The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter IV

I Make the Acquaintance of a Popular Man

You may imagine how glad I was to see old Sandy again, for I had not set eyes on him since 1916. He had been an Intelligence Officer with Maude, and then something at Simla, and after the War had had an administrative job in Mesopotamia, or, as they call it nowadays, Iraq. He had written to me from all kinds of queer places, but he never appeared to be coming home, and, what with my marriage and my settling in the country, we seemed to be fixed in ruts that were not likely to intersect. I had seen his elder brother’s death in the papers, so he was now Master of Clanroyden and heir to the family estates, but I didn’t imagine that that would make a Scotch laird of him. I never saw a fellow less changed by five years of toil and travel. He was desperately slight and tanned — he had always been that, but the contours of his face were still soft like a girl’s, and his brown eyes were merry as ever.

We stood and stared at each other.

“Dick, old man,” he cried, “I’m home for good. Yes — honour bright. For months and months, if not years and years. I’ve got so much to say to you I don’t know where to begin. But I can’t wait now. I’m off to Scotland to see my father. He’s my chief concern now, for he’s getting very frail. But I’ll be back in three days. Let’s dine together on Tuesday.”

We were standing at the door of a club — his and mine — and a porter was stowing his baggage into a taxi. Before I could properly realise that it was Sandy, he was waving his hand from the taxi window and disappearing up the street.

The sight of him cheered me immensely and I went on along Pall Mall in a good temper. To have Sandy back in England and at call made me feel somehow more substantial, like a commander who knows his reserves are near. When I entered Macgillivray’s room I was smiling, and the sight of me woke an answering smile on his anxious face. “Good man!” he said. “You look like business. You’re to put yourself at my disposal while I give you your bearings.”

He got out his papers and expounded the whole affair. It was a very queer story, yet the more I looked into it the thinner my scepticism grew. I am not going to write it all down, for it is not yet time; it would give away certain methods which have not yet exhausted their usefulness; but before I had gone very far, I took off my hat to these same methods, for they showed amazing patience and ingenuity. It was an odd set of links that made up the chain. There was an importer of Barcelona nuts with a modest office near Tower Hill. There was a copper company, purporting to operate in Spain, whose shares were not quoted on the Stock Exchange, but which had a fine office in London Wall, where you could get the best luncheon in the City. There was a respectable accountant in Glasgow, and a French count, who was also some kind of Highland laird and a great supporter of the White Rose League. There was a country gentleman living in Shropshire, who had bought his place after the War and was a keen rider to hounds and a very popular figure in the county. There was a little office not far from Fleet Street, which professed to be the English agency of an American religious magazine; and there was a certain publicist, who was always appealing in the newspapers for help for the distressed populations of Central Europe. I remembered his appeals well, for I had myself twice sent him small subscriptions. The way Macgillivray had worked out the connection between these gentry filled me with awe.

Then he showed me specimens of their work. It was sheer unmitigated crime, a sort of selling a bear on a huge scale in a sinking world. The aim of the gang was money, and already they had made scandalous profits. Partly their business was mere conscienceless profiteering well inside the bounds of the law, such as gambling in falling exchanges and using every kind of brazen and subtle trick to make their gamble a certainty. Partly it was common fraud of the largest size. But there were darker sides — murder when the victim ran athwart their schemes, strikes engineered when a wrecked industry somewhere or other in the world showed symptoms of reviving, shoddy little outbursts in shoddy little countries which increased the tangle. These fellows were wreckers on the grand scale, merchants of pessimism, giving society another kick downhill whenever it had a chance of finding its balance, and then pocketing their profits.

Their motive, as I have said, was gain but that was not the motive of the people they worked through. Their cleverness lay in the fact that they used the fanatics, the moral imbeciles as Macgillivray called them, whose key was a wild hatred of something or other, or a reasoned belief in anarchy. Behind the smug exploiters lay the whole dreary wastes of half-baked craziness. Macgillivray gave me examples of how they used these tools, the fellows who had no thought of profit, and were ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives, for a mad ideal. It was a masterpiece of cold-blooded, devilish ingenuity. Hideous, and yet comic too; for the spectacle of these feverish cranks toiling to create a new heaven and a new earth and thinking themselves the leaders of mankind, when they were dancing like puppets at the will of a few scoundrels engaged in the most ancient of pursuits, was an irony to make the gods laugh.

