The Lonely Hampshire Cottage by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lonely Hampshire Cottage
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Published in Cassell’s Saturday Journal, 2 May 1885.
The Lonely Hampshire Cottage
John Ranter, ex-landlord of the “Battle of Dettingen” public-house in Southampton, was not a man whom one would desire as a friend, and still less would one relish him as a foe. Tall and strong in his person, dark and saturnine in his disposition, the two-and-fifty years which had passed over John’s head had done little to soften his character or to modify his passions. Perhaps the ill-fortune which had attended him through life had something to do with his asperity, yet this same ill-fortune had been usually caused by his own violent and headstrong temper. He had quarrelled with his parents when a lad, and left them. After working his way up in the world, to some extent, he had fallen in love with a pretty face, and mated himself to a timid, characterless woman, who was a drag rather than a help to him. The fruit of this union had been a single son; but John Ranter beat the lad savagely for some trivial offence, and he had fled away to sea as a cabin-boy, and was reported to have been drowned in the great wreck of the Queen of the West. From that time the publican went rapidly down-hill. He offended his customers by his morose and sullen temper, and they ceased to frequent the “Battle of Dettingen,” until, at last, he was compelled to dispose of the business. With the scanty proceeds he purchased a small house upon the Portsmouth and Southampton road, about three miles from the latter town, and settled down with his wife to a gloomy and misanthropic existence.
Strange tales were told of that lonely cottage, with its bare brick walls and great, overhanging thatch, from under which the diamond-paned windows seemed to scowl at the passers-by. Waggoners at roadside inns talked of the dark-faced, grizzly-haired man, who lounged all day in the little garden which adjoined the road, and of the pale, patient face, which peered out at them sometimes through the half-opened door. There were darker things, too, of which they had to speak, of angry voices, of the dull thud of blows, and the cries of a woman in distress. However tired the horses might be, they were whipped up into a trot, when, after nightfall, they came near the wooden gate which led up to that ill-omened dwelling.
It was one lovely autumn evening that John Ranter leaned his elbows upon that identical gate, and puffed meditatively at his black clay pipe. He was pondering within himself as to what his future should be. Should he continue to exist in the way in which he was doing, or should he embark what little capital he had in some attempt to better his fortunes? His present life, if unambitious, was at least secure. It was possible that he might lose all in a new venture. Yet, on the other hand, John felt that he still had all the energy of youth, and was as able as ever to turn his hand to anything. If his son, he reflected, who had left him fifteen years before had been alive, he might have been of assistance to him now. A vague longing for the comforts which he had enjoyed in more fortunate days filled and unsetttled his mind. He was still brooding over the matter when, looking up, he saw, against the setting sun, a man dressed in a long grey overcoat, who was striding down the road from the direction of Southampton.
It was no uncommon thing for pedestrians of every type to pass the door of John Ranter, and yet this particular one attracted his attention to an unusual degree. He was a tall, athletic young fellow, with a yellow moustache, and a face which was tanned by exposure to the sun and weather. His hat was a peculiar slouched one, of soft felt, and it may have been this, or it may have been the grey coat, which caused the ex-publican to look closely at him. Over his shoulder the stranger had a broad leather strap, and to this was attached a large black bag, something like those which are worn by bookmakers upon a race-course. Indeed, John Ranter’s first impression was that the traveller belonged to the betting fraternity.
When the young fellow came near the gate, he slowed down his pace, and looked irresolutely about him. Then he halted, and addressed John, speaking in a peculiar metallic voice.
“I say, mate,” he said; “I guess I’d have to walk all night if I wanted to make Portsmouth in the morning?”
“I guess you would,” the other answered, surlily, mimicking the stranger’s tone and pronunciation. “You’ve hardly got started yet.”
“Well now, that beats everything,” the traveller said, impatiently. “I’d ha’ put up at an inn in Southampton if I dared. To think o’ my spending my first night in the old country like that!”
“And why dar’n’t you put up at an inn?” John Ranter asked.
The stranger winked one of his shrewd eyes at John.
“There ain’t such a very long way between an innkeeper and a thief,” he said; “anyway, there’s not in Californey, and I guess human natur’ is human natur’ all the world over. When I’ve got what’s worth keepin’ I give the inns a wide berth.”
“Oh, you’ve got what’s worth keeping, have you?” said the old misanthrope to himself, and he relaxed the grimness of his features as far as he could, and glanced out of the corner of his eyes at the black leather bag.
“Ye see, it’s this way,” the young man said, confidentially; “I’ve been out at the diggings, first in Nevada and then in Californey, and I’ve struck it, and struck it pretty rich too, you bet. When I allowed that I’d made my pile, I pushed for home in the Marie Rose from ‘Frisco to Southampton. She got in at three to-day, but those sharks at the customs kept us till five ‘fore we could get ashore. When I landed I let out for Portsmouth, where I used to know some folk; but you see I didn’t quite reckon up how far it was before I started. Besides, this bag ain’t quite the thing a man would lug about with him if he was walkin’ for a wager.”
