Scarweather: A British Library Crime Classic

Scarweather: A British Library Crime Classic

With an introduction by Martin Edwards. "My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case. As a study in criminal aberration ...

About The Author

Anthony Rolls

ANTHONY ROLLS was a pseudonym of C.E. Vulliamy (1886–1971), a biographer, soldier and archaeologist of distinction who also wrote ten ...

Read an Excerpt

 

Chapter I

1

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case. As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

Although I agree with Ellingham, I may as well say that I present the case with extraordinary reluctance. It would be far better if Ellingham, who actually unravelled the mystery, told the story in his own businesslike way. I have little skill as a narrator, and I particularly dislike the autobiographical form which I am obliged to adopt in telling my own version of this fantastic tragedy. I do not mean to say that I object to playing the traditional and honourable part of a Watson. That has nothing to do with it. My difficulties or diffidences are of a personal kind. In telling the story I shall have to speak with unflinching candour about people who are closely bound to me by ties of affection, and about events which it is now painful to recall. I must also refer continually to my own thoughts and actions in order to give the reader a steady and coherent narrative. To many, such an opportunity for self-display would be delightful; to me, it is an ordeal of the most hateful description. But there are circumstances in which personal reluctance ought to be overcome. There can be no doubt that the case of Tolgen Reisby is not merely an astounding adventure in the ordinary sense of the words, it is also a most valuable contribution to the study of the criminal mind—that is, to a definite aspect of mental disorder.

As a barrister, I am profoundly interested in the psychology of the criminal, though I am fully aware that a knowledge of psychology is not considered desirable by those who devise or administer the laws of England. It was against this particular weakness of mine that Ellingham chiefly directed his attack. It was my duty, he said, to place on record a case both exciting and instructive. He also pointed out (rather cruelly, I thought) that I had plenty of spare time which I could occupy both pleasantly and profitably in writing a book.

There were other people to be consulted—one especially—and they ultimately gave their consent, with the obvious proviso that I should carefully disguise the names of persons, towns and localities. All this led me in the direction of an autobiographical novel, and in this form the story is to be told.

I have given this brief explanation in order that my readers may see why it is that I have decided to publish the case, and why I am obliged to appear so prominently in the narrative. I can at least promise that I shall not forget my function as a mere narrator, and that I shall keep within the limits which are prescribed by the function.

 

2

My own name is John Farringdale. My father, who owned a considerable property in Dorset, died when I was a boy; and I had the good fortune to be his only son. After her husband’s death, my mother bought a house in Richmond. She had never cared for the trifling amenities and the primitive amusements of provincial life, and she was anxious to be nearer the more intellectual society with which she was already acquainted in London.

At the time of this move I was being educated at a famous public school. My sister Vivian, three years older, lived at Richmond with my mother. In 1911 I went to Cambridge. I had already chosen the profession of the law.

But I am not writing the history of my life, and I need give no further immediate particulars concerning myself. It is enough to say that in 1913, when the action of this drama commences, I was twenty-one years old.

During the period of my University life I had two great friends. One of these was a man about fifteen years older than myself, a reader in chemistry who lived with his wife and young son at Cambridge. He was a man whose career had been extremely brilliant, and his exploits in colloidal chemistry were familiar to scientific men in every part of the world. But the charm and originality of his character made him, in my eyes, far more remarkable than his exploits in science. I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of real attainment. He had a faculty for acquiring rapidly, not the rudiments alone, but the most reliable and intimate knowledge of any science or study. He was a gifted musician, and his playing of the klavierwerke of Bach, though academic, placed him in the professional category. Yet with all his learning and accomplishment he was a jocular, simple fellow, not incapable of being sardonic, though totally incapable of being ill-natured, petulant or conceited. Unlike most intellectual men, he had been an oarsman and athlete of unusual promise, and his dedication to a life of study was a matter of deep regret and of great astonishment to the President of the C.U.B.C. It was, I think, this diffusion of interest and rapidity of acquirement which prevented him from rising at once to the highest eminence; but I can truly say that I know of no man who got more out of life or who was more generally attractive. I shall endeavour to display certain aspects of his intricate though delightful character in the course of my book. His name was Frederick Ellingham.

My other great friend at this time was a young cousin of mine—Eric Tallard Foster. He was two years older than I was, we had been at school together, and he left Oxford in 1912 in order to study medicine at the London Hospital. His parents had died in India, victims of the plague at Amminadar, and he had been brought up by an elderly spinster aunt, Miss Muriel Tallard Foster, at Highgate.

