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.
The first cocks had just begun to crow and the clocks had not yet struck five when Dickson presented himself at Mrs. Morran’s back door. That active woman had already been half an hour out of bed, and was drinking her morning cup of tea in the kitchen. She received him with cordiality, nay, with relief.
“Eh, sirs, but I’m glad to see ye back. Guid kens what’s gaun on at the Hoose thae days. Mr. Heritage left here yestreen, creepin’ round by dyke-sides and berry-busses like a wheasel. It’s a mercy to get a responsible man in the place. I aye had a notion ye wad come back, for, thinks I, nevoy Dickson is no the yin to desert folk in trouble…. Whaur’s my wee kist?… Lost, ye say. That’s a peety, for it’s been my cheese-box thae thirty year.”
Dickson ascended to the loft, having announced his need of at least three hours’ sleep. As he rolled into bed his mind was curiously at ease. He felt equipped for any call that might be made on him. That Mrs. Morran should welcome him back as a resource in need gave him a new assurance of manhood.
He woke between nine and ten to the sound of rain lashing against the garret window. As he picked his way out of the mazes of sleep and recovered the skein of his immediate past, he found to his disgust that he had lost his composure. All the flock of fears that had left him when, on the top of the Glasgow tram-car, he had made the great decision had flown back again and settled like black crows on his spirit. He was running a horrible risk and all for a whim. What business had he to be mixing himself up in things he did not understand? It might be a huge mistake, and then he would be a laughing stock; for a moment he repented his telegram to Mr. Caw. Then he recanted that suspicion; there could be no mistake, except the fatal one that he had taken on a job too big for him. He sat on the edge of his bed and shivered, with his eyes on the grey drift of rain. He would have felt more stout-hearted had the sun been shining.
He shuffled to the window and looked out. There in the village street was Dobson, and Dobson saw him. That was a bad blunder, for his reason told him that he should have kept his presence in Dalquharter hid as long as possible.
There was a knock at the cottage door, and presently Mrs. Morran appeared.
“It’s the man frae the inn,” she announced. “He’s wantin’ a word wi’ ye. Speakin’ verra ceevil, too.”
“Tell him to come up,” said Dickson. He might as well get the interview over. Dobson had seen Loudon and must know of their conversation. The sight of himself back again when he had pretended to be off to Glasgow would remove him effectually from the class of the unsuspected. He wondered just what line Dobson would take.
The innkeeper obtruded his bulk through the low door. His face was wrinkled into a smile, which nevertheless left the small eyes ungenial. His voice had a loud vulgar cordiality. Suddenly Dickson was conscious of a resemblance, a resemblance to somebody whom he had recently seen. It was Loudon. There was the same thrusting of the chin forward, the same odd cheek-bones, the same unctuous heartiness of speech. The innkeeper, well washed and polished and dressed, would be no bad copy of the factor. They must be near kin, perhaps brothers.
“Good morning to you, Mr. McCunn. Man, it’s pitifu’ weather, and just when the farmers are wanting a dry seed-bed. What brings ye back here? Ye travel the country like a drover.”
“Oh, I’m a free man now and I took a fancy to this place. An idle body has nothing to do but please himself.”
“I hear ye’re taking a lease of Huntingtower?”
“Now who told you that?”
“Just the clash of the place. Is it true?”
Dickson looked sly and a little annoyed.
“I maybe had half a thought of it, but I’ll thank you not to repeat the story. It’s a big house for a plain man like me, and I haven’t properly inspected it.”
“Oh, I’ll keep mum, never fear. But if ye’ve that sort of notion, I can understand you not being able to keep away from the place.”
“That’s maybe the fact,” Dickson admitted.
“Well! It’s just on that point I want a word with you.” The innkeeper seated himself unbidden on the chair which held Dickson’s modest raiment. He leaned forward and with a coarse forefinger tapped Dickson’s pyjama-clad knees. “I can’t have ye wandering about the place. I’m very sorry, but I’ve got my orders from Mr. Loudon. So if you think that by bidin’ here ye can see more of the House and the policies, ye’re wrong, Mr. McCunn. It can’t be allowed, for we’re no’ ready for ye yet. D’ye understand? That’s Mr. Loudon’s orders…. Now, would it not be a far better plan if ye went back to Glasgow and came back in a week’s time? I’m thinking of your own comfort, Mr. McCunn.”
