Huntingtower (14)
By: John Buchan | Categories: Adventure, Fiction

buchan

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

***

Chapter 14: The Second Battle of the Cruives

The military historian must often make shift to write of battles with slender data, but he can pad out his deficiencies by learned parallels. If his were the talented pen describing this, the latest action fought on British soil against a foreign foe, he would no doubt be crippled by the absence of written orders and war diaries. But how eloquently he would discant on the resemblance between Dougal and Gouraud — how the plan of leaving the enemy to waste his strength upon a deserted position was that which on the 15th of July, 1918, the French general had used with decisive effect in Champagne! But Dougal had never heard of Gouraud, and I cannot claim that, like the Happy Warrior, he

“through the heat of conflict kept the law
In calmness made, and saw what he foresaw.”

I have had the benefit of discussing the affair with him and his colleagues, but I should offend against historic truth if I represented the main action as anything but a scrimmage — a “soldiers’ battle,” the historian would say, a Malplaquet, an Albuera.

Just after half-past three that afternoon the Commander-in-Chief was revealed in a very bad temper. He had intercepted Sir Archie’s car, and, since Léon was known to be fully occupied, had brought it in by the West Lodge, and hidden it behind a clump of laurels. There he had held a hoarse council of war. He had cast an appraising eye over Sime the butler, Carfrae the chauffeur, and McGuffog the gamekeeper, and his brows had lightened when he beheld Sir Archie with an armful of guns and two big cartridge-magazines. But they had darkened again at the first words of the leader of the reinforcements.

“Now for the Tower,” Sir Archie had observed cheerfully. “We should be a match for the three watchers, my lad, and it’s time that poor devil What’s-his-name was relieved.”

“A bonny-like plan that would be,” said Dougal. “Man, ye would be walkin’ into the very trap they want. In an hour, or maybe two, the rest will turn up from the sea and they’d have ye tight by the neck. Na, na! It’s time we’re wantin’, and the longer they think we’re a’ in the auld Tower the better for us. What news o’ the polis?”

He listened to Sir Archie’s report with a gloomy face.

“Not afore the darkenin’? They’ll be ower late — the polis are aye ower late. It looks as if we had the job to do oursels. What’s your notion?”

“God knows,” said the baronet whose eyes were on Saskia. “What’s yours?”

The deference conciliated Dougal. “There’s just the one plan that’s worth a docken. There’s five o’ us here, and there’s plenty weapons. Besides there’s five Die-Hards somewhere about, and though they’ve never tried it afore they can be trusted to loose off a gun. My advice is to hide at the Garplefoot and stop the boats landin’. We’d have the tinklers on our flank, no doubt, but I’m not muckle feared o’ them. It wouldn’t be easy for the boats to get in wi’ this tearin’ wind and us firin’ volleys from the shore.”

Sir Archie stared at him with admiration. “You’re a hearty young fire-eater. But Great Scott! we can’t go pottin’ at strangers before we find out their business. This is a law-abidin’ country, and we’re not entitled to start shootin’ except in self-defence. You can wash that plan out, for it ain’t feasible.”

Dougal spat cynically. “For all that it’s the right strawtegy. Man, we might sink the lot, and then turn and settle wi’ Dobson, and all afore the first polisman showed his neb. It would be a grand performance. But I was feared ye wouldn’t be for it…. Well, there’s just the one other thing to do. We must get inside the Hoose and put it in a state of defence. Heritage has McCunn’s pistol, and he’ll keep them busy for a bit. When they’ve finished wi’ him and find the place is empty, they’ll try the Hoose and we’ll give them a warm reception. That should keep us goin’ till the polis arrive, unless they’re comin’ wi’ the blind carrier.”

Sir Archie nodded. “But why put ourselves in their power at all? They’re at present barking up the wrong tree. Let them bark up another wrong ’un. Why shouldn’t the House remain empty? I take it we’re here to protect the Princess. Well, we’ll have done that if they go off empty-handed.”

Dougal looked up to the heavens. “I wish McCunn was here,” he sighed. “Ay, we’ve got to protect the Princess, and there’s just the one way to do it, and that’s to put an end to this crowd o’ blagyirds. If they gang empty-handed, they’ll come again another day, either here or somewhere else, and it won’t be long afore they get the lassie. But if we finish with them now she can sit down wi’ an easy mind. That’s why we’ve got to hang on to them till the polis comes. There’s no way out o’ this business but a battle.”

He found an ally. “Dougal is right,” said Saskia. “If I am to have peace, by some way or other the fangs of my enemies must be drawn for ever.”

