January 30, 2014
Huntingtower was a departure for John Buchan. Published between the third and fourth of his tremendous Richard Hannay novels, the book’s protagonist is not a soldier-turned-spy, but instead a retired Scottish grocer who joins a quixotic effort to rescue a Russian noblewoman from Bolsheviks. Adventure literature exegetes agree that with this novel, Buchan was attempting to take the curse of irony off the word “adventure” — that is, to bring adventure into everyday life.
HiLobrow is pleased to serialize John Buchan’s Huntingtower, which was first published in 1922. A new installment will appear each week for sixteen weeks.
Very early next morning, while Mrs. Morran was still cooking breakfast, Dickson and Heritage might have been observed taking the air in the village street. It was the Poet who had insisted upon this walk, and he had his own purpose. They looked at the spires of smoke piercing the windless air, and studied the daffodils in the cottage gardens. Dickson was glum, but Heritage seemed in high spirits. He varied his garrulity with spells of cheerful whistling.
They strode along the road by the park wall till they reached the inn. There Heritage’s music waxed peculiarly loud. Presently from the yard, unshaven and looking as if he had slept in his clothes, came Dobson the innkeeper.
“Good morning,” said the Poet. “I hope the sickness in your house is on the mend?”
“Thank ye, it’s no worse,” was the reply, but in the man’s heavy face there was little civility. His small grey eyes searched their faces.
“We’re just waiting on breakfast to get on the road again. I’m jolly glad we spent the night here. We found quarters after all, you know.”
“So I see. Whereabouts, may I ask?”
“Mrs. Morran’s. We could always have got in there, but we didn’t want to fuss an old lady, so we thought we’d try the inn first. She’s my friend’s aunt.”
At this amazing falsehood Dickson started, and the man observed his surprise. The eyes were turned on him like a searchlight. They roused antagonism in his peaceful soul, and with that antagonism came an impulse to back up the Poet. “Ay,” he said, “she’s my Auntie Phemie, my mother’s half-sister.”
The man turned on Heritage.
“Where are ye for the day?”
“Auchenlochan,” said Dickson hastily. He was still determined to shake the dust of Dalquharter from his feet.
The innkeeper sensibly brightened. “Well, ye’ll have a fine walk. I must go in and see about my own breakfast. Good day to ye, gentlemen.”
“That,” said Heritage as they entered the village street again, “is the first step in camouflage, to put the enemy off his guard.”
“It was an abominable lie,” said Dickson crossly.
“Not at all. It was a necessary and proper ruse de guerre. It explained why we spent the night here, and now Dobson and his friends can get about their day’s work with an easy mind. Their suspicions are temporarily allayed, and that will make our job easier.”
“I’m not coming with you.”
“I never said you were. By ‘we’ I refer to myself and the red-headed boy.”
“Mistress, you’re my auntie,” Dickson informed Mrs. Morran as she set the porridge on the table. “This gentleman has just been telling the man at the inn that you’re my Auntie Phemie.”
For a second their hostess looked bewildered. Then the corners of her prim mouth moved upwards in a slow smile.
“I see,” she said. “Weel, maybe it was weel done. But if ye’re my nevoy ye’ll hae to keep up my credit, for we’re a bauld and siccar lot.”
Half an hour later there was a furious dissension when Dickson attempted to pay for the night’s entertainment. Mrs. Morran would have none of it. “Ye’re no’ awa’ yet,” she said tartly, and the matter was complicated by Heritage’s refusal to take part in the debate. He stood aside and grinned, till Dickson in despair returned his note-case to his pocket, murmuring darkly that “he would send it from Glasgow.”
The road to Auchenlochan left the main village street at right angles by the side of Mrs. Morran’s cottage. It was a better road than that which they had come yesterday, for by it twice daily the post-cart travelled to the post-town. It ran on the edge of the moor and on the lip of the Garple glen, till it crossed that stream and, keeping near the coast, emerged after five miles into the cultivated flats of the Lochan valley. The morning was fine, the keen air invited to high spirits, plovers piped entrancingly over the bent and linnets sang in the whins, there was a solid breakfast behind him, and the promise of a cheerful road till luncheon. The stage was set for good humour, but Dickson’s heart, which should have been ascending with the larks, stuck leadenly in his boots. He was not even relieved at putting Dalquharter behind him. The atmosphere of that unhallowed place lay still on his soul. He hated it, but he hated himself more. Here was one, who had hugged himself all his days as an adventurer waiting his chance, running away at the first challenge of adventure; a lover of Romance who fled from the earliest overture of his goddess. He was ashamed and angry, but what else was there to do? Burglary in the company of a queer poet and a queerer urchin? It was unthinkable.
