The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter I

Doctor Greenslade Theorises

That evening, I remember, as I came up through the Mill Meadow, I was feeling peculiarly happy and contented. It was still mid-March, one of those spring days when noon is like May, and only the cold pearly haze at sunset warns a man that he is not done with winter. The season was absurdly early, for the blackthorn was in flower and the hedge roots were full of primroses. The partridges were paired, the rooks were well on with their nests, and the meadows were full of shimmering grey flocks of fieldfares on their way north. I put up half a dozen snipe on the boggy edge of the stream, and in the bracken in Sturn Wood I thought I saw a woodcock, and hoped that the birds might nest with us this year, as they used to do long ago. It was jolly to see the world coming to life again, and to remember that this patch of England was my own, and all these wild things, so to speak, members of my little household.

As I say, I was in a very contented mood, for I had found something I had longed for all my days. I had bought Fosse Manor just after the War as a wedding present for Mary, and for two and a half years we had been settled there. My son, Peter John, was rising fifteen months, a thoughtful infant, as healthy as a young colt and as comic as a terrier puppy. Even Mary’s anxious eye could scarcely detect in him any symptoms of decline. But the place wanted a lot of looking to, for it had run wild during the War, and the woods had to be thinned, gates and fences repaired, new drains laid, a ram put in to supplement the wells, a heap of thatching to be done, and the garden borders to be brought back to cultivation. I had got through the worst of it, and as I came out of the Home Wood on to the lower lawns and saw the old stone gables that the monks had built, I felt that I was anchored at last in the pleasantest kind of harbour.

There was a pile of letters on the table in the hall, but I let them be, for I was not in the mood for any communication with the outer world. As I was having a hot bath Mary kept giving me the news through her bedroom door. Peter John had been raising Cain over a first tooth; the new shorthorn cow was drying off; old George Whaddon had got his granddaughter back from service; there was a new brood of runner-ducks; there was a missel-thrush building in the box hedge by the lake. A chronicle of small beer, you will say, but I was by a long chalk more interested in it than in what might be happening in Parliament or Russia or the Hindu Kush. The fact is I was becoming such a mossback that I had almost stopped reading the papers. Many a day The Times would remain unopened, for Mary never looked at anything but the first page to see who was dead or married. Not that I didn’t read a lot, for I used to spend my evenings digging into county history, and learning all I could about the old fellows who had been my predecessors. I liked to think that I lived in a place that had been continuously inhabited for a thousand years. Cavalier and Roundhead had fought over the countryside, and I was becoming a considerable authority on their tiny battles. That was about the only interest I had left in soldiering.

As we went downstairs, I remember we stopped to look out of the long staircase window which showed a segment of lawn, a corner of the lake, and through a gap in the woods a vista of green downland. Mary squeezed my arm. “What a blessed country,” she said. “Dick, did you ever dream of such peace? We’re lucky, lucky people.”

Then suddenly her face changed in that way she has and grew very grave. I felt a little shiver run along her arm.

“It’s too good and beloved to last,” she whispered. “Sometimes I am afraid.”

“Nonsense,” I laughed. “What’s going to upset it? I don’t believe in being afraid of happiness.” I knew very well, of course, that Mary couldn’t be afraid of anything.

She laughed too. “All the same I’ve got what the Greek called aidos. You don’t know what that means, you old savage. It means that you feel you must walk humbly and delicately to propitiate the Fates. I wish I knew how.”

She walked too delicately, for she missed the last step and our descent ended in an undignified shuffle right into the arms of Dr. Greenslade.