Dickson was cogitating hard. This man was clearly instructed to get rid of him at all costs for the next few days. The neighbourhood had to be cleared for some black business. The tinklers had been deputed to drive out the Gorbals Die-Hards, and as for Heritage they seemed to have lost track of him. He, Dickson, was now the chief object of their care. But what could Dobson do if he refused? He dared not show his true hand. Yet he might, if sufficiently irritated. It became Dickson’s immediate object to get the innkeeper to reveal himself by rousing his temper. He did not stop to consider the policy of this course; he imperatively wanted things cleared up and the issue made plain.
“I’m sure I’m much obliged to you for thinking so much about my comfort,” he said in a voice into which he hoped he had insinuated a sneer. “But I’m bound to say you’re awful suspicious folk about here. You needn’t be feared for your old policies. There’s plenty of nice walks about the roads, and I want to explore the sea-coast.”
The last words seemed to annoy the innkeeper. “That’s no’ allowed either,” he said. “The shore’s as private as the policies…. Well, I wish ye joy tramping the roads in the glaur.”
“It’s a queer thing,” said Dickson meditatively, “that you should keep an hotel and yet be set on discouraging people from visiting this neighbourhood. I tell you what, I believe that hotel of yours is all sham. You’ve some other business, you and these lodgekeepers, and in my opinion it’s not a very creditable one.”
“What d’ye mean?” asked Dobson sharply.
“Just what I say. You must expect a body to be suspicious, if you treat him as you’re treating me.” Loudon must have told this man the story with which he had been fobbed off about the half-witted Kennedy relative. Would Dobson refer to that?
The innkeeper had an ugly look on his face, but he controlled his temper with an effort. “There’s no cause for suspicion,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned it’s all honest and aboveboard.”
“It doesn’t look like it. It looks as if you were hiding something up in the House which you don’t want me to see.”
Dobson jumped from his chair, his face pale with anger. A man in pyjamas on a raw morning does not feel at his bravest, and Dickson quailed under the expectation of assault. But even in his fright he realised that Loudon could not have told Dobson the tale of the half-witted lady. The last remark had cut clean through all camouflage and reached the quick.
“What the hell d’ ye mean?” he cried. “Ye’re a spy, are ye? Ye fat little fool, for two cents I’d wring your neck.”
Now it is an odd trait of certain mild people that a suspicion of threat, a hint of bullying, will rouse some unsuspected obstinacy deep down in their souls. The insolence of the man’s speech woke a quiet but efficient little devil in Dickson.
“That’s a bonny tone to adopt in addressing a gentleman. If you’ve nothing to hide what way are you so touchy? I can’t be a spy unless there’s something to spy on.”
The innkeeper pulled himself together. He was apparently acting on instructions, and had not yet come to the end of them. He made an attempt at a smile.
“I’m sure I beg your pardon if I spoke too hot. But it nettled me to hear ye say that…. I’ll be quite frank with ye, Mr. McCunn, and, believe me, I’m speaking in your best interests. I give ye my word there’s nothing wrong up at the House. I’m on the side of the law, and when I tell ye the whole story ye’ll admit it. But I can’t tell it ye yet…. This is a wild, lonely bit and very few folk bide in it. And these are wild times, when a lot of queer things happen that never get into the papers. I tell ye it’s for your own good to leave Dalquharter for the present. More I can’t say, but I ask ye to look at it as a sensible man. Ye’re one that’s accustomed to a quiet life and no’ meant for rough work. Ye’ll do no good if you stay, and, maybe, ye’ll land yourself in bad trouble.”
“Mercy on us!” Dickson exclaimed. “What is it you’re expecting? Sinn Fein?”
The innkeeper nodded. “Something like that.”
“Did you ever hear the like? I never did think much of the Irish.”
“Then ye’ll take my advice and go home? Tell ye what, I’ll drive ye to the station.”
Dickson got up from the bed, found his new safety-razor and began to strop it. “No, I think I’ll bide. If you’re right there’ll be more to see than glaury roads.”
“I’m warning ye, fair and honest. Ye… can’t… be… allowed… to… stay… here!”
“Well, I never!” said Dickson. “Is there any law in Scotland, think you, that forbids a man to stop a day or two with his auntie?”
