapel – with an altar, crucifix and lectern. Here, every morning, the Planter read the lessons of the Church of England, and the two little boys made the responses. They were his only congregation. During dinner we drank water, but there was a wine-glass by my place, and at the end of the dinner the tall woman poured out for each of us a glass of port. Then she and the boys retired. I did not touch my glass until my host had taken his, and it was well that I refrained, because suddenly he rose.
“Mr. Sutherland you will drink our only toast standing up. I give you the toast: ‘To His Majesty, the King across the water, Charles Stewart.’” I drank the toast, but did not think the port was very good, and left a few drops in my glass. Mr. Sutherland, no-heel taps, if you please. Kindly finish your wine.”
My host led me upstairs and along a corridor. By the sound of our feet I knew we were passing through a corridor of empty rooms. At the end of the corridor he stopped at a door fitted with a Yale lock on the outside, and took out his keys. “No one is allowed to enter this room. I tidy it myself.” As we entered, it was dark, and the door closed behind us with a click. The Planter struck a match and lit a lamp on a round table opposite the empty grate. This curious lamp made a soft whirring noise, and every minute gave a loud click. There was clockwork inside whereby air was propelled towards the flame. The lamp had a green shade, so that although the table was flooded with light, it was difficult to see into the corners of the room. There was a deep, soft carpet on the floor and the windows were covered with heavy curtains which shut out the light of the summer evening. The walls were hung with eastern tapestries, and decorated with heads, antlers and horns of wild animals. All around the walls were low shelves of books, and on the top of these little book-cases were various curious metal vases, and idols. There was a slight aroma of cedar wood. On the mantleshelf was the large, grinning Buddha, and above the god was a solitary picture, its face turned towards the wall. We sat in low arm-chairs with the table between us, and on it my host had placed an ashtray. “You may smoke.” He himself did not smoke.
I told him of my adventures in the Sven Foyn, and, as he listened, I realised that he never smiled, and I remembered that his conversation had been didactic and spoken in a monotone. Thinking that he wished to go to bed, I thanked him for his hospitality.
“No, Mr. Sutherland, it is I who should thank you. I have very few visitors. It is a long time since anyone stayed in this house. You may be the last visitor who will ever stay here. The people of the island avoid this house. It would seem as if they had an intuition that it conceals a secret. It does: and a guilty one. I am the secret. I am one of those who have taken human life—who have killed. My revolver is on the mantleshelf beside the Buddha. Outside the arc of light in which we are sitting the room is dim, otherwise you would have seen the revolver when you looked at the Buddha—and the picture. May I fetch you a glass of water? No! I thought you were looking a little white. The movement of the ship, perhaps! Will you not finish smoking your cigarette? I fear the click of the lamp disturbs you. No? That is well, because there is no harm in the lamp. The click occurs every fifty-five seconds and records the flight of time. I have listened to it for many years. There is no clock in this room, and when I sit here I never look at my watch. You do not carry a revolver? That is wise. It is the dangerous and useless weapon. If you carry a stick you need only use it in cases of necessity. If you draw a revolver you must use it at once, because if you hesitate the other man will kill you. I hope that has been noted.
“The picture with its face to the wall is the portrait of my wife. She was a beautiful woman and the portrait was painted by a famous artist. No one shall ever see that portrait. When the hour comes I will burn it in the fireplace. We lived in a bungalow on my plantation in Burma. There were no children. I hope that has been noted. Our nearest neighbour was miles away. O’Brien was his name. He was a tall, handsome fellow with brown hair, brown moustache and blue eyes. Physically he was of the bovine type which appeals to so many women, but mentally he was alert and vivacious. Being an Irishman he had the charm that captivates all women except those of his own race. His personality was more attractive than mine, because then I was no more attractive than I am now. But I loved my wife. He was a good shot, and in the early days he and I often went shooting together. Later on I thought that his visits to my bungalow were becoming too frequent. The native servants were talking, and I told him to stay away for six months. I knew that he was due to go on leave to England, and hoped he would return with the wife of his own. That would have simplified matters. He had one fault—he lifted his elbow too often. Not that he was a drunkard, but most men who drink, drink too much, and, without knowing, they deteriorate. He did not take his leave, and began to drink more heavily—so my servants were told by his.
“One afternoon I saw him coming across the plantation towards my bungalow with a twelve-bore gun under his arm. My wife at the time was resting in her room. As soon as he was within earshot I called to him that we did not wish to see him. He paid no attention and stepped onto the veranda. Again I told him to clear off, but he answered: ‘I haven’t come to see you. I’ve come to see your wife.’ Then I shot him dead through the heart.
“My wife was very upset, but not more than any woman was likely to be under similar circumstances. She said there was nothing wrong between them, but she had tried to stop his drinking, and that he had must have been out of his mind or else he would never have tried to shoot me. She never knew the truth. The Resident Magistrate held an inquiry. My wife was not called as a witness. There was the evidence of O’Brien’s servants that, after drinking half a bottle of whiskey had gone out to shoot snipe. There was the evidence of my servants that I had given orders to refuse him entrance to my property. There was my evidence as to what he had said on the veranda, and that he had aimed at me with the twelve-bore. On all that, the magistrate decided it was a case of justifiable homicide. The magistrate never knew the truth. When I shot O’Brien he was carrying the gun under his arm, and that gun was never aimed at me. But I never knew the truth. When he fell on the verandah I found his twelve-bore loaded with buckshot and the hammers at full cock. There is no need for buckshot—to kill snipe, and Mr. O’Brien was, to my knowledge, a very careful shot, a man who always not only put down the hammers but also unloaded when coming to a house. Had he been merely drunk he was all the more likely to carry out an automatic action. A year later my wife died of fever. I sold my plantation and came here, where I remain a prisoner on remand awaiting trial. May I light you to your room? We breakfast at eight. If you care to attend, chapel is at seven-thirty.”
“Thank you Sir. But surely—surely, after all these years the case can never be reopened?”
“The case was never really opened and the trial I await will not be in this world.”From “The Arches of the Years” by Halliday Sutherland (1933)
Photo credit: Ronnie Robertson, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons