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Chapter Eight The Adventures of a Bagman
‘Ye’re punctual to time, Mr Brand,’ said the voice of Amos. ‘But losh! man, what have ye done to your breeks! And your buits? Ye’re no just very respectable in your appearance.’

I wasn’t. The confounded rocks of the Coolin had left their mark on my shoes, which moreover had not been cleaned for a week, and the same hills had rent my jacket at the shoulders, and torn my trousers above the right knee, and stained every part of my apparel with peat and lichen.

I cast myself on the bank beside Amos and lit my pipe. ‘Did you get my message?’ I asked.

‘Ay. It’s gone on by a sure hand to the destination we ken of. Ye’ve managed well, Mr Brand, but I wish ye were back in London.’ He sucked at his pipe, and the shaggy brows were pulled so low as to hide the wary eyes. Then he proceeded to think aloud.

‘Ye canna go back by Mallaig. I don’t just understand why, but they’re lookin’ for you down that line. It’s a vexatious business when your friends, meanin’ the polis, are doing their best to upset your plans and you no able to enlighten them. I could send word to the Chief Constable and get ye through to London without a stop like a load of fish from Aiberdeen, but that would be spoilin’ the fine character ye’ve been at such pains to construct. Na, na! Ye maun take the risk and travel by Muirtown without ony creedentials.’

‘It can’t be a very big risk,’ I interpolated.

‘I’m no so sure. Gresson’s left the Tobermory. He went by here yesterday, on the Mallaig boat, and there was a wee blackavised man with him that got out at the Kyle. He’s there still, stoppin’ at the hotel. They ca’ him Linklater and he travels in whisky. I don’t like the looks of him.’

‘But Gresson does not suspect me?’

‘Maybe no. But ye wouldna like him to see ye hereaways. Yon gentry don’t leave muckle to chance. Be very certain that every man in Gresson’s lot kens all about ye, and has your description down to the mole on your chin.’

‘Then they’ve got it wrong,’ I replied.

‘I was speakin’ feeguratively,’ said Amos. ‘I was considerin’ your case the feck of yesterday, and I’ve brought the best I could do for ye in the gig. I wish ye were more respectable clad, but a good topcoat will hide defeecencies.’

From behind the gig’s seat he pulled out an ancient Gladstone bag and revealed its contents. There was a bowler of a vulgar and antiquated style; there was a ready-made overcoat of some dark cloth, of the kind that a clerk wears on the road to the office; there was a pair of detachable celluloid cuffs, and there was a linen collar and dickie. Also there was a small handcase, such as bagmen carry on their rounds.

‘That’s your luggage,’ said Amos with pride. ‘That wee bag’s full of samples. Ye’ll mind I took the precaution of measurin’ ye in Glasgow, so the things’ll fit. Ye’ve got a new name, Mr Brand, and I’ve taken a room for ye in the hotel on the strength of it. Ye’re Archibald McCaskie, and ye’re travellin’ for the firm o’ Todd, Sons & Brothers, of Edinburgh. Ye ken the folk? They publish wee releegious books, that ye’ve bin trying to sell for Sabbath-school prizes to the Free Kirk ministers in Skye.’

The notion amused Amos, and he relapsed into the sombre chuckle which with him did duty for a laugh.

I put my hat and waterproof in the bag and donned the bowler and the top-coat. They fitted fairly well. Likewise the cuffs and collar, though here I struck a snag, for I had lost my scarf somewhere in the Coolin, and Amos, pelican-like, had to surrender the rusty black tie which adorned his own person. It was a queer rig, and I felt like nothing on earth in it, but Amos was satisfied.

‘Mr McCaskie, sir,’ he said, ‘ye’re the very model of a publisher’s traveller. Ye’d better learn a few biographical details, which ye’ve maybe forgotten. Ye’re an Edinburgh man, but ye were some years in London, which explains the way ye speak. Ye bide at 6, Russell Street, off the Meadows, and ye’re an elder in the Nethergate U.F. Kirk. Have ye ony special taste ye could lead the crack on to, if ye’re engaged in conversation?’

I suggested the English classics.

‘And very suitable. Ye can try poalitics, too. Ye’d better be a Free-trader but convertit by Lloyd George. That’s a common case, and ye’ll need to be by-ordinar common . . . If I was you, I would daunder about here for a bit, and no arrive at your hotel till after dark. Then ye can have your supper and gang to bed. The Muirtown train leaves at half-seven in the morning . . . Na, ye can’t come with me. It wouldna do for us to be seen thegither. If I meet ye in the street I’ll never let on I know ye.’