“Are your friends expecting you in Portsmouth?” John Ranter asked.
The young man laid down his bag, and laughed so heartily that he had to lean against the gate for support.
“That’s where the joke comes in,” he cried; “they don’t know that I’ve left the States.”
“Oh, that’s the joke, is it?”
“Yes; that’s the joke. You see, they are all sitting at breakfast, maybe, or at dinner, as the case might be, and I pushes my way in, and I up with this here bag and opens it, and then ker-whop down comes the whole lot on the table;” and the young man laughed heartily once more over the idea.
“The whole lot of what?” asked John.
“Why, of shiners, of course—dollars, you understand.”
“And d’ye mean to say you carry your whole fortune about with you in gold?” Ranter asked in amazement.
“My whole fortune! No, boss, I reckon not. The bulk of it is in notes and shares, and they’re all packed away right enough. This is just eight hundred dollars that I put to one side for this same little game that I spoke of. But I suppose it’s no use trying to get there to-night, and I’ll have to trust to an inn after all.”
“Don’t you do that,” the elder man said, earnestly. “They are a rough lot in the inns about here, and there’s many a poor sailor found his pockets as empty in the morning as they were the day he sailed out of port. You find some honest man and ask him for a night’s lodging; that’s the best thing you can do.”
“Well, pard, I guess I’ve lost my bearings in this neighbourhood,” the gold-digger said. “If you can put me on the track of any such berth as you speak of, I’d be beholden to you.”
“Why, for that matter,” John Ranter said, “we have a spare bed of our own, and should be very glad if you would pass the night in it. We are simple folk, my wife and I; but as far as a fire and a warm supper go, you’re very welcome to both the one and the other.”
“Well, you can’t say fairer than that,” the traveller responded, and he walked up the little gravel walk with his companion, while the shadow of night spread slowly over the landscape, and the owl hooted mournfully in the neighbouring wood.
Mrs. Ranter, who had been a comely lass thirty years before, was now a white-haired, melancholy woman, with a wan face and a timid manner. She welcomed the stranger in a nervous, constrained fashion, and proceeded to cook some rashers of bacon, which she cut from a great side which hung from the rafters of the rude kitchen. The young man deposited his bag under a chair, and then, sitting down above it, he drew out his pipe and lit it. Ranter filled his again at the same time, eyeing his companion furtively all the while from under his heavy eye-brows.
“You’d best take your coat off,” he said, in an off-hand way.
“No; I’ll keep it on, if you don’t mind,” the other returned. “I never take this coat off.”
“Please yourself,” said John, puffing at his pipe; “I thought maybe you’d find it hot with this fire burning; but then, Californey is a hot place, I’m told, and maybe you find England chilly?”
The other did not answer, and the two men sat silently watching the rashers, which grizzled and sputtered upon the pan.
“What sort o’ ship did you come in?” the host asked, at last.
“The Marie Rose,” said the other. “She’s a three-masted schooner, and came over with hides and other goods. She’s not much to look at, but she’s no slouch of a sea boat. We’d a gale off Cape Horn that would have tried any ship that ever sailed. Three days under a single double-reefed topsail, and that was rather more than she could carry. Am I in your way, missus?”
“No, no,” said Mrs. Ranter, hurriedly. The stranger had been looking at her very hard while he spoke.
“I guess the skipper and the mates will wonder what has become of me,” he continued. “I was in such a hurry that I came off without a word to one of them. However, my traps are on board, so they’ll know I’ve not deserted them for good.”
“Did you speak to anyone after you left the ship?” Ranter asked, carelessly.
“Why didn’t you take a trap if you wanted to get to Portsmouth?”
“Mate, you’ve never come ashore from a long sea voyage, else you’d not ask me that question. Why, man, it’s the greatest pleasure you can have to stretch your legs, and keep on stretching them. I’d have padded on right enough if the light had held.”
“You’ll be a deal better in a comfortable bed,” said Ranter; “and now the supper’s ready, so let us fall to. Here’s beer in the jug, and there’s whisky in that bottle, so it’s your own fault if you don’t help yourself.”
The three gathered round the table and made an excellent meal. Under the influence of their young guest’s genial face and cheery conversation, the mistress of the house lost her haggard appearance, and even made one or two timid attempts to join in the talk. The country postman, coming home from his final round, stopped in astonishment when he saw the blazing light in the cottage window, and heard the merry sound of laughter which pealed out on the still night air.