“Ay, I’ll stay.”
“By God, we’ll see about that.”
For a moment Dickson thought that he would be attacked, and he measured the distance that separated him from the peg whence hung his waterproof with the pistol in its pocket. But the man restrained himself and moved to the door. There he stood and cursed him with a violence and a venom which Dickson had not believed possible. The full hand was on the table now.
“Ye wee pot-bellied, pig-heided Glasgow grocer,” (I paraphrase), “would you set up to defy me? I tell ye, I’ll make ye rue the day ye were born.” His parting words were a brilliant sketch of the maltreatment in store for the body of the defiant one.
“Impident dog,” said Dickson without heat. He noted with pleasure that the innkeeper hit his head violently against the low lintel, and, missing a step, fell down the loft stairs into the kitchen, where Mrs. Morran’s tongue could be heard speeding him trenchantly from the premises.
Left to himself, Dickson dressed leisurely, and by and by went down to the kitchen and watched his hostess making broth. The fracas with Dobson had done him all the good in the world, for it had cleared the problem of dubieties and had put an edge on his temper. But he realised that it made his continued stay in the cottage undesirable. He was now the focus of all suspicion, and the innkeeper would be as good as his word and try to drive him out of the place by force. Kidnapping, most likely, and that would be highly unpleasant, besides putting an end to his usefulness. Clearly he must join the others. The soul of Dickson hungered at the moment for human companionship. He felt that his courage would be sufficient for any team-work, but might waver again if he were left to play a lone hand.
He lunched nobly off three plates of Mrs. Morran’s kail — an early lunch, for that lady, having breakfasted at five, partook of the midday meal about eleven. Then he explored her library, and settled himself by the fire with a volume of Covenanting tales, entitled Gleanings among the Mountains. It was a most practical work for one in his position, for it told how various eminent saints of that era escaped the attention of Claverhouse’s dragoons. Dickson stored up in his memory several of the incidents in case they should come in handy. He wondered if any of his forbears had been Covenanters; it comforted him to think that some old progenitor might have hunkered behind turf walls and been chased for his life in the heather. “Just like me,” he reflected. “But the dragoons weren’t foreigners, and there was a kind of decency about Claverhouse too.”
About four o’clock Dougal presented himself in the back kitchen. He was an even wilder figure than usual, for his bare legs were mud to the knees, his kilt and shirt clung sopping to his body, and, having lost his hat, his wet hair was plastered over his eyes. Mrs. Morran said, not unkindly, that he looked “like a wull-cat glowerin’ through a whin buss.”
“How are you, Dougal?” Dickson asked genially. “Is the peace of nature smoothing out the creases in your poor little soul?”
“What’s that ye say?”
“Oh, just what I heard a man say in Glasgow. How have you got on?”
“Not so bad. Your telegram was sent this mornin’. Old Bill took it in to Kirkmichael. That’s the first thing. Second, Thomas Yownie has took a party to get down the box from the station. He got Mrs. Sempill’s powny and he took the box ayont the Laver by the ford at the herd’s hoose and got it on to the shore maybe a mile ayont Laverfoot. He managed to get the machine up as far as the water, but he could get no farther, for ye’ll no’ get a machine over the wee waterfa’ just before the Laver ends in the sea. So he sent one o’ the men back with it to Mrs. Sempill, and, since the box was ower heavy to carry, he opened it and took the stuff across in bits. It’s a’ safe in the hole at the foot o’ the Huntingtower rocks, and he reports that the rain has done it no harm. Thomas has made a good job of it. Ye’ll no fickle Thomas Yownie.”
“And what about your camp on the moor?”
“It was broke up afore daylight. Some of our things we’ve got with us, and most is hid near at hand. The tents are in the auld wife’s henhoose,” and he jerked his disreputable head in the direction of the back door.
“Have the tinklers been back?”
“Ay. They turned up about ten o’clock, no doubt intendin’ murder. I left Wee Jaikie to watch developments. They fund him sittin’ on a stone, greetin’ sore. When he saw them, he up and started to run, and they cried on him to stop, but he wouldn’t listen. Then they cried out where were the rest, and he telled them they were feared for their lives and had run away. After that they offered to catch him, but ye’ll no’ catch Jaikie in a hurry. When he had run round about them till they were wappit, he out wi’ his catty and got one o’ them on the lug. Syne he made for the Laverfoot and reported.”
