The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter IX

I Am Introduced to Strong Magic

The first thing I did when I got up next morning was to pay a visit to Harlows, the fishing-tackle people. They knew me well enough, for I used to buy my rods there, and one of the assistants had been down to Fosse to teach Mary how to use a light split-cane. With him I embarked on a long talk about Norwegian rivers and their peculiarities, and very soon got his views on the best flies. I asked which river was considered to be the earliest, and was told in an ordinary season the Nirdal and the Skarso. Then I asked if he knew my friend Dr. Newhover. “He was in here yesterday afternoon,” I was told. “He is going to the Skarso this year, and hopes to be on the water in the last week of April. Rather too soon in my opinion, though salmon have been caught in it as early as April 17th. By the end of the first week of May it should be all right.” I asked a good deal more about the Skarso, and was told that it was best fished from Merdal at the head of the Merdalfjord. There were only about three miles of fishable water before the big foss, but every yard of it was good. I told him I had hoped to get a beat on the Leardal for June, but had had to give up the notion this year and intended to confine myself to Scotland. I bought a new reel, a quantity of sea-trout flies, and a little book about Norwegian fishing.

Then I went on to see Macgillivray, with whom I had made an appointment by telephone.

“I’ve come to ask your help,” I told him. “I’m beginning to get a move on, but it’s a ticklish business, and I must walk very warily. First of all, I want you to find out the movements of a certain Dr. Newhover of Wimpole Street. He is going to Norway some time in the next fortnight, to the Skarso to fish, and his jumping-off place will be Stavanger. Find out by which boat he takes a passage, and book me a berth in it also. I’d better have my old name, Cornelius Brand.”

“You’re not thinking of leaving England just now?” he asked reproachfully.

“I don’t know. I may have to go or I may not, but in any case I won’t be long away. Anyhow, find out about Dr. Newhover. Now for the more serious business. Just about when have you settled to round up the gang?”

“For the reasons I gave you it must be before midsummer. It is an infernally complicated job and we must work to a time-table. I had fixed provisionally the 20th of June.”

“I think you’d better choose an earlier date.”

“Why?”

“Because the gang are planning themselves to liquidate by midsummer, and, if you don’t hurry, you may draw the net tight and find nothing in it.”

“Now how on earth did you find that out?” he asked, and his usually impassive face was vivid with excitement.

“I can’t tell you. I found it out in the process of hunting for the hostages, and I give you my word it’s correct.”

“But you must tell me more. If you have fresh lines on what you call my ‘gang,’ it may be desperately important for me to know.”

“I haven’t. I’ve just the one fact, which I have given you. Honestly, old man, I can’t tell you anything more till I tell you everything. Believe me, I’m working hard.”

I had thought the thing out, and had resolved to keep the Medina business to myself and Sandy. Our one chance with him was that he should be utterly unsuspecting, and even so wary a fellow as Macgillivray might, if he were told, create just that faint breath of suspicion that would ruin all. He grunted, as if he were not satisfied. “I suppose you must have it your own way. Very well, we’ll fix the 10th of June for Der Tag. You realise, of course, that the round-up of all must be simultaneous — that’s why it takes such a lot of bandobast. By the way, you’ve got the same problem with the hostages. You can’t release one without the others, or the show is given away — not your show only but mine. You realise that?”

“I do,” I said, “and I realise that the moving forward of your date narrows my time down to less than two months. If I succeed, I must wait till the very eve of your move. Not earlier, I suppose, than June 9th? Assume I only find one of the three? I wait till June 9th before getting him out of their clutches. Then you strike, and what happens to the other two?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “The worst, I fear. You see, Dick, the gang I mean to crush and the people who hold the hostages are allied, but I take it they are different sets. I may land every member of my gang, and yet not come within speaking distance of the other lot. I don’t know, but I’m pretty certain that even if we found the second lot we’d never be able to prove complicity between the two. The first are devilish deep fellows, but the second are great artists.”

“All the same,” I said, “I’m in hopes of finding at least one of the hostages, and that means some knowledge of the kidnappers.”

“I must not ask, but I’d give my head to know how and where you’re working. More power to you! But I wonder if you’ll ever get near the real prime fountain of iniquity.”