Eric spent a good deal of his time in our house at Richmond, where my kind mother was always glad to see him. We used to amuse ourselves in a variety of ways, some of them more commendable than others; our subjects of debate extended from neoplatonism to the tunes in the latest musical comedy. Eric was interested in archaeological matters, particularly in the bones of ancient men, and he tried hard to work up my own enthusiasm.

On a Sunday afternoon we would go splashing about in the dreary gravel-pits of the Thames valley, looking for bits of chipped flint or the relics of a mammoth, and Eric always hoped that he would see the skull of a real Neanderthal man protruding from the side of the pit. This important skull, if we ever did find it, would go down to posterity under the label of homo Fosteri, or perhaps homo Tallardensis; for it is well known that every fossil cranium represents a new variety of the race.

I was perhaps fonder of Eric, at that time, than I was of anyone else. Our circumstances were not dissimilar. We were both of us the only sons of our parents; we had both lost our fathers, and both had been reared from boyhood by solitary women. We had a common interest in family affairs. Each of us had made up his mind to work zealously at his profession; and as these professions were different, there could be no question of rivalry.

No doubt Eric resembled me in many ways, but I cannot believe that I was ever so persistently romantic or so ready to fall in love. Perhaps I lacked his advantages in this respect, for I am of a bleak, saturnine appearance, while poor Eric was undeniably handsome. He was tall, fair, muscular, with a fine easy generosity in his manner and approach. Women of all ages found him attractive, and they might very well have made a mess of his life if he had not been fortified by a reflective mind and a chivalrous nature.

I think he had been falling in and out of love since he was about eleven years old. Serious affairs, too; no flighty flirtation or passing caprice. Fortunately he was too simple, too serious, and probably too poor, for the minx or the mere philandering female, and so he was preserved from real trouble. Moreover, besides being deeply and incurably romantic, he was easily shocked, he was a sentimental Puritan, a youth who kept in view the uncompromising lineaments of an ideal mistress.

From his childhood Eric had been extremely fond of my sister Vivian; but she, poor girl! Had the ominous Farringdale countenance and was therefore disqualified in the competition of ideals.

His love of archaeology was the means of introducing Eric to a very singular man, Professor Tolgen Reisby, who occupied with much honour the Pattervale Chair of Genetics in the University of Northport. They were both members of the London Archaeological Union, and Reisby had been greatly impressed by a paper which Eric had written on the Menite cemetery of Tarkhan.

Reisby was a man of prodigious intellect and of wide scientific knowledge. Although chiefly known for his great work on the Morphology of Hybrid Variants, he was a notable exponent of new methods in archaeological research in 1912, and had published a lengthy account of his investigations in the north of England. He was also an experimental chemist of considerable repute, though his results had only been made known in the form of occasional essays.

A happy coincidence of opinion on the subject of the pottery of the Alsatian tumuli led to a real friendship between the eminent Professor and the young enthusiast. Nothing is more likely to win the affection of a learned man than agreement upon a solemn trifle.

In the summer vacation of 1913 my cousin was invited by Professor Reisby to visit him at his home in the north of England. Eric accepted the invitation with delight, he spent three weeks with the Professor and his family at Aberleven (a fishing hamlet on the coast), and he returned with a glowing account of his host and hostess. Reisby, it appeared, had married late in life a woman who was thirty years younger than himself. If his obituary notice may be taken as reliable evidence, Professor Reisby was fifty-four in October 1913; his wife, on the 18th of February in the same year, celebrated her twenty-third birthday. They had one child, a daughter.

I will admit that when I heard all this (knowing Eric) I felt a little uneasy. Eric was undoubtedly one of the most honourable of young men, but he was also one of the most susceptible. And even at the age of twenty-one I was wise enough to see the possibility of danger in the Professor’s household. The very fact of Mrs. Reisby being—as she clearly was—an extremely nice woman actually increased the danger, for she could not otherwise have become one of Eric’s ideals. When I heard that she was not only extremely nice but also extremely pretty I felt even more apprehensive.

But Eric’s talk, after his visit, was mainly about Professor Reisby himself. I saw, not without satisfaction, that he was evidently on terms of respectful familiarity with this eminent and remarkable man.

Tolgen Reisby, according to Eric, had amiable eccentricities, but they were of a lovable or diverting nature. “He’s a great big fellow with a red beard, like a Norseman,” said Eric, “but you should see how gentle and playful he is with his wife and child. He spends a lot of his time studying, or at work in his laboratory, and sometimes he goes walking off by himself and is away for hours. They have a boat in the creek below the house, and he and I used to go fishing… I’m going there again. I think they are the most charming and most interesting people in the world. Probably they are coming up to London this autumn, and you will meet them, of course.”

Evidently the Reisbys were interesting people. Th lived in a lonely though comfortable house near the shore at Aberleven, within fifteen miles of Northport. The Professor had rooms in Northport, but he seldom used them, preferring to go up to the University in his car. Mrs. Reisby was the daughter of a well-known surgeon. Her parents had been opposed to her marriage at so early an age to a man so much older than herself, and although her mother had relented after the birth of the child, and had even stayed for a fortnight at Scarweather (the Professor’s house), her father had steadily declined to have anything to do with Reisby.

Life at Aberleven, on a bleak northern shore with little society and few amusements, would have been insufferably monotonous to the majority of young women; and it was fortunate that Mrs. Reisby was not only devoted to her husband and her child, but was able to take a practical and a lively interest in the Professor’s work. Mrs. Reisby occasionally stayed with her parents in Manchester; the Professor seldom left his home in the north, unless to confer with his learned colleagues, or to attend their meetings in London or in one of the southern Universities. Once a year he visited a friend in Upsala and a group of distant relatives in Bergen; his grandfather had been a captain in the merchant service of Norway. He also visited Hamburg.

 

3

Frederick Ellingham used to stay frequently, for a few days or a week at a time, with his old parents in London. His father, Admiral Sir Hugh Walberswick Ellingham, had a house in Gloucester Terrace, and when Frederick was staying there in the vacation I used to meet him nearly every day.

To go about London with a man like Ellingham, who seemed to know something about everything and everybody, was always delightful. If I could not keep pace with the activity of his mind, or rise to the level of his own varied enthusiasms, I could not fail to be interested in the man himself and in the extraordinary resources or powers of his character.

Ellingham never boasted; but he used to observe, in his dry, deliberate manner, that he knew a little about almost every condition of life. I never came across anyone with a more astonishing variety of acquaintances—I might say, a more embarrassing variety. Apart from churchmen, I believe he knew men in every profession. In view of his own remarkable intellect, you might have anticipated a wide acquaintance among learned men; you would scarcely have anticipated a sympathy and a liking for the relatively obscure—newspaper reporters, jobbers, dealers, clerks in offices, policemen, railwaymen, sailors, engineers, waiters, door-keepers, and a whole multitude of humble folk in every conceivable kind of employment.

You would find him chatting to a dealer in St. James’s about the authenticity of a Rembrandt; a few minutes later he would be listening to the woes of some tattered individual whose daughter had lost her job in the chorus; and at lunch time he was playing draughts with a Russian Jew in some disreputable but entertaining place near the Docks. In the afternoon, perhaps, he would go to hear a new pianist at the Wigmore Hall; and he would have tea with Lady Pallardyne, the celebrated reformer of the English workhouse. He might dine with Lord Emberley de Hazebrouck, or he might eat sausages with a taxi-driver and his family at Notting Hill.

It so happened that Ellingham was in town in January 1914 when my cousin Eric told me, with delight, that Professor and Mrs. Reisby were coming to London for an informal meeting of scientific workers.

“I should like to meet Reisby,” said Ellingham. “He and I have written to each other on the subject of colloidal analyses, and we have both refuted Herr Gumberstein. By the way,” he added, “judging from what you have told me and from what I have heard, Reisby is a very singular fellow.”

“And what have you heard?” I asked him.

Ellingham chose to ignore my question. He drew a golden toothpick from a case in his pocket and lightly tapped it along his lower teeth; it was an offensive habit which always annoyed me, though I knew it was the prelude to cogitation.

“I may have met him, or I may have seen him,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”

Such a remark appeared to me rather strange, coming from so exact a man as Ellingham and relating to so famous a man as Professor Reisby.

“Well,” I said, “Eric will certainly take me to see them, and it would be very pleasant if you came with us. I myself am very anxious to meet these people, because Eric is frightfully taken up with them, you know, and he and I have always been more like brothers than cousins—”

“Quite, quite!” said Ellingham, who avoided sentiment of every kind. He tilted back his head, rattled his toothpick against his upper molars, and closed his eyes.

