The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter VIII

The Blind Spinner

I look back upon those days of waiting as among the beastliest of my life. I had the clearest conviction now that Medina was the key of the whole puzzle, but as yet I had found out nothing worth mentioning, and I had to wait like the sick folk by the pool of Bethesda till something troubled the waters. The only thing that comforted me was the fine old-fashioned dislike to the man which now possessed me. I couldn’t pretend to understand more than a fragment of him, but what I understood I detested. I had been annexed by him as a slave, and every drop of free blood in my veins was in revolt; but I was also resolved to be the most docile slave that ever kissed the ground before a tyrant. Some day my revenge would come and I promised myself that it would be complete. Meantime I thanked Heaven that he had that blind spot of vanity, which would prevent him seeing the cracks in my camouflage.

For the better part of a week we were very little separate. I lunched with him two days out of three, and we motored more than once down to Brighton for fresh air. He took me to a dinner he gave at the House of Commons to a Canadian statesman who was over on a visit, and he made me accompany him to a very smart dance at Lady Amysfort’s, and he got me invited to a week-end party at Wirlesdon because he was going there. I went through the whole programme dutifully and not unpleasurably. I must say he treated me admirably in the presence of other people — with a jolly affectionate friendliness, constantly asking for my opinion, and deferring to me and making me talk, so that the few people I met whom I had known before wondered what had come over me. Mary had a letter from a cousin of hers, who reported that I seemed to have got into society and to be making a big success of it — a letter she forwarded to me with a pencilled note of congratulation at the end. On these occasions I didn’t find my task difficult, for I fell unconsciously under the man’s spell and could easily play up to him.. .. But when we were alone his manner changed. Iron crept into his voice, and, though he was pleasant enough, he took a devil of a lot for granted, and the note of authority grew more habitual. After such occasions I used to go home grinding my teeth. I never had a worse job than to submit voluntarily to that insolent protection.

Repeatedly in my bedroom at the Club I tried to put together the meagre handful of ascertained facts, but they were like a lot of remnants of different jig-saw puzzles and nothing fitted in to anything else. Macgillivray reported that so far he had drawn a blank in the case of Odell; and that the watchers at Palmyra Square had noted very few visitors except tradesmen and organ-grinders. Nothing resembling a gentleman had been seen to enter or leave, so it appeared that my estimate of Madame Breda’s flourishing business was wrong. A woman frequently went out and returned, never walking but always in a taxi or a motor-car — probably the same woman, but so hooded and wrapped up as to make details difficult to be clear about. There were a host of little notes — coal or firewood had been delivered one day, twice the wrapped-up lady had gone out in the evening, to come back in a couple of hours, but mostly she made her visits abroad in daylight, the household woke late and retired to bed early, once or twice a sound like weeping had been heard but it might have been the cat. Altogether it was a poor report, and I concluded that I was either barking up the wrong tree, or that Macgillivray’s agents were a pretty useless crowd.

For the rest, what had I? A clear and well-founded suspicion of Medina. But of what? Only that he was behaving towards me in a way that I resented, that he dabbled in an ugly brand of hypnotism, and that the more I saw of him the less I liked him. I knew that his public repute was false, but I had no worse crime to accuse him of than vanity. He had a butler who had been a prize-fighter, and who had a taste for night clubs. I remember I wrote all this down, and sat staring blankly at it, feeling how trivial it was. Then I wrote down the six-line jingle and stared at that too, and I thought of the girl, and the young man, and the small boy who liked birds and fishing. I hadn’t a scrap of evidence to link up Medina with that business, except that Tom Greenslade believed that he had got from him the three facts which ran more or less in the rhyme; but Tom might be mistaken, or Medina might have learned them in some perfectly innocent way. I hadn’t enough evidence to swing a cat on. But yet — the more I thought of Medina the more dark and subtle his figure loomed in my mind. I had a conviction, on which I would have staked my life, that if I stuck to him I would worry out some vital and damning truth; so, with no very lively or cheerful hope, but with complete certainty, I resolved for the hundredth time to let logic go and back my fancy.

