Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - South Col by A.J. Hall

Rationing notwithstanding, the first Runagates dinner since the war was voted a very credible debut for Phillips, the new club steward. (Old Harrington had gone in the Dunkirk show, while taking Molly, his 35’ Canning and Bertram Thames slipper launch, back to the beaches for the third time of asking). The club’s cellars had survived a couple of near-misses in the Blitz and the cigars were of almost pre-War quality. We pushed back our chairs, and prepared for serious yarning.

I opened the bowling, addressing my left-hand neighbour. “So, Jaikie, tell us what took you down to North Devon.”

Ears pricked up. Jaikie Gant’s travels are eccentric, wide-ranging and not infrequently of profound purport. In the years leading up to the war, his being seen in the vicinity of a Thomas Cook’s in Victoria was rumoured to cause red-stamped memos to land on certain desks in Berlin.

“Nothing remarkable,” Jaikie said. “Alison’s cousin Robin Charvill’s tipped to fight that seat when the sitting Member goes, and the old chap’s been looking very shaky on his pins; he’ll likely ask for the Chiltern Hundreds before the new session starts. So Charvill’s been calling on his old friends and family to help him strategise.”

There was a palpable air of disappointment. We were thinly spread that evening. Lamancha was detained at the House by a late night sitting, Milburne had not yet returned from Greece, Dick Hannay had gone back to Fosse to turn hayseed, and we all felt the gap at the head of the table left by Leithen. When it came to yarns, Jaikie had been my trump card.

A slow smile spread across Jaikie’s face.

“I said nothing remarkable took me there. That doesn’t mean nothing remarkable happened. In fact, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it was one of the queerest things I’ve ever experienced.”

That sounded better. We settled back and the port went round again.

“Charvill wanted us to get a real feel for the constituency, so we agreed we’d each stay in a different place for a couple of nights, then regroup at the Hall to share our impressions. I drew Barlock, and booked myself into a guest house called Weir View. It’s run by a widow called Mrs Kearsey; her father used to be a builder, before he lost his money in the Depression and had a stroke on the strength of it. It’s the kind of place where schoolmarms and nurses take their annual leave, and that, of course, suited me down to the ground.”

Jaikie took a meditative sip of port.

“You know Charvill. He’s got the most tremendous bee in his bonnet about how the worst mistake a politician can make is to underestimate the middle classes. He says for all the people getting agitated about workers’ revolutions, the only really successful uprisings were the ones that got the middle classes behind them. Cromwell, he’ll tell you, was a yeoman farmer, and Washington a prosperous tobacco planter, and if you’d met Lenin on a London bus you’d have taken him for a solicitor’s clerk, and not been far wrong. It’s because the middle classes already have a stake in the system. They’re so much slower to rise up but then, when they do, because they’ve risked more, they’ve that much more determination to see the matter through.”

He smiled. “Anyway, I’d a yen myself for the place; I’d seen pictures of it in illustrated magazines. It’s a mock-Tudor villa, the sort of thing that would be commonplace in Cobham or Staines, but joined by a thirty foot crenellated wall to the most extraordinary tower, the remains of a Gothic folly from the Prince Regent’s day. The combination put me in mind of that curious streak of romanticism you find inside the most prosaic people.”

Jaikie fell momentarily silent, and I knew he must be thinking of his adoptive father, a retired Glasgow provision merchant, for whom the architecture of Weir View is an apt metaphor.

“Get on with it, Gant,” someone muttered from the further reaches of the table. It brought Jaikie back to himself with a start.

“Apologies. Well, I arrived and found Mrs Kearsey all of a fluster, because two of her guests had just announced their engagement — on one week’s acquaintance, if you’ll credit it — and they were to be married from Weir View the very next day, with two of the other guests as witnesses. So, given she was trying to organise a wedding breakfast at twenty-four hours notice on rations, she practically fell on my neck and kissed me when I told her I’d dine at the Barlock Arms to save her trouble. It was a bit early for dinner, but I thought I’d have a couple of pre-dinner pints in the public bar, and take the temperature of the district.”

“Ah! ‘Go to the nearest public house, the centre of country gossip’, as Holmes puts it,” Clanroyden observed.

