The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter III

Researches in the Subconscious

I went to bed in the perfect certainty that I wouldn’t sleep. That happened to me about once a year, when my mind was excited or angry, and I knew no way of dodging it. There was a fine moon, and the windows were sheets of opal cut by the dark jade limbs of trees; light winds were stirring the creepers; owls hooted like sentries exchanging passwords, and sometimes a rook would talk in its dreams; the little odd squeaks and rumbles of wild life came faintly from the woods; while I lay staring at the ceiling with my thoughts running round about in a futile circus. Mary’s even breathing tantalised me, for I never knew anyone with her perfect gift for slumber. I used to say that if her pedigree could be properly traced it would be found that she descended direct from one of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus who married one of the Foolish Virgins.

What kept me wakeful was principally the thought of that poor little boy, David Warcliff. I was sorry for Miss Victor and Lord Mercot, and desperately sorry for the parents of all three, but what I could not stand was the notion of the innocent little chap, who loved birds and fishing and the open air, hidden away in some stuffy den by the worst kind of blackguards. The thing preyed on me till I got to think it had happened to us and that Peter John was missing. I rose and prowled about the windows, looking out at the quiet night, and wondering how the same world could contain so much trouble and so much peace.

I laved my face with cold water and lay down again. It was no good letting my thoughts race, so I tried to fix them on one point in the hope that I would get drowsy. I endeavoured to recapitulate the evidence which Macgillivray had recited, but only made foolishness of it, for I simply could not concentrate. I saw always the face of a small boy, who bit his lips to keep himself from tears, and another perfectly hideous face that kept turning into one of the lead figures in the rose garden. A ridiculous rhyme too ran in my head — something thing about the “midnight sun” and the “fields of Eden.” By and by I got it straightened out into the anagram business Macgillivray had mentioned. I have a fly-paper memory for verse when there is no reason why I should remember it, and I found I could repeat the six lines of the doggerel.

After that I found the lines mixing themselves up, and suggesting all kinds of odd pictures to my brain. I took to paraphrasing them —“Under the midnight sun, where harvests are poor”— that was Scandinavia anyhow, or maybe Iceland or Greenland or Labrador. Who on earth was the sower who sowed in the fields of Eden? Adam, perhaps, or Abel, who was the first farmer? Or an angel in heaven? More like an angel, I thought, for the line sounded like a hymn. Anyhow it was infernal nonsense.

The last two lines took to escaping me, and that made me force my mind out of the irritable confusion in which it was bogged. Ah! I had them again:

“Where beside the sacred tree
Spins the seer who cannot see.”

The sacred tree was probably Yggdrasil and the spinner one of the Norns. I had once taken an interest in Norse mythology, but I couldn’t remember whether one of the Norns was blind. A blind woman spinning. Now where had I heard something like that? Heard it quite recently, too?

The discomfort of wakefulness is that you are not fully awake. But now I was suddenly in full possession of my senses, and worrying at that balderdash like a dog at a bone. I had been quite convinced that there was a clue in it, but that it would be impossible to hit on the clue. But now I had a ray of hope, for I seemed to feel a very faint and vague flavour of reminiscence.

Scandinavian harvests, the fields of Eden, the blind spinner — oh, it was maddening, for every time I repeated them the sense of having recently met with something similar grew stronger. The North — Norway — surely I had it there! Norway — what was there about Norway? — Salmon, elk, reindeer, midnight sun, saeters — the last cried out to me. And the blind old woman that spun!

I had it. These were two of the three facts which Dr. Greenslade had suggested the night before as a foundation for his imaginary “shocker.” What was the third? A curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. That had no obvious connection with a sower in the fields of Eden. But at any rate he had got two of them identical with the doggerel.. .. It was a clue. It must be a clue. Greenslade had somewhere and somehow heard the jingle or the substance of it, and it had sunk into the subconscious memory he had spoken of, without his being aware of it. Well, I had got to dig it out. If I could discover where and how he had heard the thing, I had struck a trail.

When I had reached this conclusion, I felt curiously easier in my mind, and almost at once fell asleep. I awoke to a gorgeous spring morning, and ran down to the lake for my bath. I felt that I wanted all the freshening and screwing up I could get, and when I dressed after an icy plunge I was ready for all comers.

