The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter II

I Hear of the Three Hostages

There is an odour about a country-house which I love better than any scent in the world. Mary used to say it was a mixture of lamp and dog and wood-smoke, but at Fosse, where there was electric light and no dogs indoors, I fancy it was wood-smoke, tobacco, the old walls, and wafts of the country coming in at the windows. I liked it best in the morning, when there was a touch in it of breakfast cooking, and I used to stand at the top of the staircase and sniff it as I went to my bath. But on the morning I write of I could take no pleasure in it; indeed it seemed to tantalise me with a vision of country peace which had somehow got broken. I couldn’t get that confounded letter out of my head. When I read it I had torn it up in disgust, but I found myself going down in my dressing-gown, to the surprise of a housemaid, piecing together the fragments from the waste-paper basket, and reading it again. This time I flung the bits into the new-kindled fire.

I was perfectly resolved that I would have nothing to do with Bullivant or any of his designs, but all the same I could not recapture the serenity which yesterday had clothed me like a garment. I was down to breakfast before Mary, and had finished before she appeared. Then I lit my pipe and started on my usual tour of my domain, but nothing seemed quite the same. It was a soft fresh morning with no frost, and the scillas along the edge of the lake were like bits of summer sky. The moor-hens were building, and the first daffodils were out in the rough grass below the clump of Scots firs, and old George Whaddon was nailing up rabbit wire and whistling through his two remaining teeth, and generally the world was as clear and jolly as spring could make it. But I didn’t feel any more that it was really mine, only that I was looking on at a pretty picture. Something had happened to jar the harmony between it and my mind, and I cursed Bullivant and his intrusions.

I returned by the front of the house, and there at the door to my surprise stood a big touring Rolls–Royce. Paddock met me in the hall and handed me a card, on which I read the name of Mr. Julius Victor.

I knew it, of course, for the name of one of the richest men in the world, the American banker who had done a lot of Britain’s financial business in the War, and was in Europe now at some international conference. I remembered that Blenkiron, who didn’t like his race, had once described him to me as “the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul.”

In the library I found a tall man standing by the window looking out at our view. He turned as I entered, and I saw a thin face with a neatly trimmed grey beard, and the most worried eyes I have ever seen in a human countenance. Everything about him was spruce and dapper — his beautifully-cut grey suit, his black tie and pink pearl pin, his blue-and-white linen, his exquisitely polished shoes. But the eyes were so wild and anxious that he looked dishevelled.

“General,” he said, and took a step towards me.

We shook hands and I made him sit down.

“I have dropped the ‘General,’ if you don’t mind,” I said. “What I want to know is, have you had breakfast?”

He shook his head. “I had a cup of coffee on the road. I do not eat in the morning.”

“Where have you come from, sir?” I asked.

“From London.”

Well, London is seventy-six miles from us, so he must have started early. I looked curiously at him, and he got out of his chair and began to stride about.

“Sir Richard,” he said, in a low pleasant voice which I could imagine convincing any man he tried it on, “you are a soldier and a man of the world and will pardon my unconventionality. My business is too urgent to waste time on apologies. I have heard of you from common friends as a man of exceptional resource and courage. I have been told in confidence something of your record. I have come to implore your help in a desperate emergency.”

I passed him a box of cigars, and he took one and lit it carefully. I could see his long slim fingers trembling as he held the match.

“You may have heard of me,” he went on. “I am a very rich man, and my wealth has given me power, so that Governments honour me with their confidence. I am concerned in various important affairs, and it would be false modesty to deny that my word is weightier than that of many Prime Ministers. I am labouring, Sir Richard, to secure peace in the world, and consequently I have enemies, all those who would perpetuate anarchy and war. My life has been more than once attempted, but that is nothing. I am well guarded. I am not, I think, more of a coward than other men, and I am prepared to take my chance. But now I have been attacked by a subtler weapon, and I confess I have no defence. I had a son, who died ten years ago at college. My only other child is my daughter, Adela, a girl of nineteen. She came to Europe just before Christmas, for she was to be married in Paris in April. A fortnight ago she was hunting with friends in Northamptonshire — the place is called Rushford Court. On the morning of the 8th of March she went for a walk to Rushford village to send a telegram, and was last seen passing through the lodge gates at twenty-minutes past eleven. She has not been seen since.”

“Good God!” I exclaimed, and rose from my chair. Mr. Victor was looking out of the window, so I walked to the other end of the room and fiddled with the books on a shelf. There was silence for a second or two, till I broke it.

“Do you suppose it is loss of memory?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It is not loss of memory. I know — we have proof — that she has been kidnapped by those whom I call my enemies. She is being held as a hostage.”

“You know she is alive?”

He nodded, for his voice was choking again. “There is evidence which points to a very deep and devilish plot. It may be revenge, but I think it more likely to be policy. Her captors hold her as security for their own fate.”

“Has Scotland Yard done nothing?”

“Everything that man could do, but the darkness only grows thicker.”

“Surely it has not been in the papers. I don’t read them carefully but I could scarcely miss a thing like that.”

“It has been kept out of the papers — for a reason which you will be told.”

“Mr. Victor,” I said, “I’m most deeply sorry for you. Like you, I’ve just the one child, and if anything of that kind happened to him I should go mad. But I shouldn’t take too gloomy a view. Miss Adela will turn up all right, and none the worse, though you may have to pay through the nose for it. I expect it’s ordinary blackmail and ransom.”

“No,” he said very quietly. “It is not blackmail, and if it were, I would not pay the ransom demanded. Believe me, Sir Richard, it is a very desperate affair. More, far more is involved than the fate of one young girl. I am not going to touch on that side, for the full story will be told you later by one better equipped to tell it. But the hostage is my daughter, my only child. I have come to beg your assistance in the search for her.”

“But I’m no good at looking for things,” I stammered. “I’m most awfully sorry for you, but I don’t see how I can help. If Scotland Yard is at a loss, it’s not likely that an utter novice like me would succeed.”

“But you have a different kind of imagination and a rarer kind of courage. I know what you have done before, Sir Richard. I tell you you are my last hope.”

I sat down heavily and groaned. “I can’t begin to explain to you the bottomless futility of your idea. It is quite true that in the War I had some queer jobs and was lucky enough to bring some of them off. But, don’t you see, I was a soldier then, under orders, and it didn’t greatly signify whether I lost my life from a crump in the trenches or from a private bullet on the backstairs. I was in the mood for any risk, and my wits were strung up and unnaturally keen. But that’s all done with. I’m in a different mood now and my mind is weedy and grass-grown. I’ve settled so deep into the country that I’m just an ordinary hayseed farmer. If I took a hand — which I certainly won’t — I’d only spoil the game.”

Mr. Victor stood looking at me intently. I thought for a moment he was going to offer me money, and rather hoped he would, for that would have stiffened me like a ramrod, though it would have spoiled the good notion I had of him. The thought may have crossed his mind, but he was clever enough to reject it.

“I don’t agree with a word you say about yourself, and I’m accustomed to size up men. I appeal to you as a Christian gentleman to help me to recover my child. I am not going to press that appeal, for I have already taken up enough of your time. My London address is on my card. Good-bye, Sir Richard, and believe me, I am very grateful to you for receiving me so kindly.”

In five minutes he and his Rolls–Royce had gone, and I was left in a miserable mood of shame-faced exasperation. I realised how Mr. Julius Victor had made his fame. He knew how to handle men, for if he had gone on pleading he would only have riled me, whereas he had somehow managed to leave it all to my honour, and thoroughly unsettle my mind.

I went for a short walk, cursing the world at large, sometimes feeling horribly sorry for that unfortunate father, sometimes getting angry because he had tried to mix me up in his affairs. Of course I would not touch the thing; I couldn’t; it was manifestly impossible; I had neither the capacity nor the inclination. I was not a professional rescuer of distressed ladies whom I did not know from Eve.

