Huntingtower (9)
By: John Buchan | Categories: Adventure, Fiction

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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.

ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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Chapter 9: The First Battle of the Cruives

The old keep of Huntingtower stood some three hundred yards from the edge of the cliffs, a gnarled wood of hazels and oaks protecting it from the sea-winds. It was still in fair preservation, having till twenty years before been an adjunct of the house of Dalquharter, and used as kitchen, buttery and servants’ quarters. There had been residential wings attached, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, but these had been pulled down and used for the foundations of the new mansion. Now it stood a lonely shell, its three storeys, each a single great room connected by a spiral stone staircase, being dedicated to lumber and the storage of produce. But it was dry and intact, its massive oak doors defied any weapon short of artillery, its narrow unglazed windows would scarcely have admitted a cat — a place portentously strong, gloomy, but yet habitable.

Dougal opened the main door with a massy key. “The lassie fund it,” he whispered to Dickson, “somewhere about the kitchen — and I guessed it was the key o’ this castle. I was thinkin’ that if things got ower hot it would be a good plan to flit here. Change our base, like.” The Chieftain’s occasional studies in war had trained his tongue to a military jargon.

In the ground room lay a fine assortment of oddments, including old bedsteads and servants’ furniture, and what looked like ancient discarded deer-skin rugs. Dust lay thick over everything, and they heard the scurry of rats. A dismal place, indeed, but Dickson felt only its strangeness. The comfort of being back again among allies had quickened his spirit to an adventurous mood. The old lords of Huntingtower had once quarrelled and revelled and plotted here, and now here he was at the same game. Present and past joined hands over the gulf of years. The saga of Huntingtower was not ended.

The Die-Hards had brought with them their scanty bedding, their lanterns and camp kettles. These and the provisions from Mearns Street were stowed away in a corner.

“Now for the Hoose, men,” said Dougal. They stole over the downs to the shrubbery, and Dickson found himself almost in the same place as he had lain in three days before, watching a dusky lawn, while the wet earth soaked through his trouser knees and the drip from the azaleas trickled over his spine. Two of the boys fetched the ladder and placed it against the verandah wall. Heritage first, then Dickson darted across the lawn and made the ascent. The six scouts followed, and the ladder was pulled up and hidden among the verandah litter. For a second the whole eight stood still and listened. There was no sound except the murmur of the now falling wind and the melancholy hooting of owls. The garrison had entered the Dark Tower.

A council in whispers was held in the garden room.

“Nobody must show a light,” Heritage observed. “It mustn’t be known that we’re here. Only the Princess will have a lamp. Yes” — this in answer to Dickson, “she knows that we’re coming — you too. We’ll hunt for quarters later upstairs. You scouts, you must picket every possible entrance. The windows are safe, I think, for they are locked from the inside. So is the main door. But there’s the verandah door, of which they have a key, and the back door beside the kitchen, and I’m not at all sure that there’s not a way in by the boiler-house. You understand. We’re holding this place against all comers. We must barricade the danger points. The headquarters of the garrison will be in the hall, where a scout must be always on duty. You’ve all got whistles? Well, if there’s an attempt on the verandah door the picket will whistle once, if at the back door twice, if anywhere else three times, and it’s everybody’s duty, except the picket who whistles, to get back to the hall for orders.”

“That’s so,” assented Dougal.

“If the enemy forces an entrance we must overpower him. Any means you like. Sticks or fists, and remember that if it’s a scrap in the dark make for the man’s throat. I expect you little devils have eyes like cats. The scoundrels must be kept away from the ladies at all costs. If the worst comes to the worst, the Princess has a revolver.”

“So have I,” said Dickson. “I got it in Glasgow.”

“The deuce you have! Can you use it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you can hand it over to me, if you like. But it oughtn’t to come to shooting, if it’s only the three of them. The eight of us should be able to manage three and one of them lame. If the others turn up — well, God help us all! But we’ve got to make sure of one thing, that no one lays hands on the Princess so long as there’s one of us left alive to hit out.”

