Escapes, by John Buchan

Preface

I HAVE never yet seen an adequate definition of Romance, and I am not going to attempt one. But I take it that it means in the widest sense that which affects the mind with a sense of wonder the surprises of life, fights against odds, weak things confounding strong, beauty and courage flowering in unlikely places. In this book we are concerned with only a little plot of a great province, the efforts of men to cover a certain space within a certain limited time under an urgent compulsion, which strains to the uttermost body and spirit.

Why is there such an eternal fascination about tales of hurried journeys? In the great romances of literature they provide many of the chief dramatic moments, and, since the theme is common to Homer and the penny reciter, it must appeal to a very ancient instinct in human nature. The truth seems to be that we live our lives under the twin categories of time and space, and that when the two come into conflict we get the great moment. Whether failure or success is the result, life is sharpened, intensified, idealized. A long journey even with the most lofty purpose may be a dull thing to read of, if it is made at leisure; but a hundred yards may be a breathless business if only a few seconds are granted to complete it. For then it becomes a “ sporting event,” a race; and the interest which makes millions read of the Derby is the same in a grosser form as that with which we follow an expedition straining to relieve a beleaguered fort, or a man fleeing to sanctuary with the avenger behind him.

I have included “ escapes “ in my title, for the conflict of space and time is of the essence of all escapes, since the escaper is either pursued or in instant danger of pursuit. But, as a matter of fact, many escapes are slow affairs and their interest lies rather in ingenuity than in speed. Such in fiction is the escape of Dantes in Monte Cristo from the dungeons of Chateau d’If, and in history the laborious tunnelling performances of some of the prisoners in the American Civil War. The escapes I have chosen are, therefore, of a special type, the hustled kind, where there has been no time to spare, and the pursuer has either been hot-foot on the trail or the fugitive has moved throughout in an atmosphere of imminent peril.

It is, of course, in the operations of war one looks for the greater examples. The most famous hurried journeys have been made by soldiers by Alexander, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar; by Marlborough in his dash to Blenheim; by Napoleon many times; by Sir John Moore in his retreat to Corunna; by a dozen commanders in the Indian Mutiny; by Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart in their whirlwind rides; by the fruitless expedition to relieve Gordon. But the operations of war are a little beside my purpose. In them the movement is, as a rule, only swift when compared with the normal pace of armies, and the cumbrousness and elaboration of the military machine lessen the feeling of personal adventure. I have included only one march of an army Montrose’s, because his army was such a little one, its speed so amazing and its purpose so audacious, that its swoop upon Inverlochy may be said to belong to the class of personal exploits. For a different reason I have included none of the marvellous escapes of the Great War. These are in a world of their own, and some day I may make a book of them.

I have retold the stories, which are all strictly true, using the best evidence I could find and, in the case of the older ones, often comparing a dozen authorities. For the account of Prince Charlie’s wanderings I have to thank my friend Professor Rait of Glasgow, the Historiographer Royal for Scotland. My aim has been to include the widest varieties of fateful and hasty journey, extending from the hundred yards or so of Lord Nithsdale’s walk to the Tower Gate to the 4,000 miles of Lieutenants Parer and M’Intosh, from the ride of the obscure Dick King to the flights of princes, from the midsummer tragedy of Marie Antoinette to the winter comedy of Princess Clementina.

J. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32