I asked who was their leader.

Macgillivray said he wasn’t certain. No one of the gang seemed to have more authority than the others, and their activities were beautifully specialised. But he agreed that there was probably one master mind, and said grimly that he would know more about that when they were rounded up. “The dock will settle that question.”

“How much do they suspect?” I asked.

“Not much. A little, or they would not have taken hostages. But not much, for we have been very careful to make no sign. Only, since we became cognisant of the affair, we have managed very quietly to put a spoke in the wheels of some of their worst enterprises, though I am positive they have no suspicion of it. Also we have put the brake on their propaganda side. They are masters of propaganda, you know. Dick, have you ever considered what a diabolical weapon that can be-using all the channels of modern publicity to poison and warp men’s minds? It is the most dangerous thing on earth. You can use it cleanly — as I think on the whole we did in the War — but you can also use it to establish the most damnable lies. Happily in the long run it defeats itself, but only after it has sown the world with mischief. Look at the Irish! They are the cleverest propagandists extant, and managed to persuade most people that they were a brave, generous, humorous, talented, warm-hearted race, cruelly yoked to a dull mercantile England, when God knows they were exactly the opposite.”

Macgillivray, I may remark, is an Ulsterman, and has his prejudices.

“About the gang — I suppose they’re all pretty respectable to outward view?”

“Highly respectable,” he said. “I met one of them at dinner the other night at ——‘s”— he mentioned the name of a member of the Government. “Before Christmas I was at a cover shoot in Suffolk, and one of the worst had the stand next me — an uncommonly agreeable fellow.”

Then we sat down to business. Macgillivray’s idea was that I should study the details of the thing and then get alongside some of the people. He thought I might begin with the Shropshire squire. He fancied that I might stumble on something which would give me a line on the hostages, for he stuck to his absurd notion that I had a special flair which the amateur sometimes possessed and the professional lacked. I agreed that that was the best plan, and arranged to spend Sunday in his room going over the secret dossiers. I was beginning to get keen about the thing, for Macgillivray had a knack of making whatever he handled as interesting as a game.

I had meant to tell him about my experiments with Greenslade; but after what he had shown me I felt that that story was absurdly thin and unpromising. But as I was leaving, I asked him casually if he knew Mr. Dominick Medina.

He smiled. “Why do you ask? He’s scarcely your line of country.”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot about him and I thought I would rather like to meet him.”

“I barely know him, but I must confess that the few times I’ve met him I was enormously attracted. He’s the handsomest being alive.”

“So I’m told, and it’s the only thing that puts me off.”

“It wouldn’t if you saw him. He’s not in the least the ordinary matinée idol. He is the only fellow I ever heard of who was adored by women and also liked by men. He’s a first-class sportsman and said to be the best shot in England after His Majesty. He’s a coming man in politics, too, and a most finished speaker. I once heard him, and, though I take very little stock in oratory, he almost had me on my feet. He has knocked a bit about the world, and he is also a very pretty poet, though that wouldn’t interest you.”

“I don’t know why you say that,” I protested. “I’m getting rather good at poetry.”

“Oh, I know. Scott and Macaulay and Tennyson. But that is not Medina’s line. He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator. Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”

“Well, I hope to meet him soon, and I’ll let you know my impression.”

I had posted my letter to Medina, enclosing Greenslade’s introduction, on my way from the station, and next morning I found a very civil reply from him at my club. Greenslade had talked of our common interest in big-game shooting, and he professed to know all about me, and to be anxious to make my acquaintance. He was out of town unfortunately for the week-end, he said, but he suggested that I should lunch with him on the Monday. He named a club, a small, select, old-fashioned one of which most of the members were hunting squires.

I looked forward to meeting him with a quite inexplicable interest and on Sunday, when I was worrying through papers in Macgillivray’s room, I had him at the back of my mind. I had made a picture of something between a Ouida guardsman and the Apollo Belvedere and rigged it out in the smartest clothes. But when I gave my name to the porter at the club door, and a young man who was warming his hands at the hall fire came forward to meet me, I had to wipe that picture clean off my mind.