“Ye needn’t be feared for that,” said Dougal. There was no light in the room, but Dickson was certain that the morose face of the Chieftain was lit with unholy joy.

“Then off with you. Mr. McCunn and I will explain matters to the ladies.”

When they were alone, Heritage’s voice took a different key. “We’re in for it, Dogson, old man. There’s no doubt these three scoundrels expect reinforcements at any moment, and with them will be one who is the devil incarnate. He’s the only thing on earth that that brave girl fears. It seems he is in love with her and has pestered her for years. She hated the sight of him, but he wouldn’t take no, and being a powerful man — rich and well-born and all the rest of it — she had a desperate time. I gather he was pretty high in favour with the old Court. Then when the Bolsheviks started he went over to them, like plenty of other grandees, and now he’s one of their chief brains — none of your callow revolutionaries, but a man of the world, a kind of genius, she says, who can hold his own anywhere. She believes him to be in this country, and only waiting the right moment to turn up. Oh, it sounds ridiculous, I know, in Britain in the twentieth century, but I learned in the war that civilisation anywhere is a very thin crust. There are a hundred ways by which that kind of fellow could bamboozle all our law and police and spirit her away. That’s the kind of crowd we have to face.”

“Did she say what he was like in appearance?”

“A face like an angel — a lost angel, she says.”

Dickson suddenly had an inspiration.

“D’you mind the man you said was an Australian — at Kirkmichael? I thought myself he was a foreigner. Well, he was asking for a place he called Darkwater, and there’s no sich place in the countryside. I believe he meant Dalquharter. I believe he’s the man she’s feared of.”

A gasped “By Jove!” came from the darkness. “Dogson, you’ve hit it. That was five days ago, and he must have got on the right trail by this time. He’ll be here to-night. That’s why the three have been lying so quiet to-day. Well, we’ll go through with it, even if we haven’t a dog’s chance. Only I’m sorry that you should be mixed up in such a hopeless business.”

“Why me more than you?”

“Because it’s all pure pride and joy for me to be here. Good God, I wouldn’t be elsewhere for worlds. It’s the great hour of my life. I would gladly die for her.”

“Tuts, that’s no’ the way to talk, man. Time enough to speak about dying when there’s no other way out. I’m looking at this thing in a business way. We’d better be seeing the ladies.”

They groped into the pitchy hall, somewhere in which a Die-Hard was on picket, and down the passage to the smoking-room. Dickson blinked in the light of a very feeble lamp and Heritage saw that his hands were cumbered with packages. He deposited them on a sofa and made a ducking bow.

“I’ve come back, Mem, and glad to be back. Your jools are in safe keeping, and not all the blagyirds in creation could get at them. I’ve come to tell you to cheer up — a stout heart to a stey brae, as the old folk say. I’m handling this affair as a business proposition, so don’t be feared, Mem. If there are enemies seeking you, there’s friends on the road too…. Now, you’ll have had your dinner, but you’d maybe like a little dessert.”

He spread before them a huge box of chocolates, the best that Mearns Street could produce, a box of candied fruits, and another of salted almonds. Then from his hideously overcrowded pockets he took another box, which he offered rather shyly. “That’s some powder for your complexion. They tell me that ladies find it useful whiles.”

The girl’s strained face watched him at first in mystification, and then broke slowly into a smile. Youth came back to it, the smile changed to a laugh, a low rippling laugh like far-away bells. She took both his hands.

“You are kind,” she said, “you are kind and brave. You are a de-ar.”

And then she kissed him.

Now, as far as Dickson could remember, no one had ever kissed him except his wife. The light touch of her lips on his forehead was like the pressing of an electric button which explodes some powerful charge and alters the face of a countryside. He blushed scarlet; then he wanted to cry; then he wanted to sing. An immense exhilaration seized him, and I am certain that if at that moment the serried ranks of Bolshevism had appeared in the doorway, Dickson would have hurled himself upon them with a joyful shout.