Amos climbed into the gig and jolted off home. I went down to the shore and sat among the rocks, finishing about tea-time the remains of my provisions. In the mellow gloaming I strolled into the clachan and got a boat to put me over to the inn. It proved to be a comfortable place, with a motherly old landlady who showed me to my room and promised ham and eggs and cold salmon for supper. After a good wash, which I needed, and an honest attempt to make my clothes presentable, I descended to the meal in a coffee-room lit by a single dim parafin lamp.

The food was excellent, and, as I ate, my spirits rose. In two days I should be back in London beside Blenkiron and somewhere within a day’s journey of Mary. I could picture no scene now without thinking how Mary fitted into it. For her sake I held Biggleswick delectable, because I had seen her there. I wasn’t sure if this was love, but it was something I had never dreamed of before, something which I now hugged the thought of. It made the whole earth rosy and golden for me, and life so well worth living that I felt like a miser towards the days to come.

I had about finished supper, when I was joined by another guest. Seen in the light of that infamous lamp, he seemed a small, alert fellow, with a bushy, black moustache, and black hair parted in the middle. He had fed already and appeared to be hungering for human society.

In three minutes he had told me that he had come down from Portree and was on his way to Leith. A minute later he had whipped out a card on which I read ‘J. J. Linklater’, and in the corner the name of Hatherwick Bros. His accent betrayed that he hailed from the west.

‘I’ve been up among the distilleries,’ he informed me. ‘It’s a poor business distillin’ in these times, wi’ the teetotallers yowlin’ about the nation’s shame and the way to lose the war. I’m a temperate man mysel’, but I would think shame to spile decent folks’ business. If the Government want to stop the drink, let them buy us out. They’ve permitted us to invest good money in the trade, and they must see that we get it back. The other way will wreck public credit. That’s what I say. Supposin’ some Labour Government takes the notion that soap’s bad for the nation? Are they goin’ to shut up Port Sunlight? Or good clothes? Or lum hats? There’s no end to their daftness if they once start on that track. A lawfu’ trade’s a lawfu’ trade, says I, and it’s contrary to public policy to pit it at the mercy of wheen cranks. D’ye no agree, sir? By the way, I havena got your name?’

I told him and he rambled on.

‘We’re blenders and do a very high-class business, mostly foreign. The war’s hit us wi’ our export trade, of course, but we’re no as bad as some. What’s your line, Mr McCaskie?’

When he heard he was keenly interested.

‘D’ye say so? Ye’re from Todd’s! Man, I was in the book business mysel’, till I changed it for something a wee bit more lucrative. I was on the road for three years for Andrew Matheson. Ye ken the name — Paternoster Row — I’ve forgotten the number. I had a kind of ambition to start a book-sellin’ shop of my own and to make Linklater o’ Paisley a big name in the trade. But I got the offer from Hatherwick’s, and I was wantin’ to get married, so filthy lucre won the day. And I’m no sorry I changed. If it hadna been for this war, I would have been makin’ four figures with my salary and commissions . . . My pipe’s out. Have you one of those rare and valuable curiosities called a spunk, Mr McCaskie?’

He was a merry little grig of a man, and he babbled on, till I announced my intention of going to bed. If this was Amos’s bagman, who had been seen in company with Gresson, I understood how idle may be the suspicions of a clever man. He had probably foregathered with Gresson on the Skye boat, and wearied that saturnine soul with his cackle.

I was up betimes, paid my bill, ate a breakfast of porridge and fresh haddock, and walked the few hundred yards to the station. It was a warm, thick morning, with no sun visible, and the Skye hills misty to their base. The three coaches on the little train were nearly filled when I had bought my ticket, and I selected a third-class smoking carriage which held four soldiers returning from leave.

The train was already moving when a late passenger hurried along the platform and clambered in beside me. A cheery ‘Mornin’, Mr McCaskie,’ revealed my fellow guest at the hotel.

We jolted away from the coast up a broad glen and then on to a wide expanse of bog with big hills showing towards the north. It was a drowsy day, and in that atmosphere of shag and crowded humanity I felt my eyes closing. I had a short nap, and woke to find that Mr Linklater had changed his seat and was now beside me.

‘We’ll no get a Scotsman till Muirtown,’ he said. ‘Have ye nothing in your samples ye could give me to read?’

I had forgotten about the samples. I opened the case and found the oddest collection of little books, all in gay bindings. Some were religious, with names like Dew of Hermon and Cool Siloam; some were innocent narratives, How Tommy saved his Pennies, A Missionary Child in China, and Little Susie and her Uncle. There was a Life of David Livingstone, a child’s book on sea-shells, and a richly gilt edition of the poems of one James Montgomery. I offered the selection to Mr Linklater, who grinned and chose the Missionary Child. ‘It’s not the reading I’m accustomed to,’ he said. ‘I like strong meat — Hall Caine and Jack London. By the way, how d’ye square this business of yours wi’ the booksellers? When I was in Matheson’s there would have been trouble if we had dealt direct wi’ the public like you.’

