The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter XVI

Our Time is Narrowed

I lunched that day with Mary — alone, for her aunts were both in Paris — and it would have been hard to find in the confines of the British islands a more dejected pair. Mary, who had always a singular placid gentleness, showed her discomposure only by her pallor. As for me I was as restless as a bantam.

“I wish I had never touched the thing,” I cried. “I have done more harm than good.”

“You have found Lord Mercot,” she protested.

“Yes, and lost Turpin. The brutes are still three up on us. We thought we had found two, and now we have lost Miss Victor again. And Turpin! They’ll find him an ugly customer, and probably take strong measures with him. They’ll stick to him and the girl and the little boy now like wax; for last night’s performance is bound to make them suspicious.”

“I wonder,” said Mary, always an optimist. “You see, Sir Archie only dragged him in because of his rank. It looked odd his being in Adela’s company, but then all the times he has seen her he never spoke a word to her. They must have noticed that. I’m anxious about Sir Archie. He ought to leave London.”

“Confound him! He’s going to, as soon as he gets out of hospital, which will probably be this afternoon. I insisted on it, but he meant to in any case. He’s heard an authentic report of a green sandpiper nesting somewhere. It would be a good thing if Archie would stick to birds. He has no head for anything else. . . . And now we’ve got to start again at the beginning.”

“Not quite the beginning,” she interposed.

“Dashed near it. They won’t bring Miss Victor into that kind of world again, and all your work goes for nothing, my dear. It’s uncommon bad luck that you didn’t begin to wake her up, for then she might have done something on her own account. But she’s still a dummy, and tucked away, you may be sure, in some place where we can never reach her. And we have little more than three weeks left.”

“It is bad luck,” Mary agreed. “But, Dick, I’ve a feeling that I haven’t lost Adela Victor. I believe that somehow or other we’ll soon get in touch with her again. You remember how children when they lose a ball sometimes send another one after it in the hope that one will find the other. Well, we’ve sent the Marquis after Adela, and I’ve a notion we may find them both together. We always did that as children.” . . . She paused at the word ‘children’ and I saw pain in her eyes. “Oh, Dick, the little boy! We’re no nearer him, and he’s far the most tragic of all.”

The whole business looked so black that I had no word of comfort to give her.

“And to put the lid on it,” I groaned, “I’ve got to settle down in Medina’s house this evening. I hate the idea like poison.”

“It’s the safest way,” she said.

“Yes, but it puts me out of action. He’ll watch me like a lynx, and I won’t be able to take a single step on my own — simply sit there and eat and drink and play up to his vanity. Great Scott, I swear I’ll have a row with him and break his head.”

“Dick, you’re not going to — how do you say it? — chuck in your hand? Everything depends on you. You’re our scout in the enemy’s headquarters. Your life depends on your playing the game. Colonel Arbuthnot said so. And you may find out something tremendous. It will be horrible for you, but it isn’t for long, and it’s the only way.”

That was Mary all over. She was trembling with anxiety for me, but she was such a thorough sportsman that she wouldn’t take any soft option.

“You may hear something about David Warcliff,” she added.

“I hope to God I do. Don’t worry, darling. I’ll stick it out. But, look here, we must make a plan. I shall be more or less shut off from the world, and I must have a line of communication open. You can’t telephone to me at that house, and I daren’t ring you up from there. The only chance is the Club. If you have any message, ring up the head porter and make him write it down. I’ll arrange that he keeps it quiet, and I’ll pick up the messages when I get the chance. And I’ll ring you up occasionally to give you the news. But I must be jolly careful, for, likely as not, Medina will keep an eye on me even there. You’re in touch with Macgillivray?”

She nodded.

“And with Sandy?”

“Yes, but it takes some time — a day at least. We can’t correspond direct.”

“Well, there’s the lay-out. I’m a prisoner — with qualifications. You and I can keep up some sort of communication. As you say, there’s only about another three weeks.”

“It would be nothing if only we had some hope.”