Presently as they tramped silently on they came to the bridge beneath which the peaty waters of the Garple ran in porter-coloured pools and tawny cascades. From a clump of elders on the other side Dougal emerged. A barefoot boy, dressed in much the same parody of a Boy Scout’s uniform, but with corduroy shorts instead of a kilt, stood before him at rigid attention. Some command was issued, the child saluted, and trotted back past the travellers with never a look at them. Discipline was strong among the Gorbals Die-Hards; no Chief of Staff ever conversed with his General under a stricter etiquette.
Dougal received the travellers with the condescension of a regular towards civilians.
“They’re off their gawrd,” he announced. “Thomas Yownie has been shadowin’ them since skreigh o’ day, and he reports that Dobson and Lean followed ye till ye were out o’ sight o’ the houses, and syne Lean got a spy-glass and watched ye till the road turned in among the trees. That satisfied them, and they’re both away back to their jobs. Thomas Yownie’s the fell yin. Ye’ll no fickle Thomas Yownie.”
Dougal extricated from his pouch the fag of a cigarette, lit it and puffed meditatively. “I did a reckonissince mysel’ this morning. I was up at the Hoose afore it was light, and tried the door o’ the coal-hole. I doot they’ve gotten on our tracks, for it was lockit — ay, and wedged from the inside.”
Dickson brightened. Was the insane venture off?
“For a wee bit I was fair beat. But I mindit that the lassie was allowed to walk in a kind o’ a glass hoose on the side farthest away from the Garple. That was where she was singin’ yest’reen. So I reckonissinced in that direction, and I fund a queer place.” Sacred Songs and Solos was requisitioned, and on a page of it Dougal proceeded to make marks with the stump of a carpenter’s pencil. “See here,” he commanded. “There’s the glass place wi’ a door into the Hoose. That door must be open or the lassie must have the key, for she comes there whenever she likes. Now, at each end o’ the place the doors are lockit, but the front that looks on the garden is open, wi’ muckle posts and flower-pots. The trouble is that that side there’s maybe twenty feet o’ a wall between the pawrapet and the ground. It’s an auld wall wi’ cracks and holes in it, and it wouldn’t be ill to sklim. That’s why they let her gang there when she wants, for a lassie couldn’t get away without breakin’ her neck.”
“Could we climb it?” Heritage asked.
The boy wrinkled his brows. “I could manage it mysel’ — I think — and maybe you. I doubt if auld McCunn could get up. Ye’d have to be mighty carefu’ that nobody saw ye, for your hinder end, as ye were sklimmin’, wad be a grand mark for a gun.”
“Lead on,” said Heritage. “We’ll try the verandah.”
They both looked at Dickson, and Dickson, scarlet in the face, looked back at them. He had suddenly found the thought of a solitary march to Auchenlochan intolerable. Once again he was at the parting of the ways, and once more caprice determined his decision. That the coal-hole was out of the question had worked a change in his views. Somehow it seemed to him less burglarious to enter by a verandah. He felt very frightened but — for the moment — quite resolute.
“I’m coming with you,” he said.
“Sportsman,” said Heritage and held out his hand. “Well done, the auld yin,” said the Chieftain of the Gorbals Die-Hards. Dickson’s quaking heart experienced a momentary bound as he followed Heritage down the track into the Garple Dean.
The track wound through a thick covert of hazels, now close to the rushing water, now high upon the bank so that clear sky showed through the fringes of the wood. When they had gone a little way Dougal halted them.
“It’s a ticklish job,” he whispered. “There’s the tinklers, mind, that’s campin’ in the Dean. If they’re still in their camp we can get by easy enough, but they’re maybe wanderin’ about the wud after rabbits…. Then we must ford the water, for ye’ll no’ cross it lower down where it’s deep…. Our road is on the Hoose side o’ the Dean and it’s awfu’ public if there’s onybody on the other side, though it’s hid well enough from folk up in the policies…. Ye must do exactly what I tell ye. When we get near danger I’ll scout on ahead, and I daur ye to move a hair o’ your head till I give the word.”
Presently, when they were at the edge of the water, Dougal announced his intention of crossing. Three boulders in the stream made a bridge for an active man and Heritage hopped lightly over. Not so Dickson, who stuck fast on the second stone, and would certainly have fallen in had not Dougal plunged into the current and steadied him with a grimy hand. The leap was at last successfully taken, and the three scrambled up a rough scaur, all reddened with iron springs, till they struck a slender track running down the Dean on its northern side. Here the undergrowth was very thick, and they had gone the better part of half a mile before the covert thinned sufficiently to show them the stream beneath. Then Dougal halted them with a finger on his lips, and crept forward alone.