“Quite so. But you know that part of the country; all deep twisty lanes and no possibility of seeing over the hedgerows. So you hear people coming long before they hie into view. When I heard a couple coming along behind, their voices getting louder as they neared me, I guessed they had to be the young lovers. It was the girl talking, at first. Apparently, however unconventional their engagement, they’d resolved to follow tradition this far, and not be under the same roof on the night before the wedding. The young man was decamping to the Barlock Arms, and the girl was walking down to have dinner with him there. Then the man spoke. I recognised his voice and my nerve broke. Before I knew what I was doing I’d scrambled through the hedge and ducked down out of sight. I simply couldn’t face meeting him.”

Someone let out a low whistle. The man who could intimidate Jaikie Galt must be formidable indeed.

“Who on earth was it?”

“The last time I’d come across him was in September, 1938.” Jaikie sounded evasive. “Things were getting pretty hot for Evallonia by then, of course, so Alison and I had our work cut out making connections and carrying messages between people who couldn’t be known to be in communication at all. Janet Roylance played a tremendous hand. Archie couldn’t get away, but she rented a chalet in Chamonix and held open house for the British climbing fraternity all summer. It was the perfect cover. Climbing’s about the biggest democracy on the planet; no-one batted an eyelid if they found themselves seated at dinner between a Red Clydeside union organiser and a Polish grand duke. No-one could have kept track of anyone’s comings and goings, and the best climbing shop in the Alps was talked at Janet’s table. It wasn’t all talk, either; there were some very pretty new routes pioneered there that summer.”

I saw a few heads nodding.

“This part of the story I was only told about; I was still on the train from Paris. On that particular evening the crowd included S.J. Randall, the Everest man who later went down with the Amphitrite, and his friend, Neil Langton.”

“Langton of the dead sheep story?” It was Clanroyden who asked, but it could have been half a dozen of us. Among climbers, Randall’s name carries the same weight as Ransome’s among anglers or Beckford’s in the shires.

“I daresay.” Jaikie, for the most part, is a doer, not a reader. “Anyway, Randall made his excuses early. Didn’t care for being lionised, Janet said. Langton stayed, though. At about half-past ten Alison came in, still in her mountain gear. She’d been up to a particular climbing hut to meet someone whom the society papers were confidently reporting was at that very moment in a steam yacht off Amalfi.”

There were several possible candidates for the personage in question, two of whom were in the room. We nodded sagely, and Jaikie continued.

“Langton asked Janet to introduce him, which she did by presenting him to ‘my cousin, the Honourable Alison Gant’ in her best County manner. I gather she’d ta’en a scunner to the man. Not that he noticed. He started grilling Alison on her day’s climbing, which — as indicated — didn’t bear scrutiny. The more Alison tried to deflect his enquiries, the more he lectured her. He was particularly forceful about how bad it was when climbers relied on local guides to plan each last hold. Eventually she snapped, and told him relying on people with local knowledge made sense when one didn’t know the area. This was her first summer in Chamonix; except when she’d been growing up in Scotland, most of her climbing had been done in Evallonia.”

“And how did he take that?” I enquired.

“He redoubled his efforts to come the dominie.”

Jaikie is a fine actor, with a wicked gift for mimicry. By little touches of voice or gesture he conveyed the scene.

“He’d not climbed in Evallonia himself, you understand, but Sammy Randall had. Sammy would have written up his climbs, but he was worried about an unfavourable comparison to A.D.Westwater’s Evallonian Rock Routes. Mrs Gant really must read it. Immersing oneself in A.D.Westwater’s work was by far the best preparation anyone could have for the Evallonian massifs. Oh, she had read it? Excellent! And how had she found it? Not too technical for her to get something out of, he hoped?”

Laughter thundered round the room. The club’s dinners are informal and members leave their decorations at home. Between us, though, we’ve amassed a goodly number of awards “For Valour” and their foreign equivalents. Moreover, most of us have known Lord Rhynn’s daughter since her childhood. Nevertheless, none of us would have dared order the erstwhile Miss Alison Diana Westwater to read her own book.

“So what did she do then?”

“Being up to her neck in intrigue cramped her style a bit, I gather.” Jaikie sounded regretful. “She wanted to get him off the subject of her book, but she couldn’t risk his reverting to the topic of where she’d been that day.”

“So?” I prompted.