“That’s life, my dear. We’ve got to go on to the finish anyhow, trusting that luck will turn in the last ten minutes.”

I arrived in Hill Street after tea and found Medina in the back smoking-room, writing letters.

“Good man, Hannay,” he said; “make yourself comfortable. There are cigars on that table.”

“Had a satisfactory time in Shropshire?” I asked.

“Rotten. I motored back this morning, starting very early. Some tiresome business here wanted my attention. I’m sorry, but I’ll be out to dinner to-night. The same thing always happens when I want to see my friends — a hideous rush of work.”

He was very hospitable, but his manner had not the ease it used to have. He seemed on the edge about something, and rather preoccupied. I guessed it was the affair of Archie Roylance and Turpin.

I dined alone and sat after dinner in the smoking-room, for Odell never suggested the library, though I would have given a lot to fossick about that place. I fell asleep over the Field and was wakened about eleven by Medina. He looked almost tired, a rare thing for him; also his voice was curiously hard. He made some trivial remark about the weather, and a row in the Cabinet which was going on. Then he said suddenly:

“Have you seen Arbuthnot lately?”

“No,” I replied, with real surprise in my tone. “How could I? He has gone back to the East.”

“So I thought. But I have been told that he has been seen again in England.”

For a second I had a horrid fear that he had got on the track of my meeting with Sandy at the Cotswold inn and his visit to Fosse. His next words reassured me.

“Yes. In London. Within the last few days.”

It was easy enough for me to show astonishment. “What a crazy fellow he is! He can’t stay put for a week together. All I can say is that I hope he won’t come my way. I’ve no particular wish to see him again.”

Medina said no more. He accompanied me to my bedroom, asked if I had everything I wanted, bade me good night, and left me.

Now began one of the strangest weeks in my life. Looking back, it has still the inconsequence of a nightmare, but one or two episodes stand out like reefs in a tide-race. When I woke the first morning under Medina’s roof I believed that somehow or other he had come to suspect me. I soon saw that that was nonsense, that he regarded me as a pure chattel; but I saw, too, that a most active suspicion of something had been awakened in his mind. Probably Archie’s fiasco, together with the news of Sandy, had done it, and perhaps there was in it something of the natural anxiety of a man nearing the end of a difficult course. Anyhow I concluded that this tension of mind on his part was bound to make things more difficult for me. Without suspecting me, he kept me perpetually under his eye. He gave me orders as if I were a child, or rather he made suggestions, which in my character of worshipping disciple I had to treat as orders.

He was furiously busy night and day, and yet he left me no time to myself. He wanted to know everything I did, and I had to give an honest account of my doings, for I had a feeling that he had ways of finding out the truth. One lie discovered would, I knew, wreck my business utterly, for if I were under his power, as he believed I was, it would be impossible for me to lie to him. Consequently I dared not pay many visits to the Club, for he would want to know what I did there. I was on such desperately thin ice that I thought it best to stay most of my time in Hill Street, unless he asked me to accompany him. I consulted Mary about this, and she agreed that it was the wise course.

Apart from a flock of maids, there was no other servant in the house but Odell. Twice I met the grey, sad-faced man on the stairs, the man I had seen on my first visit, and had watched a week before in the house behind the curiosity shop. I asked who he was, and was told a private secretary, who helped Medina in his political work. I gathered that he did not live regularly in the house, but only came there when his services were required.

Now Mary had said that the other man that evening in Little Fardell Street had been Sandy. If she was right, this fellow might be a friend, and I wondered if I could get in touch with him. The first time I encountered him he never raised his eyes. The second time I forced him by some question to look at me, and he turned on me a perfectly dead expressionless face like a codfish. I concluded that Mary had been in error, for this was the genuine satellite, every feature of whose character had been steam-rollered out of existence by Medina’s will.