He was about my own height, just under six feet, and at first sight rather slightly built, but a hefty enough fellow to eyes which knew where to look for the points of a man’s strength. Still he appeared slim, and therefore young, and you could see from the way he stood and walked that he was as light on his feet as a rope-dancer. There is a horrible word in the newspapers, “well-groomed,” applied to men by lady journalists, which always makes me think of a glossy horse on which a stable-boy has been busy with the brush and currycomb. I had thought of him as “well-groomed,” but there was nothing glossy about his appearance. He wore a rather old well-cut brown tweed suit, with a soft shirt and collar, and a russet tie that matched his complexion. His get-up was exactly that of a country squire who has come up to town for a day at Tattersalls’.

I find it difficult to describe my first impression of his face, for my memory is all overlaid with other impressions acquired when I looked at it in very different circumstances. But my chief feeling, I remember, was that it was singularly pleasant. It was very English, and yet not quite English; the colouring was a little warmer than sun or weather would give, and there was a kind of silken graciousness about it not commonly found in our countrymen. It was beautifully cut, every feature regular, and yet there was a touch of ruggedness that saved it from conventionality. I was puzzled about this, till I saw that it came from two things, the hair and the eyes. The hair was a dark brown, brushed in a wave above the forehead, so that the face with its strong fine chin made an almost perfect square. But the eyes were the thing. They were of a startling blue, not the pale blue which is common enough and belongs to our Norse ancestry, but a deep dark blue, like the colour of a sapphire. Indeed if you think of a sapphire with the brilliance of a diamond, you get a pretty fair notion of those eyes. They would have made a plain-headed woman lovely, and in a man’s face, which had not a touch of the feminine, they were startling. Startling — I stick to that word — but also entrancing.

He greeted me as if he had been living for this hour, and also with a touch of the deference due to a stranger.

“This is delightful, Sir Richard. It was very good of you to come. We’ve got a table to ourselves by the fire. I hope you’re hungry. I’ve had a devilish cold journey this morning and I want my luncheon.”

I was hungry enough and I never ate a better meal. He gave me Burgundy on account of the bite in the weather, and afterwards I had a glass of the Bristol Cream for which the club was famous; but he drank water himself. There were four other people in the room, all of whom he appeared to call by their Christian names, and these lantern-jawed hunting fellows seemed to cheer up at the sight of him. But they didn’t come and stand beside him and talk, which is apt to happen to your popular man. There was that about Medina which was at once friendly and aloof, the air of a simple but tremendous distinction.

I remember we began by talking about rifles. I had done a good deal of shikar in my time, and I could see that this man had had a wide experience and had the love of the thing in his bones. He never bragged, but by little dropped remarks showed what a swell he was. We talked of a new.240 bore which had remarkable stopping power, and I said I had never used it on anything more formidable than a Scotch stag. “It would have been a godsend to me in the old days on the Pungwe where I had to lug about a.500 express that broke my back.”

He grinned ruefully. “The old days!” he said. “We’ve all had ’em, and we’re all sick to get ’em back. Sometimes I’m tempted to kick over the traces and be off to the wilds again. I’m too young to settle down. And you, Sir Richard — you must feel the same. Do you never regret that that beastly old War is over?”

“I can’t say I do. I’m a middle-aged man now and soon I’ll be stiff in the joints. I’ve settled down in the Cotswolds, and though I hope to get a lot of sport before I die I’m not looking for any more wars. I’m positive the Almighty meant me for a farmer.”

He laughed. “I wish I knew what He meant me for. It looks like some sort of politician.”

“Oh, you!” I said. “You’re the fellow with twenty talents. I’ve only got the one, and I’m jolly well going to bury it in the soil.”

I kept wondering how much help I would get out of him. I liked him enormously, but somehow I didn’t yet see his cleverness. He was just an ordinary good fellow of my own totem — just such another as Tom Greenslade. It was a dark day, and the firelight silhouetted his profile, and as I stole glances at it I was struck by the shape of his head. The way he brushed his hair front and back made it look square, but I saw that it was really round, the roundest head I have ever seen except in a Kaffir. He was evidently conscious of it and didn’t like it, so took some pains to conceal it.