“Reisby!” he said. “Ah, yes!—distinctly interesting!”

On the 11th of January I was informed by Eric that the Reisbys were staying at a private hotel in Earl’s Court, and would be delighted if I could go round with him and see them after dinner on the following day; they would also be glad to meet my friend Ellingham—indeed, the Professor was particularly anxious to have a talk with him. It was a very quiet hotel, said Eric, and we should probably have one of the private drawing-rooms to ourselves. The Reisbys would be in town for ten days at least. Eric was clearly excited and happy.

“You are sure to like them, John. He is a wonderful fellow—so frightfully clever, and yet so simple and kind and manly! He’s amusing, too; in a boisterous, Nordic style. And I’m sure you will be interested in Hilda—Mrs. Reisby—”

He broke off abruptly, and I saw that he was blushing.

“We are great pals,” he explained. “She’s not an ordinary young woman, I can assure you. Not at all. She knows quite a lot about archaeology—almost as much as Tolgen himself. And there’s no nonsense about her. She can understand a fellow and take a real interest in his work without being sentimental or sloppy—”

His eagerness, of course, revealed the secret. He was evidently falling in love with Mrs. Reisby. I knew the symptoms; I had seen them before. I could only hope that he was right in describing her as a lady incapable of nonsense.

 

4

Ellingham was fortunately free, and he accompanied Eric and myself to the Reisbys’ hotel. When we got there we found that they had actually reserved a drawing-room, and had invited that famous man, Dr. Fulmar Pepperlow, to meet us—or perhaps I should say, to meet Ellingham. We anticipated a memorable evening, and we were not disappointed.

Tolgen Reisby was decidedly impressive. He was tall, rugged and immensely powerful. He wore a brown suit of some fluffy material which added to the natural effect of his bulk and made him look positively gigantic. His trousers were loose and voluminous; the upper buttons of his waistcoat were unfastened, releasing the untidy mass of a blue and yellow tie. The whole appearance of the man was barbaric; you might have taken him for a crofter of the Hebrides, or the skipper of an Aberdeen herring-boat.

Such might have been your first impression, but that was quickly changed when you looked at his face and heard him talk.

Ellingham, with his dislike of anything romantic, would never agree with me when I described Reisby as a thoughtful hero, an immense barbarian, subdued by intelligence, kindness and learning. But so he appeared to me from the first moment and so I remember him. A big red beard, already silvering at the edges, flowed lavishly over the crumpled folds of his blue and yellow tie. His face, like that of some benevolent Jupiter, was carved out in massive and ample forms. His tawny eyebrows were thick and overhanging, and a tangle of reddish-brown hair, parted high above the forehead, fell in a curly disorder about his temples. The eyes of this extraordinary man were not (as you might have imagined) fierce or compelling; they were grey, luminous and amiable. There was in the whole countenance a singular union of barbaric dignity, intellectual power, and extreme gentleness. There was even a trace of something whimsical or gay. Eric was right; I was immediately fascinated. Yet I imagined Reisby to be a man whose passions, though simple, would be overwhelmingly strong; a man with a stern, primitive conception of honour, a man whose retaliation would be cruel and unscrupulous.

He spoke in a rich, booming voice, unexpectedly low and soft in ordinary conversation, but rising, in moments of jocularity or fervour, to a boisterous and alarming bellow. He was not eloquent, except when he was talking about science, and he had an odd trick of uttering little rhythmic ejaculations. This trick, as I afterwards discovered, was intended to hold the attention of the listener while Reisby was thinking of what to say or what to do: it might be a signal of danger, or merely indicate the coming of a professorial joke.

Reisby dominated the scene, as, indeed, he will dominate this narrative; but I realised, when I saw him and Ellingham together, that I was in the presence of the two most remarkable men I was likely to meet in the course of my life.

When I turned from the Professor to his wife I realised the justification of all my forebodings. The moment I saw her I knew that she was Eric’s ideal. Perhaps I felt a pang of jealousy, or it may have been a premonition of danger. At any rate, I was painfully aware of a lack of cordiality, if not of a certain uncouthness, in speaking to her for the first five minutes.

Again, Eric was quite right. Hilda Reisby was pretty and intelligent. She looked more like the Professor’s daughter than his wife, and I had some difficulty in remembering that she was married to this fatherly and immense personality. I do not mean that she was juvenile or slight in appearance. On the contrary, she was unusually grave, composed and thoughtful for her age; she had a magnificent figure and a stately carriage.