Mary was down in time for breakfast, and busy with her letters. She spoke little, and seemed to be waiting for me to begin; but I didn’t want to raise the matter which was uppermost in our minds till I saw my way clearer, so I said I was going to take two days to think things over. It was Wednesday, so I wired to Macgillivray to expect me in London on Friday morning, and I scribbled a line to Mr. Julius Victor. By half-past nine I was on the road making for Greenslade’s lodgings.

I caught him in the act of starting on his rounds, and made him sit down and listen to me. I had to give him the gist of Macgillivray’s story, with extracts from those of Victor and Sir Arthur. Before I was half-way through he had flung off his overcoat, and before I had finished he had lit a pipe, which was a breach of his ritual not to smoke before the evening. When I stopped he had that wildish look in his light eyes which you see in a cairn terrier’s when he is digging out a badger.

“You’ve taken on this job?” he asked brusquely.

I nodded.

“Well, I shouldn’t have had much respect for you if you had refused. How can I help? Count on me, if I’m any use. Good God! I never heard a more damnable story.”

“Have you got hold of the rhyme?” I repeated it, and he said it after me.

“Now, you remember the talk we had after dinner the night before last. You showed me how a ‘shocker’ was written, and you took at random three facts as the foundation. They were, you remember, a blind old woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a saeter in Norway, and a curiosity shop in North London, kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Well, two of your facts are in that six-line jingle I have quoted to you.”

“That is an odd coincidence. But is it anything more?”

“I believe that it is. I don’t hold with coincidences. There’s generally some explanations which we’re not clever enough to get at. Your inventions were so odd that I can’t think they were mere inventions. You must have heard them somehow and somewhere. You know what you said about your subconscious memory. They’re somewhere in it, and, if you can remember just how they got there, you’ll give me the clue I want. That six-line rhyme was sent in by people who were so confident that they didn’t mind giving their enemies a clue — only it was a clue which they knew could never be discovered. Macgillivray and his fellows can make nothing of it — never will. But if I can start from the other end I’ll get in on their rear. Do you see what I mean? I’m going to make you somehow or other dig it out.”

He shook his head. “It can’t be done, Dick. Admitting your premise — that I heard the nonsense and didn’t invent it — the subconscious can’t be handled like a business proposition. I remember unconsciously and I can’t recall consciously. . . . But I don’t admit your premise. I think the whole thing is common coincidence.”

“I don’t,” I said stubbornly, “and even if I did I’m bound to assume the contrary, for it’s the only card I possess. You’ve got to sit down, old chap, and do your damnedest to remember. You’ve been in every kind of odd show, and my belief is that you HEARD that nonsense. Dig it out of your memory and we’ve a chance to win. Otherwise, I see nothing but tragedy.”

He got up and put on his overcoat. “I’ve got a long round of visits which will take me all day. Of course I’ll try, but I warn you that I haven’t the ghost of a hope. These things don’t come by care and searching. I’d better sleep at the Manor to-night. How long can you give me?”

“Two days — I go up to town on Friday morning. Yes, you must take up your quarters with us. Mary insists on it.”

There was a crying of young lambs from the meadow, and through the open window came the sound of the farm-carts jolting from the stackyard into the lane. Greenslade screwed up his face and laughed.

“A nasty breach in your country peace, Dick. You know I’m with you if there’s any trouble going. Let’s get the thing clear, for there’s a lot of researching ahead of me. My three were an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands — Western Highlands, was it? — a saeter barn, and a Jew curiosity shop. The other three were a blind spinner under a sacred tree, a saeter of sorts, and a sower in the fields of Eden — Lord, such rot! Two pairs seem to coincide, the other pair looks hopeless. Well, here goes for fortune! I’m going to break my rule and take my pipe with me, for this business demands tobacco.”

I spent a busy day writing letters and making arrangements about the Manor, for it looked as if I might be little at home for the next month. Oddly enough, I felt no restlessness or any particular anxiety. That would come later; for the moment I seemed to be waiting on Providence in the person of Tom Greenslade. I was trusting my instinct which told me that in those random words of his there was more than coincidence, and that with luck I might get from them a line on our problem.

Greenslade turned up about seven in the evening, rather glum and preoccupied. At dinner he ate nothing, and when we sat afterwards in the library he seemed to be chiefly interested in reading the advertisements in The Times. When I asked “What luck?” he turned on me a disconsolate face.