A man, I told myself, must confine his duties to his own circle of friends, except when his country has need of him. I was over forty, and had a wife and a young son to think of; besides, I had chosen a retired life, and had the right to have my choice respected. But I can’t pretend that I was comfortable. A hideous muddy wave from the outer world had come to disturb my little sheltered pool. I found Mary and Peter John feeding the swans, and couldn’t bear to stop and play with them. The gardeners were digging in sulphates about the fig trees on the south wall, and wanted directions about the young chestnuts in the nursery; the keeper was lying in wait for me in the stable-yard for instructions about a new batch of pheasants’ eggs, and the groom wanted me to look at the hocks of Mary’s cob. But I simply couldn’t talk to any of them. These were the things I loved, but for a moment the gilt was off them, and I would let them wait till I felt better. In a very bad temper I returned to the library.

I hadn’t been there two minutes when I heard the sound of a car on the gravel. “Let ’em all come,” I groaned, and I wasn’t surprised when Paddock entered, followed by the spare figure and smooth keen face of Macgillivray.

I don’t think I offered to shake hands. We were pretty good friends, but at that moment there was no one in the world I wanted less to see.

“Well, you old nuisance,” I cried, “you’re the second visitor from town I’ve had this morning. There’ll be a shortage of petrol soon.”

“Have you had a letter from Lord Artinswell?” he asked.

“I have, worse luck,” I said.

“Then you know what I’ve come about. But that can keep till after luncheon. Hurry it up, Dick, like a good fellow, for I’m as hungry as a famished kestrel.”

He looked rather like one, with his sharp nose and lean head. It was impossible to be cross for long with Macgillivray, so we went out to look for Mary. “I may as well tell you,” I told him, “that you’ve come on a fool’s errand. I’m not going to be jockeyed by you or anyone into making an ass of myself. Anyhow, don’t mention the thing to Mary. I don’t want her to be worried by your nonsense.”

So at luncheon we talked about Fosse and the Cotswolds, and about the deer-forest I had taken — Machray they called it — and about Sir Archibald Roylance, my cotenant, who had just had another try at breaking his neck in a steeplechase. Macgillivray was by way of being a great stalker and could tell me a lot about Machray. The crab of the place was its neighbours, it seemed; for Haripol on the south was too steep for the lessee, a middle-aged manufacturer, to do justice to it, and the huge forest of Glenaicill on the east was too big for any single tenant to shoot, and the Machray end of it was nearly thirty miles by road from the lodge. The result was, said Macgillivray, that Machray was surrounded by unauthorised sanctuaries, which made the deer easy to shift. He said the best time was early in the season when the stags were on the upper ground, for it seemed that Machray had uncommonly fine high pastures. . . . Mary was in good spirits, for somebody had been complimentary about Peter John, and she was satisfied for the moment that he wasn’t going to be cut off by an early consumption. She was full of housekeeping questions about Machray, and revealed such spacious plans that Macgillivray said that he thought he would pay us a visit, for it looked as if he wouldn’t be poisoned, as he usually was in Scotch shooting-lodges. It was a talk I should have enjoyed if there had not been that uneasy morning behind me and that interview I had still to get over.

There was a shower after luncheon, so he and I settled ourselves in the library. “I must leave at three-thirty,” he said, “so I have got just a little more than an hour to tell you my business in.”

“Is it worth while starting?” I asked. “I want to make it quite plain that under no circumstances am I open to any offer to take on any business of any kind. I’m having a rest and a holiday. I stay here for the summer and then I go to Machray.”

“There’s nothing to prevent your going to Machray in August,” he said, opening his eyes. “The work I am going to suggest to you must be finished long before then.”

I suppose that surprised me, for I did not stop him as I had meant to. I let him go on, and before I knew I found myself getting interested. I have a boy’s weakness for a yarn, and Macgillivray knew this and played on it.

He began by saying very much what Dr. Greenslade had said the night before. A large part of the world had gone mad, and that involved the growth of inexplicable and unpredictable crime. All the old sanctities had become weakened, and men had grown too well accustomed to death and pain. This meant that the criminal had far greater resources at his command, and, if he were an able man, could mobilise a vast amount of utter recklessness and depraved ingenuity. The moral imbecile, he said, had been more or less a sport before the War; now he was a terribly common product, and throve in batches and battalions. Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric — a hideous, untamable breed had been engendered. You found it among the young Bolshevik Jews, among the young gentry of the wilder Communist sects, and very notably among the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland.