As in duty bound I paid another visit to Dr. Newhover. He received me casually, and appeared to have forgotten about my case till he looked up his diary.

“Ah yes, you saw Madame Breda,” he said. “I have her report. Your headaches are cured but you are still a little shaky? Yes, please. Take off your coat and waistcoat.”

He vetted me very thoroughly, and then sat down in his desk-chair and tapped his eye-glasses on his knee.

“You are better, much better, but you are not cured. That will take time and care, and lies, of course, in your own hands. You are leading a quiet life? Half town, half country — it is probably the best plan. Well, I don’t think you can improve on that.”

“You said something about fishing in Norway when I was here last.”

“No, on the whole I don’t recommend it. Your case is slightly different from what I at first supposed.”

“You are a fisherman yourself?” I said.

He admitted that he was, and for a minute or two spoke more like a human being. He always used a two-piece Castle–Connell rod, though he granted it was a cumbrous thing to travel with. For flies he swore by Harlows — certainly the best people for Norwegian flies. He thought that there was a great difference between Norwegian rivers than most people imagined, and Harlows understood that.

He concluded by giving me some simple instructions about diet and exercise.

“If my headaches return, shall I go back to Madame Breda?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Your headaches won’t return.”

I paid him his fee, and, as I was leaving, I asked if he wanted to see me again.

“I don’t think it necessary. At any rate not till the autumn. I may have to be out of London myself a good deal this summer. Of course if you should find the malaise recurring, which I do not anticipate, you must come and see me. If I am out of town, you can see my colleague.” He scribbled a name and address on a sheet of paper.

I left the house feeling considerably puzzled. Dr. Newhover, who on my first visit had made a great to-do about my health, seemed now to want to be quit of me. His manner was exactly that of a busy doctor dealing with a malade imaginaire. The odd thing was that I was really beginning to feel rather seedy, a punishment for my former pretence. It may have been the reaction of my mental worry, but I had the sort of indefinite out-of-sorts feeling which I believe precedes an attack of influenza. Only I had hitherto been immune from influenza.

That night I had another of Sandy’s communications, a typed half-sheet with a Paris postmark.

“Keep close to M.,” it ran. “Do everything he wants. Make it clear that you have broken for ever with me. This is desperately important.”

It was signed “Buchan,” a horse which Sandy seemed to think had been a Derby winner. He knew no more about racing than I knew of Chinese.

Next morning I woke with a bad taste in my mouth and a feeling that I had probably a bout of malaria due me. Now I had had no malaria since the autumn of ‘17, and I didn’t like the prospect of the revisitation. However, as the day wore on, I felt better, and by midday I concluded I was not going to be ill. But all the same I was as jumpy as a cat in a thunderstorm. I had the odd sense of anticipation, which I used to have before a battle, a lurking excitement by no means pleasant — not exactly apprehension, but first cousin to it. It made me want to see Medina, as if there was something between him and me that I ought to get over.

All afternoon this dentist-anteroom atmosphere hung about me, and I was almost relieved when about five o’clock I got a telephone message from Hill Street asking me to come there at six. I went round to the Bath Club and had a swim and a shampoo, and then started for the house. On the way there I had those tremors in my legs and coldness in the pit of the stomach which brought back my childish toothaches. Yes, that was it. I felt exactly like a small boy setting off with dreadful anticipations to have a tooth drawn, and not all my self-contempt could cure me of my funk. The house when I reached it seemed larger and lonelier than ever, and the April evening had darkened down to a scurry of chill dusty winds under a sky full of cloud.

Odell opened the door to me, and took me to the back of the hall, where I found a lift which I had not known existed. We went up to the top of the house, and I realised that I was about to enter again the library where before I had so strangely spent the midnight hours.

The curtains were drawn, shutting out the bleak spring twilight, and the room was warmed by, and had for its only light, a great fire of logs. I smelt more than wood smoke; there was peat burning among the oak billets. The scent recalled, not the hundred times when I had sniffed peat-reek in happy places, but the flavour of the room in Palmyra Square when I had lain with bandaged eyes and felt light fingers touch my face. I had suddenly a sense that I had taken a long stride forward, that something fateful was about to happen, and my nervousness dropped from me like a cloak.