“So she started on a long and detailed account of her ascent of Mount Krovolin at Easter. That kept him mercifully quiet until she got to the tricky overhang below the south col, the one the locals call ‘the Devil’s Jawbone’. It sounds even more sinister in Evallonian. At that point he burst out, ‘But that ascent’s not in Westwater!’ Naturally, Alison said she knew that, but did he never decide to climb something outside the written-up routes?”

Jaikie drew a deep breath. “Well! She said it was like uncorking a bottle of warm ginger beer you’ve carried at the bottom of your knapsack all day. His opinions all came frothing out. Apparently, ‘lady climbers’ hadn’t got the detachment to weigh up risks properly but rushed into doing stupid things to prove a point and then relied on others to get them out of the consequences. Alison thinks he may even have called her ‘You little fool’ at one point.”

How much had this man had to drink?” Lombard enquired.

“Nothing stronger than tea or seltzer water all evening. He was that sort. Anyway, Alison sent up a distress call with her eyebrows and Janet came gliding over and suggested that delightful as the night was, perhaps Mr Langton might have lost track of the time; she’d had such a fascinating discussion with Mr Randall earlier, and she’d understood the two of them were planning an early start tomorrow — good heavens, today, already! — to make an attempt on La Langue de Griffon and she’d hate to keep him late and risk his being jaded for the ascent. Under which pressure, he pushed.”

“If I ever retire to run a country pub, I’ll engage Janet Roylance as my chucker-out,” Palliser-Yeates said, to general assent.

“When I got in from the railway station shortly after one a.m., the girls were sitting at the table, surrounded by maps, deep in strategising. Alison came to bed after two, was up at five, fresh as a daisy, and she and Janet were off in the car before six, equipped for a serious ascent.”

At this point Jaikie reached for the sugar bowl and various items of club silverware.

“This part will only make sense if you know the lie of the land. La Langue de Griffon is a steepish climb, through a gully going up from here — ” He deposited a sugar lump to indicate the moraine on the lower slope. “— to a broadish sort of ledge here.” A second sugar lump was placed on the table.

“It’s one of those climbs that looks straightforward from the bottom but there’s a kink in the gully with a double overhang —” He brought two mustard spoons into play, arranging them with the tips of their bowls touching at an oblique angle, one with the convex side uppermost and the other the concave. “That bit takes care and time, and you don’t have a clear view in any direction while you’re negotiating it.”

“Furthermore, what the books don’t tell you is that there’s a secondary route up here — ” He placed the salt-cellar between the two sugar-lumps, with the mustard spoons to its right, and traced an oblique line with his finger across its squat belly.

Clanroyden leant forward. “That must be terrifically exposed.”

“Oh, yes. And the handholds are seulement pour les hirondelles, as the locals put it. But it’s a fast route — it has to be, it’s the kind you do on momentum and adrenalin. As a result, once you see that someone’s committed to the gully, you can outflank them, and rejoin the main route here —” He tapped the second mustard spoon, about two thirds of the way up the handle.

“And so beat them to the summit.” Clanroyden sat back in his chair and, finding the port at his elbow, topped up his glass.

“Quite so. Apparently, when Randall and Langton got past the double overhang and saw two figures ahead of them in the upper part of the gully their only thought was that they must have bivouacked overnight, though they were blessed to see what they could have bivouacked on. And then they ascended the final short pitch to the top and found Janet and Alison sitting on the ledge, busy with lipstick and powder puffs, for all the world like a brace of Hollywood stars on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Cannes.”

The room exploded in laughter.

“Anyway, once they’d descended, of course Janet had to do the decent thing and offer their fellow climbers a lift back to Chamonix, which Randall accepted before Langton could say anything. Randall and Alison swapped technicalities about different ascents in Evallonia all the way back. They got on like a house on fire.”

“And Langton?”

“Not a cheep out of him. Of course, he’d had a strenuous day. Four very hot and thirsty climbers piled out of the car when they arrived back at the chalet, sorely in need of tea. Alison was barely inside the door before she called out, ‘Jaikie, did you happen to pick up that package from Crofts and Cooper before you left London?’”

Hearing the publishers’ name, we grinned in anticipation. Jaikie continued.