Cousin Eugènie was earnestly eating chocolates, but Saskia had other business.

“You will hold the house?” she asked.

“Please God, yes,” said Heritage. “I look at it this way. The time is very near when your three gaolers expect the others, their masters. They have not troubled you in the past two days as they threatened, because it was not worth while. But they won’t want to let you out of their sight in the final hours, so they will almost certainly come here to be on the spot. Our object is to keep them out and confuse their plans. Somewhere in this neighbourhood, probably very near, is the man you fear most. If we nonplus the three watchers, they’ll have to revise their policy, and that means a delay, and every hour’s delay is a gain. Mr. McCunn has found out that the factor Loudon is in the plot, and he has purchase enough, it seems, to blanket for a time any appeal to the law. But Mr. McCunn has taken steps to circumvent him, and in twenty-four hours we should have help here.”

“I do not want the help of your law,” the girl interrupted. “It will entangle me.”

“Not a bit of it,” said Dickson cheerfully. “You see, Mem, they’ve clean lost track of the jools, and nobody knows where they are but me. I’m a truthful man, but I’ll lie like a packman if I’m asked questions. For the rest, it’s a question of kidnapping, I understand, and that’s a thing that’s not to be allowed. My advice is to go to our beds and get a little sleep while there’s a chance of it. The Gorbals Die-Hards are grand watch-dogs.”

This view sounded so reasonable that it was at once acted upon. The ladies’ chamber was next door to the smoking-room — what had been the old schoolroom. Heritage arranged with Saskia that the lamp was to be kept burning low, and that on no account were they to move unless summoned by him. Then he and Dickson made their way to the hall, where there was a faint glimmer from the moon in the upper unshuttered windows — enough to reveal the figure of Wee Jaikie on duty at the foot of the staircase. They ascended to the second floor, where, in a large room above the hall, Heritage had bestowed his pack. He had managed to open a fold of the shutters, and there was sufficient light to see two big mahogany bedsteads without mattresses or bedclothes, and wardrobes and chests of drawers sheeted in holland. Outside the wind was rising again, but the rain had stopped. Angry watery clouds scurried across the heavens.

Dickson made a pillow of his waterproof, stretched himself on one of the bedsteads and, so quiet was his conscience and so weary his body from the buffetings of the past days, was almost instantly asleep. It seemed to him that he had scarcely closed his eyes when he was awakened by Dougal’s hand pinching his shoulder. He gathered that the moon was setting, for the room was pitchy dark.

“The three o’ them is approachin’ the kitchen door,” whispered the Chieftain. “I seen them from a spy-hole I made out o’ a ventilator.”

“Is it barricaded?” asked Heritage, who had apparently not been asleep.

“Ay, but I’ve thought o’ a far better plan. Why should we keep them out? They’ll be safer inside. Listen! We might manage to get them in one at a time. If they can’t get in at the kitchen door, they’ll send one o’ them round to get in by another door and open to them. That gives us a chance to get them separated, and lock them up. There’s walth o’ closets and hidy-holes all over the place, each with good doors and good keys to them. Supposin’ we get the three o’ them shut up — the others, when they come, will have nobody to guide them. Of course some time or other the three will break out, but it may be ower late for them. At present we’re besieged and they’re roamin’ the country. Would it no’ be far better if they were the ones lockit up and we were goin’ loose?”

“Supposing they don’t come in one at a time?” Dickson objected.

“We’ll make them,” said Dougal firmly. “There’s no time to waste. Are ye for it?”

“Yes,” said Heritage. “Who’s at the kitchen door?”