Medina was standing before the hearth, but his was not the figure that took my eyes. There was another person in the room, a woman. She sat in the high-backed chair which he had used on the former night, and she sat in it as if it were a throne. The firelight lit her face, and I saw that it was very old, waxen with age, though the glow made the wax rosy. Her dress was straight and black like a gaberdine, and she had thick folds of lace at her wrists and neck. Wonderful hair, masses of it, was piled on her head, and it was snow-white and fine as silk. Her hands were laid on the arms of the chair, and hands more delicate and shapely I have never seen, though they had also the suggestion of a furious power, like the talons of a bird of prey.

But it was the face that took away my breath. I have always been a great admirer of the beauty of old age, especially in women, but this was a beauty of which I had never dreamed. It was a long face, and the features were large, though exquisitely cut and perfectly proportioned. Usually in an old face there is a certain loosening of muscles or blurring of contours, which detracts from sheer beauty but gives another kind of charm. But in this face there was no blurring or loosening; the mouth was as firm, the curve of the chin as rounded, the arch of the eyes as triumphant as in some proud young girl.

And then I saw that the eyes which were looking at the fire were the most remarkable things of all. Even in that half-light I could see that they were brightly, vividly blue. There was no film or blearing to mar their glory. But I saw also that they were sightless. How I knew it I do not know, for there was no physical sign of it, but my conviction was instantaneous and complete. These starlike things were turned inward. In most blind people the eyes are like marbles, dead windows in an empty house; but — how shall I describe it? — these were blinds drawn in a room which was full of light and movement, stage curtains behind which some great drama was always set. Blind though they were, they seemed to radiate an ardent vitality, to glow and flash like the soul within.

I realised that it was the most wonderful face of a woman I had ever looked on. And I realised in the same moment that I hated it, that the beauty of it was devilish, and the soul within was on fire with all the hatred of Hell.

“Hannay,” I heard Medina’s voice, “I have brought you here because I wish to present you to my mother.”

I behaved just like somebody in a play. I advanced to her chair, lifted one of the hands, and put it to my lips. That seemed to me the right thing to do. The face turned towards me, and broke into a smile, the kind of smile you may see on the marble of a Greek goddess.

The woman spoke to Medina in a tongue which was strange to me, and he replied. There seemed to be many questions and answers, but I did not trouble to try to catch a word I knew. I was occupied with the voice. I recognised in it those soft tones which had crooned over me as I lay in the room in Palmyra Square. I had discovered who had been the third person in that scene.

Then it spoke to me in English, with that odd lilting accent I had tried in vain to trace.

“You are a friend of Dominick, and I am glad to meet you, Sir Richard Hannay. My son has told me about you. Will you bring a chair and sit close to me?”

I pulled up a long low arm-chair, so long and low that the sitter was compelled almost to recline. My head was on a level with the hand which lay on the arm of her chair. Suddenly I felt that hand laid on my head, and I recognised her now by touch as well as voice.

“I am blind, Sir Richard,” she said, “so I cannot see my son’s friends. But I long to know how they look, and I have but one sense which can instruct me. Will you permit me to pass my hands over your face?”

“You may do what you please, Madame,” I said. “I would to God I could give you eyes.”

“That is a pretty speech,” she said. “You might be one of my own people.” And I felt the light fingers straying over my brow.

I was so placed that I was looking into the red heart of the fire, the one patch of bright light in the curtained room. I knew what I was in for, and, remembering past experience, I averted my eyes to the dark folios on the lowest shelves beyond the hearth. The fingers seemed to play a gentle tattoo on my temples, and then drew long soft strokes across my eyebrows. I felt a pleasant languor beginning to creep down my neck and spine, but I was fully prepared, and without much trouble resisted it. Indeed my mind was briskly busy, for I was planning how best to play my game. I let my head recline more and more upon the cushioned back of my chair, and I let my eyelids droop.

The gentle fingers were very thorough, and I had let myself sink back beyond their reach before they ceased.