Our conversation, after the usual preambles, became rather scientifi Dr. Fulmar Pepperlow, a dim, shadowy creature, the mere embodiment of an intellect, could speak with authority on archaeological and anthropological research.

I was surprised to observe that Ellingham paid very little attention to the Professor, and showed a lack of cordiality bordering upon rudeness. I was anxious to learn his impressions of this wonderful man, and when I saw that he barely glanced at him and hardly took the trouble to answer his remarks, I was both humiliated and disappointed. Let it be remembered that I was then a very young man. Had I possessed at that time the fuller experience of later life I should have realised a peculiar significance in Ellingham’s attitude. As it was, I felt myself more and more fascinated by the colossal presence and the booming voice of Professor Reisby.

Eric was radiantly happy. He saw my admiration of the hero, and he gave me, from time to time, a glance of pride and of sly humour. God knows, there was nothing in common between Eric and Boswell, but I can imagine Boswell glancing in such a way at a friend who found himself for the first time in the company of Dr. Johnson.

For my part, as I had little knowledge of the scientific matters which were being discussed by the others, I was obliged—rather unwillingly and ungraciously—to carry on a light conversation with the Professor’s wife.

But I was presently mollified, if not entirely subdued, by the charm of Mrs. Reisby. She talked to me in a manner so frank and engaging that I soon had to abandon my boorish attitude of indifference or defiance. She told me how much they liked Eric, how much they were looking forward to his next visit.

“Mr. Foster is coming up in the Easter vacation,” she said, “and I think Tolgen intends to carry out some interesting excavations near Aberleven. It would be so nice if you could come up too. There is only one spare room in our little house, but there is an inn at Aberleven—it is called the hotel—where you would be very comfortable. Perhaps your friend Mr. Ellingham would like to join the party. It would be great fun. I don’t know if you have ever heard about the big earthwork of Caer Carrws—”

“Caer Carrws?” said Ellingham, swinging round from the other group with a strangely abrupt movement. “Are you thinking of having a dig there?”

I could see that his brusqueness offended Mrs. Reisby; it was very unlike his usual placid manner. Indeed, his whole behaviour was new to me, and I wondered if he was unwell.

“My husband, I think, means to dig at Caer Carrws in the Easter vacation. I was just talking about it to Mr. Farringdale.”

Professor Reisby, surprised at the interruption, looked up with a shadow of annoyance on his enormous brow.

“Yes,” he boomed, “I want to have a look at the guardhouses, or whatever they are, near the southern gateway. Pray excuse me, Pepperlow.”

“I beg your pardon, sir, for this unseemly interruption,” said Ellingham, “but the fact is that I am particularly interested in these northern earthworks.”

I looked at him with astonishment. As far as I knew, he was entirely ignorant of such things. At any rate, he never said anything about them. But of course it was impossible to say what he had stored up in his capacious and eager mind.

“Wouldn’t it be rather a good idea, Tolgen,” said Mrs. Reisby, “if Mr. Farringdale and Mr. Ellingham came up to the hotel when we are having our dig? Aberleven is quite a jolly place in the spring, and Mr. Farringdale has been telling me—”

Again I saw the shadow of annoyance on Reisby’s face. But it quickly passed and he answered pleasantly enough:

“A long way, I’m afraid. Still, if they would care to see the excavation—eh?—tum-ti-dee!—”

He smiled in his amiable Jovian style, and I was amazed to hear Ellingham saying:

“As far as I am concerned, I should welcome the privilege. I have read your wonderful essay on promontory fortifications, and I need hardly tell you, sir, that I agree entirely with all that you have said. Blackerton’s feeble reply is unworthy of notice; I cannot understand the serious attention bestowed upon it by a man like Whitlock. The problem of the double entrance at Caer Carrws is peculiarly fascinating. If I am free at the time, I should very much like to spend a few days at Aberleven and follow your investigations.”

“Sir,” replied Reisby, completely amiable, “I should be glad to see you. My own opportunities for hospitality are unfortunately limited, but I can at least offer you an occasional meal at Scarweather.”

“There!” cried Mrs. Reisby, “what a pleasant arrangement! And will you be able to come too, Mr. Farringdale?”

I said that I should like to join the party, but could hardly say whether it would be possible. This unexpected turn of events was bewildering me: I am naturally slow and cautious.