“As luck would have it, I had remembered. It was a solid brute, wrapped in brown paper, and had been a thorough nuisance on the train. I produced it, Alison unwrapped it and out came a dozen shiny new advance copies of Further Ascents in Evallonia by A.D. Westwater. She picked up two and held them out to Langton and Randall. She said, ‘May I offer you a souvenir of a memorable ascent? I hope you enjoy it.’ And at that moment, seeing Randall’s face, I suddenly felt like a complete and total worm.”

Randall’s face?” Lombard said. Around the table, the rest of us echoed his surprise. Only Clanroyden, his eyes glittering, looked as if he thought he understood.

“Yes, of course Randall,” Jaikie said irritably. “I didn’t care what Langton thought, and still don’t. But we’d treated Randall badly.”

“How?” Palliser-Yeates demanded. “I met Randall a few times; he’d be the last man to worry about being beaten to the top by two climbers who’d taken an undocumented route. He’d take his hat off to them and be on the same face next day, aiming to do it faster and better. And he’d not sneeze at getting his hands on an advance copy of Allie’s book.”

“I know all that,” Jaikie said. “He couldn’t have had a better day — he told us all that, jointly and severally, numerous times over the course of the evening. But nevertheless, none of us had cared a fig for him from one end of it to the other. We’d just made use of him for our petty revenge.”

In the light of the great candelabras, Jaikie’s face looked so pale, so one could not tell where skin ended and collar and tie began. His voice had sunk to a low mumble.

“I’ve felt better about doing some fellow a bad turn by design than I did about doing Randall a good one by accident. Alison and I talked it over the next day. We came up with all sorts of ideas about how we could make it up to him: inviting him to to climb with us on Scottish estates with curmudgeonly landlords and that sort of thing. But they all got shipwrecked on the same problem. We couldn’t explain why we weren’t inviting Langton, and it was utterly impossible to invite them both. So there it stayed until the war broke out. And then I saw his name, quite by chance, on a casualty list in ‘43 … Anyway, you can see why the prospect of spending the evening in the company of Neil Langton and his fiancée struck me as less attractive than a stint in the dentist’s chair.”

We all accepted that this was a problem of considerable social awkwardness. Nevertheless, we also felt the story to date hardly deserved the billing Jaikie had given it, and said so.

“I was coming to that.”

In his efforts to avoid the engaged couple, Jaikie explained, he had shunned the Barlock Arms in favour of the Royal Oak, a little further up the high street. There he came unexpectedly upon a landlord who was both a compatriot in exile and a great rugby football fan. As a result, he had been invited to partake in a convivial and satisfying potato pie supper, for which the landlord had refused to take any payment. Granted, the ale and cider consumed by the throng who had magically appeared to shake the hand of Jaikie Galt, the International, must have more than compensated him.

By the time he stepped out into Barlock High Street, the greater part of the cottages’ windows were dark, their inhabitants already retired to bed. The sounds of ragged, yet oddly harmonious singing drifted from the bar parlour of the Barlock Arms as he passed it. Bats danced among the trees fringing the Bridgehead Road, and the corn-stubble on the facing hills shone cold and unforgiving under the high-sailing hunter’s moon.

He dimly perceived two dark shapes beside the bus-stop at the far end of the village; would, indeed, have gone blundering thoughtlessly past, had the night not been so still and their voices, accordingly, carrying.

“For God’s sake, what’s the harm if I walk you as far as Weir View door? I’ll not come in. You’re simply being absurd.” Langton’s schoolmasterly air would have grated, Jaikie judged, even had there not been certain events on the Chamonix aiguilles colouring his viewpoint.

“Well, if I am? I thought it was a bride’s privilege to be absurd.” The girl sounded breathless, a forced kind of gaiety in her voice. Jaikie had spent most of his war fighting alongside the Evallonian guerillas. He recognised her tone at once. The peasant fighters sounded exactly like that, if forced by circumstances to allude to some bone-deep superstition which, for the benefit of townsmen and foreigners, they affected to make light of.

“But not when it means taking a stupid risk. Half a mile back to Weir View, uphill in the dark, and who knows what kind of people may be about?”

“There’s a moon. And I spent six years working a lathe, don’t forget. There were all kinds of people in the factory, too… No, Neil; I know that men — the decent ones, anyway — can’t help but be chivalrous. It’s innate, like a smile when you’re happy. But please — leave me here, and promise me: don’t look back as you go into the Barlock Arms. I feel there has to be a — a sharp edge — between who we are tonight and who we’ll be tomorrow night. And this is where that edge must be. So leave me here, this side of it. Please.”