The confounded fellow started to talk about the details of the book trade, of which I knew nothing. He wanted to know on what terms we sold ‘juveniles’, and what discount we gave the big wholesalers, and what class of book we put out ‘on sale’. I didn’t understand a word of his jargon, and I must have given myself away badly, for he asked me questions about firms of which I had never heard, and I had to make some kind of answer. I told myself that the donkey was harmless, and that his opinion of me mattered nothing, but as soon as I decently could I pretended to be absorbed in the Pilgrim’s Progress, a gaudy copy of which was among the samples. It opened at the episode of Christian and Hopeful in the Enchanted Ground, and in that stuffy carriage I presently followed the example of Heedless and Too–Bold and fell sound asleep. I was awakened by the train rumbling over the points of a little moorland junction. Sunk in a pleasing lethargy, I sat with my eyes closed, and then covertly took a glance at my companion. He had abandoned the Missionary Child and was reading a little dun-coloured book, and marking passages with a pencil. His face was absorbed, and it was a new face, not the vacant, good-humoured look of the garrulous bagman, but something shrewd, purposeful, and formidable. I remained hunched up as if still sleeping, and tried to see what the book was. But my eyes, good as they are, could make out nothing of the text or title, except that I had a very strong impression that that book was not written in the English tongue.

I woke abruptly, and leaned over to him. Quick as lightning he slid his pencil up his sleeve and turned on me with a fatuous smile.

‘What d’ye make o’ this, Mr McCaskie? It’s a wee book I picked up at a roup along with fifty others. I paid five shillings for the lot. It looks like Gairman, but in my young days they didna teach us foreign languages.’

I took the thing and turned over the pages, trying to keep any sign of intelligence out of my face. It was German right enough, a little manual of hydrography with no publisher’s name on it. It had the look of the kind of textbook a Government department might issue to its officials.

I handed it back. ‘It’s either German or Dutch. I’m not much of a scholar, barring a little French and the Latin I got at Heriot’s Hospital . . . This is an awful slow train, Mr Linklater.’

The soldiers were playing nap, and the bagman proposed a game of cards. I remembered in time that I was an elder in the Nethergate U.F. Church and refused with some asperity. After that I shut my eyes again, for I wanted to think out this new phenomenon.

The fellow knew German — that was clear. He had also been seen in Gresson’s company. I didn’t believe he suspected me, though I suspected him profoundly. It was my business to keep strictly to my part and give him no cause to doubt me. He was clearly practising his own part on me, and I must appear to take him literally on his professions. So, presently, I woke up and engaged him in a disputatious conversation about the morality of selling strong liquors. He responded readily, and put the case for alcohol with much point and vehemence. The discussion interested the soldiers, and one of them, to show he was on Linklater’s side, produced a flask and offered him a drink. I concluded by observing morosely that the bagman had been a better man when he peddled books for Alexander Matheson, and that put the closure on the business.

That train was a record. It stopped at every station, and in the afternoon it simply got tired and sat down in the middle of a moor and reflected for an hour. I stuck my head out of the window now and then, and smelt the rooty fragrance of bogs, and when we halted on a bridge I watched the trout in the pools of the brown river. Then I slept and smoked alternately, and began to get furiously hungry.

Once I woke to hear the soldiers discussing the war. There was an argument between a lance-corporal in the Camerons and a sapper private about some trivial incident on the Somme.

‘I tell ye I was there,’ said the Cameron. ‘We were relievin’ the Black Watch, and Fritz was shelling the road, and we didna get up to the line till one o’clock in the mornin’. Frae Frickout Circus to the south end o’ the High Wood is every bit o’ five mile.’

‘Not abune three,’ said the sapper dogmatically.

‘Man, I’ve trampit it.’

‘Same here. I took up wire every nicht for a week.’

The Cameron looked moodily round the company. ‘I wish there was anither man here that kent the place. He wad bear me out. These boys are no good, for they didna join till later. I tell ye it’s five mile.’

‘Three,’ said the sapper.

Tempers were rising, for each of the disputants felt his veracity assailed. It was too hot for a quarrel and I was so drowsy that I was heedless.

‘Shut up, you fools,’ I said. ‘The distance is six kilometres, so you’re both wrong.’

My tone was so familiar to the men that it stopped the wrangle, but it was not the tone of a publisher’s traveller. Mr Linklater cocked his ears.

‘What’s a kilometre, Mr McCaskie?’ he asked blandly.

‘Multiply by five and divide by eight and you get the miles.’

I was on my guard now, and told a long story of a nephew who had been killed on the Somme, and how I had corresponded with the War Office about his case. ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘I’m a great student o’ the newspaper............
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