He returned in three minutes. “Coast’s clear,” he whispered. “The tinklers are eatin’ their breakfast. They’re late at their meat though they’re up early seekin’ it.”
Progress was now very slow and secret and mainly on all fours. At one point Dougal nodded downward, and the other two saw on a patch of turf, where the Garple began to widen into its estuary, a group of figures round a small fire. There were four of them, all men, and Dickson thought he had never seen such ruffianly-looking customers. After that they moved high up the slope, in a shallow glade of a tributary burn, till they came out of the trees and found themselves looking seaward.
On one side was the House, a hundred yards or so back from the edge, the roof showing above the precipitous scarp. Half-way down the slope became easier, a jumble of boulders and boiler-plates, till it reached the waters of the small haven, which lay calm as a mill-pond in the windless forenoon. The haven broadened out at its foot and revealed a segment of blue sea. The opposite shore was flatter and showed what looked like an old wharf and the ruins of buildings, behind which rose a bank clad with scrub and surmounted by some gnarled and wind-crooked firs.
“There’s dashed little cover here,” said Heritage.
“There’s no muckle,” Dougal assented. “But they canna see us from the policies, and it’s no’ like there’s anybody watchin’ from the Hoose. The danger is somebody on the other side, but we’ll have to risk it. Once among thae big stones we’re safe. Are ye ready?”
Five minutes later Dickson found himself gasping in the lee of a boulder, while Dougal was making a cast forward. The scout returned with a hopeful report. “I think we’re safe, till we get into the policies. There’s a road that the auld folk made when ships used to come here. Down there it’s deeper than Clyde at the Broomilaw. Has the auld yin got his wind yet? There’s no time to waste.”
Up that broken hillside they crawled, well in the cover of the tumbled stones, till they reached a low wall which was the boundary of the garden. The House was now behind them on their right rear, and as they topped the crest they had a glimpse of an ancient dovecot and the ruins of the old Huntingtower on the short thymy turf which ran seaward to the cliffs. Dougal led them along a sunk fence which divided the downs from the lawns behind the house, and, avoiding the stables, brought them by devious ways to a thicket of rhododendrons and broom. On all fours they travelled the length of the place, and came to the edge where some forgotten gardeners had once tended a herbaceous border. The border was now rank and wild, and, lying flat under the shade of an azalea, and peering through the young spears of iris, Dickson and Heritage regarded the north-western façade of the house.
The ground before them had been a sunken garden, from which a steep wall, once covered with creepers and rock plants, rose to a long verandah, which was pillared and open on that side; but at each end built up half-way and glazed for the rest. There was a glass roof, and inside untended shrubs sprawled in broken plaster vases.
“Ye must bide here,” said Dougal, “and no cheep above your breath. Afore we dare to try that wall, I must ken where Lean and Spittal and Dobson are. I’m off to spy the policies.” He glided out of sight behind a clump of pampas grass.
For hours, so it seemed, Dickson was left to his own unpleasant reflections. His body, prone on the moist earth, was fairly comfortable, but his mind was ill at ease. The scramble up the hillside had convinced him that he was growing old, and there was no rebound in his soul to counter the conviction. He felt listless, spiritless — an apathy with fright trembling somewhere at the back of it. He regarded the verandah wall with foreboding. How on earth could he climb that? And if he did there would be his exposed hinder-parts inviting a shot from some malevolent gentleman among the trees. He reflected that he would give a large sum of money to be out of this preposterous adventure.
Heritage’s hand was stretched towards him, containing two of Mrs. Morran’s jellied scones, of which the Poet had been wise enough to bring a supply in his pocket. The food cheered him, for he was growing very hungry, and he began to take an interest in the scene before him instead of his own thoughts. He observed every detail of the verandah. There was a door at one end, he noted, giving on a path which wound down to the sunk garden. As he looked he heard a sound of steps and saw a man ascending this path.
It was the lame man whom Dougal had called Spittal, the dweller in the South Lodge. Seen at closer quarters he was an odd-looking being, lean as a heron, wry-necked, but amazingly quick on his feet. Had not Mrs. Morran said that he hobbled as fast as other folk ran? He kept his eyes on the ground and seemed to be talking to himself as he went, but he was alert enough, for the dropping of a twig from a dying magnolia transferred him in an instant into a figure of active vigilance. No risks could be run with that watcher. He took a key from his pocket, opened the garden door and entered the verandah. For a moment his shuffle sounded on its tiled floor, and then he entered the door admitting from the verandah to the House. It was clearly unlocked for there came no sound of a turning key.