“Of course he’ll come!” said Eric. “I’ll answer for him, Mrs. Reisby. And you, sir, will find him a very serviceable navvy, I can assure you.”

During the rest of the evening, apart from a little conversation with Mrs. Reisby, I was occupied in listening to, and observing, the others. Professor Reisby treated Eric as he might have treated a favourite pupil, and was evidently fond of him: indeed, his manner towards him was not so much amiable as affectionate. I could also observe a growing friendliness between the Professor and Ellingham. The latter had quite regained his normal balance (or so it appeared to me) and he was talking in his most delightful style. Dr. Pepperlow’s contributions were those of a cold and equiponderating intelligence; he was a man so phantasmal that it was a positive relief to hear him asking for sugar in his coffee. Mrs. Reisby and Eric hardly said a word to each other, but they were clearly on terms of open familiarity. When it was time to go, Eric was the last to leave the room, and I saw him lingering in the doorway with Mrs. Reisby while the Professor heavily descended to the hall with Pepperlow and Ellingham.

 

5

I did not see Ellingham alone until two days after our evening with the Reisbys. He was returning to Cambridge at the end of the week, and asked me to meet him in the course of the morning at his club.

As soon as we had settled ourselves in a comfortable corner of the smoking-room, I asked him, with considerable eagerness, what he thought of Professor Reisby and his wife.

“Oh!” he said, rubbing his pointed chin with a lean finger, “I have seen the Professor before.”

“Indeed!” I replied. “At one of your highly intellectual assemblies, no doubt.”

“Not at all, my dear young friend, not at all! You are quite wrong. At the same time, I will admit that your conjecture has every appearance of being reasonable.”

He scraped out the bowl of his meerschaum, tapped it gently in the palm of his hand, and then wrapped it up in a piece of yellow silk and slipped it into his pocket.

“What do you say to a little apéritif?—or is it too early?”

I knew that he was teasing me, but I stuck to the point.

“Where did you meet Reisby?” I said.

“Learn to be more precise. I did not say that I had met him. I said that I had seen him.”

“And where have you seen him?”

“Down at the Docks.”

“Down at the Docks!” I cried. “You are evidently mistaken. You have seen an old sailor who is like him. Indeed, that is not at all improbable. When I first saw him he reminded me of a northern sea-dog.”

“I have also seen him at an eating-house in Poplar, a very interesting place. I don’t think we have been there in the course of our excursions; it is not a proper scene for a young gentleman.”

“You are being very irrational and irritating,” I retorted, “and you cannot ask me to believe that you have seen Professor Reisby in such places. It is too absurd.”

Ellingham looked at the clock over the mantelpiece.

“How about a trip to Poplar this morning?” he said. “I can’t promise to show you the Professor, but I can show you the eating-house—in fact, I can give you a jolly good lunch there.”

Of course I accepted the invitation, and in about an hour’s time we entered one of the most peculiar establishments I have ever seen.

It was a large room, lighted by gas, and full of wooden tables covered with pieces of oilcloth. At these tables were little groups of men, white, yellow or black. Most of them wore jerseys or heavy dark overcoats, and many of them had caps with broad shining peaks drawn over their eyes. Clearly, a sailor’s eating-house, but not by any means cheap or dirty. What was unexpected was the peculiar sense of decorum, almost of definite formality. The customers, as they came in or went out, gravely saluted a big man who sat in an armchair by the pay-desk, addressing him as Captain Andrew. The waitresses (decent-looking young women in blue aprons) were polite, swift and efficient. There was a little boy, whose duty it was to keep the spittoons in order and remove the empty glasses. The food, though plain and with no great variety, was admirably cooked. Everything was clean, proper and wholesome. On the walls hung large coloured lithographs of old hermaphrodite steamers with paddle-boxes, black funnels, and a billowing spread of canvas. But long before I had observed these details Ellingham touched my arm.

“There he is,” he said.

And sure enough, there was Professor Reisby, in the fluffy brown suit and wearing the blue and yellow tie, seated at a table close to the wall about half-way down the room. He was not in a position to observe those who entered, and at the moment of our arrival he was engaged in fixing a chessboard between himself and his companion. This companion was a man of decidedly Anglo-Chinese appearance, but he was dressed, unlike most of the others, in a well-fitted suit of grey tweed.

