A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY Chapter V

A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY Chapter V

“What’s gone wrong?”
 
“It sounds like the axle,” said the chauffeur ruefully.

He unshipped a lamp and examined the car, which had wedged itself against a great drift of snow on the off side. Meanwhile McCurdie and Biggleswade had alighted.

“Yes, it’s the axle,” said the chauffeur.

“Then we’re done,” remarked Doyne.

“I’m afraid so, my lord.”

“What’s the matter? Can’t we get on?” asked Biggleswade in his querulous voice.

McCurdie laughed. “How can we get on with a broken axle? The thing’s as useless as a man with a broken back. Gad, I was right. I said it was going to be an infernal journey.”

The little Professor wrung his hands. “But what’s to be done?” he cried.

“Tramp it,” said Lord Doyne, lighting a fresh cigar.

“It’s ten miles,” said the chauffeur.

“It would be the death of me,” the Professor wailed.

“I utterly refuse to walk ten miles through a Polar waste with a gouty foot,” McCurdie declared wrathfully.

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The chauffeur offered a solution of the difficulty. He would set out alone for Foullis Castle—five miles farther on was an inn where he could obtain a horse and trap—and would return for the three gentlemen with another car. In the meanwhile they could take shelter in a little house which they had just passed, some half mile up the road. This was agreed to. The chauffeur went on cheerily enough with a lamp, and the three travellers with another lamp started off in the opposite direction. As far as they could see they were in a long, desolate valley, a sort of No Man’s Land, deathly silent. The eastern sky had cleared somewhat, and they faced a loose rack through which one pale star was dimly visible.

“I’m a man of science,” said McCurdie as they trudged through the snow, “and I dismiss the supernatural as contrary to reason; but I have Highland blood in my veins that plays me exasperating tricks. My reason tells me that this place is only a commonplace moor, yet it seems like a Valley of Bones haunted by malignant spirits who have lured us here to our destruction. There’s something guiding us now. It’s just uncanny.”

“Why on earth did we ever come?” croaked Biggleswade.

Lord Doyne answered: “The Koran says, ‘Nothing can befall us but what God hath destined for us.’ So why worry?”

“Because I’m not a Mohammedan,” retorted Biggleswade.

“You might be worse,” said Doyne.

Presently the dim outline of the little house grew perceptible. A faint light shone from the window. It stood unfenced by any kind of hedge or railing a few feet away from the road in a little hollow beneath some rising ground. As far as they could discern in the darkness when they drew near, the house was a mean, dilapidated hovel. A guttering candle stood on the inner sill of the small window and afforded a vague view into a mean interior. Doyne held up the lamp so that its rays fell full on the door. As he did so, an exclamation broke from his lips and he hurried forward, followed by the others. A man’s body lay huddled together on the snow by the threshold. He was dressed like a peasant, in old corduroy trousers and rough coat, and a handkerchief was knotted round his neck. In his hand he grasped the neck of a broken bottle. Doyne set the lamp on the ground and the three bent down together over the man. Close by the neck lay the rest of the broken bottle, whose contents had evidently run out into the snow.

“Drunk?” asked Biggleswade.

Doyne felt the man and laid his hand on his heart.

“No,” said he, “dead.”

McCurdie leaped to his full height. “I told you the place was uncanny!” he cried. “It’s fey.” Then he hammered wildly at the door.

There was no response. He hammered again till it rattled. This time a faint prolonged sound like the wailing of a strange sea-creature was heard from within the house. McCurdie turned round, his teeth chattering.

“Did ye hear that, Doyne?”

“Perhaps it’s a dog,” said the Professor.

Lord Doyne, the man of action, pushed them aside and tried the door-handle. It yielded, the door stood open, and the gust of cold wind entering the house extinguished the candle within. They entered and found themselves in a miserable stone-paved kitchen, furnished with poverty-stricken meagreness—a wooden chair or two, a dirty table, some broken crockery, old cooking utensils, a fly-blown missionary society almanac, and a fireless grate. Doyne set the lamp on the table.

“We must bring him in,” said he.

A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY Chapter VI

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