Dickson had finished the last crumbs of his scones before the man emerged again. He seemed to be in a greater hurry than ever, as he locked the garden door behind him and hobbled along the west front of the House till he was lost to sight. After that the time passed slowly. A pair of yellow wagtails arrived and played at hide-and-seek among the stuccoed pillars. The little dry scratch of their claws was heard clearly in the still air. Dickson had almost fallen asleep when a smothered exclamation from Heritage woke him to attention. A girl had appeared in the verandah.
Above the parapet he saw only her body from the waist up. She seemed to be clad in bright colours, for something red was round her shoulders and her hair was bound with an orange scarf. She was tall — that he could tell, tall and slim and very young. Her face was turned seaward, and she stood for a little scanning the broad channel, shading her eyes as if to search for something on the extreme horizon. The air was very quiet and he thought that he could hear her sigh. Then she turned and re-entered the House, while Heritage by his side began to curse under his breath with a shocking fervour.
One of Dickson’s troubles had been that he did not really believe Dougal’s story, and the sight of the girl removed one doubt. That bright exotic thing did not belong to the Cruives or to Scotland at all, and that she should be in the House removed the place from the conventional dwelling to which the laws against burglary applied.
There was a rustle among the rhododendrons and the fiery face of Dougal appeared. He lay between the other two, his chin on his hands, and grunted out his report.
“After they had their dinner Dobson and Lean yokit a horse and went off to Auchenlochan. I seen them pass the Garple brig, so that’s two accounted for. Has Spittal been round here?”
“Half an hour ago,” said Heritage, consulting a wrist watch.
“It was him that keepit me waitin’ so long. But he’s safe enough now, for five minutes syne he was splittin’ firewood at the back door o’ his hoose…. I’ve found a ladder, an auld yin in ahint yon lot o’ bushes. It’ll help wi’ the wall. There! I’ve gotten my breath again and we can start.”
The ladder was fetched by Heritage and proved to be ancient and wanting many rungs, but sufficient in length. The three stood silent for a moment, listening like stags, and then ran across the intervening lawn to the foot of the verandah wall. Dougal went up first, then Heritage, and lastly Dickson, stiff and giddy from his long lie under the bushes. Below the parapet the verandah floor was heaped with old garden litter, rotten matting, dead or derelict bulbs, fibre, withies and strawberry nets. It was Dougal’s intention to pull up the ladder and hide it among the rubbish against the hour of departure. But Dickson had barely put his foot on the parapet when there was a sound of steps within the House approaching the verandah door.
The ladder was left alone. Dougal’s hand brought Dickson summarily to the floor, where he was fairly well concealed by a mess of matting. Unfortunately his head was in the vicinity of some upturned pot-plants, so that a cactus ticked his brow and a spike of aloe supported painfully the back of his neck. Heritage was prone behind two old water-butts, and Dougal was in a hamper which had once contained seed potatoes. The house door had panels of opaque glass, so the new-comer could not see the doings of the three till it was opened, and by that time all were in cover.
The man — it was Spittal — walked rapidly along the verandah and out of the garden door. He was talking to himself again, and Dickson, who had a glimpse of his face, thought he looked both evil and furious. Then came some anxious moments, for had the man glanced back when he was once outside, he must have seen the tell-tale ladder. But he seemed immersed in his own reflections, for he hobbled steadily along the house front till he was lost to sight.
“That’ll be the end o’ them the night,” said Dougal, as he helped Heritage to pull up the ladder and stow it away. “We’ve got the place to oursels, now. Forward, men, forward.” He tried the handle of the house door and led the way in.
A narrow paved passage took them into what had once been the garden room, where the lady of the house had arranged her flowers, and the tennis racquets and croquet mallets had been kept. It was very dusty and on the cobwebbed walls still hung a few soiled garden overalls. A door beyond opened into a huge murky hall, murky, for the windows were shuttered, and the only light came through things like port-holes far up in the wall. Dougal, who seemed to know his way about, halted them. “Stop here till I scout a bit. The women bide in a wee room through that muckle door.” Bare feet stole across the oak flooring, there was the sound of a door swinging on its hinges, and then silence and darkness. Dickson put out a hand for companionship and clutched Heritage’s; to his surprise it was cold and all a-tremble. They listened for voices, and thought they could detect a far-away sob.
It was some minutes before Dougal returned. “A bonny kettle o’ fish,” he whispered. “They’re both greetin’. We’re just in time. Come on, the pair o’ ye.”