“I wonder,” I said, and took my leave.

I had been playing with sickness, and now it looked as if I was going to be punished by getting the real thing. For all the rest of that day I felt cheap, and in the evening I was positive I had a temperature. I thought I might have ‘flu, so I went round after dinner to see a doctor whom I had known in France. He refused to admit the temperature. “What sort of life have you been leading these last weeks?” he asked, and when I told him that I had been hanging round London waiting on some tiresome business developments, he said that that was the whole trouble. “You’re accustomed to an active life in fresh air and you’ve been stuffing in town, feeding too well and getting no exercise. Go home tomorrow and you’ll be as right as a trivet.”

“It rather would suit me to be sick for a spell — say a week.”

He looked puzzled and then laughed.

“Oh, if you like I’ll give you a chit to say you must go back to the country at once or I won’t answer for the consequences.”

“I’d like that, but not just yet. I’ll ring you up when I want it. Meantime I can take it that there’s nothing wrong with me?”

“Nothing that a game of squash and a little Eno won’t cure.”

“Well, when you send me that chit, say I’ve got to have a quiet week in bed at home — no visitors — regular rest cure.”

“Right,” he said. “It’s a prescription that every son of Adam might follow with advantage four times a year.”

When I got back to the Club I found Medina waiting for me. It was the first time he had visited me there, and I pretended to be delighted to see him — almost embarrassed with delight — and took him to the back smoking-room where I had talked with Sandy. I told him that I was out of sorts, and he was very sympathetic. Then, with a recollection of Sandy’s last letter, I started out to blaspheme my gods. He commented on the snugness and seclusion of the little room, which for the moment we had to ourselves.

“It wasn’t very peaceful when I was last in it,” I said. “I had a row here with that lunatic Arbuthnot before he went abroad.”

He looked up at the name.

“You mean you quarrelled. I thought you were old friends.”

“Once we were. Now I never want to see the fellow again.” I thought I might as well do the job thoroughly, though the words stuck in my throat.

I thought he seemed pleased.

“I told you,” he said, “that he didn’t attract me.”

“Attract!” I cried. “The man has gone entirely to the devil. He has forgotten his manners, his breeding, and everything he once possessed. He has lived so long among cringing Orientals that his head is swollen like a pumpkin. He wanted to dictate to me, and I said I would see him further — and — oh well, we had the usual row. He’s gone back to the East, which is the only place for him, and — no! I never want to clap eyes on him again.”

There was a purr of satisfaction in his voice, for he believed, as I meant him to, that his influence over me had been strong enough to shatter an ancient friendship. “I am sure you are wise. I have lived in the East and know something of its ways. There is the road of knowledge and the road of illusion, and Arbuthnot has chosen the second. . . . We are friends, Hannay, and I have much to tell you some day — perhaps very soon. I have made a position for myself in the world, but the figure which the world sees is only a little part of me. The only power is knowledge, and I have attained to a knowledge compared with which Arbuthnot’s is the merest smattering.”

I noticed that he had dropped the easy, well-bred, deprecating manner which I had first noted in him. He spoke to me now magisterially, arrogantly, almost pompously.

“There has never been a true marriage of East and West,” he went on. “To-day we incline to put a false interpretation on the word Power. We think of it in material terms like money, or the control of great patches of inanimate nature. But it still means, as it has always meant, the control of human souls, and to him who acquires that everything else is added. How does such control arise? Partly by knowledge of the intricacies of men’s hearts, which is a very different thing from the stock platitudes of the professional psychologists. Partly by that natural dominion of spirit which comes from the possession of certain human qualities in a higher degree than other men. The East has the secret knowledge, but, though it can lay down the practice, it cannot provide the practitioners. The West has the tools, but not the science of their use. There has never, as I have said, been a true marriage of East and West, but when there is, its seed will rule the world.”

I was drinking this in with both ears, and murmuring my assent. Now at last I was to be given his confidence, and I prayed that he might be inspired to go on. But he seemed to hesitate, till a glance at my respectful face reassured him. “The day after tomorrow a man will be in London, a man from the East, who is a great master of this knowledge. I shall see him, and you will accompany me. You will understand little, for you are only at the beginning, but you will be in the presence of wisdom.”