“Man, Dougal, you’ve managed fine. Now I’ve something to tell you,” and Dickson recounted his interview with the innkeeper. “I don’t think it’s safe for me to bide here, and if I did, I wouldn’t be any use, hiding in cellars and such like, and not daring to stir a foot. I’m coming with you to the House. Now tell me how to get there.”
Dougal agreed to this view. “There’s been nothing doing at the Hoose the day, but they’re keepin’ a close watch on the policies. The cripus may come any moment. There’s no doubt, Mr. McCunn, that ye’re in danger, for they’ll serve you as the tinklers tried to serve us. Listen to me. Ye’ll walk up the station road, and take the second turn on your left, a wee grass road that’ll bring ye to the ford at the herd’s hoose. Cross the Laver — there’s a plank bridge — and take straight across the moor in the direction of the peakit hill they call Grey Carrick. Ye’ll come to a big burn, which ye must follow till ye get to the shore. Then turn south, keepin’ the water’s edge till ye reach the Laver, where you’ll find one o’ us to show ye the rest of the road…. I must be off now, and I advise ye not to be slow of startin’, for wi’ this rain the water’s risin’ quick. It’s a mercy it’s such coarse weather, for it spoils the veesibility.”
“Auntie Phemie,” said Dickson a few minutes later, “will you oblige me by coming for a short walk?”
“The man’s daft,” was the answer.
“I’m not. I’ll explain if you’ll listen…. You see,” he concluded, “the dangerous bit for me is just the mile out of the village. They’ll no’ be so likely to try violence if there’s somebody with me that could be a witness. Besides, they’ll maybe suspect less if they just see a decent body out for a breath of air with his auntie.”
Mrs. Morran said nothing, but retired, and returned presently equipped for the road. She had indued her feet with goloshes and pinned up her skirts till they looked like some demented Paris mode. An ancient bonnet was tied under her chin with strings, and her equipment was completed by an exceedingly smart tortoise-shell-handled umbrella, which, she explained, had been a Christmas present from her son.
“I’ll convoy ye as far as the Laverfoot herd’s,” she announced. “The wife’s a freend o’ mine and will set me a bit on the road back. Ye needna fash for me. I’m used to a’ weathers.”
The rain had declined to a fine drizzle, but a tearing wind from the south-west scoured the land. Beyond the shelter of the trees the moor was a battle-ground of gusts which swept the puddles into spindrift and gave to the stagnant bog-pools the appearance of running water. The wind was behind the travellers, and Mrs. Morran, like a full-rigged ship, was hustled before it, so that Dickson, who had linked arms with her, was sometimes compelled to trot.
“However will you get home, mistress?” he murmured anxiously.
“Fine. The wind will fa’ at the darkenin’. This’ll be a sair time for ships at sea.”
Not a soul was about, as they breasted the ascent of the station road and turned down the grassy bypath to the Laverfoot herd’s. The herd’s wife saw them from afar and was at the door to receive them.
“Megsty! Phemie Morran!” she shrilled. “Wha wad ettle to see ye on a day like this? John’s awa’ at Dumfries, buyin’ tups. Come in, the baith o’ ye. The kettle’s on the boil.”
“This is my nevoy Dickson,” said Mrs. Morran. “He’s gaun to stretch his legs ayont the burn, and come back by the Ayr road. But I’ll be blithe to tak’ my tea wi’ ye, Elspeth…. Now, Dickson, I’ll expect ye back on the chap o’ seeven.”
He crossed the rising stream on a swaying plank and struck into the moorland, as Dougal had ordered, keeping the bald top of Grey Carrick before him. In that wild place with the tempest battling overhead he had no fear of human enemies. Steadily he covered the ground, till he reached the west-flowing burn that was to lead him to the shore. He found it an entertaining companion, swirling into black pools, foaming over little falls, and lying in dark canal-like stretches in the flats. Presently it began to descend steeply in a narrow green gully, where the going was bad, and Dickson, weighted with pack and waterproof, had much ado to keep his feet on the sodden slopes. Then, as he rounded a crook of hill, the ground fell away from his feet, the burn swept in a water-slide to the boulders of the shore, and the storm-tossed sea lay before him.