Paddock — I had got Paddock back after the War and he was now my butler — was helping the doctor out of his ulster, and I saw by the satisfied look on the latter’s face that he was through with his day’s work and meant to stay to dinner. Here I had better introduce Tom Greenslade, for of all my recent acquaintances he was the one I had most taken to. He was a long lean fellow with a stoop in his back from bending over the handles of motor-bicycles, with reddish hair, and the greeny-blue eyes and freckled skin that often accompany that kind of hair. From his high cheek bones and his colouring you would have set him down as a Scotsman, but as a matter of fact he came from Devonshire — Exmoor, I think, though he had been so much about the world that he had almost forgotten where he was raised. I have travelled a bit, but nothing to Greenslade. He had started as a doctor in a whaling ship. Then he had been in the South African War and afterwards a temporary magistrate up Lydenburg way. He soon tired of that, and was for a long spell in Uganda and German East, where he became rather a swell on tropical diseases, and nearly perished through experimenting on himself with fancy inoculations. Then he was in South America, where he had a good practice in Valparaiso, and then in the Malay States, where he made a bit of money in the rubber boom. There was a gap of three years after that when he was wandering about Central Asia, partly with a fellow called Duckett exploring Northern Mongolia, and partly in Chinese Tibet hunting for new flowers, for he was mad about botany. He came home in the summer of 1914, meaning to do some laboratory research work, but the War swept him up and he went to France as M.O. of a territorial battalion. He got wounded of course, and after a spell in hospital went out to Mesopotamia, where he stayed till the Christmas of 1918, sweating hard at his job but managing to tumble into a lot of varied adventures, for he was at Baku with Dunsterville and got as far as Tashkend, where the Bolsheviks shut him up for a fortnight in a bath-house. During the War he had every kind of sickness, for he missed no experience, but nothing seemed to damage permanently his whipcord physique. He told me that his heart and lungs and blood pressure were as good as a lad’s of twenty-one, though by this time he was on the wrong side of forty.

But when the War was over he hankered for a quiet life, so he bought a practice in the deepest and greenest corner of England. He said his motive was the same as that which in the rackety Middle Ages made men retire into monasteries; he wanted quiet and leisure to consider his soul. Quiet he may have found, but uncommon little leisure, for I never heard of a country doctor that toiled at his job as he did. He would pay three visits a day to a panel patient, which shows the kind of fellow he was; and he would be out in the small hours at the birth of a gipsy child under a hedge. He was a first-class man in his profession, and kept abreast of it, but doctoring was only one of a thousand interests. I never met a chap with such an insatiable curiosity about everything in heaven and earth. He lived in two rooms in a farmhouse some four miles from us, and I dare say he had several thousand books about him. All day, and often half the night, he would scour the country in his little run-about car, and yet, when he would drop in to see me and have a drink after maybe twenty visits, he was as full of beans as if he had just got out of bed. Nothing came amiss to him in talk — birds, beasts, flowers, books, politics, religion — everything in the world except himself. He was the best sort of company, for behind all his quickness and cleverness, you felt that he was solid bar-gold. But for him I should have taken root in the soil and put out shoots, for I have a fine natural talent for vegetating. Mary strongly approved of him and Peter John adored him.

He was in tremendous spirits that evening, and for once in a way gave us reminiscences of his past. He told us about the people he badly wanted to see again; an Irish Spaniard up in the north of the Argentine who had for cattle-men a most murderous brand of native from the mountains, whom he used to keep in good humour by arranging fights every Sunday, he himself taking on the survivor with his fists and always knocking him out; a Scots trader from Hankow who had turned Buddhist priest and intoned his prayers with a strong Glasgow accent; and most of all a Malay pirate, who, he said, was a sort of St. Francis with beasts, though a perfect Nero with his fellow-men. That took him to Central Asia, and he observed that if ever he left England again he would make for those parts, since they were the refuge of all the superior rascality of creation. He had a notion that something very odd might happen there in the long run. “Think of it!” he cried. “All the places with names like spells — Bokhara, Samarkand — run by seedy little gangs of communist Jews. It won’t go on for ever. Some day a new Genghis Khan or a Timour will be thrown up out of the maelstrom. Europe is confused enough, but Asia is ancient Chaos.”

After dinner we sat round the fire in the library, which I had modelled on Sir Walter Bullivant’s room in his place on the Kennet, as I had promised myself seven years ago. I had meant it for my own room where I could write and read and smoke, but Mary would not allow it. She had a jolly panelled sitting-room of her own upstairs, which she rarely entered; but though I chased her away, she was like a hen in a garden and always came back, so that presently she had staked out a claim on the other side of my writing-table. I have the old hunter’s notion of order, but it was useless to strive with Mary, so now my desk was littered with her letters and needlework, and Peter John’s toys and picture-books were stacked in the cabinet where I kept my fly-books, and Peter John himself used to make a kraal every morning inside an up-turned stool on the hearth-rug.

