The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter XII

I Return to Servitude

We fed Mercot with tinned meats and biscuits and bottled beer, and he ate like a famished schoolboy. The odd thing was that his terror had suddenly left him. I suppose the sight of me, which had linked him up definitely with his past, had made him feel a waif no more, and, once he was quite certain who he was, his natural courage returned. He got great comfort from looking at Gaudian, and indeed I could not imagine a better sedative than a sight of that kind, wise old face. I lent him pyjamas, rubbed him down to prevent a chill from his ducking, put him in my bed, and had the satisfaction of seeing him slip off at once into deep slumber.

Next morning Gaudian and I interviewed Peter Bojer and explained that a young English friend of ours had had an accident, while on a walking tour, and might be with us for a day or two. It was not likely that Newhover would advertise his loss, and in any case Peter was no gossip, and Gaudian, who had known him for years, let him see that we wanted the fact of a guest being with us kept as quiet as possible. The boy slept till nearly midday, while I kept a watch on the road. Newhover appeared early, and went down to Merdal village, where he spent the better part of the forenoon. He was probably making inquiries, but they were bound in his own interest to be discreet ones. Then he returned to Tryssil, and later I saw a dejected figure tramping up the Snaasen track. He may have thought that the body of the fugitive was in some pool of the torrent or being swirled down by the Skarso to the sea, and I imagined that that scarcely fitted in with his instructions.

When Mercot awoke at last and had his breakfast he looked a different lad. His eyes had lost their fright, and though he stuttered badly and seemed to have some trouble in collecting his wits, he had obviously taken hold of himself. His great desire was to get clean, and that took some doing, for he could not have had a bath for weeks. Then he wanted to borrow my razor and shave his beard, but I managed to prevent him in time, for I had been thinking the thing out, and I saw that that would never do. So far as I could see, he had recovered his memory, but there were still gaps in it; that is to say, he remembered all his past perfectly well till he left Oxford on February 17th, and he remembered the events of the last few days, but between the two points he was still hazy.

On returning to his rooms that February evening he had found a note about a horse he was trying to buy, an urgent note asking him to come round at once to certain stables. He had just time for this, before dressing for dinner, so he dashed out of the house — meeting nobody, as it chanced, on the stairs, and, as the night was foggy, being seen by no one in the streets. After that his memory was a blank. He had wakened in a room in London, which he thought was a nursing home, and had seen a doctor — I could picture that doctor — and had gone to sleep again. After that his recollection was like a black night studded with little points of light which were physical sensations. He remembered being very cold and sometimes very tired, he recollected the smell of paraffin, and of mouldy hay, and of a treacly drink which made him sick. He remembered faces, too, a cross old woman who cursed him, a man who seemed to be always laughing, and whose laugh he feared more than curses. . . .

I suppose that Medina’s spell must have been wearing thin during these last days, and that the keeper, Jason, or whoever he was, could not revive it. For Mercot had begun to see Jason no longer as a terror but as an offence — an underbred young bounder whom he detested. And with this clearing of the foreground came a lightening of the background. He saw pictures of his life at Alcester, at first as purely objective things, but soon as in some way connected with himself. Then longing started, passionate longing for something which he knew was his own. . . . It was a short step from that to the realisation that he was Lord Mercot, though he happened to be clad like a tramp and was as dirty as a stoker. And then he proceeded to certain halting deductions. Something bad had happened to him: he was in a foreign land — which land he didn’t know: he was being ill-treated and kept prisoner; he must escape and get back to his old happy world. He thought of escape quite blindly, without any plan; if only he could get away from that accursed saeter, he would remember better, things would happen to him, things would come back to him.

Then Jason went and Newhover came, and Newhover drove him half crazy with fear, for the doctor’s face was in some extraordinary way mixed up with his confused memory of the gaps between the old world and the new. He was mad to escape now, but rather to escape from Newhover than to reach anywhere. He watched for his chance, and found it about eight o’clock the evening before, when the others in the house were at supper. Some instinct had led him towards Merdal. He had heard footsteps behind him and had taken to the thicket. . . . I appeared, an enemy as he thought, and he had despairingly flung himself on me. Then I had spoken his name, and that fixed the wavering panorama of his memory. He “came to himself” literally, and was now once more the undergraduate of Christ Church, rather shell-shocked and jumpy, but quite sane.

The question which worried me was whether the cure was complete, whether Newhover could act as Medina’s deputy and resurrect the spell. I did not believe that he could, but I wasn’t certain. Anyhow it had to be risked.

Mercot repeated his request for the loan of my razor. He was smoking a Turkish cigarette as if every whiff took him nearer Elysium. Badly shorn, ill-clad, and bearded as he was, he had still the ghost of the air of the well-to-do, sporting young men. He wanted to know when the steamer sailed, but there seemed no panic now in his impatience.