“Poor devils,” Macgillivray repeated. “It is for their Maker to judge them, but we who are trying to patch up civilisation have to see that they are cleared out of the world. Don’t imagine that they are devotees of any movement, good or bad. They are what I have called them, moral imbeciles, who can be swept into any movement by those who understand them. They are the neophytes and hierophants of crime, and it is as criminals that I have to do with them. Well, all this desperate degenerate stuff is being used by a few clever men who are not degenerates or anything of the sort, but only evil. There has never been such a chance for a rogue since the world began.”

Then he told me certain facts, which must remain unpublished, at any rate during our life-times. The main point was that there were sinister brains at work to organise for their own purposes the perilous stuff lying about. All the contemporary anarchisms, he said, were interconnected, and out of the misery of decent folks and the agony of the wretched tools certain smug entrepreneurs were profiting. He and his men, and indeed the whole police force of civilisation — he mentioned especially the Americans — had been on the trail of one of the worst of these combines and by a series of fortunate chances had got their hand on it. Now at any moment they could stretch out that hand and gather it in.

But there was one difficulty. I learned from him that this particular combine was not aware of the danger in which it stood, but that it realised that it must stand in some danger, so it had taken precautions. Since Christmas it had acquired hostages.

Here I interrupted, for I felt rather incredulous about the whole business. “I think since the War we’re all too ready to jump at grandiose explanations of simple things. I’ll want a good deal of convincing before I believe in your international clearing-house for crime.”

“I guarantee the convincing,” he said gravely. “You shall see all our evidence, and, unless you have changed since I first knew you, your conclusion won’t differ from mine. But let us come to the hostages.”

“One I know about,” I put in. “I had Mr. Julius Victor here after breakfast.”

Macgillivray exclaimed. “Poor soul! What did you say to him?”

“Deepest sympathy, but nothing doing.”

“And he took that answer?”

“I won’t say he took it. But he went away. What about the others?”

“There are two more. One is a young man, the heir to a considerable estate, who was last seen by his friends in Oxford on the 17th day of February, just before dinner. He was an undergraduate of Christ Church, and was living out of college in rooms in the High. He had tea at the Gridiron and went to his rooms to dress, for he was dining that night with the Halcyon Club. A servant passed him on the stairs of his lodgings, going up to his bedroom. He apparently did not come down, and since that day has not been seen. You may have heard his name — Lord Mercot.”

I started. I had indeed heard the name, and knew the boy a little, having met him occasionally at our local steeplechases. He was the grandson and heir of the old Duke of Alcester, the most respected of the older statesmen of England.

“They have picked their bag carefully,” I said. “What is the third case?”

“The cruellest of all. You know Sir Arthur Warcliff. He is a widower — lost his wife just before the War, and he has an only child, a little boy about ten years old. The child — David is his name — was the apple of his eye, and was at a preparatory school near Rye. The father took a house in the neighbourhood to be near him, and the boy used to be allowed to come home for luncheon every Sunday. One Sunday he came to luncheon as usual, and started back in the pony-trap. The boy was very keen about birds, and used to leave the trap and walk the last half-mile by a short cut across the marshes. Well, he left the groom at the usual gate, and, like Miss Victor and Lord Mercot, walked into black mystery.”

This story really did horrify me. I remembered Sir Arthur Warcliff — the kind, worn face of the great soldier and administrator, and I could imagine his grief and anxiety. I knew what I should have felt if it had been Peter John. A much-travelled young woman and an athletic young man were defenceful creatures compared to a poor little round-headed boy of ten. But I still felt the whole affair too fantastic for real tragedy.

“But what right have you to connect the three cases?” I asked. “Three people disappear within a few weeks of each other in widely separated parts of England. Miss Victor may have been kidnapped for ransom, Lord Mercot may have lost his memory, and David Warcliff may have been stolen by tramps. Why should they be all part of one scheme? Why, for that matter, should any one of them have been the work of your criminal combine? Have you any evidence for the hostage theory?”