It was a cold night and very pleasant by the fireside, where some scented logs from an old pear-tree were burning. The doctor picked up a detective novel I had been reading, and glanced at the title-page.

“I can read most things,” he said, “but it beats me how you waste time over such stuff. These shockers are too easy, Dick. You could invent better ones for yourself.”

“Not I. I call that a dashed ingenious yarn. I can’t think how the fellow does it.”

“Quite simple. The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively. Do you see what I mean?”

“Not a bit,” I replied.

“Look here. I want to write a shocker, so I begin by fixing on one or two facts which have no sort of obvious connection.”

“For example?”

“Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three things a long way apart —” He paused for a second to consider —“say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection — simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into the yarn. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realise that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.”

“I see,” I said. “You’ve gone and taken the gilt off my favourite light reading. I won’t be able any more to marvel at the writer’s cleverness.”

“I’ve another objection to the stuff — it’s not ingenious enough, or rather it doesn’t take account of the infernal complexity of life. It might have been all right twenty years ago, when most people argued and behaved fairly logically. But they don’t nowadays. Have you ever realised, Dick, the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world?”

Mary, who was sitting sewing under a lamp, raised her head and laughed.

Greenslade’s face had become serious. “I can speak about it frankly here, for you two are almost the only completely sane people I know. Well, as a pathologist, I’m fairly staggered. I hardly meet a soul who hasn’t got some slight kink in his brain as a consequence of the last seven years. With most people it’s rather a pleasant kink — they’re less settled in their grooves, and they see the comic side of things quicker, and are readier for adventure. But with some it’s pukka madness, and that means crime. Now, how are you going to write detective stories about that kind of world on the old lines? You can take nothing for granted, as you once could, and your argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert has nothing solid with which to build his foundations.”

I observed that the poor old War seemed to be getting blamed for a good deal that I was taught in my childhood was due to original sin.

“Oh, I’m not questioning your Calvinism. Original sin is always there, but the meaning of civilisation was that we had got it battened down under hatches, whereas now it’s getting its head up. But it isn’t only sin. It’s a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning, a general loosening of screws. Oddly enough, in spite of parrot-talk about shell-shock, the men who fought suffer less from it on the whole than other people. The classes that shirked the War are the worst — you see it in Ireland. Every doctor nowadays has got to be a bit of a mental pathologist. As I say, you can hardly take anything for granted, and if you want detective stories that are not childish fantasy you’ll have to invent a new kind. Better try your hand, Dick.”

“Not I. I’m a lover of sober facts.”

“But, hang it, man, the facts are no longer sober. I could tell you —” He paused and I was expecting a yarn, but he changed his mind.

“Take all this chatter about psycho-analysis. There’s nothing very new in the doctrine, but people are beginning to work it out into details, and making considerable asses of themselves in the process. It’s an awful thing when a scientific truth becomes the quarry of the half-baked. But as I say, the fact of the subconscious self is as certain as the existence of lungs and arteries.”

“I don’t believe that Dick has any subconscious self,” said Mary.