Through a green baize door they entered a passage which led to the kitchen regions, and turned in at the first door on their right. From its situation Dickson calculated that the room lay on the seaward side of the House next to the verandah. The light was bad, for the two windows were partially shuttered, but it had plainly been a smoking-room, for there were pipe-racks by the hearth, and on the walls a number of old school and college photographs, a couple of oars with emblazoned names, and a variety of stags’ and roebucks’ heads. There was no fire in the grate, but a small oil-stove burned inside the fender. In a stiff-backed chair sat an elderly woman, who seemed to feel the cold, for she was muffled to the neck in a fur coat. Beside her, so that the late afternoon light caught her face and head, stood a girl.
Dickson’s first impression was of a tall child. The pose, startled and wild and yet curiously stiff and self-conscious, was that of a child striving to remember a forgotten lesson. One hand clutched a handkerchief, the other was closing and unclosing on a knob of the chair back. She was staring at Dougal, who stood like a gnome in the centre of the floor. “Here’s the gentlemen I was tellin’ ye about,” was his introduction, but her eyes did not move.
Then Heritage stepped forward. “We have met before, Mademoiselle,” he said. “Do you remember Easter in 1918 — in the house in the Trinitá dei Monte?”
The girl looked at him.
“I do not remember,” she said slowly.
“But I was the English officer who had the apartments on the floor below you. I saw you every morning. You spoke to me sometimes.”
“You are a soldier?” she asked, with a new note in her voice.
“I was then — till the war finished.”
“And now? Why have you come here?”
“To offer you help if you need it. If not, to ask your pardon and go away.”
The shrouded figure in the chair burst suddenly into rapid hysterical talk in some foreign tongue which Dickson suspected of being French. Heritage replied in the same language, and the girl joined in with sharp questions. Then the Poet turned to Dickson.
“This is my friend. If you will trust us we will do our best to save you.”
The eyes rested on Dickson’s face, and he realised that he was in the presence of something the like of which he had never met in his life before. It was a loveliness greater than he had imagined was permitted by the Almighty to His creatures. The little face was more square than oval, with a low broad brow and proud exquisite eyebrows. The eyes were of a colour which he could never decide on; afterwards he used to allege obscurely that they were the colour of everything in Spring. There was a delicate pallor in the cheeks, and the face bore signs of suffering and care, possibly even of hunger; but for all that there was youth there, eternal and triumphant! Not youth such as he had known it, but youth with all history behind it, youth with centuries of command in its blood and the world’s treasures of beauty and pride in its ancestry. Strange, he thought, that a thing so fine should be so masterful. He felt abashed in every inch of him.
As the eyes rested on him their sorrowfulness seemed to be shot with humour. A ghost of a smile lurked there, to which Dickson promptly responded. He grinned and bowed.
“Very pleased to meet you, Mem. I’m Mr. McCunn from Glasgow.”
“You don’t even know my name,” she said.
“We don’t,” said Heritage.
“They call me Saskia. This,” nodding to the chair, “is my cousin Eugènie…. We are in very great trouble. But why should I tell you? I do not know you. You cannot help me.”
“We can try,” said Heritage. “Part of your trouble we know already through that boy. You are imprisoned in this place by scoundrels. We are here to help you to get out. We want to ask no questions — only to do what you bid us.”
“You are not strong enough,” she said sadly. “A young man — an old man — and a little boy. There are many against us, and any moment there may be more.”
It was Dougal’s turn to break in. “There’s Lean and Spittal and Dobson and four tinklers in the Dean — that’s seven; but there’s us three and five more Gorbals Die-Hards — that’s eight.”
There was something in the boy’s truculent courage that cheered her.
“I wonder,” she said, and her eyes fell on each in turn.
Dickson felt impelled to intervene.
“I think this is a perfectly simple business. Here’s a lady shut up in this house against her will by a wheen blagyirds. This is a free country and the law doesn’t permit that. My advice is for one of us to inform the police at Auchenlochan and get Dobson and his friends took up and the lady set free to do what she likes. That is, if these folks are really molesting her, which is not yet quite clear to my mind.”
“Alas! It is not so simple as that,” she said. “I dare not invoke your English law, for perhaps in the eyes of that law I am a thief.”
“Deary me, that’s a bad business,” said the startled Dickson.
The two women talked together in some strange tongue, and the elder appeared to be pleading and the younger objecting. Then Saskia seemed to come to a decision.