He swung round and addressed her formally. “Mem, I’m askin’ ye for the last time. Will ye keep out of this business? Will ye gang back and sit doun aside Mrs. Morran’s fire and have your tea and wait till we come for ye? Ye can do no good, and ye’re puttin’ yourself terrible in the enemy’s power. If we’re beat and ye’re no’ there, they get very little satisfaction, but if they get you they get what they’ve come seekin’. I tell ye straight — ye’re an encumbrance.”

She laughed mischievously. “I can shoot better than you,” she said.

He ignored the taunt. “Will ye listen to sense and fall to the rear?”

“I will not,” she said.

“Then gang your own gait. I’m ower wise to argy-bargy wi’ women. The Hoose be it!”

It was a journey which sorely tried Dougal’s temper. The only way in was by the verandah, but the door at the west end had been locked, and the ladder had disappeared. Now of his party three were lame, one lacked an arm, and one was a girl; besides, there were the guns and cartridges to transport. Moreover, at more than one point before the verandah was reached the route was commanded by a point on the ridge near the old Tower, and that had been Spidel’s position when Dougal made his last reconnaissance. It behoved to pass these points swiftly and unobtrusively, and his company was neither swift nor unobtrusive. McGuffog had a genius for tripping over obstacles, and Sir Archie was for ever proffering his aid to Saskia, who was in a position to give rather than to receive, being far the most active of the party. Once Dougal had to take the gamekeeper’s head and force it down, a performance which would have led to an immediate assault but for Sir Archie’s presence. Nor did the latter escape. “Will ye stop heedin’ the lassie, and attend to your own job,” the Chieftain growled. “Ye’re makin’ as much noise as a road-roller.”

Arrived at the foot of the verandah wall there remained the problem of the escalade. Dougal clambered up like a squirrel by the help of cracks in the stones, and he could be heard trying the handle of the door into the House. He was absent for about five minutes and then his head peeped over the edge accompanied by the hooks of an iron ladder. “From the boiler-house,” he informed them as they stood clear for the thing to drop. It proved to be little more than half the height of the wall.

Saskia ascended first, and had no difficulty in pulling herself over the parapet. Then came the guns and ammunition, and then the one-armed Sime, who turned out to be an athlete. But it was no easy matter getting up the last three. Sir Archie anathematised his frailties. “Nice old crock to go tiger-shootin’ with,” he told the Princess. “But set me to something where my confounded leg don’t get in the way, and I’m still pretty useful!” Dougal, mopping his brow with the rag he called his handkerchief, observed sourly that he objected to going scouting with a herd of elephants.

Once indoors his spirits rose. The party from the Mains had brought several electric torches and the one lamp was presently found and lit. “We can’t count on the polis,” Dougal announced, “and when the foreigners is finished wi’ the Tower they’ll come on here. If no’, we must make them. What is it the sodgers call it? Forcin’ a battle? Now see here! There’s the two roads into this place, the back door and the verandy, leavin’ out the front door which is chained and lockit. They’ll try those two roads first and we must get them well barricaded in time. But mind, if there’s a good few o’ them, it’ll be an easy job to batter in the front door or the windies, so we maun be ready for that.”

He told off a fatigue party — the Princess, Sir Archie and McGuffog — to help in moving furniture to the several doors. Sime and Carfrae attended to the kitchen entrance, while he himself made a tour of the ground-floor windows. For half an hour the empty house was loud with strange sounds. McGuffog, who was a giant in strength, filled the passage at the verandah end with an assortment of furniture ranging from a grand piano to a vast mahogany sofa, while Saskia and Sir Archie pillaged the bedrooms and packed up the interstices with mattresses in lieu of sandbags. Dougal on his return saw fit to approve their work.

“That’ll fickle the blagyirds. Down at the kitchen door we’ve got a mangle, five wash-tubs and the best part of a ton o’ coal. It’s the windies I’m anxious about, for they’re ower big to fill up. But I’ve gotten tubs o’ water below them and a lot o’ wire-nettin’ I fund in the cellar.”

Sir Archie morosely wiped his brow. “I can’t say I ever hated a job more,” he told Saskia. “It seems pretty cool to march into somebody else’s house and make free with his furniture. I hope to goodness our friends from the sea do turn up, or we’ll look pretty foolish. Loudon will have a score against me he won’t forget.”

“Ye’re no’ weakenin’?” asked Dougal fiercely.

“Not a bit. Only hopin’ somebody hasn’t made a mighty big mistake.”