“It is the most futile job I ever took on,” he groaned. “So far it’s an absolute blank, and anyhow I’ve been taking the wrong line. I’ve been trying to THINK myself into recollection, and, as I said, this thing comes not by searching, nor yet by prayer and fasting. It occurred to me that I might get at something by following up the differences between the three pairs. It’s a familiar method in inductive logic, for differences are often more suggestive than resemblances. So I worried away at the ‘sacred tree’ as contrasted with the ‘Western Highlands’ and the ‘fields of Eden’ as set against the curiosity shop. No earthly good. I gave myself a headache and I dare say I’ve poisoned half my patients. It’s no use, Dick, but I’ll peg away for the rest of the prescribed two days. I’m letting my mind lie fallow now and trusting to inspiration. I’ve got two faint glimmerings of notions. First, I don’t believe I said ‘Western Highlands.’”

“I’m positive those were your words. What did you say, then?”

“Hanged if I know, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t that. I can’t explain properly, but you get an atmosphere about certain things in your mind and that phrase somehow jars with the atmosphere. Different key. Wrong tone. Second, I’ve got a hazy intuition that the thing, if it is really in my memory, is somehow mixed up with a hymn tune. I don’t know what tune, and the whole impression is as vague as smoke, but I tell it you for what it is worth. If I could get the right tune, I might remember something.”

“You’ve stopped thinking?”

“Utterly. I’m an Aeolian harp to be played on by any wandering wind. You see, if I did hear these three things there is no conscious rational clue to it. They were never part of my workaday mind. The only chance is that some material phenomenon may come along and link itself with them and so rebuild the scene where I heard them. A scent would be best, but a tune might do. Our one hope — and it’s about as strong as a single thread of gossamer on the grass — is that that tune may drift into my head. You see the point, Dick? Thought won’t do, for the problem doesn’t concern the mind, but some tiny physical sensation of nose, ear, or eye might press the button. Now, it may be hallucination, but I’ve a feeling that the three facts I thought I invented were in some infinitely recondite way connected with a hymn tune.”

He went to bed early, while I sat up till nearly midnight writing letters. As I went upstairs, I had a strong sense of futility and discouragement. It seemed the merest trifling to be groping among these spectral unrealities, while tragedy, as big and indisputable as a mountain, was overhanging us. I had to remind myself how often the trivial was the vital before I got rid of the prick in my conscience. I was tired and sleepy, and as I forced myself to think of the immediate problem, the six lines of the jingle were all blurred. While I undressed I tried to repeat them, but could not get the fourth to scan. It came out as “fields of Erin,” and after that “the green fields of Erin.” Then it became “the green fields of Eden.”

I found myself humming a tune.

It was an old hymn which the Salvation Army used to play in the Cape Town streets when I was a schoolboy. I hadn’t heard it or thought of it for thirty years. But I remembered the tune very clearly, a pretty, catchy thing like an early Victorian drawing-room ballad, and I remembered the words of the chorus —

“On the other side of Jordan
In the green fields of Eden,
Where the Tree of Life is blooming,
There is rest for you.”

I marched off to Greenslade’s room and found him lying wide awake staring at the ceiling, with the lamp by his bedside lit. I must have broken in on some train of thought, for he looked at me crossly.

“I’ve got your tune,” I said, and I whistled it, and then quoted what words I remembered.

“Tune be blowed,” he said. “I never heard it before.” But he hummed it after me, and made me repeat the words several times.

“No good, I’m afraid. It doesn’t seem to hank on to anything. Lord, this is a fool’s game. I’m off to sleep.”

But three minutes later came a knock at my dressing-room door, and Greenslade entered. I saw by his eyes that he was excited.

“It’s the tune all right. I can’t explain why, but those three blessed facts of mine fit into it like prawns in an aspic. I’m feeling my way towards the light now. I thought I’d just tell you, for you may sleep better for hearing it.”

I slept like a log, and went down to breakfast feeling more cheerful than I had felt for several days. But the doctor seemed to have had a poor night. His eyes looked gummy and heavy, and he had ruffled his hair out of all hope of order. I knew that trick of his; when his hair began to stick up at the back he was out of sorts either in mind or body. I noticed that he had got himself up in knickerbockers and thick shoes.

After breakfast he showed no inclination to smoke. “I feel as if I were going to be beaten on the post,” he groaned. “I’m a complete convert to your view, Dick. I HEARD my three facts and didn’t invent them. What’s more, my three are definitely linked with the three in those miscreants’ doggerel. That tune proves it, for it talks about the ‘fields of Eden’ and yet is identified in my memory with my three which didn’t mention Eden. That’s a tremendous point and proves we’re on the right road. But I’m hanged if I can get a step farther. Wherever I heard the facts I heard the tune, but I’m no nearer finding out that place. I’ve got one bearing, and I need a second to give me the point of intersection I want, and how the deuce I’m to get it I don’t know.”