I murmured that I should feel honoured.

“You will hold yourself free for all that day. The time will probably be the evening.”

After that he left with the most perfunctory good-bye. I congratulated myself on having attained to just the kind of position I wanted — that of a disciple whose subjection was so much taken for granted that he was treated like a piece of furniture. From his own point of view Medina was justified; he must have thought the subconscious control so strong, after all the tests I had been through, that my soul was like putty in his hands.

Next day I went down to Fosse and told Mary to expect me back very soon for a day or two. She had never plagued me with questions, but something in my face must have told her that I was hunting a trail, for she asked me for news and looked as if she meant to have it. I admitted that I had found out something, and said I would tell her everything when I next came back. That would only have been prudent, for Mary was a genius at keeping secrets and I wanted some repository of my knowledge in case I got knocked on the head.

When I returned to town I found another note from Sandy, also from France, signed “Alan Breck”— Sandy was terribly out with his Derby winners. It was simply two lines imploring me again to make Medina believe I had broken with him and that he had gone east of Suez for good.

There was also a line from Macgillivray, saying that Dr. Newhover had taken a passage on the Gudrun, leaving Hull at 6.30 p.m. on the 21st, and that a passage had been booked for C. Brand, Esqre, by the same boat. That decided me, so I wrote to my own doctor asking for the chit he had promised, to be dated the 19th. I was busy with a plan, for it seemed to me that it was my duty to follow up the one trail that presented itself, though it meant letting the rest of the business sleep. I longed more than I could say for a talk with Sandy, who was now playing the fool in France and sending me imbecile notes. I also rang up Archie Roylance, and found to my delight that he had not left town, for I ran him to ground at the Travellers’, and fixed a meeting for next morning.

“Archie,” I said, when we met, “I want to ask a great favour from you. Are you doing anything special in the next fortnight?”

He admitted that he had thought of getting back to Scotland to watch a pair of nesting greenshanks.

“Let the greenshanks alone, like a good fellow. I’ve probably got to go to Norway on the 21st, and I shall want to get home in the deuce of a hurry. The steamer’s far too slow.”

“Destroyer,” he suggested.

“Hang it, this is not the War. Talk sense. I want an aeroplane, and I want you to fetch me.”

Archie whistled long and loud.

“You’re a surprisin’ old bird, Dick. It’s no joke bein’ a pal of yours. . . . I dare say I could raise a bus all right. But you’ve got to chance the weather. And my recollection of Norway is that it’s not very well provided with landin’ places. What part do you favour?”

I told him the mouth of the Merdalfjord.

“Lord! I’ve been there,” he said. “It’s all as steep as the side of a house.”

“Yes, but I’ve been studying the map, and there are some eligible little islands off the mouth, which look flattish from the contouring. I’m desperately serious, old man. I’m engaged on a job where failure means the loss of innocent lives. I’ll tell you all about it soon, but meantime you must take my word for it.”

I managed to get Archie suitably impressed, and even to interest him in the adventure, for he was never the man to lag behind in anything that included risk and wanted daring. He promised to see Hansen, who had been in his squadron and was believed to have flown many times across the North Sea. As I left him I could see that he was really enormously cheered by the prospect, for if he couldn’t watch his blessed birds the next best thing was to have a chance of breaking his neck.

I had expected to be bidden by Medina to meet his necromancer in some den in the East End or some Bloomsbury lodging-house. Judge of my surprise, then, when I was summoned to Claridge’s for nine-thirty that evening. When I got to the hotel it was difficult to believe that a place so bright and commonplace could hold any mystery. There was the usual dancing going on, and squads of people who had dined well were sitting around watching. Medina was standing by a fireplace talking to a man who wore a long row of miniature medals and a star, and whom I recognised as Tom Machin, who had commanded a cavalry brigade in France. Medina nodded casually to me, and Tom, whom I had not seen for years, made a great fuss.