“Yes.” Macgillivray took a moment or two to answer. “There is first the general probability. If a band of rascals wanted three hostages they could hardly find three better — the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero. There is also direct evidence.” Again he hesitated.

“Do you mean to say that Scotland Yard has not a single clue to any one of these cases?”

“We have followed up a hundred clues, but they have all ended in dead walls. Every detail, I assure you, has been gone through with a fine comb. No, my dear Dick, the trouble is not that we’re specially stupid on this side, but that there is some superlative cunning on the other. That is why I want YOU. You have a kind of knack of stumbling on truths which no amount of ordinary reasoning can get at. I have fifty men working day and night, and we have mercifully kept all the cases out of the papers, so that we are not hampered by the amateur. But so far it’s a blank. Are you going to help?”

“No, I’m not. But, supposing I were, I don’t see that you’ve a scrap of proof that the three cases are connected, or that any one of them is due to the criminal gang that you say you’ve got your hand on. You’ve only given me presumptions, and precious thin at that. Where’s your direct evidence?”

Macgillivray looked a little embarrassed. “I’ve started you at the wrong end,” he said. “I should have made you understand how big and desperate the thing is that we’re out against, and then you’d have been in a more receptive mood for the rest of the story. You know as well as I do that cold blood is not always the most useful accompaniment in assessing evidence. I said I had direct evidence of connection, and so I have, and the proof to my mind is certain.”

“Well, let’s see it.”

“It’s a poem. On Wednesday of last week, two days after David Warcliff disappeared, Mr. Julius Victor, the Duke of Alcester, and Sir Arthur Warcliff received copies of it by the first post. They were typed on bits of flimsy paper, the envelopes had the addresses typed, and they had been posted in the West Central district of London the afternoon before.”

He handed me a copy, and this was what I read:

“Seek where under midnight’s sun
Laggard crops are hardly won; —
Where the sower casts his seed in
Furrows of the fields of Eden; —
Where beside the sacred tree
Spins the seer who cannot see.”

I burst out laughing, for I could not help it — the whole thing was too preposterous. These six lines of indifferent doggerel seemed to me to put the coping-stone of nonsense on the business. But I checked myself when I saw Macgillivray’s face. There was a slight flush of annoyance on his cheek, but for the rest it was grave, composed, and in deadly earnest. Now Macgillivray was not a fool, and I was bound to respect his beliefs. So I pulled myself together and tried to take things seriously.

“That’s proof that the three cases are linked together,” I said. “So much I grant you. But where’s the proof that they are the work of the great criminal combine that you say you have got your hand on?”

Macgillivray rose and walked restlessly about the room. “The evidence is mainly presumptive, but to my mind it is certain presumption. You know as well as I do, Dick, that a case may be final and yet very difficult to set out as a series of facts. My view on the matter is made up of a large number of tiny indications and cross-bearings, and I am prepared to bet that if you put your mind honestly to the business you will take the same view. But I’ll give you this much by way of direct proof — in hunting the big show we had several communications of the same nature as this doggerel, and utterly unlike anything else I ever struck in criminology. There’s one of the miscreants who amuses himself with sending useless clues to his adversaries. It shows how secure the gang thinks itself.”

“Well, you’ve got that gang anyhow. I don’t quite see why the hostages should trouble you. You’ll gather them in when you gather in the malefactors.”

“I wonder. Remember we are dealing with moral imbeciles. When they find themselves cornered they won’t play for safety. They’ll use their hostages, and when we refuse to bargain they’ll take their last revenge on them.”

I suppose I stared unbelievingly, for he went on: “Yes. They’ll murder them in cold blood — three innocent people — and then swing themselves with a lighter mind. I know the type. They’ve done it before.” He mentioned one or two recent instances.

“Good God!” I cried. “It’s a horrible thought! The only thing for you is to go canny, and not strike till you have got the victims out of their clutches.”