I was seeing Medina now at very close quarters, and in complete undress, and the impression he had made on me at our first meeting — which had been all overlaid by subsequent happenings — grew as vivid again as daylight. The “good fellow,” of course, had gone; I saw behind all his perfection of manner to the naked ribs of his soul. He would talk to me late at night in that awful library, till I felt that he and the room were one presence, and that all the diabolic lore of the ages had been absorbed by this one mortal. You must understand that there was nothing wrong in the ordinary sense with anything he said. If there had been a phonograph recording his talk it could have been turned on with perfect safety in a girls’ school. . . . He never spoke foully, or brutally. I don’t believe he had a shadow of those faults of the flesh which we mean when we use the word “vice.” But I swear that the most wretched libertine before the bar of the Almighty would have shown a clean sheet compared to his.

I know no word to describe how he impressed me except “wickedness.” He seemed to annihilate the world of ordinary moral standards, all the little rags of honest impulse and stumbling kindness with which we try to shelter ourselves from the winds of space. His consuming egotism made life a bare cosmos in which his spirit scorched like a flame. I have met bad men in my day, fellows who ought to have been quietly and summarily put out of existence, but if I had had the trying of them I would have found bits of submerged decency and stunted remnants of good feeling. At any rate they were human, and their beastliness was a degeneration of humanity, not its flat opposite. Medina made an atmosphere which was like a cold bright air in which nothing can live. He was utterly and consumedly wicked, with no standard which could be remotely related to ordinary life. That is why, I suppose, mankind has had to invent the notion of devils. He seemed to be always lifting the corner of a curtain and giving me peeps into a hoary mystery of iniquity older than the stars. . . . I suppose that someone who had never felt his hypnotic power would have noticed very little in his talk except its audacious cleverness, and that someone wholly under his dominion would have been less impressed than me because he would have forgotten his own standards, and been unable to make the comparison. I was just in the right position to understand and tremble. . . . Oh, I can tell you, I used to go to bed solemnised, frightened half out of my wits, and yet in a violent revulsion, and hating him like hell. It was pretty clear that he was mad, for madness means just this dislocation of the modes of thought which mortals have agreed upon as necessary to keep the world together. His head used to seem as round as a bullet, like nothing you find even in the skulls of cave-men, and his eyes to have a blue light in them like the sunrise of death in an arctic waste.

One day I had a very narrow escape. I went to the Club, to see if there was anything from Mary, and received instead a long cable from Gaudian in Norway. I had just opened it, when I found Medina at my elbow. He had seen me enter, and followed me, in order that we should walk home together.

Now I had arranged a simple code with Gaudian for his cables, and by the mercy of Heaven that honest fellow had taken special precautions, and got some friend to send this message from Christiania. Had it borne the Merdal stamp it would have been all up with me.

The only course was the bold one, though I pursued it with a quaking heart.

“Hullo,” I cried, “here’s a cable from a pal of mine in Norway. Did I tell you I had been trying to get a beat on the Leardal for July? I had almost forgotten about the thing. I started inquiring in March, and here’s my first news.”

I handed him the two sheets and he glanced at the place of dispatch.

“Code,” he said. “Do you want to work it out now?”

“If you don’t mind waiting a few seconds. It’s a simple code of my own invention, and I ought to be able to decipher it pretty fast.”

We sat down at one of the tables in the hall, and I took up a pen and a sheet of notepaper. As I think I have mentioned before, I am rather a swell at codes, and this one in particular I could read without much difficulty. I jotted down some letters and numbers, and then wrote out a version which I handed to Medina. This was what he read:

“Upper beat Leardal available from first of month. Rent two hundred and fifty with option of August at one hundred more. No limit to rods. Boat on each pool. Tidal waters can also be got for sea trout by arrangement. If you accept please cable word ‘Yes.’ You should arrive not later than June 29th. Bring plenty of bottled prawns. Motor boat can be had from Bergen. Andersen, Grand Hotel, Christiania.”