All through luncheon I was watching him covertly, and I could see that he was also taking stock of me. Very friendly these blue eyes were, but very shrewd. He suddenly looked me straight in the face.

“You won’t vegetate,” he said. “You needn’t deceive yourself. You haven’t got the kind of mouth for a rustic. What is it to be? Politics? Business? Travel? You’re well off?”

“Yes. For my simple tastes I’m rather rich. But I haven’t the ambition of a maggot.”

“No. You haven’t.” He looked at me steadily. “If you don’t mind my saying it, you have too little vanity. Oh, I’m quick at detecting vanity, and anyhow it’s a thing that defies concealment. But I imagine — indeed I know — that you can work like a beaver, and that your loyalty is not the kind that cracks. You won’t be able to help yourself, Sir Richard. You’ll be caught up in some machine. Look at me. I swore two years ago never to have a groove, and I’m in a deep one already. England is made up of grooves, and the only plan is to select a good one.”

“I suppose yours is politics,” I said.

“I suppose it is. A dingy game as it’s played at present, but there are possibilities. There is a mighty Tory revival in sight, and it will want leading. The newly enfranchised classes, especially the women, will bring it about. The suffragists didn’t know what a tremendous force of conservatism they were releasing when they won the vote for their sex. I should like to talk to you about these things some day.”

In the smoking-room we got back to sport and he told me the story of how he met Greenslade in Central Asia. I was beginning to realise that the man’s reputation was justified, for there was a curious mastery about his talk, a careless power as if everything came easily to him and was just taken in his stride. I had meant to open up the business which had made me seek his acquaintance, but I did not feel the atmosphere quite right for it. I did not know him well enough yet, and I felt that if I once started on those ridiculous three facts, which were all I had, I must make a clean breast of the whole thing and take him fully into my confidence. I thought the time was scarcely ripe for that, especially as we would meet again.

“Are you by any chance free on Thursday?” he asked as we parted. “I would like to take you to dine at the Thursday Club. You’re sure to know some of the fellows, and it’s a pleasant way of spending an evening. That’s capital! Eight o’clock on Thursday. Short coat and black tie.”

As I walked away, I made up my mind that I had found the right kind of man to help me. I liked him, and the more I thought of him the more the impression deepened of a big reservoir of power behind his easy grace. I was completely fascinated, and the proof of it was that I went off to the nearest bookseller’s and bought his two slim volumes of poems. I cared far more about poetry than Macgillivray imagined — Mary had done a lot to educate me — but I hadn’t been very fortunate in my experiments with the new people. But I understood Medina’s verses well enough. They were very simple, with a delicious subtle tune in them, and they were desperately sad. Again and again came the note of regret and transcience and disillusioned fortitude. As I read them that evening I wondered how a man, who had apparently such zest for life and got so much out of the world, should be so lonely at heart. It might be a pose, but there was nothing of the conventional despair of the callow poet. This was the work of one as wise as Ulysses and as far-wandering. I didn’t see how he could want to write anything but the truth. A pose is a consequence of vanity, and I was pretty clear that Medina was not vain.

Next morning I found his cadences still running in my head and I could not keep my thoughts off him. He fascinated me as a man is fascinated by a pretty woman. I was glad to think that he had taken a liking for me, for he had done far more than Greenslade’s casual introduction demanded. He had made a plan for us to meet again, and he had spoken not as an acquaintance but as a friend. Very soon I decided that I would get Macgillivray’s permission and take him wholly into our confidence. It was no good keeping a man like that at arm’s length and asking him to solve puzzles presented as meaninglessly as an acrostic in a newspaper. He must be told all or nothing, and I was certain that if he were told all he would be a very tower of strength to me. The more I thought of him the more I was convinced of his exceptional brains.

I lunched with Mr. Julius Victor in Carlton House Terrace. He was carrying on his ordinary life, and when he greeted me he never referred to the business which had linked us together. Or rather he only said one word. “I knew I could count on you,” he said. “I think I told you that my daughter was engaged to be married this spring. Well, her fiancé has come over from France and will be staying for an indefinite time with me. He can probably do nothing to assist you, but he is here at your call if you want him. He is the Marquis de la Tour du Pin.”

