The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter VII

Some Experiences of a Disciple

I didn’t see Sandy again, for he took the night train for Paris next evening, and I had to go down to Oxford that day to appear as a witness in a running-down case. But I found a note for me at the Club when I got back the following morning. It contained nothing except these words: “Coverts drawn blank, no third person in house.” I had not really hoped for anything from Sandy’s expedition to Palmyra Square, and thought no more about it.

He didn’t return in a week, nor yet in a fortnight, and, realising that I had only a little more than two months to do my job in, I grew very impatient. But my time was pretty well filled with Medina, as you shall hear.

While I was reading Sandy’s note Turpin turned up, and begged me to come for a drive in his new Delage and talk to him. The Marquis de la Tour du Pin was, if possible, more pallid than before, his eyelids heavier, and his gentleness more silken. He drove me miles into the country, away through Windsor Forest, and as we raced at sixty miles an hour he uncovered his soul. He was going mad, it seemed; was, indeed, already mad, and only a slender and doubtless ill-founded confidence in me prevented him shooting himself. He was convinced that Adela Victor was dead, and that no trace of her would ever be found. “These policemen of yours — bah!” he moaned. “Only in England can people vanish.” He concluded, however, that he would stay alive till he had avenged her, for he believed that a good God would some day deliver her murderer into his hands. I was desperately sorry for him, for behind his light gasconading manner there were marks of acute suffering, and indeed in his case I think I should have gone crazy. He asked me for hope, and I gave him it, and told him what I did not believe — that I saw light in the business, and had every confidence that we would restore him his sweetheart safe and sound. At that he cheered up and wanted to embrace me, thereby jolly nearly sending the Delage into a ditch and us both into eternity. He was burning for something to do, and wanted me to promise that as soon as possible I would inspan him into my team. That made me feel guilty, for I knew I had no team, and nothing you could call a clue; so I talked hastily about Miss Victor, lest he should ask me more.

I had her portrait drawn for me in lyric prose. She was slight, it seemed, middling tall, could ride like Diana and dance like the nymphs. Her colouring and hair were those of a brunette, but her eyes were a deep grey, and she had the soft voice which commonly goes with such eyes. Turpin, of course, put all this more poetically, relapsing frequently into French. He told me all kinds of things about her — how she was crazy about dogs, and didn’t fear anything in the world, and walked with a throw-out, and lisped delightfully when she was excited. Altogether at the end of it I felt I had a pretty good notion of Miss Victor, especially as I had studied about fifty photographs of her in Macgillivray’s room.

As we were nearing home again it occurred to me to ask him if he knew Medina. He said no, but that he was dining at the Victors’ that evening — a small dinner party, mostly political. “He is wonderful, that Mr. Victor. He will not change his life, and his friends think Adela is in New York for a farewell visit. He is like the Spartan boy with the fox.”

“Tell Mr. Victor, with my compliments,” I said, “that I would like to dine there to-night. I have a standing invitation. Eight-fifteen, isn’t it?”

It turned out to be a very small and select party — the Foreign Secretary, Medina, Palliser–Yeates, the Duke of Alcester, Lord Sunningdale, the exLord Chancellor, Levasseur the French Minister, besides Turpin and myself. There were no women present. The behaviour of the Duke and Mr. Victor was a lesson in fortitude, and you would never have guessed that these two men were living with a nightmare. It was not a talkative assembly, though Sunningdale had a good deal to say to the table about a new book that a German had written on the mathematical conception of infinity, a subject which even his brilliant exposition could not make clear to my thick wits. The Foreign Secretary and Levasseur had a tête-à-tête, with Turpin as a hanger-on, and the rest of us would have been as dull as sticks if it had not been for Medina. I had a good chance of observing his quality, and I must say I was astonished at his skill. It was he who by the right kind of question turned Sunningdale’s discourse on infinity, which would otherwise have been a pedantic monologue, into good conversation. We got on to politics afterwards, and Medina, who had just come from the House, was asked what was happening.

“They had just finished the usual plat du jour, the suspension of a couple of Labour mountebanks,” he said.