“Ye needn’t be feared for that. Now you listen to your instructions. We’re terrible few for such a big place, but we maun make up for shortness o’ numbers by extra mobility. The gemkeeper will keep the windy that looks on the verandy, and fell any man that gets through. You’ll hold the verandy door, and the ither lame man — is’t Carfrae ye call him? — will keep the back door. I’ve telled the one-armed man, who has some kind of a head on him, that he maun keep on the move, watchin’ to see if they try the front door or any o’ the other windies. If they do, he takes his station there. D’ye follow?”

Sir Archie nodded gloomily. “What is my post?” Saskia asked.

“I’ve appointed ye my Chief of Staff,” was the answer. “Ye see we’ve no reserves. If this door’s the dangerous bit, it maun be reinforced from elsewhere; and that’ll want savage thinkin’. Ye’ll have to be ay on the move, Mem, and keep me informed. If they break in at two bits, we’re beat, and there’ll be nothin’ for it but to retire to our last position. Ye ken the room ayont the hall where they keep the coats. That’s our last trench, and at the worst we fall back there and stick it out. It has a strong door and a wee windy, so they’ll no’ be able to get in on our rear. We should be able to put up a good defence there, unless they fire the place over our heads…. Now, we’d better give out the guns.”

“We don’t want any shootin’ if we can avoid it,” said Sir Archie, who found his distaste for Dougal growing, though he was under the spell of the one being there who knew precisely his own mind.

“Just what I was goin’ to say. My instructions is, reserve your fire, and don’t loose off till you have a man up against the end o’ your barrel.”

“Good Lord, we’ll get into a horrible row. The whole thing may be a mistake, and we’ll be had up for wholesale homicide. No man shall fire unless I give the word.”

The Commander-in-Chief looked at him darkly. Some bitter retort was on his tongue, but he restrained himself.

“It appears,” he said, “that ye think I’m doin’ all this for fun. I’ll no ’argy wi’ ye. There can be just the one general in a battle, but I’ll give ye permission to say the word when to fire…. Macgreegor!” he muttered, a strange expletive only used in moments of deep emotion. “I’ll wager ye’ll be for sayin’ the word afore I’d say it mysel’.”

He turned to the Princess. “I hand over to you, till I am back, for I maun be off and see to the Die-Hards. I wish I could bring them in here, but I daren’t lose my communications. I’ll likely get in by the boiler-house skylight when I come back, but it might be as well to keep a road open here unless ye’re actually attacked.”

Dougal clambered over the mattresses and the grand piano; a flicker of waning daylight appeared for a second as he squeezed through the door, and Sir Archie was left staring at the wrathful countenance of McGuffog. He laughed ruefully.

“I’ve been in about forty battles, and here’s that little devil rather worried about my pluck, and talkin’ to me like a corps commander to a newly joined second-lieutenant. All the same he’s a remarkable child, and we’d better behave as if we were in for a real shindy. What do you think, Princess?”

“I think we are in for what you call a shindy. I am in command, remember. I order you to serve out the guns.”

This was done, a shot-gun and a hundred cartridges to each, while McGuffog, who was a marksman, was also given a sporting Mannlicher, and two other rifles, a .303 and a small-bore Holland, were kept in reserve in the hall. Sir Archie, free from Dougal’s compelling presence, gave the gamekeeper peremptory orders not to shoot till he was bidden, and Carfrae at the kitchen door was warned to the same effect. The shuttered house, where the only light apart from the garden-room was the feeble spark of the electric torches, had the most disastrous effect upon his spirits. The gale which roared in the chimney and eddied among the rafters of the hall seemed an infernal commotion in a tomb.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he told Saskia; “there must be a view from the upper windows.”

“You can see the top of the old Tower, and part of the sea,” she said. “I know it well, for it was my only amusement to look at it. On clear days, too, one could see high mountains far in the west.” His depression seemed to have affected her, for she spoke listlessly, unlike the vivid creature who had led the way in.

In a gaunt west-looking bedroom, the one in which Heritage and Dickson had camped the night before, they opened a fold of the shutters and looked out into a world of grey wrack and driving rain. The Tower roof showed mistily beyond the ridge of down, but its environs were not in their prospect. The lower regions of the House had been gloomy enough, but this bleak place with its drab outlook struck a chill to Sir Archie’s soul. He dolefully lit a cigarette.

“This is a pretty rotten show for you,” he told her. “It strikes me as a rather unpleasant brand of nightmare.”

“I have been living with nightmares for three years,” she said wearily.

He cast his eyes round the room. “I think the Kennedys were mad to build this confounded barrack. I’ve always disliked it, and old Quentin hadn’t any use for it either. Cold, cheerless, raw monstrosity! It hasn’t been a very giddy place for you, Princess.”

“It has been my prison, when I hoped it would be a sanctuary. But it may yet be my salvation.”

“I’m sure I hope so. I say, you must be jolly hungry. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of tea for you.”

She shook her head. She was looking fixedly at the Tower, as if she expected something to appear there, and he followed her eyes.

“Rum old shell, that. Quentin used to keep all kinds of live stock there, and when we were boys it was our castle where we played at bein’ robber chiefs. It’ll be dashed queer if the real thing should turn up this time. I suppose McCunn’s Poet is roostin’ there all by his lone. Can’t say I envy him his job.”

Suddenly she caught his arm. “I see a man,” she whispered. “There! He is behind those far bushes. There is his head again!”

It was clearly a man, but he presently disappeared, for he had come round by the south end of the House, past the stables, and had now gone over the ridge.

“The cut of his jib is uncommonly like Loudon, the factor. I thought McCunn had stretched him on a bed of pain. Lord, if this thing should turn out a farce, I simply can’t face Loudon…. I say, Princess, you don’t suppose by any chance that McCunn’s a little bit wrong in the head?”

She turned her candid eyes on him. “You are in a very doubting mood.”

“My feet are cold and I don’t mind admittin’ it. Hanged if I know what it is, but I don’t feel this show a bit real. If it isn’t, we’re in a fair way to make howlin’ idiots of ourselves, and get pretty well embroiled with the law. It’s all right for the red-haired boy, for he can take everything seriously, even play. I could do the same thing myself when I was a kid. I don’t mind runnin’ some kinds of risk — I’ve had a few in my time — but this is so infernally outlandish and I — I don’t quite believe in it. That is to say, I believe in it right enough when I look at you or listen to McCunn, but as soon as my eyes are off you I begin to doubt again. I’m gettin’ old and I’ve a stake in the country, and I daresay I’m gettin’ a bit of a prig — anyway I don’t want to make a jackass of myself. Besides, there’s this foul weather and this beastly house to ice my feet.”

He broke off with an exclamation, for on the grey cloud-bounded stage in which the roof of the Tower was the central feature, actors had appeared. Dim hurrying shapes showed through the mist, dipping over the ridge, as if coming from the Garplefoot.

She seized his arm and he saw that her listlessness was gone. Her eyes were shining.

“It is they,” she cried. “The nightmare is real at last. Do you doubt now?”

He could only stare, for these shapes arriving and vanishing like wisps of fog still seemed to him phantasmal. The girl held his arm tightly clutched, and craned towards the window space. He tried to open the frame, and succeeded in smashing the glass. A swirl of wind drove inwards and blew a loose lock of Saskia’s hair across his brow.

“I wish Dougal were back,” he muttered, and then came the crack of a shot.

The pressure on his arm slackened, and a pale face was turned to him. “He is alone — Mr. Heritage. He has no chance. They will kill him like a dog.”

“They’ll never get in,” he assured her. “Dougal said the place could hold out for hours.”

Another shot followed and presently a third. She twined her hands and her eyes were wild.

“We can’t leave him to be killed,” she gasped.

“It’s the only game. We’re playin’ for time, remember. Besides he won’t be killed. Great Scott!”

As he spoke, a sudden explosion cleft the drone of the wind and a patch of gloom flashed into yellow light.

“Bomb!” he cried. “Lord, I might have thought of that.”

The girl had sprung back from the window. “I cannot bear it. I will not see him murdered in sight of his friends. I am going to show myself, and when they see me they will leave him…. No, you must stay here. Presently they will be round this house. Don’t be afraid for me — I am very quick of foot.”

“For God’s sake, don’t! Here, Princess, stop,” and he clutched at her skirt. “Look here, I’ll go.”

“You can’t. You have been wounded. I am in command, you know. Keep the door open till I come back.”

He hobbled after her, but she easily eluded him. She was smiling now, and blew a kiss to him. “La, la, la,” she trilled, as she ran down the stairs. He heard her voice below, admonishing McGuffog. Then he pulled himself together and went back to the window. He had brought the little Holland with him, and he poked its barrel through the hole in the glass.

“Curse my game leg,” he said, almost cheerfully, for the situation was now becoming one with which he could cope. “I ought to be able to hold up the pursuit a bit. My aunt! What a girl!”

With the rifle cuddled to his shoulder he watched a slim figure come into sight on the lawn, running towards the ridge. He reflected that she must have dropped from the high verandah wall. That reminded him that something must be done to make the wall climbable for her return, so he went down to McGuffog, and the two squeezed through the barricaded door to the verandah. The boiler-house ladder was still in position, but it did not reach half the height, so McGuffog was adjured to stand by to help, and in the meantime to wait on duty by the wall. Then he hurried upstairs to his watch-tower.

The girl was in sight, almost on the crest of the high ground. There she stood for a moment, one hand clutching at her errant hair, the other shielding her eyes from the sting of the rain. He heard her cry, as Heritage had heard her, but since the wind was blowing towards him the sound came louder and fuller. Again she cried, and then stood motionless with her hands above her head. It was only for an instant, for the next he saw she had turned and was racing down the slope, jumping the little scrogs of hazel like a deer. On the ridge appeared faces, and then over it swept a mob of men.

She had a start of some fifty yards, and laboured to increase it, having doubtless the verandah wall in mind. Sir Archie, sick with anxiety, nevertheless spared time to admire her prowess. “Gad! she’s a miler,” he ejaculated. “She’ll do it. I’m hanged if she don’t do it.”

Against men in seaman’s boots and heavy clothing she had a clear advantage. But two shook themselves loose from the pack and began to gain on her. At the main shrubbery they were not thirty yards behind, and in her passage through it her skirts must have delayed her, for when she emerged the pursuit had halved the distance. He got the sights of the rifle on the first man, but the lawns sloped up towards the house, and to his consternation he found that the girl was in the line of fire. Madly he ran to the other window of the room, tore back the shutters, shivered the glass, and flung his rifle to his shoulder. The fellow was within three yards of her, but thank God! he had now a clear field. He fired low and just ahead of him, and had the satisfaction to see him drop like a rabbit, shot in the leg. His companion stumbled over him, and for a moment the girl was safe.

But her speed was failing. She passed out of sight on the verandah side of the house, and the rest of the pack had gained ominously over the easier ground of the lawn. He thought for a moment of trying to stop them by his fire, but realised that if every shot told there would still be enough of them left to make sure of her capture. The only chance was at the verandah, and he went downstairs at a pace undreamed of since the days when he had two whole legs.

McGuffog, Mannlicher in hand, was poking his neck over the wall. The pursuit had turned the corner and were about twenty yards off; the girl was at the foot of the ladder, breathless, drooping with fatigue. She tried to climb, limply and feebly, and very slowly, as if she were too giddy to see clear. Above were two cripples, and at her back the van of the now triumphant pack.

Sir Archie, game leg or no, was on the parapet preparing to drop down and hold off the pursuit were it only for seconds. But at that moment he was aware that the situation had changed.

At the foot of the ladder a tall man seemed to have sprung out of the ground. He caught the girl in his arms, climbed the ladder, and McGuffog’s great hands reached down and seized her and swung her into safety. Up the wall, by means of cracks and tufts, was shinning a small boy.

The stranger coolly faced the pursuers and at the sight of him they checked, those behind stumbling against those in front. He was speaking to them in a foreign tongue, and to Sir Archie’s ear the words were like the crack of a lash. The hesitation was only for a moment, for a voice among them cried out, and the whole pack gave tongue shrilly and surged on again. But that instant of check had given the stranger his chance. He was up the ladder, and, gripping the parapet, found rest for his feet in a fissure. Then he bent down, drew up the ladder, handed it to McGuffog and with a mighty heave pulled himself over the top.

He seemed to hope to defend the verandah, but the door at the west end was being assailed by a contingent of the enemy, and he saw that its thin woodwork was yielding.

“Into the House,” he cried, as he picked up the ladder and tossed it over the wall on the pack surging below. He was only just in time, for the west door yielded. In two steps he had followed McGuffog through the chink into the passage, and the concussion of the grand piano pushed hard against the verandah door from within coincided with the first battering on the said door from without.

In the garden-room the feeble lamp showed a strange grouping. Saskia had sunk into a chair to get her breath, and seemed too dazed to be aware of her surroundings. Dougal was manfully striving to appear at his ease, but his lip was quivering.

“A near thing that time,” he observed. “It was the blame of that man’s auld motor-bicycle.”

The stranger cast sharp eyes around the place and company.

“An awkward corner, gentlemen,” he said. “How many are there of you? Four men and a boy? And you have placed guards at all the entrances?”

“They have bombs,” Sir Archie reminded him.

“No doubt. But I do not think they will use them here — or their guns, unless there is no other way. Their purpose is kidnapping, and they hope to do it secretly and slip off without leaving a trace. If they slaughter us, as they easily can, the cry will be out against them, and their vessel will be unpleasantly hunted. Half their purpose is already spoiled, for it is no longer secret…. They may break us by sheer weight, and I fancy the first shooting will be done by us. It’s the windows I’m afraid of.”

Some tone in his quiet voice reached the girl in the wicker chair. She looked up wildly, saw him and with a cry of “Alesha” ran to his arms. There she hung, while his hand fondled her hair, like a mother with a scared child. Sir Archie, watching the whole thing in some stupefaction, thought he had never in his days seen more nobly matched human creatures.

“It is my friend,” she cried triumphantly, “the friend whom I appointed to meet me here. Oh, I did well to trust him. Now we need not fear anything.”

As if in ironical answer came a great crashing at the verandah door, and the twanging of chords cruelly mishandled. The grand piano was suffering internally from the assaults of the boiler-house ladder.

“Wull I gie them a shot?” was McGuffog’s hoarse inquiry.

“Action stations,” Alexis ordered, for the command seemed to have shifted to him from Dougal. “The windows are the danger. The boy will patrol the ground floor, and give us warning, and I and this man,” pointing to Sime, “will be ready at the threatened point. And for God’s sake no shooting, unless I give the word. If we take them on at that game we haven’t a chance.”

He said something to Saskia in Russian and she smiled assent and went to Sir Archie’s side. “You and I must keep this door,” she said.

Sir Archie was never very clear afterwards about the events of the next hour. The Princess was in the maddest spirits, as if the burden of three years had slipped from her and she was back in her first girlhood. She sang as she carried more lumber to the pile — perhaps the song which had once entranced Heritage, but Sir Archie had no ear for music. She mocked at the furious blows which rained at the other end, for the door had gone now, and in the windy gap could be seen a blur of dark faces. Oddly enough, he found his own spirits mounting to meet hers. It was real business at last, the qualms of the civilian had been forgotten, and there was rising in him that joy in a scrap which had once made him one of the most daring airmen on the Western Front. The only thing that worried him now was the coyness about shooting. What on earth were his rifles and shot-guns for unless to be used? He had seen the enemy from the verandah wall, and a more ruffianly crew he had never dreamed of. They meant the uttermost business, and against such it was surely the duty of good citizens to wage whole-hearted war.

The Princess was humming to herself a nursery rhyme. “The King of Spain’s daughter,” she crooned, “came to visit me, and all for the sake —— Oh, that poor piano!” In her clear voice she cried something in Russian, and the wind carried a laugh from the verandah. At the sound of it she stopped. “I had forgotten,” she said. “Paul is there. I had forgotten.” After that she was very quiet, but she redoubled her labours at the barricade.

To the man it seemed that the pressure from without was slackening. He called to McGuffog to ask about the garden-room window, and the reply was reassuring. The gamekeeper was gloomily contemplating Dougal’s tubs of water and wire-netting, as he might have contemplated a vermin trap.

Sir Archie was growing acutely anxious — the anxiety of the defender of a straggling fortress which is vulnerable at a dozen points. It seemed to him that strange noises were coming from the rooms beyond the hall. Did the back door lie that way? And was not there a smell of smoke in the air? If they tried fire in such a gale the place would burn like matchwood.

He left his post and in the hall found Dougal.

“All quiet,” the Chieftain reported. “Far ower quiet. I don’t like it. The enemy’s no’ puttin’ out his strength yet. The Russian says a’ the west windies are terrible dangerous. Him and the chauffeur’s doin’ their best, but ye can’t block thae muckle glass panes.”

He returned to the Princess, and found that the attack had indeed languished on that particular barricade. The withers of the grand piano were left unwrung, and only a faint scuffling informed him that the verandah was not empty. “They’re gathering for an attack elsewhere,” he told himself. But what if that attack were a feint? He and McGuffog must stick to their post, for in his belief the verandah door and the garden-room window were the easiest places where an entry in mass could be forced.

Suddenly Dougal’s whistle blew, and with it came a most almighty crash somewhere towards the west side. With a shout of “Hold tight, McGuffog,” Sir Archie bolted into the hall, and, led by the sound, reached what had once been the ladies’ bedroom. A strange sight met his eyes, for the whole framework of one window seemed to have been thrust inward, and in the gap Alexis was swinging a fender. Three of the enemy were in the room — one senseless on the floor, one in the grip of Sime, whose single hand was tightly clenched on his throat, and one engaged with Dougal in a corner. The Die-Hard leader was sore pressed, and to his help Sir Archie went. The fresh assault made the seaman duck his head, and Dougal seized the occasion to smite him hard with something which caused him to roll over. It was Spidel’s life-preserver which he had annexed that afternoon.

Alexis at the window seemed to have for a moment daunted the attack. “Bring that table,” he cried, and the thing was jammed into the gap. “Now you” — this to Sime — “get the man from the back door to hold this place with his gun. There’s no attack there. It’s about time for shooting now, or we’ll have them in our rear. What in heaven is that?”

It was McGuffog whose great bellow resounded down the corridor. Sir Archie turned and shuffled back, to be met by a distressing spectacle. The lamp, burning as peacefully as it might have burned on an old lady’s tea-table, revealed the window of the garden-room driven bodily inward, shutters and all, and now forming an inclined bridge over Dougal’s ineffectual tubs. In front of it stood McGuffog, swinging his gun by the barrel and yelling curses, which, being mainly couched in the vernacular, were happily meaningless to Saskia. She herself stood at the hall door, plucking at something hidden in her breast. He saw that it was a little ivory-handled pistol.

The enemy’s feint had succeeded, for even as Sir Archie looked three men leaped into the room. On the neck of one the butt of McGuffog’s gun crashed, but two scrambled to their feet and made for the girl. Sir Archie met the first with his fist, a clean drive on the jaw, followed by a damaging hook with his left that put him out of action. The other hesitated for an instant and was lost, for McGuffog caught him by the waist from behind and sent him through the broken frame to join his comrades without.

“Up the stairs,” Dougal was shouting, for the little room beyond the hall was clearly impossible. “Our flank’s turned. They’re pourin’ through the other windy.” Out of a corner of his eye Sir Archie caught sight of Alexis, with Sime and Carfrae in support, being slowly forced towards them along the corridor. “Upstairs,” he shouted. “Come on, McGuffog. Lead on, Princess.” He dashed out the lamp, and the place was in darkness.

With this retreat from the forward trench line ended the opening phase of the battle. It was achieved in good order, and position was taken up on the first-floor landing, dominating the main staircase and the passage that led to the back stairs. At their back was a short corridor ending in a window which gave on the north side of the House above the verandah, and from which an active man might descend to the verandah roof. It had been carefully reconnoitred beforehand by Dougal, and his were the dispositions.

The odd thing was that the retreating force were in good heart. The three men from the Mains were warming to their work, and McGuffog wore an air of genial ferocity. “Dashed fine position I call this,” said Sir Archie. Only Alexis was silent and preoccupied. “We are still at their mercy,” he said. “Pray God your police come soon.” He forbade shooting yet awhile. “The lady is our strong card,” he said. “They won’t use their guns while she is with us, but if it ever comes to shooting they can wipe us out in a couple of minutes. One of you watch that window, for Paul Abreskov is no fool.”

Their exhilaration was short-lived. Below in the hall it was black darkness save for a greyness at the entrance of the verandah passage; but the defence was soon aware that the place was thick with men. Presently there came a scuffling from Carfrae’s post towards the back stairs, and a cry as of some one choking. And at the same moment a flare was lit below which brought the whole hall from floor to rafters into blinding light.

It revealed a crowd of figures, some still in the hall and some half-way up the stairs, and it revealed, too, more figures at the end of the upper landing where Carfrae had been stationed. The shapes were motionless like mannequins in a shop window.

“They’ve got us treed all right,” Sir Archie groaned. “What the devil are they waiting for?”

“They wait for their leader,” said Alexis.

No one of the party will ever forget the ensuing minutes. After the hubbub of the barricades the ominous silence was like icy water, chilling and petrifying with an indefinable fear. There was no sound but the wind, but presently mingled with it came odd wild voices.

“Hear to the whaups,” McGuffog whispered.

Sir Archie, who found the tension unbearable, sought relief in contradiction. “You’re an unscientific brute, McGuffog,” he told his henchman. “It’s a disgrace that a gamekeeper should be such a rotten naturalist. What would whaups be doin’ here at this time of year?”

“A’ the same, I could swear it’s whaups, Sir Erchibald.”

Then Dougal broke in and his voice was excited. “It’s no whaups. That’s our patrol signal. Man, there’s hope for us yet. I believe it’s the polis.”

His words were unheeded, for the figures below drew apart and a young man came through them. His beautifully-shaped dark head was bare, and as he moved he unbuttoned his oilskins and showed the trim dark-blue garb of the yachtsman. He walked confidently up the stairs, an odd elegant figure among his heavy companions.

“Good afternoon, Alexis,” he said in English. “I think we may now regard this interesting episode as closed. I take it that you surrender. Saskia, dear, you are coming with me on a little journey. Will you tell my men where to find your baggage?”

The reply was in Russian. Alexis’ voice was as cool as the other’s, and it seemed to wake him to anger. He replied in a rapid torrent of words, and appealed to the men below, who shouted back. The flare was dying down, and shadows again hid most of the hall.

Dougal crept up behind Sir Archie. “Here, I think it’s the polis. They’re whistlin’ outbye, and I hear folk cryin’ to each other — no’ the foreigners.”

Again Alexis spoke, and then Saskia joined in. What she said rang sharp with contempt, and her fingers played with her little pistol.