“We can’t,” he said solemnly. “That is precisely the tragedy of the business. We must strike early in June. I won’t trouble you with the reasons, but believe me, they are final. There is just a chance of a settlement in Ireland, and there are certain events of the first importance impending in Italy and America, and all depend upon the activities of the gang being at an end by midsummer. Do you grasp that? By midsummer we must stretch out our hand. By midsummer, unless they are released, the three hostages will be doomed. It is a ghastly dilemma, but in the public interest there is only one way out. I ought to say that Victor and the Duke and Warcliff are aware of this fact, and accept the situation. They are big men, and will do their duty even if it breaks their hearts.”

There was silence for a minute or two, for I did not know what to say. The whole story seemed to me incredible, and yet I could not doubt a syllable of it when I looked at Macgillivray’s earnest face. I felt the horror of the business none the less because it seemed also partly unreal; it had the fantastic grimness of a nightmare. But most of all I realised that I was utterly incompetent to help, and as I understood that I could honestly base my refusal on incapacity and not on disinclination I began to feel more comfortable.

“Well,” said Macgillivray, after a pause, “are you going to help us?”

“There’s nothing doing with that Sunday-paper anagram you showed me. That’s the sort of riddle that’s not meant to be guessed. I suppose you are going to try to work up from the information you have about the combine towards a clue to the hostages.”

He nodded.

“Now, look here,” I said; “you’ve got fifty of the quickest brains in Britain working at the job. They’ve found out enough to put a lasso round the enemy which you can draw tight whenever you like. They’re trained to the work and I’m not. What on earth would be the use of an amateur like me butting in? I wouldn’t be half as good as any one of the fifty. I’m not an expert, I’m not quick-witted, I’m a slow patient fellow, and this job, as you admit, is one that has to be done against time. If you think it over, you’ll see that it’s sheer nonsense, my dear chap.”

“You’ve succeeded before with worse material.”

“That was pure luck, and it was in the War when, as I tell you, my mind was morbidly active. Besides, anything I did then I did in the field, and what you want me to do now is office-work. You know I’m no good at office-work — Blenkiron always said so, and Bullivant never used me on it. It isn’t because I don’t want to help, but because I can’t.”

“I believe you can. And the thing is so grave that I daren’t leave any chance unexplored. Won’t you come?”

“No. Because I could do nothing.”

“Because you haven’t a mind for it.”

“Because I haven’t the right kind of mind for it.”

He looked at his watch and got up, smiling rather ruefully.

“I’ve had my say, and now you know what I want of you. I’m not going to take your answer as final. Think over what I’ve said, and let me hear from you within the next day or two.”

But I had lost all my doubts, for it was very clear to me that on every ground I was doing the right thing.

“Don’t delude yourself with thinking that I’ll change my mind,” I said, as I saw him into his car. “Honestly, old fellow, if I could be an atom of use I’d join you, but for your own sake you’ve got to count me out this time.”

Then I went for a walk, feeling pretty cheerful. I settled the question of the pheasants’ eggs with the keeper, and went down to the stream to see if there was any hatch of fly. It had cleared up to a fine evening, and I thanked my stars that I was out of a troublesome business with an easy conscience, and could enjoy my peaceful life again. I say “with an easy conscience,” for though there were little dregs of disquiet still lurking about the bottom of my mind, I had only to review the facts squarely to approve my decision. I put the whole thing out of my thoughts and came back with a fine appetite for tea.

There was a stranger in the drawing-room with Mary, a slim oldish man, very straight and erect, with one of those faces on which life has written so much that to look at them is like reading a good book. At first I didn’t recognise him when he rose to greet me, but the smile that wrinkled the corners of his eyes and the slow deep voice brought back the two occasions in the past when I had run across Sir Arthur Warcliff. . . . My heart sank as I shook hands, the more as I saw how solemn was Mary’s face. She had been hearing the story which I hoped she would never hear.

I thought it best to be very frank with him. “I can guess your errand, Sir Arthur,” I said, “and I’m extremely sorry that you should have come this long journey to no purpose.” Then I told him of the visits of Mr. Julius Victor and Macgillivray, and what they had said, and what had been my answer. I think I made it as clear as day that I could do nothing, and he seemed to assent. Mary, I remember, never lifted her eyes.