“Oh yes, he has. Only, people who have led his kind of life have their ordinary self so well managed and disciplined — their wits so much about them, as the phrase goes — that the subconscious rarely gets a show. But I bet if Dick took to thinking about his soul, which he never does, he would find some queer corners. Take my own case.” He turned towards me so that I had a full view of his candid eyes and hungry cheek-bones which looked prodigious in the firelight. “I belong more or less to the same totem as you, but I’ve long been aware that I possessed a most curious kind of subconsciousness. I’ve a good memory and fair powers of observation, but they’re nothing to those of my subconscious self. Take any daily incident. I see and hear, say, about a twentieth part of the details and remember about a hundredth part — that is, assuming that there is nothing special to stimulate my interest. But my subconscious self sees and hears practically everything, and remembers most of it. Only I can’t use the memory, for I don’t know that I’ve got it, and can’t call it into being when I wish. But every now and then something happens to turn on the tap of the subconscious, and a thin trickle comes through. I find myself sometimes remembering names I was never aware of having heard, and little incidents and details I had never consciously noticed. Imagination, you will say; but it isn’t, for everything that that inner memory provides is exactly true. I’ve tested it. If I could only find some way of tapping it at will, I should be an uncommonly efficient fellow. Incidentally I should become the first scientist of the age, for the trouble with investigation and experiment is that the ordinary brain does not observe sufficiently keenly or remember the data sufficiently accurately.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “I’m not at all certain I haven’t noticed the same thing in myself. But what has that to do with the madness that you say is infecting the world?”

“Simply this. The barriers between the conscious and the subconscious have always been pretty stiff in the average man. But now with the general loosening of screws they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed. It is like two separate tanks of fluid, where the containing wall has worn into holes, and one is percolating into the other. The result is confusion, and, if the fluids are of a certain character, explosions. That is why I say that you can’t any longer take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted. Something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it.”

“I don’t object to that,” I said. “We’ve overdone civilisation, and personally I’m all for a little barbarism. I want a simpler world.”

“Then you won’t get it,” said Greenslade. He had become very serious now, and was looking towards Mary as he talked. “The civilised is far simpler than the primeval. All history has been an effort to make definitions, clear rules of thought, clear rules of conduct, solid sanctions, by which we can conduct our life. These are the work of the conscious self. The subconscious is an elementary and lawless thing. If it intrudes on life two results must follow. There will be a weakening of the power of reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty. And there will be a failure of nerve.”

I got up to get a light, for I was beginning to feel depressed by the doctor’s diagnosis of our times. I don’t know whether he was altogether serious, for he presently started on fishing, which was one of his many hobbies. There was very fair dry-fly fishing to be had in our little river, but I had taken a deer-forest with Archie Roylance for the season, and Greenslade was coming up with me to try his hand at salmon. There had been no sea-trout the year before in the West Highlands, and we fell to discussing the cause. He was ready with a dozen theories, and we forgot about the psychology of mankind in investigating the uncanny psychology of fish. After that Mary sang to us, for I considered any evening a failure without that, and at half-past ten the doctor got into his old ulster and departed.

As I smoked my last pipe I found my thoughts going over Greenslade’s talk. I had found a snug harbour, but how yeasty the waters seemed to be outside the bar and how erratic the tides! I wondered if it wasn’t shirking to be so comfortable in a comfortless world. Then I reflected that I was owed a little peace, for I had had a roughish life. But Mary’s words kept coming back to me about “walking delicately.” I considered that my present conduct filled that bill, for I was mighty thankful for my mercies and in no way inclined to tempt Providence by complacency.

Going up to bed, I noticed my neglected letters on the hall table. I turned them over and saw that they were mostly bills and receipts or tradesmen’s circulars. But there was one addressed in a handwriting that I knew, and as I looked at it I experienced a sudden sinking of the heart. It was from Lord Artinswell — Sir Walter Bullivant, as was — who had now retired from the Foreign Office, and was living at his place on the Kennet. He and I occasionally corresponded about farming and fishing, but I had a premonition that this was something different. I waited for a second or two before I opened it.

“MY DEAR DICK,

“This note is in the nature of a warning. In the next day or two you will be asked, nay pressed, to undertake a troublesome piece of business. I am not responsible for the request, but I know of it. If you consent, it will mean the end for a time of your happy vegetable life. I don’t want to influence you one way or another; I only give you notice of what is coming in order that you may adjust your mind and not be taken by surprise. My love to Mary and the son.

“Yours ever,

“A.”

That was all. I had lost my trepidation and felt very angry. Why couldn’t the fools let me alone? As I went upstairs I vowed that not all the cajolery in the world would make me budge an inch from the path I had set myself. I had done enough for the public service and other people’s interests, and it was jolly well time that I should be allowed to attend to my own.

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