“Look here,” I said. “I don’t think you can start just yet. There’s a lot I want to tell you now you’re able to hear it.”

I gave him a rough summary of Macgillivray’s story, and the tale of the three hostages. I think he found it comforting to know that there were others in the same hole as himself. “By Jove!” he said, “what a damnable business! And I’m the only one you’ve got on the track of. No word of the girl and the little boy?”

“No word!”

“Poor devils,” he said, but I do not think he really took in the situation.

“So you see how we are placed. Macgillivray’s round-up is fixed for the 10th of June. We daren’t release the hostages till the 9th, for otherwise the gang would suspect. They have everything ready, as I’ve told you, for their own liquidation. Also we can’t release one without the others, unless by the 9th of June we have given up hope of the others. Do you see what I mean?”

He didn’t. “All I want is to get home in double-quick time,” he said.

“I don’t wonder. But you must see that that is impossible, unless we chuck in our hand.”

He stared at me, and I saw fright beginning to return to his eyes.

“Do you mean that you want me to go back to that bloody place?”

“That’s what I mean. If you think it out, you’ll see it’s the only way. We must do nothing to spoil the chances of the other two. You’re a gentleman, and are bound to play the game.”

“But I can’t,” he cried. “Oh, my God, you can’t ask me to.” There were tears in his voice, and his eyes were wild.

“It’s a good deal to ask, but I know you will do it. There’s not a scrap of danger now, for you have got back your memory, and you know where you are. It’s up to you to play a game with your gaoler. He is the dupe now. You fill the part of the half-witted farm-boy and laugh at him all the time in your sleeve. Herr Gaudian will be waiting down here to keep an eye on you, and when the time is ripe — and it won’t be more than five weeks — I give you full permission to do anything you like with Dr. Newhover.”

“I can’t, I can’t,” he wailed, and his jaw dropped like a scared child’s.

Then Gaudian spoke. “I think we had better leave the subject for the present. Lord Mercot will do precisely what he thinks right. You have sprung the thing on him too suddenly. I think it might be a good plan if you went for a walk, Hannay. Try the south side of the foss — there’s some very pretty scrambling to be had there.”

He spoke to me at the door. “The poor boy is all in pieces. You cannot ask him for a difficult decision when his nerves are still raw. Will you leave him with me? I have had some experience in dealing with such cases.”

When I got back for supper, after a climb which exercised every muscle in my body, I found Gaudian teaching Mercot a new patience game. We spent a very pleasant evening, and I noticed that Gaudian led the talk to matters in which the boy could share, and made him speak of himself. We heard about his racing ambitions, his desire to ride in the Grand National, his hopes for his polo game. It appeared that he was destined for the Guards, but he was to be allowed a year’s travel when he left the ‘Varsity, and we planned out an itinerary for him. Gaudian, who had been almost everywhere in the world, told him of places in Asia where no tourist had ever been and where incredible sport was to be had in virgin forest, and I pitched him some yarns about those few districts of Africa which are still unspoiled. He got very keen, for he had a bit of the explorer in him, and asked modestly if we thought he could pull off certain plans we had suggested. We told him there was no doubt about it. “It’s not as tough a proposition as riding in the National,” I said.

When we had put him to bed, Gaudian smiled as if well pleased. “He has begun to get back his confidence,” he said.

He slept for twelve hours, and when he woke I had gone out, for I thought it better to leave him in Gaudian’s hands. I had to settle the business that day, for it was now the 27th. I walked down the fjord to Hauge, and told Johan to be ready to start next morning. I asked him about the weather, which was still cloudless, and he stared at the sky and sniffed, and thought it would hold for a day or two. “But rain is coming,” he added, “and wind. The noise of the foss is too loud.”

When I returned Gaudian met me at the door. “The boy has recovered,” he said. “He will speak to you himself. He is a brave boy and will do a hard task well.”

It was a rather shy and self-conscious Mercot that greeted me.

“I’m afraid I behaved rather badly yesterday, sir. I was feeling a bit rattled, and I’m ashamed of myself, for I’ve always rather fancied my nerve.”

“My dear chap,” I said, “you’ve been through enough to crack the nerve of a buffalo.”

“I want to say that of course I’ll do what you want. I must play the game by the others. That poor little boy! And I remember Miss Victor quite well — I once stayed in the same house with her. I’ll go back to the saeter when you give the word. Indeed, I’m rather looking forward to it. I promise to play the half-wit so that Dr. Newhover will think me safe in the bag. All I ask is that you let me have my innings with him when the time comes. I’ve a biggish score to settle.”