This roused Sunningdale, who rather affected the Labour Party, and I was amused to see how Medina handled the exChancellor. He held him in good-humoured argument, never forsaking his own position, but shedding about the whole subject an atmosphere of witty and tolerant understanding. I felt that he knew more about the business than Sunningdale, that he knew so much he could afford to give his adversary rope. Moreover, he never forgot that he was at a dinner-table, the pitch and key of his talk were exactly right, and he managed to bring everyone into it.

To me he was extraordinarily kind. Indeed he treated me like a very ancient friend, bantering and affectionate and yet respectful, and he forced me to take a full share in the conversation. Under his stimulus, I became quite intelligent, and amazed Turpin, who had never credited me with any talents except for fighting. But I had not forgotten what I was there for, and if I had been inclined to, there were the figures of Victor and the Duke to remind me. I watched the two, the one thin, grey-bearded, rather like an admiral with his vigilant dark eyes, the other heavy-jowled, rubicund, crowned with fine silver hair; in both I saw shadows of pain stealing back to the corners of lip and eye, whenever the face was in repose. And Medina — the very beau ideal of a courteous, kindly, open-air Englishman. I noted how in his clothes he avoided any touch of overdressing, no fancifully-cut waistcoat or too-smartly-tied tie. In manner and presence he was the perfection of unselfconscious good breeding. It was my business to play up to him, and I let my devotion be pretty evident. The old Duke, whom I now met for the first time, patted my shoulder as we left the dining-room. “I am glad to see that you and Medina are friends, Sir Richard. Thank God that we have a man like him among the young entry. They ought to give him office at once, you know, get him inside the shafts of the coach. Otherwise he’ll find something more interesting to do than politics.”

By tacit consent we left the house together, and I walked the streets by his side, as I had done three nights before. What a change, I reflected, in my point of view! Then I had been blind, now I was acutely watchful. He slipped an arm into mine as we entered Pall Mall, but its pressure did not seem so much friendly as possessive.

“You are staying at your Club?” he said. “Why not take up your quarters with me while you are in town? There’s ample room in Hill Street.”

The suggestion put me into a fright. To stay with him at present would wreck all my schemes; but, supposing he insisted, could I refuse, if it was my role to appear to be under his domination? Happily he did not insist. I made a lot of excuses — plans unsettled, constantly running down to the country, and so on.

“All right. But some day I may make the offer again and then I’ll take no refusal.”

They were just the kind of words a friend might have used, but somehow, though the tone was all right, they slightly grated on me.

“How are you?” he asked. “Most people who have led your life find the English spring trying. You don’t look quite as fit as when I first saw you.”

“No. I’ve been rather seedy this past week — headachy, loss of memory, stuffed-up brain and that sort of thing. I expect it’s the spring fret. I’ve seen a doctor and he doesn’t worry about it.”

“Who’s your man?”

“A chap Newhover in Wimpole Street.”

He nodded. “I’ve heard of him. They tell me he’s good.”

“He has ordered me massage,” I said boldly. “That cures the headaches anyway.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Then he suddenly released my arm.

“I see Arbuthnot has gone abroad.”

There was a coldness in his voice to which I hastened to respond.

“So I saw in the papers,” I said carelessly. “He’s a hopeless fellow. A pity, for he’s able enough; but he won’t stay put, and that makes him pretty well useless.”

“Do you care much for Arbuthnot?”

“I used to,” I replied shamelessly. “But till the other day I hadn’t seen him for years, and I must say he has grown very queer. Didn’t you think he behaved oddly at the Thursday dinner?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I wasn’t much taken by him. He’s too infernally unEnglish. I don’t know how he got it, but there seems to be a touch of the shrill Levantine in him. Compare him with those fellows to-night. Even the Frenchmen — even Victor, though he’s an American and a Jew — are more our own way of thinking.”

We were at the Club door, and as I stopped he looked me full in the face.

“If I were you I wouldn’t have much to do with Arbuthnot,” he said, and his tone was a command. I grinned sheepishly, but my fingers itched for his ears.