“I will tell you all,” and she looked straight at Heritage. “I do not think you would be cruel or false, for you have honourable faces…. Listen, then. I am a Russian and for two years have been an exile. I will not speak of my house, for it is no more, or how I escaped, for it is the common tale of all of us. I have seen things more terrible than any dream and yet lived, but I have paid a price for such experience. First I went to Italy where there were friends, and I wished only to have peace among kindly people. About poverty I do not care, for, to us, who have lost all the great things, the want of bread is a little matter. But peace was forbidden me, for I learned that we Russians had to win back our fatherland again and that the weakest must work in that cause. So I was set my task and it was very hard…. There were jewels which once belonged to my Emperor — they had been stolen by the brigands and must be recovered. There were others still hidden in Russia which must be brought to a safe place. In that work I was ordered to share.”
She spoke in almost perfect English, with a certain foreign precision. Suddenly she changed to French, and talked rapidly to Heritage.
“She has told me about her family,” he said, turning to Dickson. “It is among the greatest in Russia, the very greatest after the throne.” Dickson could only stare.
“Our enemies soon discovered me,” she went on. “Oh, but they are very clever, these enemies, and they have all the criminals of the world to aid them. Here you do not understand what they are. You good people in England think they are well-meaning dreamers who are forced into violence by the persecution of Western Europe. But you are wrong. Some honest fools there are among them, but the power — the true power — lies with madmen and degenerates, and they have for allies the special devil that dwells in each country. That is why they cast their net as wide as mankind.”
She shivered, and for a second her face wore a look which Dickson never forgot, the look of one who has looked over the edge of life into the outer dark.
“There were certain jewels of great price which were about to be turned into guns and armies for our enemies. These our people recovered and the charge of them was laid on me. Who would suspect, they said, a foolish girl? But our enemies were very clever, and soon the hunt was cried against me. They tried to rob me of them, but they failed, for I too had become clever. Then they asked the help of the law — first in Italy and then in France. Oh, it was subtly done. Respectable bourgeois, who hated the Bolsheviki but had bought long ago the bonds of my country, desired to be repaid their debts out of the property of the Russian Crown which might be found in the West. But behind them were the Jews, and behind the Jews our unsleeping enemies. Once I was enmeshed in the law I would be safe for them, and presently they would find the hiding-place of the treasure, and while the bourgeois were clamouring in the courts, it would be safe in their pockets. So I fled. For months I have been fleeing and hiding. They have tried to kidnap me many times, and once they have tried to kill me, but I, too, have become very clever — oh, very clever. And I have learned not to fear.”
This simple recital affected Dickson’s honest soul with the liveliest indignation. “Sich doings!” he exclaimed, and he could not forbear from whispering to Heritage an extract from that gentleman’s conversation the first night at Kirkmichael. “We needn’t imitate all their methods, but they’ve got hold of the right end of the stick. They seek truth and reality.” The reply from the Poet was an angry shrug.
“Why and how did you come here?” he asked.
“I always meant to come to England, for I thought it the sanest place in a mad world. Also it is a good country to hide in, for it is apart from Europe, and your police, as I thought, do not permit evil men to be their own law. But especially I had a friend, a Scottish gentleman, whom I knew in the days when we Russians were still a nation. I saw him again in Italy, and since he was kind and brave I told him some part of my troubles. He was called Quentin Kennedy, and now he is dead. He told me that in Scotland he had a lonely château where I could hide secretly and safely, and against the day when I might be hard-pressed he gave me a letter to his steward, bidding him welcome me as a guest when I made application. At that time I did not think I would need such sanctuary, but a month ago the need became urgent, for the hunt in France was very close on me. So I sent a message to the steward as Captain Kennedy told me.”
“What is his name?” Heritage asked.
She spelt it, “Monsieur Loudon — L-O-U-D-O-N in the town of Auchenlochan.”
“The factor,” said Dickson. “And what then?”
“Some spy must have found me out. I had a letter from this Loudon bidding me come to Auchenlochan. There I found no steward to receive me, but another letter saying that that night a carriage would be in waiting to bring me here. It was midnight when we arrived, and we were brought in by strange ways to this house, with no light but a single candle. Here we were welcomed indeed, but by an enemy.”
“Which?” asked Heritage. “Dobson or Lean or Spittal?”
“Dobson I do not know. Léon was there. He is no Russian, but a Belgian who was a valet in my father’s service till he joined the Bolsheviki. Next day the Lett Spidel came, and I knew that I was in very truth entrapped. For of all our enemies he is, save one, the most subtle and unwearied.”