But all the time I was scribbling this nonsense, I was reading the code correctly and getting the message by heart. Here is what Gaudian really sent:

“Our friend has quarrelled with keeper and beaten him soundly. I have taken charge at farm and frightened latter into docility. He will remain prisoner in charge of ally of mine till I give the word to release. Meantime, think it safer to bring friend to England and start on Monday. Will wire address in Scotland and wait your instructions. No danger of keeper sending message. Do not be anxious, all is well.”

Having got that clear in my head, I tore the cable into small pieces and flung them into the waste-paper basket.

“Well, are you going?” Medina asked.

“Not I. I’m off salmon-fishing for the present.” I took a cable form from the table and wrote: “Sorry, must cancel Leardal plan,” signed it “Hannay,” addressed it to “Andersen, Grand Hotel, Christiania,” and gave it to the porter to send off. I wonder what happened to that telegram. It is probably still stuck up on the hotel-board, awaiting the arrival of the mythical Andersen.

On our way back to Hill Street Medina put his arm in mine, and was very friendly. “I hope to get a holiday,” he said, “perhaps just after the beginning of June. Only a day or two off now. I may go abroad for a little. I would like you to come with me.”

That puzzled me a lot. Medina could not possibly leave town before the great liquidation, and there could be no motive in his trying to mislead me on such a point, seeing that I was living in his house. I wondered if something had happened to make him change the date. It was of the first importance that I should find this out, and I did my best to draw him about his plans. But I could get nothing out of him except that he hoped for an early holiday, and “early” might apply to the middle of June as well as to the beginning, for it was now the 27th of May.

Next afternoon at tea-time to my surprise Odell appeared in the smoking-room, followed by the long lean figure of Tom Greenslade. I never saw anybody with greater pleasure, but I didn’t dare to talk to him alone. “Is your master upstairs?” I asked the butler. “Will you tell him that Dr. Greenslade is here? He is an old friend of his.”

We had rather less than two minutes before Medina appeared. “I come from your wife,” Greenslade whispered. “She has told me all about the business, and she thought this was the safest plan. I was to tell you that she has news of Miss Victor and the Marquis. They are safe enough. Any word of the little boy?”

He raised his voice as Medina entered. “My dear fellow, this is a great pleasure. I had to be in London for a consultation, and I thought I would look up Hannay. I hardly hoped to have the luck to catch a busy man like you.”

Medina was very gracious — no, that is not the word, for there was nothing patronising in his manner. He asked in the most friendly way about Greenslade’s practice, and how he liked English country life after his many wanderings. He spoke with an air of regret of the great valleys of loess and the windy Central Asian tablelands where they had first foregathered. Odell brought in tea, and we made as pleasant a trio of friends as you could find in London. I asked a few casual questions about Fosse, and then I mentioned Peter John. Here Greenslade had an inspiration; he told me afterwards that he thought it might be a good thing to open a channel for further communications.

“I think he’s all right,” he said slowly. “He’s been having occasional stomach-aches, but I expect that is only the result of hot weather and the first asparagus. Lady Hannay is a little anxious — you know what she is, and all mothers today keep thinking about appendicitis. So I’m keeping my eye on the little man. You needn’t worry, Dick.”

I take credit to myself for having divined the doctor’s intention. I behaved as if I scarcely heard him, and as if Fosse Manor and my family were things infinitely remote. Indeed I switched off the conversation to where Medina had last left it, and I behaved towards Tom Greenslade as if his presence rather bored me, and I had very little to say to him. When he got up to go, it was Medina who accompanied him to the front door. All this was a heavy strain upon my self-command, for I would have given anything for a long talk with him — though I had the sense not to believe his news about Peter John.

“Not a bad fellow, that doctor of yours,” Medina observed on his return.

“No,” I said carelessly. “Rather a dull dog all the same, with his country gossip. But I wish him well, for it is to him that I owe your friendship.”

I must count that episode one of my lucky moments, for it seemed to give Medina some special satisfaction. “Why do you make this your only sitting-room?” he asked. “The library is at your disposal, and it is pleasanter in summer than any other part of the house.”