Jaikie crouched down into a ditch — dry, thank the stars — and Langton was oblivious of his presence when, a few moments later, he strode past his hiding place towards the Barlock Arms. Jaikie continued to crouch in the same uncomfortable attitude for some minutes more, until the man got well away. As he rose from his cramped position, it occurred to him that he had put himself into a faintly farcical position. If he had not been so chary of Langton’s company at dinner, he would have claimed a slight, time-smoothed acquaintance, been introduced to the girl and, as a matter of course once it became known they were both staying at Weir View, walked with her up the hill. If he had left the Royal Oak half an hour earlier, or simply ignored the couple at the bus stop, he could already be home.

But now, were he to cover the ground at his ordinary loping stride, he must, inevitably, catch up with the girl some distance before she reached the guest house. As soon as she became aware of him apparently following her, she would doubtless assume him to be exactly the kind of ne’er do well Langton had warned her of. At best he would give her a nasty shock, and at worst she might be precipitated into a headlong flight which could end in a sprained ankle and a ruined wedding day.

Nothing he could now say, without Langton to vouch for him, would suffice. And yet he had a bed and all his gear at Weir View, and Mrs Kearsey would surely be getting anxious about her absent guests.

He compromised by slowing his pace down to what he regarded as an insufferable dawdle. Nevertheless, as he rounded a bend in the lane he saw the faint white gleam of the girl’s cardigan less than seventy yards ahead. He had not allowed for the handicap of women’s shoes on rough ground.

Hereabouts the tall bank had crumbled and fallen away in a couple of places, letting the moon spill across the lane’s floor in two great silver bands, perhaps the length of a cricket pitch apart.

The girl reached the first of the moonlit patches. Jaikie saw her clearly for the first time: a slender, delicate figure, clad in white cardigan and a dress that looked grey in the moonlight, but was more probably blue, her shadow flung gigantic in front of her.

She crossed into the dividing shadow. A cloud passed across the face of the moon. Even the faint gleam of her cardigan vanished.

Then the cloud passed. The moon looked brighter by far than it had been been before, cold and primeval: a pitiless Diana, arrayed for the hunt. In the coppice, a fox screamed. The hair rose on the back of Jaikie’s neck.

Out into the second patch of moonlight a beast stalked, dapple-furred and perhaps a little larger than an Alsatian dog. The first thing one noticed were its legs, the hind pair seemingly longer than the front, so it moved in a head-down slouch, powerful and dangerous, like a heavyweight champion entering the ring. Its tail was an attenuated stump, its ears stretched to tall points, appearing taller still by the dark tufts that crowned them.

Such animals had ceased to roam Britain a millennium and a half ago, but Jaikie had learnt woodsmanship in the deep forests of Evallonia. He knew what he was seeing.

It was a lynx.

In the moonlight the creature stretched and yawned, like a domestic cat which basks by its native hearth. Then, on the instant, it sprang into motion, bounding up the lane under the tree tunnel, uphill towards Weir View.

As best he could, Jaikie searched the lane, and the nearer part of the field behind the broken bank. He dropped to hands and knees and used every one of a box of matches looking for tracks, and those he found disquieted him very greatly. There had been a storm two nights ago, and the lane bottom was still damp. On the edge of the first patch of moonlight he saw the impression of the girl’s shoe, narrow and delicate, with a deeper small square for the heel. Above that, the tracks were only those of the beast.

And that was Jaikie’s story.

For a moment the whole room was silent. The club’s walls had heard many stories from the wild, remote places of the world and out of the darkest depths of men’s spirits, but the common consensus was that Jaikie had made good on his promise.

After a moment, I found my voice. “So, what did you do?”

Jaikie shrugged. “What could I do? I hesitated a bit, but I could hardly go back to the village and tell Langton, ‘Excuse me, but I have reason to believe your fiancée can turn into a lynx. If you don’t know already, perhaps you should have it out with her before the wedding.’ Especially not after the Chamonix business. At best he’d have thought it was a joke in atrocious taste, and at worst I’d have been sent to Tone Vale. Either way, it would have done Charvill no good in the constituency.”