“You are asleep,” the voice said. “Now wake.”

I was puzzled to know how to stage-manage that wakening, but she saved me the trouble. Her voice suddenly hissed like a snake’s. “Stand up!” it said. “Quick — on your life.”

I scrambled to my feet with extreme energy, and stood staring at the fire, wondering what to do next.

“Look at your master,” came the voice again, peremptory as a drill-sergeant’s.

That gave me my cue. I knew where Medina was standing, and, in the words of the Bible, my eyes regarded him as a handmaiden regards her master. I stood before him, dumb and dazed and obedient.

“Down,” he cried. “Down, on all-fours.”

I did as I was bid, thankful that my job was proving so easy.

“Go to the door — no, on all-fours, open it twice, shut it twice, and bring me the paper-knife from the far table in your mouth.”

I obeyed, and a queer sight I must have presented prancing across the room, a perfectly sane man behaving like a lunatic.

I brought the paper-knife, and remained dog-wise. “Get up,” he said, and I got up.

I heard the woman’s voice say triumphantly: “He is well broken,” and Medina laughed.

“There is yet the last test,” he said. “I may as well put him through it now. If it fails, it means only that he needs more schooling. He cannot remember, for his mind is now in my keeping. There is no danger.”

He walked up to me, and gave me a smart slap in the face.

I accepted it with Christian meekness. I wasn’t even angry. In fact I would have turned the other cheek in the Scriptural fashion, if it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be overacting.

Then he spat in my face.

That, I admit, tried me pretty high. It was such a filthy Kaffir trick that I had some trouble in taking it resignedly. But I managed it. I kept my eyes on the ground, and didn’t even get out my handkerchief to wipe my cheek till he had turned away.

“Well broken to heel,” I heard him say. “It is strange how easily these flat tough English natures succumb to the stronger spirit. I have got a useful weapon in him, mother mine.”

They paid no more attention to me than if I had been a piece of furniture, which, indeed, in their eyes I was. I was asleep, or rather awake in a phantasmal world, and I could not return to my normal life till they bade me. I could know nothing — so they thought — and remember nothing, except what they willed. Medina sat in my chair, and the woman had her hand on his head, and they talked as if they were alone in the desert. And all the while I was standing sheepishly on the rug, not daring to move, scarcely to breathe, lest I should give the show away.

They made a pretty picture —“The Prodigal’s Return” or “The Old Folks at Hone,” by Simpkins, R.A., Royal Academy, 1887. No, by Heaven, there was no suggestion of that. It was a marvellous and tragic scene that I regarded. The fitful light of the fire showed figures of an antique beauty and dignity. The regal profile of the woman, her superb pose, and the soft eerie music of her voice were a world removed from vulgarity, and so was the lithe vigour and the proud face of the man. They were more like a king and queen in exile, decreeing the sea of blood which was to wash them back again. I realised for the first time that Medina might be damnable, but was also great. Yes, the man who had spat on me like a stable-boy had also something of the prince. I realised another thing. The woman’s touch had flattened down the hair above his forehead, which he brushed square, and his head, outlined in the firelight against the white cushion, was as round as a football. I had suspected this when I first saw him, and now I was certain. What did a head like that portend? I had a vague remembrance that I had heard somewhere that it meant madness — at any rate degeneracy.

They talked rapidly and unceasingly, but the confounded thing was that I could hear very little of it. They spoke in low tones, and I was three yards off and daren’t for my life move an inch nearer. Also they spoke for the most part in a language of which I did not know a word — it may have been Choctaw, but was probably Erse. If I had only comprehended that tongue I might there and then have learned all I wanted to know. But sometimes Medina talked English, though it seemed to me that the woman always tried to bring him back to the other speech. All I heard were broken sentences that horribly tantalised me.