“I thought I might be disturbing your work,” I said humbly.

“Not a bit of it. Besides, I’ve nearly finished my work. After to-night I can slack off, and presently I’ll be an idle man.”

“And then the holiday?”

“Then the holiday.” He smiled in a pleasant boyish way, which was one of his prettiest tricks.

“How soon will that be?”

“If all goes well, very soon. Probably after the second of June. By the way, the Thursday Club dines on the first. I want you to be my guest again.”

Here was more food for thought. The conviction grew upon me that he and his friends had put forward the date of liquidation; they must have suspected something — probably from Sandy’s presence in England — and were taking no risks. I smoked that evening till my tongue was sore and went to bed in a fever of excitement. The urgency of the matter fairly screamed in my ears, for Macgillivray must know the truth at once, and so must Mary. Mercot was safe, and there was a chance apparently of Turpin and Miss Victor, which must be acted upon instantly if the main date were changed. Of the little boy I had given up all hope. . . . But how to find the truth! I felt like a man in a bad dream who is standing on the line with an express train approaching, and does not know how to climb back on to the platform.

Next morning Medina never left me. He took me in his car to the City, and I waited while he did his business, and then to call in Carlton House Terrace a few doors from the Victors’ house. I believe it was the residence of the man who led his party in the Lords. After luncheon he solemnly installed me in the library. “You’re not much of a reader, and in any case you would probably find my books dull. But there are excellent arm-chairs to doze in.”

Then he went out and I heard the wheels of his car move away. I felt a kind of awe creeping over me when I found myself left alone in the uncanny place, which I knew to be the devil’s kitchen for all his schemes. There was a telephone on his writing-table, the only one I had seen in the house, though there was no doubt one in the butler’s pantry. I turned up the telephone book and found a number given, but it was not the one on the receiver. This must be a private telephone, by means of which he could ring up anybody he wanted, but of which only his special friends knew the number. There was nothing else in the room to interest me, except the lines and lines of books, for his table was as bare as a bank-manager’s.

I tried the books, but most of them were a long sight too learned for me. Most were old, and many were in Latin, and some were evidently treasures, for I would take one down and find it a leather box with inside it a slim battered volume wrapped in wash-leather. But I found in one corner a great array of works of travel, so I selected one of Aurel Stein’s books and settled down in an arm-chair with it. I tried to fix my attention, but found it impossible. The sentences would not make sense to my restless mind, and I could not follow the maps. So I got up again, replaced the work on its shelf, and began to wander about. It was a dull close day, and out in the street a water-cart was sprinkling the dust and children were going park-wards with their nurses. . . . I simply could not account for my disquiet, but I was like a fine lady with the vapours. I felt that somewhere in that room there was something that it concerned me deeply to know.

I drifted towards the bare writing-table. There was nothing on it but a massive silver inkstand in the shape of an owl, a silver tray of pens and oddments, a leather case of notepaper and a big blotting-book. I would never have made a good thief, for I felt both nervous and ashamed as, after listening for steps, I tried the drawers.

They were all locked — all, that is, except a shallow one at the top which looked as if it were meant to contain one of those big engagement tablets which busy men affect. There was no tablet there, but there were two sheets of paper.

Both had been torn from a loose-leaf diary, and both covered the same dates — the fortnight between Monday the 29th of May, and Sunday the 11th of June. In the first the space for the days was filled with entries in Medina’s neat writing, entries in some sort of shorthand. These entries were close and thick up to and including Friday the 2nd of June; after that there was nothing. The second sheet of paper was just the opposite. The spaces were virgin up to and including the 2nd of June; after that, on till the 11th, they were filled with notes.

As I stared at these two sheets, some happy instinct made me divine their meaning. The first sheet contained the steps that Medina would take up to the day of liquidation, which was clearly the 2nd of June. After that, if all went well, came peace and leisure. But if it didn’t go well, the second sheet contained his plans — plans I have no doubt for using the hostages, for wringing safety out of certain great men’s fears. . . . My interpretation was confirmed by a small jotting in long-hand on the first sheet in the space for 2nd June. It was the two words “Dies irae,” which my Latin was just good enough to construe.