Sir Arthur had also looked at the ground while I was speaking, and now he turned his wise old face to me, and I saw what ravages his new anxiety had made in it. He could not have been much over sixty and he looked a hundred.

“I do not dispute your decision, Sir Richard,” he said. “I know that you would have helped me if it had been possible. But I confess I am sorely disappointed, for you were my last hope. You see — you see — I had nothing left in the world but Davie. If he had died I think I could have borne it, but to know nothing about him and to imagine terrible things is almost too much for my fortitude.”

I have never been through a more painful experience. To hear a voice falter that had been used to command, to see tears in the steadfastest eyes that ever looked on the world, made me want to howl like a dog. I would have given a thousand pounds to be able to bolt into the library and lock the door.

Mary appeared to me to be behaving very oddly. She seemed to have the deliberate purpose of probing the wound, for she encouraged Sir Arthur to speak of his boy. He showed us a miniature he carried with him — an extraordinarily handsome child with wide grey eyes and his head most nobly set upon his shoulders. A grave little boy, with the look of utter trust which belongs to children who have never in their lives been unfairly treated. Mary said something about the gentleness of the face.

“Yes, Davie was very gentle,” his father said. “I think he was the gentlest thing I have ever known. That little boy was the very flower of courtesy. But he was curiously stoical, too. When he was distressed, he only shut his lips tight, and never cried. I used often to feel rebuked by him.”

And then he told us about Davie’s performances at school, where he was not distinguished, except as showing a certain talent for cricket. “I am very much afraid of precocity,” Sir Arthur said with the ghost of a smile. “But he was always educating himself in the right way, learning to observe and think.” It seemed that the boy was a desperately keen naturalist and would be out at all hours watching wild things. He was a great fisherman, too, and had killed a lot of trout with the fly on hill burns in Galloway. And as the father spoke I suddenly began to realise the little chap, and to think that he was just the kind of boy I wanted Peter John to be. I liked the stories of his love of nature and trout streams. It came on me like a thunderclap that if I were in his father’s place I should certainly go mad, and I was amazed at the old man’s courage.

“I think he had a kind of genius for animals,” Sir Arthur said. “He knew the habits of birds by instinct, and used to talk of them as other people talk of their friends. He and I were great cronies, and he would tell me long stories in his little quiet voice of birds and beasts he had seen on his walks. He had odd names for them too. . . . ”

The thing was almost too pitiful to endure. I felt as if I had known the child all my life. I could see him playing, I could hear his voice, and as for Mary she was unashamedly weeping.

Sir Arthur’s eyes were dry now, and there was no catch in his voice as he spoke. But suddenly a sharper flash of realisation came on him and his words became a strained cry: “Where is he now? What are they doing to him? Oh, God! My beloved little man — my gentle little Davie!”

That fairly finished me. Mary’s arm was round the old man’s neck, and I saw that he was trying to pull himself together, but I didn’t see anything clearly. I only know that I was marching about the room, scarcely noticing that our guest was leaving. I remember shaking hands with him, and hearing him say that it had done him good to talk to us. It was Mary who escorted him to the car, and when she returned it was to find me blaspheming like a Turk at the window. I had flung the thing open, for I felt suffocated, though the evening was cool. The mixture of anger and disgust and pity in my heart nearly choked me.

“Why the devil can’t I be left alone?” I cried. “I don’t ask for much — only a little peace. Why in Heaven’s name should I be dragged into other people’s business? Why on earth —”

Mary was standing at my elbow, her face rather white and tear-stained.

“Of course you are going to help,” she said.

Her words made clear to me the decision which I must have taken a quarter of an hour before, and all the passion went out of me like wind out of a pricked bladder.

“Of course,” I answered. “By the way, I had better telegraph to Macgillivray. And Warcliff too. What’s his address?”

“You needn’t bother about Sir Arthur,” said Mary. “Before you came in-when he told me the story — I said he could count on you. Oh, Dick, think if it had been Peter John!”

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