Her voice had trailed off into flat weariness. Again Dickson was reminded of a child, for her arms hung limp by her side; and her slim figure in its odd clothes was curiously like that of a boy in a school blazer. Another resemblance perplexed him. She had a hint of Janet — about the mouth — Janet, that solemn little girl those twenty years in her grave.
Heritage was wrinkling his brows. “I don’t think I quite understand. The jewels? You have them with you?”
“These men wanted to rob you. Why didn’t they do it between here and Auchenlochan? You had no chance to hide them on the journey. Why did they let you come here where you were in a better position to baffle them?”
She shook her head. “I cannot explain — except perhaps, that Spidel had not arrived that night, and Léon may have been waiting instructions.”
The other still looked dissatisfied. “They are either clumsier villains than I take them to be, or there is something deeper in the business than we understand. These jewels — are they here?”
His tone was so sharp that she looked startled — almost suspicious. Then she saw that in his face which reassured her. “I have them hidden here. I have grown very skilful in hiding things.”
“Have they searched for them?”
“The first day they demanded them of me. I denied all knowledge. Then they ransacked this house — I think they ransack it daily, but I am too clever for them. I am not allowed to go beyond the verandah, and when at first I disobeyed there was always one of them in wait to force me back with a pistol behind my head. Every morning Léon brings us food for the day — good food, but not enough, so that Cousin Eugènie is always hungry, and each day he and Spidel question and threaten me. This afternoon Spidel has told me that their patience is at an end. He has given me till to-morrow at noon to produce the jewels. If not, he says I will die.”
“Mercy on us!” Dickson exclaimed.
“There will be no mercy for us,” she said solemnly. “He and his kind think as little of shedding blood as of spilling water. But I do not think he will kill me. I think I will kill him first, but after that I shall surely die. As for Cousin Eugènie, I do not know.”
Her level matter-of-fact tone seemed to Dickson most shocking, for he could not treat it as mere melodrama. It carried a horrid conviction. “We must get you out of this at once,” he declared.
“I cannot leave. I will tell you why. When I came to this country I appointed one to meet me here. He is a kinsman who knows England well, for he fought in your army. With him by my side I have no fear. It is altogether needful that I wait for him.”
“Then there is something more which you haven’t told us?” Heritage asked.
Was there the faintest shadow of a blush on her cheek? “There is something more,” she said.
She spoke to Heritage in French and Dickson caught the name “Alexis” and a word which sounded like “prance.” The Poet listened eagerly and nodded. “I have heard of him,” he said.
“But have you not seen him? A tall man with a yellow beard, who bears himself proudly. Being of my mother’s race he has eyes like mine.”
“That’s the man she was askin’ me about yesterday,” said Dougal, who had squatted on the floor.
Heritage shook his head. “We only came here last night. When did you expect Prince — your friend?”
“I hoped to find him here before me. Oh, it is his not coming that terrifies me. I must wait and hope. But if he does not come in time another may come before him.”
“The ones already here are not all the enemies that threaten you?”
“Indeed, no. The worst has still to come, and till I know he is here I do not greatly fear Spidel or Léon. They receive orders and do not give them.”
Heritage ran a perplexed hand through his hair. The sunset which had been flaming for some time in the unshuttered panes was now passing into the dark. The girl lit a lamp after first shuttering the rest of the windows. As she turned it up the odd dusty room and its strange company were revealed more clearly and Dickson saw with a shock how haggard was the beautiful face. A great pity seized him and almost conquered his timidity.
“It is very difficult to help you,” Heritage was saying. “You won’t leave this place, and you won’t claim the protection of the law. You are very independent, Mademoiselle, but it can’t go on for ever. The man you fear may arrive at any moment. At any moment, too, your treasure may be discovered.”
“It is that that weighs on me,” she cried. “The jewels! They are my solemn trust, but they burden me terribly. If I were only rid of them and knew them to be safe I should face the rest with a braver mind.”
“If you’ll take my advice,” said Dickson slowly, “you’ll get them deposited in a bank and take a receipt for them. A Scotch bank is no’ in a hurry to surrender a deposit without it gets the proper authority.”
Heritage brought his hands together with a smack. “That’s an idea. Will you trust us to take these things and deposit them safely?”
For a little she was silent and her eyes were fixed on each of the trio in turn. “I will trust you,” she said at last. “I think you will not betray me.”
“By God, we won’t!” said the Poet fervently. “Dogson, it’s up to you. You march off to Glasgow in double quick time and place the stuff in your own name in your own bank. There’s not a moment to lose. D’you hear?”