“Indeed I promise that. Look here, Mercot, if you don’t mind my saying it, I think you’re behaving uncommonly well. You’re a gallant fellow.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, blushing. “When do you want me to start? If it’s possible, I’d like another night in a decent bed.”

“You shall have it. Early tomorrow morning we’ll accompany you to the prison door. You’ve got to gibber when you see Newhover, and pretend not to be able to give any account of your doings. I leave you to put up a camouflage. The next five weeks will be infernally dull for you, but you must just shut your teeth and stick it out. Remember, Gaudian will be down here all the time and in touch with your friends, and when the day comes you will take your instructions from him. And, by the way, I’m going to leave you my pistol. I suppose you can keep it concealed, for Newhover is not likely to search your pockets. Don’t use it, of course, but it may be a comfort to you to know that you have it.”

He took it gladly. “Don’t be afraid I’ll use it. What I’m keeping for Newhover is the best hiding man ever had. He’s a bit above my weight, but I don’t mind that.”

Very early next morning we woke Mercot, and, while the sky was turning from sapphire to turquoise, took our way through the hazy meadows and up the Snaasen track. We left it at the summit, and fetched a circuit round by the back of the saeter, but first we made Mercot roll in the thicket till he had a very grubby face and plenty of twigs and dust in his untidy hair. Then the two of us shook hands with him, found a lair in a patch of juniper, and watched him go forward.

A forlorn figure he looked in that cold half-light as he approached the saeter door. But he was acting his part splendidly, for he stumbled with fatigue, dropped heavily against the door, and beat on it feebly. It seemed a long time till it opened, and then he appeared to shrink back in terror. The old woman cried out shrilly to summon someone from within, and presently Newhover came out in a dressing-gown. He caught Mercot by the shoulder and shook him, and that valiant soul behaved exactly like a lunatic, shielding his head and squealing like a rabbit. Finally we saw him dragged indoors . . . . It was horrible to leave him like that, but I comforted myself with the thought of what Newhover would be like in five weeks’ time.

We raced back to Peter Bojer’s and after a hasty breakfast started off for Hauge. I settled with Gaudian that he was to report any developments to me by cable, and I was to do the same to him. When the day of release was fixed, he was to go boldly up to Snaasen and deal with the doctor as he liked, making sure that he could not communicate with Medina for a day or two. A motor-launch would be waiting at Merdal to take the two to Stavanger, for I wanted him to see Mercot on board the English steamer. I arranged, too, that he should be supplied with adequate funds, for Mercot had not a penny.

We pushed off at once, for I had to be at Flacksholm in good time, and as the morning advanced I did not feel so sure of the weather. What wind we had had these last days had been mild breezes from the west, but now it seemed to be shifting more to the north, and increasing in vehemence. Down in that deep-cut fjord it was calm enough, but up on the crest of the tableland on the northern shore I could see that it was blowing hard, for my glass showed me little tourmentes of snow. Also it had suddenly got much colder. I made Johan force the pace, and early in the afternoon we were out of the shelter of the rock walls in the inlet into which the fjord broadened. Here it was blowing fairly hard, and there was a stiff sea running. Flying squalls of rain beat down on us from the north, and for five minutes or so would shut out the view. It was a regular gusty April day, such as you find in spring salmon-fishing in Scotland, and had my job been merely to catch the boat at Stavanger I should not have minded it at all. But there was no time for the boat, for in little more than twenty-four hours I had to meet Medina. I wondered if Archie Roylance had turned up. I wondered still more how an aeroplane was to make the return journey over these stormy leagues of sea.

Presently the low green lines of Flacksholm showed through the spray, and when Johan began to shape his course to the south-west for Stavanger, I bade him go straight forward and land me on the island. I told him I had a friend who was camping there, and that we were to be picked up in a day or two by an English yacht. Johan obviously thought me mad, but he did as he was told. “There will be no one on the island yet,” he said. “The farmer from Rosmaer does not come till June, when the haymaking begins. The winter pasture is poor and sour.” That was all to the good, for I did not want any spectator of our madness.

As we drew nearer I could see no sign of life on the low shore, except an infinity of eider-ducks, and a fine osprey which sat on a pointed rock like a heraldic griffin. I was watching the bird, for I had only seen an osprey twice before, when Johan steered me into a creek, where there was deep water alongside a flat reef. This, he told me, was the ordinary landing-place from the mainland. I flung my suit-case and rucksack on shore, said good-bye to Johan and tipped him well, and watched the little boat ploughing south till it was hidden by a squall. Then, feeling every kind of a fool, I seized my baggage and proceeded, like Robinson Crusoe, into the interior.

