Grey Rock and Grey Sea

The three men stood for a while silently looking at each other. Copplestone, as a stranger, secretly wondered why the two managers seemed so concerned; to him a delay of half an hour in keeping an appointment did not appear to be quite as serious as they evidently considered it. But he had never met Bassett Oliver, and knew nothing of his ways; he only began to comprehend matters when Rothwell turned to Stafford with an air of decision.

“Look here!” he said. “You’d better go and make inquiry at Northborough. See if you can track him. Something must be wrong⁠—perhaps seriously wrong. You don’t quite understand, do you, Mr. Copplestone?” he went on, giving the younger man a sharp glance. “You see, we know Mr. Oliver so well⁠—we’ve both been with him a good many years. He’s a model of system, regularity, punctuality, and all the rest of it. In the ordinary course of events, wherever he spent yesterday, he’d have been sure to turn up at his rooms at the Angel hotel last night, and he’d have walked in here this morning at half past twelve. As he hasn’t done either, why, then, something unusual has happened. Stafford, you’d better get a move on.”

“Wait a minute,” said Stafford. He turned again to the groups behind him, repeating his question.

“Has anybody anything to tell?” he asked anxiously. “We’ve just heard that Mr. Oliver left his hotel at Northborough yesterday morning at eleven o’clock, alone, walking. Has anybody any idea of any project, any excursion, that he had in mind?”

An elderly man who had been in conversation with the leading lady stepped forward.

“I was talking to Oliver about the coast scenery between here and Northborough the other day⁠—Friday,” he remarked. “He’d never seen it⁠—I told him I used to know it pretty well once. He said he’d try and see something of it on Sunday⁠—yesterday, you know. And, I say⁠—” here he came closer to the two managers and lowered his voice⁠—“that coast is very wild, lonely, and a good bit dangerous⁠—sharp and precipitous cliffs. Eh?”

Rothwell clapped a hand on Stafford’s arm.

“You’d really better be off to Northborough,” he said with decision. “You’re sure to come across traces of him. Go to the Golden Apple⁠—then the station. Wire or telephone me⁠—here. Of course, this rehearsal’s off. About this evening⁠—oh, well, a lot may happen before then. But go at once⁠—I believe you can get expresses from here to Northborough pretty often.”

“I’ll go with you⁠—if I may,” said Copplestone suddenly. “I might be of use. There’s that cab still at the door, you know⁠—shall we run up to the station?”

“Good!” assented Stafford. “Yes, come by all means.” He turned to Rothwell for a moment. “If he should turn up here, phone to Waters at the Northborough theatre, won’t you?” he said. “We’ll look in there as soon as we arrive.”

He hurried out with Copplestone and together they drove up to the station, where an express was just leaving for the south. Once on their way to Northborough, Stafford turned to his companion with a grave shake of the head.

“I daresay you don’t quite see the reason of our anxiety,” he observed. “You see, we know Oliver. He’s a trick of wandering about by himself on Sundays⁠—when he gets the chance. Of course when there’s a long journey between two towns, he doesn’t get the chance, and then he’s all right. But when, as in this case, the town of one week is fairly close to the town of the next, he invariably spots some place of interest, an old castle, or a ruined abbey, or some famous house, and goes looking round it. And if he’s been exploring some spot on this coast yesterday, and it’s as that chap Rutherford said, wild and dangerous, why, then⁠—”

“You think he may have had an accident⁠—fallen over the cliffs or something?” suggested Copplestone.

“I don’t like to think anything,” replied Stafford. “But I shall be a good deal relieved if we can get some definite news about him.”

The first half hour at Northborough yielded nothing definite. A telephone message from Rothwell had just come to the theatre when they drove up to it⁠—nothing had so far been heard of the missing man at Norcaster⁠—either at theatre or hotel. Stafford and Copplestone hurried across to the Golden Apple and interviewed its proprietor; he, keenly interested in the affair, could tell no more than that Mr. Bassett Oliver, having sent his luggage forward to Norcaster, had left the house on foot at eleven o’clock the previous morning, and had been seen to walk across the marketplace in the direction of the railway station. But an old headwaiter, who had served the famous actor’s breakfast, was able to give some information; Mr. Oliver, he said, had talked a little to him about the coast scenery between Northborough and Norcaster, and had asked him which stretch of it was worth seeing. It was his impression that Mr. Oliver meant to break his journey somewhere along the coast.

“Of course, that’s it,” said Stafford, as he and Copplestone drove off again. “He’s gone to some place between the two towns. But where? Anyhow, nobody’s likely to forget Oliver if they’ve once seen him, and wherever he went, he’d have to take a ticket. Therefore⁠—the booking office.”