Greenslade was now keener even than I was on the chase, and indeed his lean anxious face was uncommonly like an old hound’s. I asked him what he was going to do.

“At ten o’clock precisely I start on a walk — right round the head of the Windrush and home by the Forest. It’s going to be a thirty-mile stride at a steady four and a half miles an hour, which, with half an hour for lunch, will get me back here before six. I’m going to drug my body and mind into apathy by hard exercise. Then I shall have a hot bath and a good dinner, and after that, when I’m properly fallow, I may get the revelation. The mistake I made yesterday was in trying to THINK.”

It was a gleamy blustering March morning, the very weather for a walk, and I would have liked to accompany him. As it was I watched his long legs striding up the field we call Big Pasture, and then gave up the day to the job of putting Loch Leven fry into one of the ponds — a task so supremely muddy and wet that I had very little leisure to think of other things. In the afternoon I rode over to the market-town to see my builder, and got back only just before dinner to learn that Greenslade had returned. He was now wallowing in a hot bath, according to his programme.

At dinner he seemed to be in better spirits. The wind had heightened his colour, and given him a ferocious appetite, and the 1906 Clicquot, which I regard as the proper drink after a hard day, gave him the stimulus he needed. He talked as he had talked three nights ago, before this business got us in its clutches. Mary disappeared after dinner, and we sat ourselves in big chairs before the library fire, like two drowsy men who have had a busy day in the open air. I thought I had better say nothing till he chose to speak.

He was silent for a long time, and then he laughed not very mirthfully.

“I’m as far off it as ever. All day I’ve been letting my mind wander and measuring off miles with my two legs like a pair of compasses. But nothing has come to me. No word yet of that confounded cross-bearing I need. I might have heard that tune in any one of a thousand parts of the globe. You see, my rackety life is a disadvantage — I’ve had too many different sorts of experience. If I’d been a curate all my days in one village it would have been easier.”

I waited, and he went on, speaking not to me but to the fire: “I’ve got an impression so strong that it amounts to certainty that I never heard the words ‘Western Highlands.’ It was something like it, but not that.”

“Western Islands,” I suggested.

“What could they be?”

“I think I’ve heard the phrase used about the islands off the west coast of Ireland. Does that help you?”

He shook his head. “No good. I’ve never been in Ireland.”

After that he was silent again, staring at the fire, while I smoked opposite him, feeling pretty blank and dispirited. I realised that I had banked more than I knew on this line of inquiry which seemed to be coming to nothing. . . .

Then suddenly there happened one of those trivial things which look like accidents but I believe are part of the reasoned government of the universe.

I leaned forward to knock out the ashes of my pipe against the stone edge of the hearth. I hammered harder than I intended, and the pipe, which was an old one, broke off at the bowl. I exclaimed irritably, for I hate to lose an old pipe, and then pulled up sharp at the sight of Greenslade.

He was staring open-mouthed at the fragments in my hand, and his eyes were those of a man whose thoughts are far away. He held up one hand, while I froze into silence. Then the tension relaxed, and he dropped back into his chair with a sigh.

“The cross-bearing!” he said. “I’ve got it. . . . Medina.”

Then he laughed at my puzzled face.

“I’m not mad, Dick. I once talked to a man, and as we talked he broke the bowl of his pipe as you have just done. He was the man who hummed the hymn tune, and though I haven’t the remotest recollection of what he said, I am as certain as that I am alive that he gave me the three facts which sunk into the abyss of my subconscious memory. Wait a minute. Yes. I see it as plain as I see you. He broke his pipe just as you have done, and some time or other he hummed that tune.”

“Who was he?” I asked, but Greenslade disregarded the question. He was telling his story in his own way, with his eyes still abstracted as if he were looking down a long corridor of memory.

“I was staying at the Bull at Hanham — shooting wild-fowl on the sea marshes. I had the place to myself, for it wasn’t weather for a country pub, but late one night a car broke down outside, and the owner and his chauffeur had to put up at the Bull. Oddly enough I knew the man. He had been at one of the big shoots at Rousham Thorpe and was on his way back to London. We had a lot to say to each other and sat up into the small hours. We talked about sport, and the upper glens of the Yarkand river, where I first met him. I remember quite a lot of our talk, but not the three facts or the tune, which made no appeal to my conscious memory. Only of course they must have been there.”