I went to bed fuming. This new possessory attitude, this hint of nigger-driving, had suddenly made me hate Medina. I had been unable to set down the hypnotist business clearly to his account, and, even if I had been certain, I was inclined to think it only the impertinent liberty of a faddist — a thing which I hotly resented but which did not arouse my serious dislike. But now — to feel that he claimed me as his man, because he thought, no doubt, that he had established some unholy power over me — that fairly broke my temper. And his abuse of Sandy put the lid on it — abuse to which I had been shamefully compelled to assent. Levantine, by gad! I swore that Sandy and I would make him swallow that word before he was very much older. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it. By this time I was perfectly willing to believe that Medina was up to any infamy, and I was resolved that in him and him alone lay the key to the riddle of the three hostages. But all the time I was miserably conscious that if I suggested such an idea to anyone except Sandy I should be set down as a lunatic. I could see that the man’s repute was as solidly planted as the British Constitution.

Next morning I went to see Macgillivray. I explained that I had not been idle, that I had been pursuing lines of my own, which I thought more hopeful than his suggestion of getting alongside the Shropshire squire. I said I had nothing as yet to report, and that I didn’t propose to give him the faintest notion of what I was after till I had secured some results. But I wanted his help, and I wanted his very best men.

“Glad to see you’ve got busy, Dick,” he said. “I await your commands.”

“I want a house watched. No. 4 Palmyra Square, up in North London. So far as I know it is occupied by a woman, who purports to be a Swedish masseuse and calls herself Madame Breda, one or more maids, and an odd-looking little girl. I want you to have a close record kept of the people who go there, and I want especially to know who exactly are the inmates of the house and who are the frequent visitors. It must be done very cautiously, for the people must have no suspicion that they are being spied on.”

He wrote down the details.

“Also I want you to find out the antecedents of Medina’s butler.”

He whistled. “Medina. Dominick Medina, you mean?”

“Yes. Oh, I’m not suspecting HIM.” We both laughed, as if at a good joke. “But I should like to hear something about his butler, for reasons which I’m not yet prepared to give you. He answers to the name of Odell, and has the appearance of an inferior prize-fighter. Find out all you can about his past, and it mightn’t be a bad plan to have him shadowed. You know Medina’s house in Hill Street. But for Heaven’s sake, let it be done tactfully.”

“I’ll see to that for my own sake. I don’t want head-lines in the evening papers —‘House of Member of Parliament Watched. Another Police Muddle.’”

“Also, could you put together all you can get about Medina? It might give me a line on Odell.”

“Dick,” he said solemnly, “are you growing fantastic?”

“Not a bit of it. You don’t imagine I’m ass enough to think there’s anything shady about Medina. He and I have become bosom friends and I like him enormously. Everybody swears by him, and so do I. But I have my doubts about Mr. Odell, and I would like to know just how and where Medina picked him up. He’s not the ordinary stamp of butler.” It seemed to me very important to let no one but Sandy into the Medina business at present, for our chance lay in his complete confidence that all men thought well of him.

“Right,” said Macgillivray. “It shall be done. Go your own way, Dick. I won’t attempt to dictate to you. But remember that the thing is desperately serious, and that the days are slipping past. We’re in April now, and you have only till midsummer to save three innocent lives.”

I left his office feeling very solemn, for I had suddenly a consciousness of the shortness of time and the magnitude of the job which I had not yet properly begun. I cudgelled my brains to think of my next step. In a few days I should again visit Dr. Newhover, but there was not likely to be much assistance there. He might send me back to Palmyra Square, or I might try to make an appointment with Madame Breda myself, inventing some new ailment; but I would only find the same old business, which would get me no further forward. As I viewed it, the Newhover and Palmyra Square episodes had been used only to test my submission to Medina’s influence, and it was to Medina that I must look for further light. It was a maddening job to sit and wait and tick off the precious days on the calendar, and I longed to consult with Sandy. I took to going down to Fosse for the day, for the sight of Mary and Peter John somehow quieted my mind and fixed my resolution. It was a positive relief when at the end of the week Medina rang me up and asked me to luncheon.

We lunched at his house, which, seen on a bright April day, was a wonderful treasury of beautiful things. It was not the kind of house I fancied myself, being too full of museum pieces, and all the furniture strictly correct according to period. I like rooms in which there is a pleasant jumble of things, and which look as if homely people had lived in them for generations. The dining-room was panelled in white, with a Vandyck above the mantelpiece and a set of gorgeous eighteenth-century prints on the walls. At the excellent meal Medina as usual drank water, while I obediently sampled an old hock, an older port, and a most prehistoric brandy. Odell was in attendance, and I had a good look at him — his oddly-shaped head, his flat sallow face, the bunches of black eyebrow above his beady eyes. I calculated that if I saw him again I would not fail to recognise him. We never went near the library on the upper floor, but sat after luncheon in a little smoking-room at the back of the hall, which held my host’s rods and guns in glass cabinets, and one or two fine heads of deer and ibex.