Here at last, was light. One of the clerks in the booking office came forward at once with news. Mr. Bassett Oliver, whom he knew well enough, having seen him on and off the stage regularly for the past five years, had come there the previous morning, and had taken a first-class single ticket for Scarhaven. He would travel to Scarhaven by the 11:35 train, which arrived at Scarhaven at 12:10. Where was Scarhaven? On the coast, twenty miles off, on the way to Norcaster; you changed for it at Tilmouth Junction. Was there a train leaving soon for Scarhaven? There was⁠—in five minutes.

Stafford and Copplestone presently found themselves travelling back along the main line. A run of twenty minutes brought them to the junction, where, at an adjacent siding they found a sort of train in miniature which ran over a narrow-gauge railway towards the sea. Its course lay through a romantic valley hidden between high heather-clad moorland; they saw nothing of their destination nor of the coast until, coming to a stop in a little station perched high on the side of a hill they emerged to see shore and sea lying far beneath them. With a mutual consent they passed outside the grey walls of the station yard to take a comprehensive view of the scene.

“Just the place to attract Oliver!” muttered Stafford, as he gazed around him. “He’d revel in it⁠—fairly revel!”

Copplestone gazed at the scene in silence. That was the first time he had ever seen the Northern coast, and the strange glamour and romance of this stretch of it appealed strongly to his artistic senses. He found himself standing high above the landward extremity of a narrow bay or creek, much resembling a Norwegian fjord in its general outlines; it ran in from the sea between high shelving cliffs, the slopes of which were thickly wooded with the hardier varieties of tree and shrub, through which at intervals great, gaunt masses of grey rock cropped out. On the edge of the water at either side of the bay were lines of ancient houses and cottages of grey walls and red roofs, built and grouped with the irregularity of individual liking; on the north side rose the square tower and low nave of a venerable church; amidst a mass of wood on the opposite side stood a great Norman keep, half ruinous, which looked down on a picturesque house at its foot. Quays, primitive and quaint, ran along between the old cottages and the water’s edge; in the bay itself or nestling against the worn timbers of the quays, were small craft whose red sails hung idly against their tall masts and spars. And at the end of the quays and the wooded promontories which terminated the land view, lay the North Sea, cold, grey, and mysterious in the waning October light, and out of its bosom rose, close to the shore, great masses of high grey rocks, strong and fantastic of shape, and further away, almost indistinct in the distance, an island, on the highest point of which the ruins of some old religious house were silhouetted against the horizon.

“Just the place!” repeated Stafford. “He’d have cheerfully travelled a thousand miles to see this. And now⁠—we know he came here⁠—what we next want to know is, what he did when he got here?”

Copplestone, who had been taking in every detail of the scene before him, pointed to a house of many gables and queer chimneys which stood a little way beneath them at the point where the waters of a narrow stream ran into the bay.

“That looks like an inn,” he said. “I think I can make out a sign on the gable end. Let’s go down there and inquire. He would get here just about time for lunch, wouldn’t he, and he’d probably turn in there. Also⁠—they may have a telephone there, and you can call up the theatre at Norcaster and find out if anything’s been heard yet.”

Stafford smiled approvingly and started out in the direction of the buildings towards which Copplestone had pointed.

“Excellent notion!” he said. “You’re quite a business man⁠—an unusual thing in authors, isn’t it? Come on, then⁠—and that is an inn, too⁠—I can make out the sign now⁠—The Admiral’s Arms⁠—Mary Wooler. Let’s hope Mary Wooler, who’s presumably the landlady, can give us some useful news!”

The Admiral’s Arms proved to be an old-fashioned, capacious hostelry, eminently promising and comfortable in appearance, which stood on the edge of a broad shelf of headland, and commanded a fine view of the little village and the bay. Stafford and Copplestone, turning in at the front door, found themselves in a deep, stone-paved hall, on one side of which, behind a bar window, a pleasant-faced, buxom woman, silk-aproned and smartly-capped, was busily engaged in adding up columns of figures in a big account book. At sight of strangers she threw open a door and smilingly invited them to walk into a snugly furnished bar-parlour where a bright fire burned in an open hearth. Stafford gave his companion a look⁠—this again was just the sort of old-world place which would appeal to Basset Oliver, supposing he had come across it.

“I wonder if you can give me some information?” he asked presently, when the good-looking landlady had attended to their requests for refreshment. “I suppose you are the landlady⁠—Mrs. Wooler? Well, now, Mrs. Wooler, did you have a tall, handsome, slightly grey-haired gentleman in here to lunch yesterday⁠—say about one o’clock?”

The landlady turned on her questioner with an intelligent smile.

“You mean Mr. Oliver, the actor?” she said.

“Good!” exclaimed Stafford, with a hearty sigh of relief. “I do! You know him, then?”