Those of us who had constituencies of our own to nurse nodded, acknowledging the validity of this consideration.

Jaikie continued, as if trying to convince himself more than us. “To be honest, the tale sounded mad even to me. And while I’d like to think I’ve a better head than that, anyone I told it to would be minded to point out I had spent the whole evening in a pub. Anyway, there was no use hanging about. Mrs Kearsey would be wanting to lock up. So I carried on through the tree tunnel, back to Weir View.”

As I’ve said, there were some pretty big men in that room. Nevertheless, the simple, matter-of-fact way in which Jaikie recounted his decision made us feel humble. Walking up between those high banks, the late summer trees forming a thick canopy above and an uncanny, shape-shifting something stalking the shadows — I’d not have cared to do it alone, and I doubt I’d have been the only one to admit it, had anyone asked.

Still, Jaikie had arrived unmolested at the door of Weir View. There he found his landlady in a terrible pother. He enquired, and was told that yes; he was the last of the late stragglers. The bride-to-be (her name was Ellen, he learnt) had been a few minutes ahead of him, but had gone straight to bed, and who could blame her, with such a big day in prospect? Jaikie said all that was proper, civilly refused the offer of a hot drink, and made his way up to his own room.

He made a thorough search of it, and then pulled the gimcrack chest of drawers across his door, by way of barrier. Though it was a warm night, he pulled down the sash of the window, locked it and pulled the curtains across. He then switched off the light and spent what was, on his own admission, a sleepless night, trying to calm his nerves by selecting an ideal Lions team from all the greatest players of the century. Two or three times he thought he heard a heavy body land on the windowsill and something scratch at the window. He did not rise, but maintained the tense, alert stillness of one who watches from covert until the noise — whatever it was — ceased.

As the grey dawn spread through the room he reached a decision. His bag already packed, he came down to Mrs Kearsey and explained that he had telephoned his wife from the village the previous night. (Mrs Kearsey seemed unsure whether to take the trunk call as evidence of wild profligacy or uxorious devotion.) It appeared that a very old friend was making a flying visit, someone they had not seen since before the war. He’d spent the night thinking it over, but had reached the conclusion that he could not afford to miss his friend; it might be another six years if he did. So, regretfully, he would have to curtail his stay.

Jaikie saw Mrs Kearsey begin to steel herself for a struggle and raised a hand to forestall her. He appreciated that at such short notice she would find it difficult to relet the room, so of course he would pay for both nights. And, since she was no doubt busy with the wedding preparations, he would take his leave now, without waiting for breakfast. Consider his egg and butter ration his contribution to the feast.

The Royal Oak was still shuttered up, but the Barlock Arms, being a hotel, was serving breakfast and more than prepared to extend that favour to a non-resident. Venturing onto Langton’s territory Jaikie saw as a gold stater tossed to determine his next move. If the man himself appeared, then he would attempt to describe last night’s events, come what may. If he did not, it would indicate fate wished matters to take their course.

Fate made herself known in the form of a chatty waitress. With the harvest in and county cricket and stag-hunting both still shelved “for the duration” the local conversationalists had been gravelled for want of matter. Langton’s whirlwind romance had mercifully supplied it. Furthermore, while to date Weir View had hogged the lion’s share of the credit, the waitress was keen to emphasise that the lovers had dined the previous evening at the Barlock Arms, and the groom had even spent the night under its roof.

At the first mention of the name “Langton” Jaikie saw his stater begin to spin in the air.

“It’s a long shot,” he said casually, “but I wonder if he could be the same man my wife and I were briefly acquainted with, before the war, climbing in Chamonix?”

“Climbing! Mr Langton’s a climber all right. I can tell you a thing — ” The waitress brought out her nugget of intelligence with a conscious pride in possession and display, like someone setting out their Crown Derby tea service for an honoured visitor.

Three days ago her parents, who kept a small farm “over Matterscombe way” had been horrified to find a blood-stained, tatterdemallion figure pounding on their door during the worst of the thunderstorm, babbling tales of a climbing accident. The waitress was no Sammy Randall but made up for it with local knowledge and common sense. Her detailed description of the crag Langton had attempted and the conditions in which he had done so made Jaikie’s eyes widen. Had the man run mad or — a dark thought crossed Jaikie’s mind — had he seen something which caused him to think himself mad, and been looking for a plausible way out?