My brain was cool and very busy. This woman was the Blind Spinner of the rhymes. No doubt of it. I could see her spinning beside a peat fire, nursing ancient hate and madness, and crooning forgotten poetry. “Beside the Sacred Tree.” Yggdrasil be hanged! I had it, it was Gospel Oak. Lord, what a fool I had been not to guess it before! The satisfaction of having got one of the three conundrums dead right made me want to shout. These two harpies held the key to the whole riddle, and I had only to keep up my present character to solve it. They thought they were dealing with a hypnotised fool, and instead they had a peculiarly wide-awake if rather slow and elderly Englishman. I wished to Heaven I knew what they were saying. Sluicing out malice about my country, no doubt, or planning the ruin of our civilisation for the sake of a neurotic dream.

Medina said something impatiently about “danger,” as if his purpose were to reassure. Then I caught nothing for several minutes, till he laughed and repeated the word “secundus.” Now I was looking for three people, and if there was a “secundus” there must have been a “primus,” and possibly a “tertius.”

“He is the least easy to handle,” he said. “And it is quite necessary that Jason should come home. I have decided that the doctor must go out. It won’t be for long — only till midsummer.”

The date interested me actuely. So did what followed, for he went on:

“By midsummer they liquidate and disband. There is no fear that it won’t succeed. We have the whip hand, remember. Trust me, all will go smoothly, and then we begin a new life. . . . ”

I thought she sighed, and for the first time she spoke in English:

“I fear sometimes that you are forgetting your own land, Dominick.”

He put up an arm and drew her head to his.

“Never, mother mine. It is our strength that we can seem to forget and still remember.”

I was finding my stand on that hearth-rug extraordinarily trying. You see I had to keep perfectly rigid, for every now and then Medina would look towards me, and I knew that the woman had an ear like a hound. But my knees were beginning to shake with fatigue and my head to grow giddy, and I feared that, like the soldiers who stand guard round a royal bier, I might suddenly collapse. I did my best to struggle against the growing weakness, and hoped to forget it by concentrating all my attention on the fragments of talk.

“I have news for you,” Medina was saying. “Kharáma is in Europe and proposes to come to England.”

“You will see him?” I thought her voice had a trace of alarm in it.

“Most certainly. I would rather see him than any living man.”

“Dominick, be careful. I would rather you confined yourself to your old knowledge. I fear these new things from the East.”

He laughed. “They are as old as ours — older. And all knowledge is one. I have already drunk of his learning and I must have the whole cup.”

That was the last I heard, for at that moment I made my exit from the scene in a way which I could not have bettered by much cogitation. My legs suddenly gave under me, the room swam round, and I collapsed on the floor in a dead faint. I must have fallen heavily, for I knocked a leg off one of the little tables.

When I came to — which I suppose was a minute or two later — Odell was bathing my face, and Medina with a grave and concerned air was standing by with a brandy decanter.

“My dear fellow, you gave me a bad fright,” he said, and his manner was that of the considerate friend. “You’re not feeling ill?”

“I haven’t been quite fit all day, and I suppose the hot room knocked me out. I say, I’m most awfully sorry for playing the fool like this. I’ve damaged your furniture, I’m afraid. I hope I didn’t scare the lady.”

“What lady?”

“Your mother.”

He looked at me with a perfectly blank face, and I saw I had made a mistake.

“I beg your pardon — I’m still giddy. I’ve been dreaming.”

He gave me a glass of brandy and tucked me into a taxi. Long before I got to the Club I was feeling all right, but my mind was in a fine turmoil. I had stumbled at last upon not one clue but many, and though they were confused enough, I hoped with luck to follow them out. I could hardly eat any dinner that night, and my brain was too unsettled to do any serious thinking. So I took a taxi up to Gospel Oak, and, bidding it wait for me, had another look at Palmyra Square. The place seemed to have been dead and decaying for centuries, seen in that windy moonless dark, and No. 4 was a shuttered tomb. I opened the gate and, after making sure that the coast was clear, stole round to the back-door where tradesmen called. There were some dilapidated outhouses, and the back garden, with rank grasses and obscene clothes-posts, looked like nothing so much as a neglected grave-yard. In that house was the terrible blind Fate that span. As I listened I heard from somewhere inside the sound of slow heartbroken sobs. I wondered if they came from the queer-looking little girl.

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