The Lonely Hampshire Cottage by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published in Cassell's Saturday Journal, 2 May 1885.
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
"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
"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
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
"Did you speak to anyone after you left the ship?" Ranter asked,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.