I didn’t quite catch the name, and, as it was a biggish party, we had sat down to luncheon before I realised who the desolated lover was. It was my ancient friend Turpin, who had been liaison officer with my old division. I had known that he was some kind of grandee, but as everybody went by nicknames I had become used to think of him as Turpin, a version of his title invented, I think, by Archie Roylance. There he was, sitting opposite me, a very handsome pallid young man, dressed with that excessive correctness found only among Frenchmen who get their clothes in England. He had been a tremendous swashbuckler when he was with the division, unbridled in speech, volcanic in action, but always with a sad gentleness in his air. He raised his heavy-lidded eyes and looked at me, and then, with a word of apology to his host, marched round the table and embraced me.

I felt every kind of a fool, but I was mighty glad all the same to see Turpin. He had been a good pal of mine, and the fact that he had been going to marry Miss Victor seemed to bring my new job in line with other parts of my life. But I had no further speech with him, for I had conversational women on both sides of me, and in the few minutes while the men were left alone at table I fell into talk with an elderly man on my right, who proved to be a member of the Cabinet. I found that out by a lucky accident, for I was lamentably ill-informed about the government of our country.

I asked him about Medina and he brightened up at once.

“Can you place him?” he asked. “I can’t. I like to classify my fellow-men, but he is a new specimen. He is as exotic as the young Disraeli and as English as the late Duke of Devonshire. The point is, has he a policy, something he wants to achieve, and has he the power of attaching a party to him? If he has these two things, there is no doubt about his future. Honestly, I’m not quite certain. He has very great talents, and I believe if he wanted he would be in the front rank as a public speaker. He has the ear of the House, too, though he doesn’t often address it. But I am never sure how much he cares about the whole business, and England, you know, demands wholeheartedness in her public men. She will follow blindly the second-rate, if he is in earnest, and reject the first-rate if he is not.”

I said something about Medina’s view of a great Tory revival, based upon the women. My neighbour grinned.

“I dare say he’s right, and I dare say he could whistle women any way he pleased. It’s extraordinary the charm he has for them. That handsome face of his and that melodious voice would enslave anything female from a charwoman to a Cambridge intellectual. Half his power of course comes from the fact that they have no charm for HIM. He’s as aloof as Sir Galahad from any interest in the sex. Did you ever hear his name coupled with a young woman’s? He goes everywhere and they would give their heads for him, and all the while he is as insensitive as a nice Eton boy whose only thought is of getting into the Eleven. You know him?”

I told him, very slightly.

“Same with me. I’ve only a nodding acquaintance, but one can’t help feeling the man everywhere and being acutely interested. It’s lucky he’s a sound fellow. If he were a rogue he could play the devil with our easy-going society.”

That night Sandy and I dined together. He had come back from Scotland in good spirits, for his father’s health was improving, and when Sandy was in good spirits it was like being on the Downs in a south-west wind. We had so much to tell each other that we let our food grow cold. He had to hear all about Mary and Peter John, and what I knew of Blenkiron and a dozen other old comrades, and I had to get a sketch — the merest sketch — of his doings since the Armistice in the East. Sandy for some reason was at the moment disinclined to speak of his past, but he was as ready as an undergraduate to talk of his future. He meant to stay at home now, for a long spell at any rate; and the question was how he should fill up his time. “Country life’s no good,” he said. “I must find a profession or I’ll get into trouble.”

I suggested politics, and he rather liked the notion.

“I might be bored in Parliament,” he reflected, “but I should love the rough-and-tumble of an election. I only once took part in one, and I discovered surprising gifts as a demagogue and made a speech in our little town which is still talked about. The chief row was about Irish Home Rule, and I thought I’d better have a whack at the Pope. Has it ever struck you, Dick, that ecclesiastical language has a most sinister sound? I knew some of the words, though not their meaning, but I knew that my audience would be just as ignorant. So I had a magnificent peroration. ‘Will you men of Kilclavers,’ I asked, ‘endure to see a chasuble set up in your market-place? Will you have your daughters sold into simony? Will you have celibacy practised in the public streets?’ Gad, I had them all on their feet bellowing ‘Never!’”

