24th December 1932
There was not a sound to be heard, nor a creature abroad to hear it. The village lay still and cold in the moonlight, the long street a pale ribbon, the cottages on its either side no more than inky smudges, their windows set too deep to gleam. Only on the stained glass of the church did the moon’s reflection catch at the little panes and shatter into spangles.
Inside, silently as midnight came, the villagers bent their heads and clasped their hands. Some were praying, some merely waiting; but others, struck by awe, let their thoughts drift up and out into the moonlight, over the quiet countryside to other churches where other heads were bent in silence, to stables where donkeys might kneel if the legends were true, across the seas to distant lands where prayers were said in strange tongues and people quite unlike themselves were awestruck too.
Peace on earth, they told themselves, thinking of those faraway places. Joy to the world, they thought; the words lately sung, still resounding. Silent night, holy night. If only they had known.
For at that moment, not five miles away, klaxons shrieked and guards bellowed, their boots ringing out on the ironhard ground as they gave chase. Out upon the hills, hunched shapes flitted and darted between the shadows, each one cursing the moonlight.
Later that same night, not five miles away, a bell would toll and women’s screams peal out as flames leapt merrily higher and higher. Black smoke rising in billows from a chapel roof would hide the moon.
And before the morning came, not five miles away, alone in his bed, a man would quietly die.
‘If you read the newspapers or listen to the wireless,’ Sister Mary began, ‘you might remember the trouble we had here at Christmas time. The newspapermen have tired of it now and turned their attentions elsewhere but our troubles are far from over. The great harm done to our house has weakened us and we are not equal to dealing with mischief as well as recovering and carrying out our duties. We are in sore need of a woman such as yourself and can offer you a measure of comfort here if you should choose to help us.’ It sounded almost as though she wanted me to profess a vocation. I read on. ‘It cannot take much longer. The moor has been aswarm with policemen for a month now and in the end they shall surely prevail.’
Of course I remembered the events at which she was hinting. Either a breakout from an insane asylum or a fire at a convent that killed a nun would be memorable each on its own. Both together, a few miles apart and on Christmas Eve besides, had given the headline writers almost more than they could handle. Still, a little more detail in Sister Mary’s letter would have been welcome. I read it over again to see what I might have missed and found myself tutting.
I had long suspected that women who go in for nunnery had some melodrama about them. The early rising, the lying prostrate on stone floors, not to mention the glamorous costume – for who would not look dashing swathed in snowy white and with her neck hidden? – and this letter did nothing to change my mind. The great harm, the fickle newsmen, the troubles far from over. ‘Aswarm indeed!’ I muttered to myself. Then, finally, I caught the meaning. If policemen were swarming over the moor even now, that meant that the breakout was still in business. There were inmates at large. Did I really want to go and stay in a house full of women then?
‘What’s that?’ said Alec, looking up at my muttering. Hugh was behind The Times.
‘Interesting case,’ I said. ‘Although interesting isn’t perhaps the word, exactly.’
‘Same here,’ said Alec. ‘Interesting, but “case” isn’t perhaps the word, exactly. I’ve been asked to help a friend.’
‘Do it,’ said Hugh suddenly, letting the paper drop. ‘If you’ve the chance to help a friend, Osborne, do it.’ He had a peculiar look upon his face, strained about the eye, and not quite steady about the jaw.
‘What is it?’ I asked him.
‘Friend of mine in the obituaries,’ he said. ‘Sooty Asher.’
‘Oh, Hugh!’ I said. ‘I am sor—’
Hugh shook his head as though to get rid of a fly and went on, sounding angry now rather than stricken. ‘He killed himself. Shot his own head off. Got past the Boers, got past the Hun, settled himself in a good job, rising through the ranks, and then bang!’
‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Well, you must try to get to the funeral, no matter how the roads are. Where is it?’
‘God knows,’ said Hugh. ‘He lived in Hyderabad. So they’ll probably have it there and send a tin pot of clinker back on a ship. You know what Indians are like. Poor old Sooty Asher.’
‘What was his Christian name?’ I asked. ‘Where are his family? I shall write to them and you can sign it, if you like. But I can’t call him Sooty.’
‘No family,’ said Hugh. ‘At least . . . I think there was a sister, but it was all rather under wraps. He had a patron, you know. We never asked and never cared.’ He glared at me as though I had been unfeeling. ‘So there’s no one to write to,’ he concluded, sounding bleak. Then he rose and left the room.
‘You didn’t deserve a scrap of that,’ said Alec.
‘I don’t mind,’ I replied. ‘Gosh, if one can’t snarl at one’s wife when an old pal blows his head off.’
‘Well, at any rate, I think I shall take Hugh’s advice and help my old pal Tony Gourlay,’ Alec said, but he looked over the letter with no great enthusiasm as he spoke.
‘Help him do what?’ I asked.
‘Keep his neck out of the noose,’ said Alec. ‘His mother writes to tell me I’m their last hope.’
‘What’s he done?’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t a lawyer be better?’
‘If I know Tony, he hasn’t done anything,’ said Alec. ‘He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. There was this one time in— And Tony didn’t even— Just stood there and waited for— If I hadn’t—’
I had grown used to the way Alec spoke of the trenches and was able, just about, to fill in the dreadful words for myself.
‘But what has he been accused of?’ I said.
‘Murder,’ said Alec.
‘And he protests his innocence?’
‘He protests nothing,’ Alec said. ‘He hasn’t spoken for fifteen years. He’s got the worst case of shell shock I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. He’s been mute since before the Armistice, living in a mad house out on the Lanark Moor, that goes by the jaw-dropping title of Hopekist Head. Hardly! Anyway, he lives there, carving wood and digging flowerbeds – rotting in other words. And then suddenly this Christmas he’s supposed to have broken out, set fire to a chapel and killed a nun! What is it, Dandy? You’ve gone paler than Hugh.’