It was raining steadily, a fine thin rain, and every now and then a squall would burst on me and ruffle the sea. Jolly weather for flying, I reflected, especially for flying over some hundreds of miles of ocean! . . . I found the farm, a few rough wooden buildings and a thing like a stone cattle-pen, but there was no sign of human life there. Then I got out my map, and concluded that I had better make for the centre of the island, where there seemed to be some flat ground at one end of the loch. I was feeling utterly depressed, walking like a bagman with my kit in my hand in an uninhabited Norwegian isle, and due in London the next evening. London seemed about as inaccessible in the time as the moon.

When I got to the rim of the central hollow there was a brief clearing of the weather, and I looked down on a little grey tarn set in very green meadows. In the meadows at the north end I saw to my joy what looked like an aeroplane picketed down, and a thing like a small tent near it. Also I could see smoke curling up from a group of boulders adjoining. The gallant Archie had arrived, and my spirits lightened. I made good going down the hill, and, as I shouted, a figure like an Arctic explorer crawled out of the tent.

“Hullo, Dick,” it cried. “Any luck?”

“Plenty,” I said. “And you?”

“Famous. Got here last night after a clinkin’ journey with the bus behavin’ like a lamb. Had an interestin’ evenin’ with the birds — Lord! such a happy huntin’-ground for ’em. I’ve been doin’ sentry-go on the tops all mornin’ lookin’ for you, but the weather got dirty, so I returned to the wigwam. Lunch is nearly ready.”

“What about the weather?” I asked anxiously.

“Pas si bête,” he said, sniffing. “The wind is pretty sure to go down at sunset. D’you mind a night journey?”

Archie’s imperturbable good humour cheered me enormously. I must say he was a born campaigner, for he had made himself very snug, and gave me as good a meal as I have ever eaten — a hot stew of tinned stuff and curry, a plum-pudding, and an assortment of what he called “delicatessen.” To keep out the cold we drank benedictine in horn mugs. He could talk about nothing but his blessed birds, and announced that he meant to come back to Flacksholm and camp for a week. He had seen a special variety — some kind of phalarope — that fairly ravished his heart. When I asked questions about the journey ahead of us, he scarcely deigned to answer, so busy he was with speculation on the feathered fauna of Norway.

“Archie,” I said, “are you sure you can get me across the North Sea?”

“I won’t say ‘sure.’ There’s always a lottery in this game, but with any luck we ought to manage it. The wind will die down, and besides it’s a ground wind, and may be quiet enough a few hundred feet up. We’ll have to shape a compass course anyhow, so that darkness won’t worry us.”

“What about the machine?” I asked. I don’t know why, but I felt horribly nervous.

“A beauty. But of course you never know. If we were driven much out of a straight course, our petrol might run short.”

“What would that mean?”

“Forced landin’.”

“But supposing we hadn’t reached land?”

“Oh, then we’d be for it,” said Archie cheerfully. He added, as if to console me: “We might be picked up by a passin’ steamer or a fishin’ smack. I’ve known fellows that had that luck.”

“What are the chances of our getting over safely?”

“Evens. Never better or worse than evens in this flyin’ business. But it will be all right. Dash it all, a woodcock makes the trip constantly in one flight.”

After that I asked no more questions, for I knew I could not get him past the woodcock. I was not feeling happy, but Archie’s calm put me to shame. We had a very good tea, and then, sure enough, the wind began to die down, and the clouds opened to show clear sky. It grew perishing cold, and I was glad of every stitch of clothing, and envied Archie his heavy skin coat. We were all ready about nine, and in a dead calm cast loose, taxied over a stretch of turf, rose above the loch so as to clear the hill, and turned our faces to the west, which was like a shell of gold closing down upon the molten gold of the sea.

Luck was with us that night, and all my qualms were belied. Apart from the cold, which was savage, I enjoyed every moment of the trip, till in the early dawn we saw a crawling black line beneath us which was the coast of Aberdeen. We filled up with petrol at a place in Kincardine, and had an enormous breakfast at the local hotel. Everything went smoothly and it was still early in the day when I found we were crossing the Cheviots. We landed at York about noon, and, while Archie caught the London train, I got my car from the garage and started for Oxford. But first I wired to Mary asking her to wire to Medina in my name that I would reach London by the seven-fifteen. I had a pleasant run south, left the car at Oxford, and duly emerged on the platform at Paddington to find Medina waiting for me.

His manner was almost tender.

“My dear fellow, I do hope you are better?”

“Perfectly fit again, thank you. Ready for anything.”

“You look more sunburnt than when you left town.”

“It’s the wonderful weather we’ve had. I’ve been lying basking on the verandah.”

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