“If we sit here,” said Ellingham quietly, guiding me to a table for two, “it is improbable that he will notice us; and I would rather, if you don’t mind, leave him to the undisturbed enjoyment of his game of chess.”

I was so much taken aback by the peculiarity of the whole situation that I sat down without a word. From our table we had an intermittent view of the Professor and his odd companion playing their game, and I could see that Ellingham was following the moves with considerable interest. But Ellingham was a man who kept his thoughts to himself. Having ordered lunch he started a long and illuminating discourse on the subject of modern French writers, and although he glanced from time to time at the Professor’s table he did not make a single comment on what he observed. I knew, however, that he was capable of giving close attention to one thing while he was talking with subtlety and ease about another; indeed, I have never met anyone in whom the faculties of dissociation were so curiously developed.

Before we had finished our lunch the Professor triumphantly concluded the game of chess, and almost immediately afterwards he left the place without seeing us. In ordinary circumstances I should have risen and accosted him, but Ellingham’s manner had shown me that the circumstances were not ordinary. The other player remained at the table, slowly imbibing a glass of stout.

“Well,” said Ellingham, “did you observe anything?”

“It was a very short game,” I replied feebly.

“Reisby plays a good game,” said Ellingham, “he opens with a variation of the Allgaier. Did you notice anything else?”

“No—at least—”

“The chessboard belongs to the house; it is now folded up on the table. The chessmen, on the other hand, were brought by that man with the yellow face—he is probably a steward. He brought them in a square mahogany box with a sliding lid, which he took out of that shabby bag of his; it is on the floor by his right foot. There is nothing very odd in that, because a good player likes his own men; but it is a little singular that Professor Reisby should have taken away both box and chessmen when he left the table. He put them into a large brown attaché case which he is now carrying in his hand.”

“Did he? But surely the explanation may be quite a trivial one.”

“Your sagacity is commendable, my dear friend. Now let us return for a moment to what we were saying about Lourdes and the decadence of realism.”

 

6

I did not mention the episode at the eating-house to my cousin Eric; I did not want him to think that I had been spying upon the hero; nor did I see why Professor Reisby, who was obviously an eccentric man, need be suspected of any sinister designs because he played a game of chess in Poplar. I felt that eccentricity alone would account for a great deal more than the mere exchange of a box of chessmen.

Ellingham showed a peculiar reticence in regard to the episode when I saw him on the day of his return to Cambridge. He treated it lightly, and gave me the impression that he was rather ashamed of himself. And I was greatly pleased when I heard him speak about the Professor in a warmly enthusiastic style, hoping that he would be able to spend a few days at Aberleven and see something of the excavation of Caer Carrws.

We agreed to go north together, if circumstances permitted, on the 8th or 9th of April. For my part, I was anxious to see more of the Reisbys, and the idea of a holiday with my cousin Eric was, of course, delightful.

I met the Reisbys on two other occasions before they left London. They invited me (with Eric) to dinner at their hotel, and they also invited me to an informal but very austere gathering of learned men at the Holborn Restaurant.

On both occasions I admired the colossal yet amiable presence of the Professor and the not less remarkable charm of his lovely wife. My youthful head was full, just then, of a somewhat undiscriminating Wagner cult; and as I looked at them—the man with his immense Nordic virility, his grandly rugged face and his flowing beard, and the woman with her steady grey eyes and her mass of blond hair—I could not help thinking of those divinities who march with trumpet music in the scenes of the Ring.

 

7

No doubt I was infinitely more romantic, at the age of twenty-one, than I am to-day. But I was not entirely without a little practical sense. When Eric told me that he was taking Mrs. Reisby to a theatre, taking her out to lunch, escorting her to a private view of the pictures in Berkeley Square, I told him, rather peevishly, that he ought to be careful. Perhaps I was really a frightful prig.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “We are great pals. I tell you, she’s a wonderful woman. I have never known anything like it before.”

Reviews of

Scarweather: A British Library Crime Classic

“This entry in the British Library Crime Classics series appeals as much for its evocative glimpse of its period and witty depiction of archeologists’ quirks as for its suspense.”

Publishers Weekly

“Readers will be rewarded with a suspenseful read, rich in setting (an isolated house in the north of England near a Bronze Age burial ground); characters (the three friends become acquainted with a wildly eccentric archaeologist and his too-young wife); details about WWI and its aftermath; and a horrific resolution worthy of Hitchcock.”

Booklist

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads