Huntingtower (11)

By: John Buchan
March 15, 2014


Huntingtower was a departure for John Buchan. Published between the third and fourth of his tremendous Richard Hannay novels, the book’s protagonist is not a soldier-turned-spy, but instead a retired Scottish grocer who joins a quixotic effort to rescue a Russian noblewoman from Bolsheviks. Adventure literature exegetes agree that with this novel, Buchan was attempting to take the curse of irony off the word “adventure” — that is, to bring adventure into everyday life.

HILOBROW is pleased to serialize John Buchan’s Huntingtower, which was first published in 1922. A new installment will appear each week for sixteen weeks.



Chapter 11: Gravity Out of Bed

It is probable that Sir Archibald Roylance did not altogether believe Dickson’s tale; it may be that he considered him an agreeable romancer, or a little mad, or no more than a relief to the tedium of a wet Sunday morning. But his incredulity did not survive one glance at Saskia as she stood in that bleak drawing-room among Victorian water-colours and faded chintzes. The young man’s boyishness deserted him. He stopped short in his tracks, and made a profound and awkward bow. “I am at your service, Mademoiselle,” he said, amazed at himself. The words seemed to have come out of a confused memory of plays and novels.

She inclined her head — a little on one side, and looked towards Dickson.

“Sir Archibald’s going to do his best for us,” said that squire of dames. “I was telling him that we had had our breakfast.”

“Let’s get out of this sepulchre,” said their host, who was recovering himself. “There’s a roasting fire in my den. Of course you’ll have something to eat — hot coffee, anyhow — I’ve trained my cook to make coffee like a Frenchwoman. The housekeeper will take charge of you, if you want to tidy up, and you must excuse our ramshackle ways, please. I don’t believe there’s ever been a lady in this house before, you know.”

He led her to the smoking-room and ensconced her in the great chair by the fire. Smilingly she refused a series of offers which ranged from a sheepskin mantle which he had got in the Pamirs and which he thought might fit her, to hot whisky and water as a specific against a chill. But she accepted a pair of slippers and deftly kicked off the brogues provided by Mrs. Morran. Also, while Dickson started rapaciously on a second breakfast, she allowed him to pour her out a cup of coffee.

“You are a soldier?” she asked.

“Two years infantry — 5th Battalion Lennox Highlanders, and then Flying Corps. Top-hole time I had too, till the day before the Armistice when my luck gave out and I took a nasty toss. Consequently I’m not as fast on my legs now as I’d like to be.”

“You were a friend of Captain Kennedy?”

“His oldest. We were at the same private school, and he was at m’ tutor’s, and we were never much separated till he went abroad to cram for the Diplomatic and I started east to shoot things.”

“Then I will tell you what I told Captain Kennedy.” Saskia, looking into the heart of the peats, began the story of which we have already heard a version, but she told it differently, for she was telling it to one who more or less belonged to her own world. She mentioned names at which the other nodded. She spoke of a certain Paul Abreskov. “I heard of him at Bokhara in 1912,” said Sir Archie, and his face grew solemn. Sometimes she lapsed into French, and her hearer’s brow wrinkled, but he appeared to follow. When she had finished he drew a long breath.

“My Aunt! What a time you’ve been through! I’ve seen pluck in my day, but yours! It’s not thinkable. D’you mind if I ask a question, Princess? Bolshevism we know all about, and I admit Trotsky and his friends are a pretty effective push; but how on earth have they got a world-wide graft going in the time so that they can stretch their net to an out-of-the-way spot like this? It looks as if they had struck a Napoleon somewhere.”

“You do not understand,” she said. “I cannot make any one understand — except a Russian. My country has been broken to pieces, and there is no law in it; therefore it is a nursery of crime. So would England be, or France, if you had suffered the same misfortunes. My people are not wickeder than others, but for the moment they are sick and have no strength. As for the government of the Bolsheviki it matters little, for it will pass. Some parts of it may remain, but it is a government of the sick and fevered, and cannot endure in health. Lenin may be a good man — I do not think so, but I do not know — but if he were an archangel he could not alter things. Russia is mortally sick and therefore all evil is unchained, and the criminals have no one to check them. There is crime everywhere in the world, and the unfettered crime in Russia is so powerful that it stretches its hand to crime throughout the globe and there is a great mobilising everywhere of wicked men. Once you boasted that law was international and that the police in one land worked with the police of all others. To-day that is true about criminals. After a war evil passions are loosed, and, since Russia is broken, in her they can make their headquarters…. It is not Bolshevism, the theory, you need fear, for that is a weak and dying thing. It is crime, which to-day finds its seat in my country, but is not only Russian. It has no fatherland. It is as old as human nature and as wide as the earth.”

“I see,” said Sir Archie. “Gad, here have I been vegetatin’ and thinkin’ that all excitement had gone out of life with the war, and sometimes even regrettin’ that the beastly old thing was over, and all the while the world fairly hummin’ with interest. And Loudon too!”

“I would like your candid opinion on yon factor, Sir Archibald,” said Dickson.

“I can’t say I ever liked him, and I’ve once or twice had a row with him, for he used to bring his pals to shoot over Dalquharter and he didn’t quite play the game by me. But I know dashed little about him, for I’ve been a lot away. Bit hairy about the heels, of course. A great figure at local race-meetin’s, and used to toady old Carforth and the huntin’ crowd. He has a pretty big reputation as a sharp lawyer and some of the thick-headed lairds swear by him, but Quentin never could stick him. It’s quite likely he’s been gettin’ into Queer Street, for he was always speculatin’ in horse-flesh, and I fancy he plunged a bit on the Turf. But I can’t think how he got mixed up in this show.”

“I’m positive Dobson’s his brother.”

“And put this business in his way. That would explain it all right…. He must be runnin’ for pretty big stakes, for that kind of lad don’t dabble in crime for six-and-eightpence…. Now for the layout. You’ve got three men shut up in Dalquharter House, who by this time have probably escaped. One of you — what’s his name? — Heritage? — is in the old Tower, and you think that they think the Princess is still there and will sit round the place like terriers. Sometime to-day the Danish brig will arrive with reinforcements, and then there will be a hefty fight. Well, the first thing to be done is to get rid of Loudon’s stymie with the authorities. Princess, I’m going to carry you off in my car to the Chief Constable. The second thing is for you after that to stay on here. It’s a deadly place on a wet day, but it’s safe enough.”

Saskia shook her head and Dickson spoke for her.

“You’ll no’ get her to stop here. I’ve done my best, but she’s determined to be back at Dalquharter. You see she’s expecting a friend, and besides, if there’s going to be a battle she’d like to be in it. Is that so, Mem?”

Sir Archie looked helplessly around him, and the sight of the girl’s face convinced him that argument would be fruitless. “Anyhow she must come with me to the Chief Constable. Lethington’s a slow bird on the wing, and I don’t see myself convincin’ him that he must get busy unless I can produce the Princess. Even then it may be a tough job, for it’s Sunday, and in these parts people go to sleep till Monday mornin’.”

“That’s just what I’m trying to get at,” said Dickson. “By all means go to the Chief Constable, and tell him it’s life or death. My lawyer in Glasgow, Mr. Caw, will have been stirring him up yesterday, and you two should complete the job…. But what I’m feared is that he’ll not be in time. As you say, it’s the Sabbath day, and the police are terrible slow. Now any moment that brig may be here, and the trouble will start. I’m wanting to save the Princess, but I’m wanting too to give these blagyirds the roughest handling they ever got in their lives. Therefore I say there’s no time to lose. We’re far ower few to put up a fight, and we want every man you’ve got about this place to hold the fort till the police come.”

Sir Archibald looked upon the earnest flushed face of Dickson with admiration. “I’m blessed if you’re not the most whole-hearted brigand I’ve ever struck.”

“I’m not. I’m just a business man.”

“Do you realise that you’re levying a private war and breaking every law of the land?”

“Hoots!” said Dickson. “I don’t care a docken about the law. I’m for seeing this job through. What force can you produce?”

“Only cripples, I’m afraid. There’s Sime, my butler. He was a Fusilier Jock and, as you saw, has lost an arm. Then McGuffog the keeper is a good man, but he’s still got a Turkish bullet in his thigh. The chauffeur, Carfrae, was in the Yeomanry, and lost half a foot, and there’s myself, as lame as a duck. The herds on the home farm are no good, for one’s seventy and the other is in bed with jaundice. The Mains can produce four men, but they’re rather a job lot.”

“They’ll do fine,” said Dickson heartily. “All sodgers, and no doubt all good shots. Have you plenty guns?”

Sir Archie burst into uproarious laughter. “Mr. McCunn, you’re a man after my own heart. I’m under your orders. If I had a boy I’d put him into the provision trade, for it’s the place to see fightin’. Yes, we’ve no end of guns. I advise shot-guns, for they’ve more stoppin’ power in a rush than a rifle, and I take it it’s a rough-and-tumble we’re lookin’ for.”

“Right,” said Dickson. “I saw a bicycle in the hall. I want you to lend it me, for I must be getting back. You’ll take the Princess and do the best you can with the Chief Constable.”

“And then?”

“Then you’ll load up your car with your folk, and come down the hill to Dalquharter. There’ll be a laddie, or maybe more than one, waiting for you on this side the village to give you instructions. Take your orders from them. If it’s a red-haired ruffian called Dougal you’ll be wise to heed what he says, for he has a grand head for battles.”

Five minutes later Dickson was pursuing a quavering course like a snipe down the avenue. He was a miserable performer on a bicycle. Not for twenty years had he bestridden one, and he did not understand such new devices as free-wheels and change of gears. The mounting had been the worst part and it had only been achieved by the help of a rockery. He had begun by cutting into two flower-beds, and missing a birch tree by inches. But he clung on desperately, well knowing that if he fell off it would be hard to remount, and at length he gained the avenue. When he passed the lodge gates he was riding fairly straight, and when he turned off the Ayr highway to the side road that led to Dalquharter he was more or less master of his machine.

He crossed the Garple by an ancient hunch-backed bridge, observing even in his absorption with the handle-bars that the stream was in roaring spate. He wrestled up the further hill, with aching calf-muscles, and got to the top just before his strength gave out. Then as the road turned seaward he had the slope with him, and enjoyed some respite. It was no case for putting up his feet, for the gale was blowing hard on his right cheek, but the downward grade enabled him to keep his course with little exertion. His anxiety to get back to the scene of action was for the moment appeased, since he knew he was making as good speed as the weather allowed, so he had leisure for thought.

But the mind of this preposterous being was not on the business before him. He dallied with irrelevant things — with the problems of youth and love. He was beginning to be very nervous about Heritage, not as the solitary garrison of the old Tower, but as the lover of Saskia. That everybody should be in love with her appeared to him only proper, for he had never met her like, and assumed that it did not exist. The desire of the moth for the star seemed to him a reasonable thing, since hopeless loyalty and unrequited passion were the eternal stock-in-trade of romance. He wished he were twenty-five himself to have the chance of indulging in such sentimentality for such a lady. But Heritage was not like him and would never be content with a romantic folly…. He had been in love with her for two years — a long time. He spoke about wanting to die for her, which was a flight beyond Dickson himself. “I doubt it will be what they call a ‘grand passion,'” he reflected with reverence. But it was hopeless; he saw quite clearly that it was hopeless.

Why, he could not have explained, for Dickson’s instincts were subtler than his intelligence. He recognised that the two belonged to different circles of being, which nowhere intersected. That mysterious lady, whose eyes had looked through life to the other side, was no mate for the Poet. His faithful soul was agitated, for he had developed for Heritage a sincere affection. It would break his heart, poor man. There was he holding the fort alone and cheering himself with delightful fancies about one remoter than the moon. Dickson wanted happy endings, and here there was no hope of such. He hated to admit that life could be crooked, but the optimist in him was now fairly dashed.

Sir Archie might be the fortunate man, for of course he would soon be in love with her, if he were not so already. Dickson like all his class had a profound regard for the country gentry. The business Scot does not usually revere wealth, though he may pursue it earnestly, nor does he specially admire rank in the common sense. But for ancient race he has respect in his bones, though it may happen that in public he denies it, and the laird has for him a secular association with good family…. Sir Archie might do. He was young, good-looking, obviously gallant…. But no! He was not quite right either. Just a trifle too light in weight, too boyish and callow. The Princess must have youth, but it should be mighty youth, the youth of a Napoleon or a Cæsar. He reflected that the Great Montrose, for whom he had a special veneration, might have filled the bill. Or young Harry with his beaver up? Or Claverhouse in the picture with the flush of temper on his cheek?

The meditations of the match-making Dickson came to an abrupt end. He had been riding negligently, his head bent against the wind, and his eyes vaguely fixed on the wet hill-gravel of the road. Of his immediate environs he was pretty well unconscious. Suddenly he was aware of figures on each side of him who advanced menacingly. Stung to activity he attempted to increase his pace, which was already good, for the road at this point descended steeply. Then, before he could prevent it, a stick was thrust into his front wheel, and the next second he was describing a curve through the air. His head took the ground, he felt a spasm of blinding pain, and then a sense of horrible suffocation before his wits left him.

“Are ye sure it’s the richt man, Ecky?” said a voice which he did not hear.

“Sure. It’s the Glesca body Dobson telled us to look for yesterday. It’s a pund note atween us for this job. We’ll tie him up in the wud till we’ve time to attend to him.”

“Is he bad?”

“It doesna maitter,” said the one called Ecky. “He’ll be deid onyway long afore the morn.”

Mrs. Morran all forenoon was in a state of un-Sabbatical disquiet. After she had seen Saskia and Dickson start she finished her housewifely duties, took Cousin Eugènie her breakfast, and made preparation for the midday dinner. The invalid in the bed in the parlour was not a repaying subject. Cousin Eugènie belonged to that type of elderly women who, having been spoiled in youth, find the rest of life fall far short of their expectations. Her voice had acquired a perpetual wail, and the corners of what had once been a pretty mouth drooped in an eternal peevishness. She found herself in a morass of misery and shabby discomfort, but had her days continued in an even tenor she would still have lamented. “A dingy body,” was Mrs. Morran’s comment, but she laboured in kindness. Unhappily they had no common language, and it was only by signs that the hostess could discover her wants and show her goodwill. She fed her and bathed her face, saw to the fire and left her to sleep. “I’m boilin’ a hen to mak’ broth for your denner, Mem. Try and get a bit sleep now.” The purport of the advice was clear, and Cousin Eugènie turned obediently on her pillow.

It was Mrs. Morran’s custom of a Sunday to spend the morning in devout meditation. Some years before she had given up tramping the five miles to kirk, on the ground that having been a regular attendant for fifty years she had got all the good out of it that was probable. Instead she read slowly aloud to herself the sermon printed in a certain religious weekly which reached her every Saturday, and concluded with a chapter or two of the Bible. But to-day something had gone wrong with her mind. She could not follow the thread of the Reverend Doctor MacMichael’s discourse. She could not fix her attention on the wanderings and misdeeds of Israel as recorded in the Book of Exodus. She must always be getting up to look at the pot on the fire, or to open the back door and study the weather. For a little she fought against her unrest, and then she gave up the attempt at concentration. She took the big pot off the fire and allowed it to simmer, and presently she fetched her boots and umbrella, and kilted her petticoats. “I’ll be none the waur o’ a breath o’ caller air,” she decided.

The wind was blowing great guns but there was only the thinnest sprinkle of rain. Sitting on the hen-house roof and munching a raw turnip was a figure which she recognised as the smallest of the Die-Hards. Between bites he was singing dolefully to the tune of “Annie Laurie” one of the ditties of his quondam Sunday school:

“The Boorjoys’ brays are bonny,
But the Worrkers o’ the Worrld
Wull gar them a’ look blue,
Wull gar them a’ look blue,
And droon them in the sea,
And — for bonnie Annie Laurie
I’ll lay me down and dee.”

“Losh, laddie,” she cried, “that’s cauld food for the stamach. Come indoors about midday and I’ll gie ye a plate o’ broth!” The Die-Hard saluted and continued on the turnip.

She took the Auchenlochan road across the Garple bridge, for that was the best road to the Mains and by it Dickson and the others might be returning. Her equanimity at all seasons was like a Turk’s, and she would not have admitted that anything mortal had power to upset or excite her: nevertheless it was a fast-beating heart that she now bore beneath her Sunday jacket. Great events, she felt, were on the eve of happening, and of them she was a part. Dickson’s anxiety was hers, to bring things to a business-like conclusion. The honour of Huntingtower was at stake and of the old Kennedys. She was carrying out Mr. Quentin’s commands, the dead boy who used to clamour for her treacle scones. And there was more than duty in it, for youth was not dead in her old heart, and adventure had still power to quicken it.

Mrs. Morran walked well, with the steady long paces of the Scots countrywoman. She left the Auchenlochan road and took the side path along the tableland to the Mains. But for the surge of the gale and the far-borne boom of the furious sea there was little noise; not a bird cried in the uneasy air. With the wind behind her Mrs. Morran breasted the ascent till she had on her right the moorland running south to the Lochan valley and on her left Garple chafing in its deep forested gorges. Her eyes were quick and she noted with interest a weasel creeping from a fern-clad cairn. A little way on she passed an old ewe in difficulties and assisted it to rise. “But for me, my wumman, ye’d hae been braxy ere nicht,” she told it as it departed bleating. Then she realised that she had come a certain distance. “Losh, I maun be gettin’ back or the hen will be spiled,” she cried, and was on the verge of turning.

But something caught her eye a hundred yards further on the road. It was something which moved with the wind like a wounded bird, fluttering from the roadside to a puddle and then back to the rushes. She advanced to it, missed it, and caught it.

It was an old dingy green felt hat, and she recognised it as Dickson’s.

Mrs. Morran’s brain, after a second of confusion, worked fast and clearly. She examined the road and saw that a little way on the gravel had been violently agitated. She detected several prints of hobnailed boots. There were prints too, on a patch of peat on the south side behind a tall bank of sods. “That’s where they were hidin’,” she concluded. Then she explored on the other side in a thicket of hazels and wild raspberries, and presently her perseverance was rewarded. The scrub was all crushed and pressed as if several persons had been forcing a passage. In a hollow was a gleam of something white. She moved towards it with a quaking heart, and was relieved to find that it was only a new and expensive bicycle with the front wheel badly buckled.

Mrs. Morran delayed no longer. If she had walked well on her out journey, she beat all records on the return. Sometimes she would run till her breath failed; then she would slow down till anxiety once more quickened her pace. To her joy on the Dalquharter side of the Garple bridge she observed the figure of a Die-Hard. Breathless, flushed, with her bonnet awry and her umbrella held like a scimitar, she seized on the boy.

“Awfu’ doin’s! They’ve grippit Maister McCunn up the Mains road just afore the second milestone and forenent the auld bucht. I fund his hat, and a bicycle’s lyin’ broken in the wud. Haste ye, man, and get the rest and awa’ and seek him. It’ll be the tinklers frae the Dean. I’d gang mysel’, but my legs are ower auld. Oh, laddie, dinna stop to speir questions. They’ll hae him murdered or awa’ to sea. And maybe the leddy was wi’ him and they’ve got them baith. Wae’s me! Wae’s me!”

The Die-Hard, who was Wee Jaikie, did not delay. His eyes had filled with tears at her news, which we know to have been his habit. When Mrs. Morran, after indulging in a moment of barbaric keening, looked back the road she had come, she saw a small figure trotting up the hill like a terrier who has been left behind. As he trotted he wept bitterly. Jaikie was getting dangerous.



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SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire.”

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” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | 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) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (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”