The stater was spinning in ever decreasing circles; soon it must fall one side or the other.

“He must be the man I know. Well, I’m called away, but I should congratulate him before I go. He’s staying here, you say? Where can I find him?”

The waitress’s face was cast down. The bridegroom had risen early and made a poor breakfast (“But then, they mostly do,” she confided, with a sidelong grin) and gone out somewhere — she had no idea where, but from his clothes and knapsack he must have set off on some sort of early morning tramp to clear his head, and avoid the bad luck of seeing the bride.

The stater was slowing to a stop.

“I’m not dressed for it, but perhaps I ought to drop in to the church, all the same,” Jaikie said. “What time’s the service?”

The waitress’s face clouded. “Oh, it’s not at the parish church. Divorced.” She lent over the table and hissed confidentially, “Not his fault, poor man. He went to the war, and while he was away his wife started going with Yanks. So it has to be the registry office in Bridgehead. It’s the bride I feel sorry for. Those places always put me in mind of railway waiting rooms. However much she loves him, in her place I wouldn’t feel I’d been married properly if it hadn’t been in church.”

Not in this bride’s case. Jaikie suspected Ellen owed her devotion to an older pantheon. It occurred to him that Langton’s matrimonial shipwreck (and how the devil had the man got one woman to accept him, let alone two?) had worked out very handily for her.

He rose, paid, left a generous tip and strolled down the road to the local garage, where he was unsurprised to learn that the only car available for hire had already been bespoken to take the wedding party over to Bridgehead. He checked bus times at the post office; nothing in either direction for an hour, and it would be the Scrinmouth bus first.

In the end, he did the only thing open to him and returned to the Royal Oak, which had now opened. He sat on the bench outside with two old gaffers, nursing half a pint and scanning the High Street for Langton’s return.

“The idiot!” he exclaimed, leaping abruptly to his feet after some thirty minutes. The gaffers, surprised but not discomfited by his vehemence (they had, after all, been discussing the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) nodded sagely.

Of course, why had he not thought of it before? Bridgehead was little more than six miles away; less than an hour and a half for a good walker. Langton was just the sort to go in for half-baked mysticism. If circumstances prevented him from presenting himself to his chosen bride before the altar of St Dubricius, Barlock, then he would come to her as a pilgrim, the dust of the road still on his feet.

Through Jaikie’s mind tumbled fantasies of heroic bicycle rides, of commandering a horse and going full pelt cross-country, of running down to the little port and making a pierhead jump onto a steam drifter. (The tide, he recollected a moment later, was out, and the fishing fleet either still at sea or landlocked until the afternoon.)

All his ideas were equally impracticable. Langton had over an hour’s start on him and, absent a miracle, Jaikie could not reach him before the wedding.

The stater had been tossed, and had come down tails. Fate had spoken.

He went back to the ale-bench and waited until the Bridgehead bus hove into view, at which he said his farewells, caught up his pack and sprinted for the stop. He heard the church clock strike the half hour as they moved off. For better or worse, Langton would be a married man in the next few minutes.

There were two farmer’s wives on the seat in front of him, handbags on their knees.

“Not your day for Bridgehead, Mavis,” the older one observed. Jaikie, amused despite his preoccupations, thought he had rarely heard a better opening to an interrogation.

The younger woman cracked, instantly; doubtless she had encountered the technique many times before and knew resistance to be futile.

“Sammy’s sent me in to the gunsmiths. He’s after more cartridges.”

“Ah.” The older woman took a packet of peppermints from her bag, and offered them to her neighbour. “Trouble, then?”

“You could say that. Same as we had in the spring with that artist’s borzoi, worrying the sheep. Only this time Sammy found one of our prize ewes with her throat ripped out. So he and the men are going to be up patrolling the moor tonight, looking for the dog that did it. If it was a dog. Grandad, he would keep talking about something that happened over at Newton Abbott when he was a boy. He said he’d never forgotten the marks on the dead beasts, nor ever seen anything like them since, before this morning. Big cat it was, that time, what the Americans call a bobcat. Escaped from a menagerie, most like. But dog or cat, my Sammy said, it’s all the same to lead shot.”