If any close observer had been watching the little party as they sat round the table, he might have remarked that John Ranter showed a very lively curiosity in regard to the long grey coat in which his visitor was clad. Not only did he eye that garment narrowly from time to time, but he twice found pretexts to pass close to the other’s chair, and each time he did so he drew his hand, as though accidentally, along the side of the overcoat. Neither the young man nor the hostess appeared, however, to take the slightest notice of this strange conduct upon the part of the ex-publican.
After supper the two men drew their chairs up to the fire once more, while the old woman removed the dishes. The traveller’s conversation turned principally upon the wonders of California and of the great republic in which he had spent the best part of his life. He spoke of the fortunes which were made at the mines, too, and of the golden store which may be picked up by whoever is lucky enough to find it, until Ranter’s eyes sparkled again as he listened.
“How much might it take to get out there?” he said.
“Oh! a hundred pounds or so would start you comfortably,” answered the man with the grey coat.
“That doesn’t seem much.”
“Why anyone should stay in England while there is money to be picked up there is more than I can understand,” the miner remarked. “And now, mate, you’ll excuse me, but I’m a man that likes to go to roost early and be up at cock-crow. If the missus here would show me my room I’d be obliged.”
“Won’t you have another whisky? No? Ah! well, good-night. Lizzie, you will show Mr.—Mr.—”
“Mr. Goodall,” said the other.
“You will show Mr. Goodall up to his room. I hope you’ll sleep well.”
“I always sleep sound,” said the man with the grey coat; and, with a nod, he tramped heavily, bag in hand, up the wooden staircase, while the old woman toiled along with the light in front of him.
When he had gone, John Ranter put both his hands into his trousers pockets, stretched out his legs, and stared gloomily into the fire, with a wrinkled brow and projecting lips. A great many thoughts were passing through his mind—so many that he did not hear his wife re-enter the kitchen, nor did he answer her when she spoke to him. It was half-past ten when the visitor retired, and at twelve John Ranter was still bending over the smouldering heap of ashes with the same look of thought upon his face. It was only when his wife asked him whether he was not going to bed that he appeared to come to himself.
“No, Lizzie,” he said, in a more conciliatory tone than was usual with him. “We’ll both stay up a short time to-night.”
“All right, John,” the poor woman said, with a glad smile. It was many a year since he had ever asked her for her company.
“Is he upstairs all right?”
“Who? Oh, Mr. Goodall? Yes; I showed him into the spare room.”
“D’ye think he’s asleep?”
“I suppose so, John. He’s been there nigh an hour and a half.”
“Is there a key in the door?”
“No, dear; but what queer questions you do ask.”
John Ranter was silent for a time.
“Lizzie,” he said at last, taking up the poker, and playing with it nervously, “in the whole world there is no one who knows that that man came here to-night. If he never left us again no one would know what had become of him, or care to make any search after him.”
His wife said nothing, but she turned white to her very lips. “He has eight hundred dollars in that bag, Lizzie, which makes over a hundred and fifty pound of our money. But he has more than that. He’s got lumps of gold sewn into the lining of that grey coat of his. That’s why he didn’t care about taking it off. I saw the knobs, and I managed to feel ’em too. That money, my girl, would be enough to take the two of us out to that same country where he picked all this up—”
“For Heaven’s sake, John,” cried his wife, flinging herself at his feet, and clasping his knees with her arms, “for my sake—for the sake of our boy, who might be about this young man’s age—think no more of this! We are old, John, and, rich or poor, we must in a few short years go to our long home. Don’t go with the stain of blood upon you. Oh, spare him! We have been bad, but never so bad as this!”
But John Ranter continued to gaze over his wife’s head into the fire, and the set sternness of his features never relaxed for one moment. It seemed to her, as she looked up into his eyes, that a strange new expression had come into them such as she had never seen before—the baleful, lurid glare of the beast of prey.
“This is a chance,” he said, “such as would never come to us again. How many would be glad to have it! Besides, Lizzie, it is my life or this man’s. You remember what Dr. Cousins said of me when we were at Portsea. I was liable to apoplexy, he said, and disappointment, or hardships or grief, might bring it on. This wretched life has enough of all three. Now if we had the money, we could start afresh, and all would be well. I tell you, wife, I shall do it!” and he clenched his large brown hand round the poker.
“You must not, John—and you shall not.”
“I shall, and I will. Leave go of my knees.”
He was about to push her from him when he perceived that she had fainted. Picking her up he carried her to the side of the room and laid her down there. Then he went back, and taking up the poker he balanced it in his hand. It seemed to strike him as being too light, for he went into the scullery, and after groping about in the dark he came back with a small axe. He was swinging this backwards and forwards when his eye fell upon the knife which his wife had used before supper in cutting the rashers of bacon. He ran his finger along the edge of it. It was as keen as a razor. “It’s handier and surer!” he muttered; and going to the cupboard he drank off a large glass of raw whisky, after which he kicked off his boots and began silently to ascend the old-fashioned stair.