“Peter Paterson. I told him no’ to whistle, but to wait on me…. Keep your boots off. Ye’re better in your stockin’ feet. Wait you in the hall and see ye’re well hidden, for likely whoever comes in will have a lantern. Just you keep quiet unless I give ye a cry. I’ve planned it a’ out, and we’re ready for them.”

Dougal disappeared, and Dickson and Heritage, with their boots tied round their necks by their laces, crept out to the upper landing. The hall was impenetrably dark, but full of voices, for the wind was talking in the ceiling beams, and murmuring through the long passages. The walls creaked and muttered and little bits of plaster fluttered down. The noise was an advantage for the game of hide-and-seek they proposed to play, but it made it hard to detect the enemy’s approach. Dickson, in order to get properly wakened, adventured as far as the smoking-room. It was black with night, but below the door of the adjacent room a faint line of light showed where the Princess’s lamp was burning. He advanced to the window, and heard distinctly a foot on the gravel path that led to the verandah. This sent him back to the hall in search of Dougal, whom he encountered in the passage. That boy could certainly see in the dark, for he caught Dickson’s wrist without hesitation.

“We’ve got Spittal in the wine-cellar,” he whispered triumphantly. “The kitchen door was barricaded, and when they tried it, it wouldn’t open. ‘Bide here,’ says Dobson to Spittal, ‘and we’ll go round by another door and come back and open to ye.’ So off they went, and by that time Peter Paterson and me had the barricade down. As we expected, Spittal tried the key again and it opens quite easy. He comes in and locks it behind him, and, Dobson having took away the lantern, he gropes his way very carefu’ towards the kitchen. There’s a point where the wine-cellar door and the scullery door are aside each other. He should have taken the second, but I had it shut so he takes the first. Peter Paterson gave him a wee shove and he fell down the two-three steps into the cellar, and we turned the key on him. Yon cellar has a grand door and no windies.”

“And Dobson and Léon are at the verandah door? With a light?”

“Thomas Yownie’s on duty there. Ye can trust him. Ye’ll no fickle Thomas Yownie.”

The next minutes were for Dickson a delirium of excitement not unpleasantly shot with flashes of doubt and fear. As a child he had played hide-and-seek, and his memory had always cherished the delights of the game. But how marvellous to play it thus in a great empty house, at dark of night, with the heaven filled with tempest, and with death or wounds as the stakes!

He took refuge in a corner where a tapestry curtain and the side of a Dutch awmry gave him shelter, and from where he stood he could see the garden-room and the beginning of the tiled passage which led to the verandah door. That is to say, he could have seen these things if there had been any light, which there was not. He heard the soft flitting of bare feet, for a delicate sound is often audible in a din when a loud noise is obscured. Then a gale of wind blew towards him, as from an open door, and far away gleamed the flickering light of a lantern.

Suddenly the light disappeared and there was a clatter on the floor and a breaking of glass. Either the wind or Thomas Yownie.

The verandah door was shut, a match spluttered and the lantern was relit. Dobson and Léon came into the hall, both clad in long mackintoshes which glistened from the weather. Dobson halted and listened to the wind howling in the upper spaces. He cursed it bitterly, looked at his watch, and then made an observation which woke the liveliest interest in Dickson lurking beside the awmry and Heritage ensconced in the shadow of a window-seat.

“He’s late. He should have been here five minutes syne. It would be a dirty road for his car.”

So the Unknown was coming that night. The news made Dickson the more resolved to get the watchers under lock and key before reinforcements arrived, and so put grit in their wheels. Then his party must escape — flee anywhere so long as it was far from Dalquharter.

“You stop here,” said Dobson, “I’ll go down and let Spidel in. We want another lamp. Get the one that the women use and for God’s sake get a move on.”

The sound of his feet died in the kitchen passage and then rung again on the stone stairs. Dickson’s ear of faith heard also the soft patter of naked feet as the Die-Hards preceded and followed him. He was delivering himself blind and bound into their hands.