He also rather fancied business. He had a notion of taking up civil aviation, and running a special service for transporting pilgrims from all over the Moslem world to Mecca. He reckoned the present average cost to the pilgrim at not less than £30, and believed that he could do it for an average of £15 and show a handsome profit. Blenkiron, he thought, might be interested in the scheme and put up some of the capital.

But later, in a corner of the upstairs smoking-room, Sandy was serious enough when I began to tell him the job I was on, for I didn’t need Macgillivray’s permission to make a confidant of him. He listened in silence while I gave him the main lines of the business that I had gathered from Macgillivray’s papers, and he made no comment when I came to the story of the three hostages. But, when I explained my disinclination to stir out of my country rut, he began to laugh.

“It’s a queer thing how people like us get a sudden passion for cosiness. I feel it myself coming over me. What stirred you up in the end? The little boy?”

Then very lamely and shyly I began on the rhymes and Greenslade’s memory. That interested him acutely. “Just the sort of sensible-nonsensical notion you’d have, Dick. Go on. I’m thrilled.”

But when I came to Medina he exclaimed sharply.

“You’ve met him?”

“Yesterday at luncheon.”

“You haven’t told him anything?”

“No. But I’m going to.”

Sandy had been deep in an arm-chair with his legs over the side, but now he got up and stood with his arms on the mantelpiece looking into the fire.

“I’m going to take him into my full confidence,” I said, “when I’ve spoken to Macgillivray.”

“Macgillivray will no doubt agree?”

“And you? Have you ever met him?”

“Never. But of course I’ve heard of him. Indeed I don’t mind telling you that one of my chief reasons for coming home was a wish to see Medina.”

“You’ll like him tremendously. I never met such a man.”

“So everyone says.” He turned his face and I could see that it had fallen into that portentous gravity which was one of Sandy’s moods, the complement to his ordinary insouciance. “When are you going to see him again?”

“I’m dining with him the day after tomorrow at a thing called the Thursday Club.”

“Oh, he belongs to that, does he? So do I. I think I’ll give myself the pleasure of dining also.”

I asked about the Club, and he told me that it had been started after the War by some of the people who had had queer jobs and wanted to keep together. It was very small, only twenty members. There were Collatt, one of the Q-boat V.C.‘s, and Pugh of the Indian Secret Service, and the Duke of Burminster, and Sir Arthur Warcliff, and several soldiers all more or less well-known. “They elected me in 1919,” said Sandy, “but of course I’ve never been to a dinner. I say, Dick, Medina must have a pretty strong pull here to be a member of the Thursday. Though I says it as shouldn’t, it’s a show most people would give their right hand to be in.”

He sat down again and appeared to reflect, with his chin on his hand.

“You’re under the spell, I suppose,” he said.

“Utterly. I’ll tell you how he strikes me. Your ordinary very clever man is apt to be a bit bloodless and priggish, while your ordinary sportsman and good fellow is inclined to be a bit narrow. Medina seems to me to combine all the virtues and none of the faults of both kinds. Anybody can see he’s a sportsman, and you’ve only to ask the swells to discover how high they put his brains.”

“He sounds rather too good to be true.” I seemed to detect a touch of acidity in his voice. “Dick,” he said, looking very serious, “I want you to promise to go slow in this business — I mean about telling Medina.”

“Why?” I asked. “Have you anything against him?”

“No — o — o,” he said. “I haven’t anything against him. But he’s just a little incredible, and I would like to know more about him. I had a friend who knew him. I’ve no right to say this, and I haven’t any evidence, but I’ve a sort of feeling that Medina didn’t do him any good.”

“What was his name?” I asked, and was told “Lavater”; and when I inquired what had become of him Sandy didn’t know. He had lost sight of him for two years.

At that I laughed heartily, for I could see what was the matter. Sandy was jealous of this man who was putting a spell on everybody. He wanted his old friends to himself. When I taxed him with it he grinned and didn’t deny it.

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