There were twelve steps which led up from the kitchen to a landing, and from the landing eight more to the bedroom of their guest. John Ranter was nearly half an hour in ascending those first twelve. The woodwork was rotten, and the construction weak, so that they creaked under the weight of the heavy man. He would first put his right foot lightly upon the board, and gradually increase the pressure upon it until his whole weight was there. Then he would carefully move up his left foot, and stand listening breathlessly for any sound from above. Nothing broke the silence, however, except the dull ticking of the clock in the kitchen behind him and the melancholy hooting of an owl among the shrubbery. In the dull, uncertain light there was something terrible in this vague, dark figure creeping slowly up the little staircase—moving, pausing, crouching, but always coming nearer the top.
When he reached the landing he could see the door of the young miner’s room. John Ranter stood aghast. The door was on the jar, and through the narrow opening there shone a thin golden stream. The light was still burning. Did it mean that the traveller was awake? John listened intently, but there was no sound of any movement in the room. For a long time he strained his ears, but all was perfectly still.
“If he were awake,” John said to himself, “he would have turned in his bed, or made some rustling during this time.”
Then he began stealthily to ascend the eight remaining steps until he was immediately outside the bedroom door. Still all was silent within. No doubt it was one of his foreign customs to leave the light burning during the night. He had mentioned in conversation that he was a sound sleeper. Ranter began to fear that unless he got it over soon his wife might recover and raise an alarm. Clutching his knife in his right hand, he quietly pushed the door a little more open with his left and inserted his head. Something cold pressed against his temple as he did so. It was the muzzle of a revolver.
“Come in, John Ranter,” said the quiet voice of his guest; “but first drop your weapon, or I shall be compelled to fire. You are at my mercy.”
Indeed, the ex-publican’s head was caught in such a way that it was difficult for him either to withdraw or to force his way in. He gave a deep groan of rage and disappointment, and his knife clattered down upon the floor.
“I meant no harm,” he said, sulkily, as he entered the room.
“I have been expecting you for a couple of hours,” the man with the grey coat said, holding his pistol still cocked in his right hand, so that he might use it if necessary. He was dressed exactly as he had been when he went upstairs, and the ill-fated bag was resting upon the unruffled bed. “I knew that you were coming.”
“How—how?” John stammered.
“Because I know you; because I saw murder in your eye when you stood before me at the gate; because I saw you feel my coat here for the nuggets. That is why I waited up for you.”
“You have no proof against me,” said John Ranter, sullenly.
“I do not want any. I could shoot you where you stand, and the law would justify me. Look at that bag upon the bed there. I told you there was money in it. What d’ye think I brought that money to England for? It was to give it to you—yes, to you. And that grey coat on me is worth five hundred pounds; that was for you also. Ah! you begin to understand now. You begin to see the mistake you have made.”
John Ranter had staggered against the wall, and his face was all drawn down on one side.
“Jack!” he gasped. “Jack!”
“Yes; Jack Ranter—your son. That’s who I am.” The young man turned back his sleeve, and bared a blue device upon his forearm. “Don’t you remember Hairy Pete put that ‘J.R.’ on when I was a lad? Now you know me. I made my fortune, and I came back, earnestly hoping that you would help me to spend it. I called at the ‘Battle of Dettingen,’ and they told me where to find you. Then, when I saw you at the gate, I thought I’d test my mother and you, and see if you were the same as ever. I came to make you happy, and you have tried to murder me. I shall not punish you; but I shall go, and you shall never see either me or my money any more.”
While the young man had been saying these words, a series of twitchings and horrible contortions had passed over the face of his father, and at the last words he took a step forward, raising his hands above his head, and fell, with a hoarse cry, upon the ground. His eyes became glazed, his breathing stertorous, and foam stood upon his purple lips. It did not take much medical knowledge to see that he was dying. His son stooped over him and loosened his collar and shirt.
“One last question,” he said, in quick, earnest tones. “Did my mother aid in this attempt?”
John Ranter appeared to understand the import of it, for he shook his head; and so, with this single act of justice, his dark spirit fled from this world of crime. The doctor’s warning had come true, and emotion had hastened a long-impending apoplexy. His son lifted him reverentially on to the bed, and did such last offices as could be done.
“Perhaps it is the best thing that could have happened,” he said, sadly, as he turned from the room, and went down to seek his mother, and to comfort her in her sore affliction.
* * *
Young John Ranter returned to America, and by his energy and talents soon became one of the richest men in his State. He has definitely settled there now, and will return no more to the old country. In his palatial residence there dwells a white-haired, anxious-faced old woman, whose every wish is consulted, and to whom the inmates show every reverence. This is old Mrs. Ranter; and her son has hopes that with time, and among new associations, she may come to forget that terrible night when the man with the grey coat paid a visit to the lonely Hampshire cottage.