“Regimental dinner,” he explained. “Came out for a moment to give instructions about my car. Been telling Medina here of the dirty trick the Government have played on my old crowd. I say it’s up to the few sahibs like him in that damned monkey-house at Westminster to make a row about it. You back me up, Hannay. What I say is . . . ” and so on with all the eternal iteration of “abso-lutely” and “If you follow me” and “You see what I mean” of the incoherent British regular.

Medina gently disengaged himself. “Sorry, Tom, but I must be off now. You’re dining with Burminster on Thursday aren’t you? We’ll talk about that business then. I agree it’s an infernal shame.”

He signed to me and we went together to the lift. On the first floor, where the main suites are, a turbaned Indian waited for us in the corridor. He led us into a little ante-room, and then disappeared through big folding-doors. I wondered what kind of swell this Oriental necromancer must be who could take rooms like these, for the last time I had been in them was when they were occupied by a Crown Prince who wanted to talk to me about a certain little problem in Anatolia.

“You are about to see Kharáma,” Medina whispered, and there was an odd exaltation in his voice. “You do not know his name, but there are millions in the East who reverence it like that of a god. I last saw him in a hut on the wildest pass in the Karakoram, and now he is in this gilded hotel with the dance-music of the West jigging below. It is a parable of the unity of all Power.”

The door was opened, and the servant beckoned us to enter. It was a large room furnished with the usual indifferent copies of French furniture — very hot and scented, just the kind of place where international financiers make their deals over liqueur brandy and big cigars, or itinerant stars of the cinema world receive their friends. Bright, hard and glossy, you would have said that no vulgarer environment could be found. . . . And yet after the first glance I did not feel its commonness, for it was filled with the personality of the man who sat on a couch at the far end. I realised that here was one who carried with him his own prepotent atmosphere, and who could transform his surroundings, whether it was a Pamir hut or a London restaurant.

To my surprise he was quite young. His hair was hidden by a great turban, but the face was smooth and hairless, and the figure, so far as I could judge, had not lost the grace of youth. I had imagined someone immensely venerable and old with a beard to his girdle, or, alternately, an obese babu with a soft face like a eunuch. I had forgotten that this man was of the hills. To my amazement he wore ordinary evening dress, well-cut too, I thought, and over it a fine silk dressing-gown. He had his feet tucked up on the couch, but he did not sit cross-legged. At our entrance he slightly inclined his head, while we both bowed. Medina addressed him in some Indian tongue, and he replied, and his voice was like the purr of a big cat.

He motioned us to sit down, looking not so much at us as through us, and while Medina spoke I kept my eyes on his face. It was the thin, high-boned, high-bred face of the hillman; not the Mongolian type, but that other which is like an Arab, the kind of thing you can see in Pathan troops. And yet, though it was as hard as flint and as fierce as Satan, there was a horrid feline softness in it, like that of a man who would never need to strike a blow in anger, since he could win his way otherwise. The brow was straight and heavy, such as I had always associated with mathematical talent, and broader than is common with Orientals. The eyes I could not see, for he kept them half shut, but there was something uncanny in the way they were chased in his head, with an odd slant the opposite from what you see in the Chinaman. His mouth had a lift at each corner as if he were perpetually sneering, and yet there was a hint of humour in the face, thought it was as grave as a stone statue.

I have rarely seen a human being at once so handsome and so repulsive, but both beauty and horror were merged in the impression of ruthless power. I had been sceptical enough about this Eastern image, as I had been sceptical about Medina’s arts, because they had failed with me. But as I looked on that dark countenance I had a vision of a world of terrible knowledge, a hideousness like an evil smell, but a power like a blasting wind or a pestilence. . . . Somehow Sandy’s talk at the Thursday Club dinner came back to me, about the real danger to the world lying in the constraint of spirit over spirit. This swarthy brute was the priest of that obscene domination, and I had an insane desire there and then to hammer him into pulp.

He was looking at me, and seemed to be asking a question to which Medina replied. I fancy he was told that I was a chela, or whatever was the right name, a well-broken and submissive disciple.

Then to my surprise he spoke in English — good English, with the chi-chi accent of the Indian.

“You have followed far in the path of knowledge, brother. I did not think a son of the West could have travelled so far and so soon. You have won two of the three keys to Mastery, if you can make a man forget his past, and begin life anew subject to your will. But what of the third key?”

