On the morning of the eleventh of November, 1937, precisely at
eleven o'clock, some well-meaning busybody consulted his watch and
loudly announced the hour, with the result that all of us in the
dining-car felt constrained to put aside drinks and newspapers and
spend the two minutes' silence in rather embarrassed stares at one
another or out of the window. Not that anyone had intended
disrespect--merely that in a fast-moving train we knew no rules for
correct behaviour and would therefore rather not have behaved at
all. Anyhow, it was during those tense uneasy seconds that I first
took notice of the man opposite. Dark-haired, slim, and austerely
good-looking, he was perhaps in his early or middle forties; he
wore an air of prosperous distinction that fitted well with his
neat but quiet standardized clothes. I could not guess whether he
had originally moved in from a third- or a first-class compartment.
lf a million Englishmen are like that. Their inconspicuous
correctness makes almost a display of concealment.
As he looked out of the window I saw something happen to his eyes--
a change from a glance to a gaze and then from a gaze to a glare, a
sudden sharpening of focus, as when a person thinks he recognizes
someone fleetingly in a crowd. Meanwhile a lurch of the train
spilled coffee on the table between us, providing an excuse for
apologies as soon as the two minutes were over; I got in with mine
first, but by the time he turned to reply the focus was lost, his
look of recognition unsure. Only the embarrassment remained, and
to ease it I made some comment on the moorland scenery, which was
indeed somberly beautiful that morning, for overnight snow lay on
the summits, and there was one of them, twin-domed, that seemed to
keep pace with the train, moving over the intervening valley like a
ghostly camel. "That's Mickle," I said, pointing to it.
Surprisingly he answered: "Do you know if there's a lake--quite a
small lake--between the peaks?"
Two men at the table across the aisle then intervened with the
instant garrulousness of those who overhear a question put to
someone else. They were also, I think, moved by a common desire to
talk down an emotional crisis, for the entire dining-car seemed
suddenly full of chatter. One said there WAS such a lake, if you
called it a lake, but it was really more of a swamp; and the other
said there wasn't any kind of lake at all, though after heavy rain
it might be "a bit soggy" up there, and then the first man agreed
that maybe that was so, and presently it turned out that though
they were both Derbyshire men, neither had actually climbed Mickle
We listened politely to all this and thanked them, glad to let the
matter drop. Nothing more was said till they left the train at
Leicester; then I leaned across the table and said: "It doesn't
pay to argue with local inhabitants, otherwise I'd have answered
your question myself--because I was on top of Mickle yesterday."
A gleam reappeared in his eyes. "YOU were?"
"Yes, I'm one of those eccentric people who climb mountains for fun
all the year round."
"So you saw the lake?"
"There wasn't a lake or a swamp or a sign of either."
"Ah. . . ." And the gleam faded.
"You sound disappointed?"
"Well, no--hardly that. Maybe I was thinking of somewhere else.
I'm afraid I've a bad memory."
"For names too. MICKLE, did you say it was?" He spoke the word as
if he were trying the sound of it.