I had made up my mind, as I walked to Hill Street, that I was going to convince Medina once and for all of the abjectness of my surrender. He should have proof that I was clay in his hands, for only that way would he fully reveal himself. I detested the job, and as I walked through the pleasant crisp noontide I reflected with bitterness that I might have been fishing for salmon in Scotland, or, better still, cantering with Mary over the Cotswold downs.

All through luncheon I kept my eyes fixed on him like a dog’s on his master. Several times I wondered if I were not overdoing it, but he seemed to accept my homage as quite natural. I had thought when I first met him that the man had no vanity; now I saw that he had mountains of it, that he was all vanity, and that his public modesty was only a cloak to set off his immense private conceit. He unbent himself, his whole mind was in undress, and behind the veneer of good-fellowship I seemed to see a very cold arrogant soul. Nothing worse, though that was bad enough. He was too proud to boast in words, but his whole attitude was one long brag. He was cynical about everything, except, as I suspected, his private self-worship. The thing would have been monstrously indecent, if it had not been done with such consummate skill. Indeed I found my part easy to play, for I was deeply impressed and had no difficulty in showing it.

The odd thing was that he talked a good deal about myself. He seemed to take pains to rout out the codes and standards, the points of honour and points of conduct, which somebody like me was likely to revere, and to break them down with his cynicism. I felt that I was looking on at an attempt, which the devil is believed to specialise in, to make evil good and good evil. . . . Of course I assented gladly. Never had master a more ready disciple. . . . He broke down, too, my modest ambitions. A country life, a wife and family — he showed that they were too trivial for more than a passing thought. He flattered me grossly, and I drank it all in with a silly face. I was fit for bigger things, to which he would show me the way. He sketched some of the things — very flattering they were and quite respectable, but somehow they seemed out of the picture when compared to his previous talk. He was clearly initiating me step by step into something for which I was not yet fully ready. . . . I wished Sandy could have seen me sitting in Medina’s arm-chair, smoking one of his cigars, and agreeing to everything he said like a schoolgirl who wants to keep on the good side of her schoolmistress. And yet I didn’t find it difficult, for the man’s talk was masterly and in its way convincing, and, while my mind repudiated it, it was easy for my tongue to assent. He was in a prodigious good-humour, and he was kindly, as a keeper is kind to a well-broken dog.

On the doorstep I stammered my thanks. “I wish I could tell you what knowing you means to me. It’s — it’s far the biggest thing in my life. What I mean to say is —” the familiar patois of the tongue-tied British soldier.

He looked at me with those amazing eyes of his, no kindness in them, only patronage and proprietorship. I think he was satisfied that he had got someone who would serve him body and soul.

I, too, was satisfied, and walked away feeling more cheerful than I had done for days. Surely things would begin to move now, I thought. At the Club, too, I got encouragement in the shape of a letter from Sandy. It bore a French postmark which I could not decipher, and it was the merest scribble, but it greatly heartened me.

“I have made progress,” it ran, “but I have still a lot to do and we can’t talk to each other yet awhile. But I shall have to send you letters occasionally, which you must burn on receipt. I shall sign them with some letter of the Greek alphabet — no, you wouldn’t recognise that — with the names of recent Derby winners. Keep our affair secret as the grave — don’t let in a soul, not even Mac. And for God’s sake stick close to M. and serve him like a slave.”

There wasn’t much in it, but it was hopeful, though the old ruffian didn’t seem in a hurry to come home. I wondered what on earth he had found out — something solid, I judged, for he didn’t talk lightly of making progress.