I had lost all my tremors now, but I was a thousandfold more restless. I must get word to Macgillivray at once — no, that was too dangerous — to Mary. I glanced at the telephone and resolved to trust my luck.

I got through to the Wymondhams’ house without difficulty. Barnard the butler answered, and informed me that Mary was at home. Then after a few seconds I heard her voice.

“Mary,” I said, “the day is changed to the 2nd of June. You understand, warn everybody . . . I can’t think why you are worrying about that child.”

For I was conscious that Medina was entering the room. I managed with my knee to close the shallow drawer with the two sheets in it, and I nodded and smiled to him, putting my hand over the receiver.

“Forgive me using your telephone. Fact is, my wife’s in London and she sent me round a note here asking me to ring her up. She’s got the boy on her mind.”

I put the tube to my ear again. Mary’s voice sounded sharp and high-pitched.

“Are you there? I’m in Mr. Medina’s library and I can’t disturb him talking through this machine. There’s no cause to worry about Peter John. Greenslade is usually fussy enough, and if he’s calm there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be. But if you want another opinion, why not get it? We may as well get the thing straightened out now, for I may be going abroad early in June. . . . Yes, some time after the 2nd.”

Thank God Mary was quick-witted.

“The 2nd is very near. Why do you make such sudden plans, Dick? I can’t go home without seeing you. I think I’ll come straight to Hill Street.”

“All right,” I said, “do as you please.” I rang off and looked at Medina with a wry smile. “What fussers women are! Do you mind if my wife comes round here? She won’t be content till she has seen me. She has come up with a crazy notion of taking down a surgeon to give an opinion on the child’s appendix. Tommy rot! But that’s a woman’s way.”

He clearly suspected nothing. “Certainly let Lady Hannay come here. We’ll give her tea. I’m sorry that the drawing-room is out of commission just now. She might have liked to see my miniatures.”

Mary appeared in ten minutes, and most nobly she acted her part. It was the very model of a distraught silly mother who bustled into the room. Her eyes looked as if she had been crying and she had managed to disarrange her hat and untidy her hair.

“Oh, I’ve been so worried,” she wailed, after she had murmured apologies to Medina. “He really has had a bad tummy pain, and nurse thought last night that he was feverish. I’ve seen Mr. Dobson–Wray, and he can come down by the four-forty-five.. .. He’s such a precious little boy, Mr. Medina, that I feel we must take every precaution with him. If Mr. Dobson–Wray says it is all right, I promise not to fuss any more. I think a second opinion would please Dr. Greenslade, for he too looked rather anxious. . . . Oh, no, thank you so much, but I can’t stay for tea. I have a taxi waiting, and I might miss my train. I’m going to pick up Mr. Dobson–Wray in Wimpole Street.”

She departed in the same tornado in which she had come, just stopping to set her hat straight at one of the mirrors in the hall.

“Of course I’ll wire when the surgeon has seen him. And, Dick, you’ll come down at once if there’s anything wrong, and bring nurses. Poor, poor little darling! . . . Did you say after the 2nd of June, Dick? I do hope you’ll be able to get off. You need a holiday away from your tiresome family. . . . Good-bye, Mr. Medina. It was so kind of you to be patient with a silly mother. Look after Dick and don’t let him worry.”

I had preserved admirably the aloof air of the bored and slightly ashamed husband. But now I realised that Mary was not babbling at large, but was saying something which I was meant to take in.

“Poor, poor little darling!” she crooned as she got into the taxi. “I do pray he’ll be all right — I THINK he may, Dick. . . . I hope, oh I hope . . . to put your mind at ease . . . before the 2nd of June.”

As I turned back to Medina I had a notion that the poor little darling was no longer Peter John.

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