I thought Medina’s voice had a tinge of disappointment. “It is the third key which I look for, master. What good is it to wipe out the past and establish my control if it is only temporary? I want the third key, to lock the door, so that I have my prisoner safe for ever. Is there such a key?”

“The key is there, but to find it is not easy. All control tends to grow weak and may be broken by an accident, except in the case of young children, and some women, and those of feeble mind.”

“That I know,” said Medina almost pettishly. “But I do not want to make disciples only of babes, idiots, and women.”

“Only some women, I said. Among our women perhaps all, but among Western women, who are hard as men, only the softer and feebler.”

“That is my trouble. I wish to control for ever, and to control without constant watching on my part. I have a busy life and time is precious. Tell me, master, is there a way?”

I listened to this conversation with feelings of genuine horror. Now I saw Medina’s plans, and I realised that he and he alone was at the bottom of the kidnapping. I realised, too, how he had dealt with the three hostages, and how he proposed to deal. Compared to him a murderer was innocent, for a murderer only took life, while he took the soul. I hated him and that dark scoundrel more intensely than I think I have ever hated man; indeed it was only by a great effort that I checked myself from clutching the two by the throat. The three stories, which had been half forgotten and overlaid by my recent experiences, returned sharp and clear to my memory. I saw again Victor’s haggard face, I heard Sir Arthur Warcliff’s voice break; and my wrath rose and choked me. This stealing of souls was the worst infamy ever devised by devils among mankind. I must have showed my emotion, but happily the two had no eyes for me.

“There is a way, a sure way,” the Indian was saying, and a wicked half-smile flitted over his face. “But it is a way which, though possible in my own country, may be difficult in yours. I am given to understand that your police are troublesome, and you have a public repute, which it is necessary to cherish. There is another way which is slower, but which is also sure, if it is boldly entered upon.”

The sage seemed to open his half-shut eyes, and I thought I saw the opaque brightness which comes from drug-taking.

“Him whom you would make your slave,” he said, “you first strip of memory, and then attune to your own will. To keep him attuned you must be with him often and reinforce the control. But this is burdensome, and if the slave be kept apart and seen rarely the influence will ebb — except, as I have said, in the case of a young child. There is a way to rivet the bondage and it is this. Take him or her whom you govern into the same life as they have been accustomed to live before, and there, among familiar things, assert your control. Your influence will thus acquire the sanction of familiarity — for though the conscious memory has gone, the unconscious remains — and presently will be a second nature.”

“I see,” said Medina abstractedly. “I had already guessed as much. Tell me, master, can the dominion, once it is established, be shaken off?”

“It cannot save by the will of him who exercises it. Only the master can release.”

After that they spoke again in the foreign tongue of I know not what devilry. It seemed to me that the sage was beginning to tire of the interview, for he rang a bell and when the servant appeared gave him some rapid instructions. Medina rose, and kissed the hand which was held out to him, and I, of course, followed suit.

“You stay here long, master?” he asked.

“Two days. Then I have business in Paris and elsewhere. But I return in May, when I will summon you again. Prosper, brother. The God of Wisdom befriend you.”

We went downstairs to the dancing and the supper parties. The regimental dinner was breaking up and Tom Machin was holding forth in the hall to a knot of bemedalled friends. I had to say something to Medina to round off the evening, and the contrast of the two scenes seemed to give me a cue. As we were putting on our coats I observed that it was like coming from light to darkness. He approved. “Like falling from a real world into shadows,” he said.

He evidently wished to follow his own thoughts, for he did not ask me to walk home with him. I, too, had a lot to think about. When I got back to the Club I found a note signed “Spion Kop,” and with an English postmark.

“Meet me,” it said, “on the 21st for breakfast at the inn called ‘The Silent Woman’ on the Fosse Way as you go over from Colne to Windrush. I have a lot to tell you.”

I thanked Heaven that Sandy was home again, though he chose fantastic spots for his assignations. I, too, had something to say to him. For that evening had given me an insight into Medina’s mind, and, what was more, the glimmerings of a plan of my own.

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