For a minute or two there was no sound but the wind, which had found a loose chimney cowl on the roof and screwed out of it an odd sound like the drone of a bagpipe. Dickson, unable to remain any longer in one place, moved into the centre of the hall, believing that Léon had gone to the smoking-room. It was a dangerous thing to do, for suddenly a match was lit a yard from him. He had the sense to drop low, and so was out of the main glare of the light. The man with the match apparently had no more, judging by his execrations. Dickson stood stock still, longing for the wind to fall so that he might hear the sound of the fellow’s boots on the stone floor. He gathered that they were moving towards the smoking-room.

“Heritage,” he whispered as loud as he dared, but there was no answer.

Then suddenly a moving body collided with him. He jumped a step back and then stood at attention, “Is that you, Dobson?” a voice asked.

Now behold the occasional advantage of a nickname. Dickson thought he was being addressed as “Dogson” after the Poet’s fashion. Had he dreamed it was Léon he would not have replied, but fluttered off into the shadows and so missed a piece of vital news.

“Ay, it’s me,” he whispered.

His voice and accent were Scotch, like Dobson’s, and Léon suspected nothing.

“I do not like this wind,” he grumbled. “The Captain’s letter said at dawn, but there is no chance of the Danish brig making your little harbour in this weather. She must lie off and land the men by boats. That I do not like. It is too public.”

The news — tremendous news, for it told that the new-comers would come by sea, which had never before entered Dickson’s head — so interested him that he stood dumb and ruminating. The silence made the Belgian suspect; he put out a hand and felt a waterproofed arm which might have been Dobson’s. But the height of the shoulder proved that it was not the burly innkeeper. There was an oath, a quick movement, and Dickson went down with a knee on his chest and two hands at his throat.

“Heritage,” he gasped. “Help!”

There was a sound of furniture scraped violently on the floor. A gurgle from Dickson served as a guide, and the Poet suddenly cascaded over the combatants. He felt for a head, found Léon’s, and gripped the neck so savagely that the owner loosened his hold on Dickson. The last-named found himself being buffeted violently by heavy-shod feet which seemed to be manœuvring before an unseen enemy. He rolled out of the road and encountered another pair of feet, this time unshod. Then came a sound of a concussion, as if metal or wood had struck some part of a human frame, and then a stumble and fall.

After that a good many things all seemed to happen at once. There was a sudden light, which showed Léon blinking with a short loaded life-preserver in his hand, and Heritage prone in front of him on the floor. It also showed Dickson the figure of Dougal, and more than one Die-Hard in the background. The light went out as suddenly as it had appeared. There was a whistle, and a hoarse “Come on, men,” and then for two seconds there was a desperate silent combat. It ended with Léon’s head meeting the floor so violently that its possessor became oblivious of further proceedings. He was dragged into a cubby-hole, which had once been used for coats and rugs, and the door locked on him. Then the light sprang forth again. It revealed Dougal and five Die-Hards, somewhat the worse for wear; it revealed also Dickson squatted with outspread waterproof very like a sitting hen.

“Where’s Dobson?” he asked.

“In the boiler-house,” and for once Dougal’s gravity had laughter in it. “Govey Dick! but yon was a fecht! Me and Peter Paterson and Wee Jaikie started it, but it was the whole company afore the end. Are ye better, Jaikie?”

“Ay, I’m better,” said a pallid midget.

“He kickit Jaikie in the stomach and Jaikie was seeck,” Dougal explained. “That’s the three accounted for. Now they’re safe for five hours at the least. I think mysel’ that Dobson will be the first to get out, but he’ll have his work letting out the others. Now, I’m for flittin’ to the old Tower. They’ll no ken where we are for a long time, and anyway yon place will be far easier to defend. Without they kindle a fire and smoke us out, I don’t see how they’ll beat us. Our provisions are a’ there, and there’s a grand well o’ water inside. Forbye there’s the road down the rocks that’ll keep our communications open…. But what’s come to Mr. Heritage?”