“I’ve often seen him, both at Northborough and at Norcaster,” replied Mrs. Wooler. “But I never saw him here before yesterday. Oh, yes! Of course I knew him as soon as he walked in, and I had a bit of chat with him before he went out, and he remarked that though he’d been coming into these parts for some years, he’d never been to Scarhaven before⁠—usually, he said, he’d gone inland of a Sunday, amongst the hills. Oh, yes, he was here⁠—he had lunch here.”

“We’re seeking him,” said Stafford, going directly to the question. “He ought to have turned up at the Angel hotel at Norcaster last night, and at the theatre today at noon⁠—he did neither. I’m his business manager, Mrs. Wooler. Now can you tell us anything⁠—more than you’ve already told, I mean?”

The landlady, whose face expressed more and more concern as Stafford spoke, shook her head.

“I can’t!” she answered. “I don’t know any more. He was here perhaps an hour or so. Then he went away, saying he was going to have a look round the place. I expected he’d come in again on his way to the station, but he never did. Dear, dear! I hope nothing’s happened to him⁠—such a fine, pleasant man. And⁠—”

“And⁠—what?” asked Stafford.

“These cliffs and rocks are so dangerous,” murmured Mrs. Wooler. “I often say that no stranger ought to go alone here. They aren’t safe, these cliffs.”

Stafford set down his glass and rose.

“I think you’ve got a telephone in your hall,” he said. “I’ll just call up Norcaster and find out if they’ve heard anything. If they haven’t⁠—”

He shook his head and went out, and Copplestone glanced at the landlady.

“You say the cliffs are dangerous,” he said. “Are they particularly so?”

“To people who don’t know them, yes,” she replied. “They ought to be protected, but then, of course, we don’t get many tourists here, and the Scarhaven people know the danger spots well enough. Then again at the end of the south promontory there, beyond the Keep⁠—”

“Is the Keep that high square tower amongst the woods?” asked Copplestone.

“That’s it⁠—it’s all that’s left of the old castle,” answered Mrs. Wooler. “Well, off the point beneath that, there’s a group of rocks⁠—you’d perhaps noticed them as you came down from the station? They’ve various names⁠—there’s the King, the Queen, the Sugar Loaf, and so on. At low tide you can walk across to them. And of course, some people like to climb them. Now, they’re particularly dangerous! On the Queen rock there’s a great hole called the Devil’s Spout, up which the sea rushes. Everybody wants to look over it, you know, and if a man was there alone, and his foot slipped, and he fell, why⁠—”

Stafford came back, looking more cast down than ever.

“They’ve heard nothing there,” he announced. “Come on⁠—we’ll go down and see if we can hear anything from any of the people. We’ll call in and see you later, Mrs. Wooler, and if you can make any inquiries in the meantime, do. Look here,” he went on, when he and Copplestone had got outside, “you take this south side of the bay, and I’ll take the north. Ask anybody you see⁠—any likely person⁠—fishermen and so on. Then come back here. And if we’ve heard nothing⁠—”

He shook his head significantly, as he turned away, and Copplestone, taking the other direction, felt that the manager’s despondency was influencing himself. A sudden disappearance of this sort was surely not to be explained easily⁠—nothing but exceptional happenings could have kept Bassett Oliver from the scene of his week’s labours. There must have been an accident⁠—it needed little imagination to conjure up its easy occurrence. A too careless step, a too near approach, a loose stone, a sudden giving way of crumbling soil, the shifting of an already detached rock⁠—any of these things might happen, and then⁠—but the thought of what might follow cast a greyer tint over the already cold and grey sea.

He went on amongst the old cottages and fishing huts which lay at the foot of the wooded heights on the tops of whose pines and firs the gaunt ruins of the old Keep seemed to stand sentinel. He made inquiry at open doors and of little groups of men gathered on the quay and by the drawn-up boats⁠—nobody knew anything. According to what they told him, most of these people had been out and about all the previous afternoon; it had been a particularly fine day, that Sunday, and they had all been out of doors, on the quay and the shore, in the sunshine. But nobody had any recollection of the man described, and Copplestone came to the conclusion that Oliver had not chosen that side of the bay. There was, however, one objection to that theory⁠—so far as he could judge, that side was certainly the more attractive. And he himself went on to the end of it⁠—on until he had left quay and village far behind, and had come to a spit of sand which ran out into the sea exactly opposite the group of rocks of which Mrs. Wooler had spoken. There they lay, rising out of the surf like great monsters, a half mile from where he stood. The tide was out at that time, and between him and them stretched a shining expanse of glittering wet sand. And, coming straight towards him across it, Copplestone saw the slim and graceful figure of a girl.