Suddenly before the young man could answer Dobson bustled towards him. The innkeeper was labouring under some strong emotion, for he seemed to be pleading and pointing urgently towards the door.

“I tell ye it’s the polis,” whispered Dougal. “They’re nickit.”

There was a swaying in the crowd and anxious faces. Men surged in, whispered and went out, and a clamour arose which the leader stilled with a fierce gesture.

“You there,” he cried, looking up, “you English. We mean you no ill, but I require you to hand over to me the lady and the Russian who is with her. I give you a minute by my watch to decide. If you refuse my men are behind you and around you, and you go with me to be punished at my leisure.”

“I warn you,” cried Sir Archie. “We are armed, and will shoot down any one who dares to lay a hand on us.”

“You fool,” came the answer. “I can send you all to eternity before you touch a trigger.”

Léon was by his side now — Léon and Spidel, imploring him to do something which he angrily refused. Outside there was a new clamour, faces showing at the door and then vanishing, and an anxious hum filled the hall…. Dobson appeared again and this time he was a figure of fury.

“Are ye daft, man?” he cried. “I tell ye the polis are closin’ round us, and there’s no’ a moment to lose if we would get back to the boats. If ye’ll no’ think o’ your own neck, I’m thinkin’ o’ mine. The whole thing’s a bloody misfire. Come on, lads, if ye’re no’ besotted on destruction.”

Léon laid a hand on the leader’s arm and was roughly shaken off. Spidel fared no better, and the little group on the upper landing saw the two shrug their shoulders and make for the door. The hall was emptying fast, and the watchers had gone from the back stairs. The young man’s voice rose to a scream; he commanded, threatened, cursed; but panic was in the air and he had lost his mastery.

“Quick,” croaked Dougal, “now’s the time for the counter-attack.”

But the figure on the stairs held them motionless. They could not see his face, but by instinct they knew that it was distraught with fury and defeat. The flare blazed up again as the flame caught a knot of fresh powder, and once more the place was bright with the uncanny light…. The hall was empty save for the pale man who was in the act of turning.

He looked back. “If I go now, I will return. The world is not wide enough to hide you from me, Saskia.”

“You will never get her,” said Alexis.

A sudden devil flamed into his eyes, the devil of some ancestral savagery, which would destroy what is desired but unattainable. He swung round, his hand went to his pocket, something clicked, and his arm shot out like a baseball pitcher’s.

So intent was the gaze of the others on him, that they did not see a second figure ascending the stairs. Just as Alexis flung himself before the Princess, the new-comer caught the young man’s outstretched arm and wrenched something from his hand. The next second he had hurled it into a far corner where stood the great fireplace. There was a blinding sheet of flame, a dull roar, and then billow upon billow of acrid smoke. As it cleared they saw that the fine Italian chimneypiece, the pride of the builder of the House, was a mass of splinters, and that a great hole had been blown through the wall into what had been the dining-room…. A figure was sitting on the bottom step feeling its bruises. The last enemy had gone.

When Mr. John Heritage raised his eyes he saw the Princess with a very pale face in the arms of a tall man whom he had never seen before. If he was surprised at the sight, he did not show it. “Nasty little bomb that. Time fuse. I remember we struck the brand first in July ’18.”

“Are they rounded up?” Sir Archie asked.

“They’ve bolted. Whether they’ll get away is another matter. I left half the mounted police a minute ago at the top of the West Lodge avenue. The other lot went to the Garplefoot to cut off the boats.”

“Good Lord, man,” Sir Archie cried, “the police have been here for the last ten minutes.”

“You’re wrong. They came with me.”

“Then what on earth——?” began the astonished baronet. He stopped short, for he suddenly got his answer. Into the hall from the verandah limped a boy. Never was there seen so ruinous a child. He was dripping wet, his shirt was all but torn off his back, his bleeding nose was poorly staunched by a wisp of handkerchief, his breeches were in ribbons, and his poor bare legs looked as if they had been comprehensively kicked and scratched. Limpingly he entered, yet with a kind of pride, like some small cock-sparrow who has lost most of his plumage but has vanquished his adversary.

wellington

With a yell Dougal went down the stairs. The boy saluted him, and they gravely shook hands. It was the meeting of Wellington and Blücher.

The Chieftain’s voice shrilled in triumph, but there was a break in it. The glory was almost too great to be borne.

“I kenned it,” he cried. “It was the Gorbals Die-Hards. There stands the man that done it…. Ye’ll no’ fickle Thomas Yownie.”

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS

***

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: 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, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

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

ORIGINAL FICTION: HiLobrow has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

Share

MORE POSTS by