Dickson to his shame had forgotten all about his friend. The Poet lay very quiet with his head on one side and his legs crooked limply. Blood trickled over his eyes from an ugly scar on his forehead. Dickson felt his heart and pulse and found them faint but regular. The man had got a swinging blow and might have a slight concussion; for the present he was unconscious.

“All the more reason why we should flit,” said Dougal. “What d’ye say, Mr. McCunn?”

“Flit, of course, but further than the old Tower. What’s the time?” He lifted Heritage’s wrist and saw from his watch that it was half-past three. “Mercy! It’s nearly morning. Afore we put these blagyirds away, they were conversing, at least Léon and Dobson were. They said that they expected somebody every moment, but that the car would be late. We’ve still got that Somebody to tackle. Then Léon spoke to me in the dark, thinking I was Dobson, and cursed the wind, saying it would keep the Danish brig from getting in at dawn as had been intended. D’you see what that means? The worst of the lot, the ones the ladies are in terror of, are coming by sea. Ay, and they can return by sea. We thought that the attack would be by land, and that even if they succeeded we could hang on to their heels and follow them, till we got them stopped. But that’s impossible! If they come in from the water, they can go out by the water, and there’ll never be more heard tell of the ladies or of you or me.”

Dougal’s face was once again sunk in gloom. “What’s your plan, then?”

“We must get the ladies away from here — away inland, far from the sea. The rest of us must stand a siege in the old Tower, so that the enemy will think we’re all there. Please God we’ll hold out long enough for help to arrive. But we mustn’t hang about here. There’s the man Dobson mentioned — he may come any second, and we want to be away first. Get the ladder, Dougal…. Four of you take Mr. Heritage, and two come with me and carry the ladies’ things. It’s no’ raining, but the wind’s enough to take the wings off a seagull.”

Dickson roused Saskia and her cousin, bidding them be ready in ten minutes. Then with the help of the Die-Hards he proceeded to transport the necessary supplies — the stove, oil, dishes, clothes and wraps; more than one journey was needed of small boys, hidden under clouds of baggage. When everything had gone he collected the keys, behind which, in various quarters of the house, three gaolers fumed impotently, and gave them to Wee Jaikie to dispose of in some secret nook. Then he led the two ladies to the verandah, the elder cross and sleepy, the younger alert at the prospect of movement.

“Tell me again,” she said. “You have locked all the three up, and they are now the imprisoned?”

“Well, it was the boys that, properly speaking, did the locking up.”

“It is a great — how do you say? — a turning of the tables. Ah — what is that?”

At the end of the verandah there was a clattering down of pots which could not be due to the wind, since the place was sheltered. There was still only the faintest hint of light, and black night still lurked in the crannies. Followed another fall of pots, as from a clumsy intruder, and then a man appeared, clear against the glass door by which the path descended to the rock garden.

It was the fourth man, whom the three prisoners had awaited. Dickson had no doubt at all about his identity. He was that villain from whom all the others took their orders, the man whom the Princess shuddered at. Before starting he had loaded his pistol. Now he tugged it from his waterproof pocket, pointed it at the other and fired.

The man seemed to be hit, for he spun round and clapped a hand to his left arm. Then he fled through the door, which he left open.

Dickson was after him like a hound. At the door he saw him running and raised his pistol for another shot. Then he dropped it, for he saw something in the crouching, dodging figure which was familiar.

“A mistake,” he explained to Jaikie when he returned. “But the shot wasn’t wasted. I’ve just had a good try at killing the factor!”

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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* Cruive — a Scottish term meaning a kind of weir or dam for trapping salmon. When the tide flows, the fish swim over the wattles, and they are left trapped by the ebbing of the tide. The peninsula on which the Huntingtower house is situated is called the Cruives (mentioned in Ch. 3), but also note the cruive-like method used here of trapping the villains!

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