“When did this happen?”

“Early last December, the time we had the black frost. You remember, Dick, how I took a week’s holiday and went down to Norfolk after duck.”

“You haven’t told me the man’s name.”

“I have. Medina.”

“Who on earth is Medina?”

“Oh Lord! Dick. You’re overdoing the rustic. You’ve heard of Dominick Medina.”

I had, of course, when he mentioned the Christian name. You couldn’t open a paper without seeing something about Dominick Medina, but whether he was a poet or a politician or an actor-manager I hadn’t troubled to inquire. There was a pile of picture-papers on a side-table, and I fetched them and began to turn them over. Very soon I found what I wanted. It was a photograph of a group at a country-house party for some steeplechase, the usual “reading-from-left-to-right” business, and there between a Duchess and a foreign Princess was Mr. Dominick Medina. The poverty of the photograph could not conceal the extraordinary good looks of the man. He had the kind of head I fancy Byron had, and I seemed to discern, too, a fine, clean, athletic figure.

“If you had happened to look at that rag you might have short-circuited your inquiry.”

He shook his head. “No. It doesn’t happen that way. I had to get your broken pipe and the tune or I would have been stuck.”

“Then I suppose I have to get in touch with this chap and find where he picked up the three facts and the tune. But how if he turns out to be like you, another babbler from the subconscious?”

“That is the risk you run, of course. He may be able to help you, or more likely he may prove only another dead wall.”

I felt suddenly an acute sense of the difficulty of the job I had taken on, and something very near hopelessness.

“Tell me about this Medina. Is he a decent fellow?”

“I suppose so. Yes, I should think so. But he moves in higher circles than I’m accustomed to, so I can’t judge. But I’ll tell you what he is beyond doubt — he’s rather a great man. Hang it, Dick, you must have heard of him. He’s one of the finest shots living, and he’s done some tall things in the exploration way, and he was the devil of a fellow as a partisan leader in South Russia. Also — though it may not interest you — he’s an uncommon fine poet.”

“I suppose he’s some sort of a Dago.”

“Not a bit of it. Old Spanish family settled here for three centuries. One of them rode with Rupert. Hold on! I rather believe I’ve heard that his people live in Ireland, or did live, till life there became impossible.”

“What age?”

“Youngish. Not more than thirty-five. Oh, and the handsomest thing in mankind since the Greeks.”

“I’m not a flapper,” I said impatiently. “Good looks in a man are no sort of recommendation to me. I shall probably take a dislike to his face.”

“You won’t. From what I know of him and you you’ll fall under his charm at first sight. I never heard of a man that didn’t. He has a curious musical voice and eyes that warm you — glow like sunlight. Not that I know him well, but I own I found him extraordinarily attractive. And you see from the papers what the world thinks of him.”

“All the same I’m not much nearer my goal. I’ve got to find out where he heard those three blessed facts and that idiotic tune. He’ll probably send me to blazes, and, even if he’s civil, he’ll very likely be helpless.”

“Your chance is that he’s a really clever man, not an old blunderer like me. You’ll get the help of a first-class mind, and that means a lot. Shall I write you a line of introduction?”

He sat down at my desk and wrote. “I’m saying nothing about your errand — simply that I’d like you to know each other — common interest in sport and travel — that sort of thing. You’re going to be in London, so I had better give your address as your club.”

Next morning Greenslade went back to his duties and I caught the early train to town. I was not very happy about Mr. Dominick Medina, for I didn’t seem able to get hold of him. Who’s Who only gave his age, his residence — Hill Street, his club, and the fact that he was M.P. for a South London division. Mary had never met him, for he had appeared in London after she had stopped going about, but she remembered that her Wymondham aunts raved about him, and she had read somewhere an article on his poetry. As I sat in the express, I tried to reconstruct what kind of fellow he must be- a mixture of Byron and Sir Richard Burton and the young political highbrow. The picture wouldn’t compose, for I saw only a figure like a waxwork, with a cooing voice and a shop-walker’s suavity. Also his name kept confusing me, for I mixed him up with an old ruffian of a Portugee I once knew at Beira.

I was walking down St. James’s Street on my way to Whitehall, pretty much occupied with my own thoughts, when I was brought up by a hand placed flat on my chest, and lo! and behold! it was Sandy Arbuthnot.

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