“I will that.” To his own surprise Dickson spoke without hesitation. Partly it was because of his merchant’s sense of property, which made him hate the thought that miscreants should acquire that to which they had no title; but mainly it was the appeal in those haggard childish eyes. “But I’m not going to be tramping the country in the night carrying a fortune and seeking for trains that aren’t there. I’ll go the first thing in the morning.”
“Where are they?” Heritage asked.
“That I do not tell. But I will fetch them.”
She left the room and presently returned with three odd little parcels wrapped in leather and tied with thongs of raw hide. She gave them to Heritage, who held them appraisingly in his hand and then passed them to Dickson.
“I do not ask about their contents. We take them from you as they are, and, please God, when the moment comes they will be returned to you as you gave them. You trust us, Mademoiselle?”
“I trust you, for you are a soldier. Oh, and I thank you from my heart, my friends.” She held out a hand to each, which caused Heritage to grow suddenly very red.
“I will remain in the neighbourhood to await developments,” he said. “We had better leave you now. Dougal, lead on.”
Before going, he took the girl’s hand again, and with a sudden movement bent and kissed it. Dickson shook it heartily. “Cheer up, Mem,” he observed. “There’s a better time coming.” His last recollection of her eyes was of a soft mistiness not far from tears. His pouch and pipe had strange company jostling them in his pocket as he followed the others down the ladder into the night.
Dougal insisted that they must return by the road of the morning. “We daren’t go by the Laver, for that would bring us by the public-house. If the worst comes to the worst, and we fall in wi’ any of the deevils, they must think ye’ve changed your mind and come back from Auchenlochan.”
The night smelt fresh and moist as if a break in the weather were imminent. As they scrambled along the Garple Dean a pinprick of light below showed where the tinklers were busy by their fire. Dickson’s spirits suffered a sharp fall and he began to marvel at his temerity. What in Heaven’s name had he undertaken? To carry very precious things, to which certainly he had no right, through the enemy to distant Glasgow. How could he escape the notice of the watchers? He was already suspect, and the sight of him back again in Dalquharter would double that suspicion. He must brazen it out, but he distrusted his powers with such tell-tale stuff in his pockets. They might murder him anywhere on the moor road or in an empty railway carriage. An unpleasant memory of various novels he had read in which such things happened haunted his mind…. There was just one consolation. This job over, he would be quit of the whole business. And honourably quit, too, for he would have played a manly part in a most unpleasant affair. He could retire to the idyllic with the knowledge that he had not been wanting when Romance called. Not a soul should ever hear of it, but he saw himself in the future tramping green roads or sitting by his winter fireside pleasantly retelling himself the tale.
Before they came to the Garple bridge Dougal insisted that they should separate, remarking that “it would never do if we were seen thegither.” Heritage was despatched by a short cut over fields to the left, which eventually, after one or two plunges into ditches, landed him safely in Mrs. Morran’s back yard. Dickson and Dougal crossed the bridge and tramped Dalquharter-wards by the highway. There was no sign of human life in that quiet place with owls hooting and rabbits rustling in the undergrowth. Beyond the woods they came in sight of the light in the back kitchen, and both seemed to relax their watchfulness when it was most needed. Dougal sniffed the air and looked seaward.
“It’s coming on to rain,” he observed. “There should be a muckle star there, and when you can’t see it it means wet weather wi’ this wind.”
“What star?” Dickson asked.
“The one wi’ the Irish-lukkin’ name. What’s that they call it? O’Brien?” And he pointed to where the constellation of the Hunter should have been declining on the western horizon.
There was a bend of the road behind them, and suddenly round it came a dogcart driven rapidly. Dougal slipped like a weasel into a bush, and presently Dickson stood revealed in the glare of a lamp. The horse was pulled up sharply and the driver called out to him. He saw that it was Dobson the innkeeper with Léon beside him.
“Who is it?” cried the voice. “Oh, you! I thought ye were off the day?”
Dickson rose nobly to the occasion.
“I thought myself I was. But I didn’t think much of Auchenlochan, and I took a fancy to come back and spend the last night of my holiday with my Auntie. I’m off to Glasgow first thing the morn’s morn.”
“So!” said the voice. “Queer thing I never saw ye on the Auchenlochan road, where ye can see three mile before ye.”
“I left early and took it easy along the shore.”
“Did ye so? Well, good-night to ye.”
Five minutes later Dickson walked into Mrs. Morran’s kitchen, where Heritage was busy making up for a day of short provender.
“I’m for Glasgow to-morrow, Auntie Phemie,” he cried. “I want you to loan me a wee trunk with a key, and steek the doors and windows, for I’ve a lot to tell you.”
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SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
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