That evening I had nothing to do, and after dinner I felt too restless to sit down to a pipe and book. There was no one in the Club I wanted to talk to, so I sallied forth to another pot-house to which I belonged, where there was a chance of finding some of the younger and cheerier generation. Sure enough the first man I saw there was Archie Roylance, who greeted me with a whoop and announced that he was in town for a couple of days to see his doctor. He had had a bad fall steeplechasing earlier in the year, when he had all but broken his neck, but he declared that he was perfectly fit again except for some stiffness in his shoulder muscles. He was as lame as a duck from his flying smash just before the Armistice, but all the same he got about at a surprising pace. Indeed, out of cussedness he walked more than he used to do in the old days, and had taken to deer-stalking with enthusiasm. I think I have mentioned that he was my partner in the tenancy of Machray forest.

I proposed that we should go to a music-hall or cut into the second act of some play, but Archie had another idea. One of his fads was to be an amateur of dancing, though he had never been a great performer before his smash and would never dance again. He said he wanted to see the latest fashions and suggested that we should go for an hour to a small (and he added, select) club somewhere in Marylebone, of which he believed he was a member. It bore an evil reputation, he said, for there was a good deal of high play, and the licensing laws were not regarded, but it was a place to see the best dancing. I made no objection, so we strolled up Regent Street in that season of comparative peace when busy people have gone home and the idle are still shut up in theatres and restaurants.

It was a divine April night, and I observed that I wished I were in a better place to enjoy spring weather. “I’ve just come from a Scotch moor,” said Archie. “Lord! the curlews are makin’ a joyful noise. That is the bird for my money. Come back with me, Dick, on Friday and I’ll teach you a lot of things. You’re a wise man, but you might be a better naturalist.”

I thought how much I would have given to be able to accept, as the light wind blew down Langham Place. Then I wished that this job would take me out of town into fresh air, where I could get some exercise. The result was that I was in a baddish temper when we reached our destination, which was in one of the streets near Fitzroy Square. The place proved to be about as hard to get into as the Vatican. It took a long harangue and a tip from Archie to persuade the door-keeper that we were of the right brand of disreputability to be admitted. Finally we found ourselves in a room with sham Chinese decorations, very garishly lit, with about twenty couples, dancing and about twenty more sitting drinking at little tables.

We paid five shillings apiece for a liqueur, found a table and took notice of the show. It seemed to me a wholly rotten and funereal business. A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle, and sad-faced marionettes moved to it. There was no gaiety or devil in that dancing, only a kind of bored perfection. Thin young men with rabbit heads and hair brushed straight back from their brows, who I suppose were professional dancing partners, held close to their breasts women of every shape and age, but all alike in having dead eyes and masks for faces, and the macabre procession moved like automata to the niggers’ rhythm. I dare say it was all very wonderful, but I was not built by Providence to appreciate it.

“I can’t stand much more of this,” I told Archie.

“It’s no great shakes. But there are one or two high-class performers. Look at that girl dancing with the young Jew — the one in green.”

I looked and saw a slim girl, very young apparently, who might have been pretty but for the way her face was loaded with paint and the preposterous style in which her hair was dressed. Little though I know of dancing, I could see that she was a mistress of the art, for every motion was a delight to watch, and she made poetry out of that hideous ragtime. But her face shocked me. It was BLIND, if you understand me, as expressionless as a mummy, a kind of awful death-inlife. I wondered what kind of experience that poor soul had gone through to give her the stare of a sleep-walker.

As my eyes passed from her they fell on another figure that seemed familiar. I saw that it was Odell the butler, splendidly got up for his night out in dress clothes, white waistcoat, and diamond studs. There was no mistaking the pugilistic air of the fellow, now I saw him out of service; I had seen a dozen such behind the bars of sporting public-houses. He could not see me, but I had a fair view of him, and I observed that he also was watching the girl in green.

“Do you know who she is?” I asked.

“Some professional. Gad, she can dance, but the poor child looks as if she found it a hard life. I’d rather like to talk to her.”

But the music had stopped, and I could see that Odell had made a sign to the dancer. She came up to him as obediently as a dog, he said something to another man with him, a man with a black beard, and the three passed out at the further door. A moment later I caught a glimpse of her with a cloak round her shoulders passing the door by which we had entered.

Archie laughed. “That big brute is probably her husband. I bet she earns the living of both by dancing at these places, and gets beaten every night. I would say my prayers before taking on that fellow in a scrap.”

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