It was now that he began to feel nervous. Being on the coast again seemed to bring him inside his enemies’ territory, and had not Dobson specifically forbidden the shore? It was here that they might be looking for him. He felt himself out of condition, very wet and very warm, but he attained a creditable pace, for he struck a road which had been used by manure-carts collecting seaweed. There were faint marks on it, which he took to be the wheels of Dougal’s “machine” carrying the provision-box. Yes. On a patch of gravel there was a double set of tracks, which showed how it had returned to Mrs. Sempill. He was exposed to the full force of the wind, and the strenuousness of his bodily exertions kept his fears quiescent, till the cliffs on his left sunk suddenly and the valley of the Laver lay before him.
A small figure rose from the shelter of a boulder, the warrior who bore the name of Old Bill. He saluted gravely.
“Ye’re just in time. The water has rose three inches since I’ve been here. Ye’d better strip.”
Dickson removed his boots and socks. “Breeks, too,” commanded the boy; “there’s deep holes ayont thae stanes.”
Dickson obeyed, feeling very chilly, and rather improper. “Now, follow me,” said the guide. The next moment he was stepping delicately on very sharp pebbles, holding on to the end of the scout’s pole, while an icy stream ran to his knees.
The Laver as it reaches the sea broadens out to the width of fifty or sixty yards and tumbles over little shelves of rock to meet the waves. Usually it is shallow, but now it was swollen to an average depth of a foot or more, and there were deeper pockets. Dickson made the passage slowly and miserably, sometimes crying out with pain as his toes struck a sharper flint, once or twice sitting down on a boulder to blow like a whale, once slipping on his knees and wetting the strange excrescence about his middle, which was his tucked-up waterproof. But the crossing was at length achieved, and on a patch of sea-pinks he dried himself perfunctorily and hastily put on his garments. Old Bill, who seemed to be regardless of wind or water, squatted beside him and whistled through his teeth.
Above them hung the sheer cliffs of the Huntingtower cape, so sheer that a man below was completely hidden from any watcher on the top. Dickson’s heart fell, for he did not profess to be a cragsman and had indeed a horror of precipitous places. But as the two scrambled along the foot, they passed deep-cut gullies and fissures, most of them unclimbable, but offering something more hopeful than the face. At one of these Old Bill halted and led the way up and over a chaos of fallen rock and loose sand. The grey weather had brought on the dark prematurely, and in the half-light it seemed that this ravine was blocked by an unscalable mass of rock. Here Old Bill whistled, and there was a reply from above. Round the corner of the mass came Dougal.
“Up here,” he commanded. “It was Mr. Heritage that fund this road.”
Dickson and his guide squeezed themselves between the mass and the cliff up a spout of stones, and found themselves in an upper storey of the gulley, very steep but practicable even for one who was no cragsman. This in turn ran out against a wall up which there led only a narrow chimney. At the foot of this were two of the Die-Hards, and there were others above, for a rope hung down by the aid of which a package was even now ascending.
“That’s the top,” said Dougal, pointing to the rim of sky, “and that’s the last o’ the supplies.” Dickson noticed that he spoke in a whisper, and that all the movements of the Die-Hards were judicious and stealthy. “Now, it’s your turn. Take a good grip o’ the rope, and ye’ll find plenty holes for your feet. It’s no more than ten yards and ye’re well held above.”
Dickson made the attempt and found it easier than he expected. The only trouble was his pack and waterproof, which had a tendency to catch on jags of rock. A hand was reached out to him, he was pulled over the edge, and then pushed down on his face.
When he lifted his head Dougal and the others had joined him and the whole company of the Die-Hards was assembled on a patch of grass which was concealed from the landward view by a thicket of hazels. Another, whom he recognised as Heritage, was coiling up the rope.
“We’d better get all the stuff into the old Tower for the present,” Heritage was saying. “It’s too risky to move it into the House now. We’ll need the thickest darkness for that, after the moon is down. Quick, for the beastly thing will be rising soon and before that we must all be indoors.”
Then he turned to Dickson, and gripped his hand. “You’re a high class of sportsman, Dogson. And I think you’re just in time.”
“Are they due to-night?” Dickson asked in an excited whisper, faint against the wind.
“I don’t know about They. But I’ve got a notion that some devilish queer things will happen before to-morrow morning.”
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REDISCOVERED 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 |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | John Buchan’s Huntingtower
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