The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 1

The Man with the Elephant

The inn at Kremisch, the Stag with the Two Heads, has an upper room so bowed with age that it leans drunkenly over the village street. It is a bare place, which must be chilly in winter, for the old casement has many chinks in it, and the china stove does not look efficient, and the rough beechen table, marked by many beer mugs, and the seats of beechwood and hide are scarcely luxurious. But on this summer night to one who had been tramping all day on roads deep in white dust under a merciless sun it seemed a haven of ease. Jaikie had eaten an admirable supper on a corner of the table, a supper of cold ham, an omelet, hot toasted rye-cakes and a seductive cheese. He had drunk wine tapped from a barrel and cold as water from a mountain spring, and had concluded with coffee and cream in a blue cup as large as a basin. Now he could light his pipe and watch the green dusk deepen behind the onion spire of the village church.

The milestones in his journey had been the wines. Jaikie was no connoisseur, and indeed as a rule preferred beer, but the vintage of a place seemed to give him the place’s flavour and wines made a diary of his pilgrimage. His legs bore him from valley to valley, but he drank himself from atmosphere to atmosphere. He had begun among strong burgundies which needed water to make a thirst-quenching drink, and continued through the thin wines of the hills to the coarse red stuff of south Germany and a dozen forgotten little local products. In one upland place he had found a drink like the grey wine of Anjou, in another a sweet thing like Madeira, and in another a fiery sherry. Each night at the end of his tramp he concocted a long drink, and he stuck manfully to the juice of the grape; so, having a delicate palate and a good memory, he had now behind him a map of his track picked out in honest liquors.

Each was associated with some vision of sun-drenched landscape. He had been a month on the tramp, but he seemed to have walked through continents. As he half dozed at the open window, it was pleasant to let his fancy run back along the road. It had led him through vineyards grey at the fringes with dust, through baking beet-fields and drowsy cornlands and solemn forests; up into wooded hills and flowery meadows, and once or twice almost into the jaws of the great mountains; through every kind of human settlement, from hamlets which were only larger farms to brisk burghs clustered round opulent town-houses or castles as old as Charlemagne; by every kind of stream — unfordable great rivers, and milky mountain-torrents, and reedy lowland waters, and clear brooks slipping through mint and water-cress. He had walked and walked, seeking to travel and not to arrive, and making no plans except that his face was always to the sunrise. He was very dimly aware at any moment of his whereabouts, for his sole map was a sketchy thing out of a Continental Bradshaw.

But he had walked himself into contentment. At the start he had been restless and lonely. He wished that he could have brought Woolworth, now languishing at Blaweary, but he could not condemn that long-suffering terrier to months of quarantine. He wrote disconsolate letters to Alison in his vile handwriting, and received from her at various postes-restantes replies which revealed the dullness of her own life at Unnutz. She had nothing to write about, and it was never her habit to spoil good paper with trivial reflections. There was a time at the start when Jaikie’s mind had been filled with exasperating little cares, so that he turned a blank face to the world he was traversing. His future — what was he to do now that he was done with Cambridge? Alison — his need of her grew more desperate every day, but what could he offer her worthy of her acceptance? Only his small dingy self, he concluded, with nothing to his credit except a second-class degree, some repute at Rugby football, and the slenderest of bank balances. It seemed the most preposterous affair of a moth and a star.

But youth and the sun and wide spaces played their old healing part. He began to rise whistling from his bed in a pinewood or in a cheap country inn, with a sense that the earth was very spacious and curious. The strong aromatic sunlight drugged him into cheerfulness. The humours of the road were spread before him. He had learned to talk French fairly well, but his German was scanty; nevertheless, he had the British soldier’s gift of establishing friendship on a meagre linguistic basis, and he slipped inside the life of sundry little communities. His passion for new landscapes made every day’s march a romance, and, having a love of the human comedy, he found each night’s lodging an entertainment. He understood that he was looking at things in a new perspective. What had seemed a dull track between high walls was now expanding into open country.

Especially he thought happily about Alison. He did not think of her as a bored young woman with peevish parents in a dull health resort, but as he knew her in the Canonry, an audacious ally in any venture, staunch as the hills, kind as a west wind. So far as she was concerned, prudential thoughts about the future were an insult. She was there waiting for him as soon as he could climb to her high level. He encountered no delicacy of scene or weather but he longed to have her beside him to enjoy it. He treasured up scraps of wayside humour for her amusement, and even some shy meditations which some day he would confide to her. They did not go into his letters, which became daily scrappier — but these letters now concluded with what for Jaikie were almost the messages of a lover.

He was in a calmer mood, too, about himself. Had he been more worldly-wise he might have reflected that some day he must be a rich man. Dickson McCunn had no chick nor child nor near relation, and he and Dougal were virtually his adopted sons. Dougal was already on the road to wealth and fame, and Dickson would see that Jaikie was well provided for. But characteristically he never thought of that probability. He had his own way to make with no man’s aid, and he was only waiting to discover the proper starting-point. But a pleasing lethargy possessed him. This delectable summer world was not the place for making plans. So far he was content with what he had done. Dickson had drawn him out of the depths into the normal light of day, and it had been his business to accustom his eyes to it. He was aware that, without Cambridge, he would have always been a little shy and suspicious of the life of a class into which he had not been born; now he knew it for what it was worth, and could look at it without prejudice but also without glamour. “Brother to a beggar, and fellow to a king”— what was Dougal’s phrase? Jaikie was no theorist, but he had a working philosophy, with the notion at the back of his head that human nature was much the same everywhere, and that one might dig out of the unlikeliest places surprising virtues. He considered that he had been lucky enough to have the right kind of education for the practice of this creed.

But it was no philosopher who sat with his knees hunched on the window-seat, but a drowsy and rather excited boy. His travels had given him more than content, for in these last days a faint but delicious excitement had been creeping into his mind. He was not very certain of his exact whereabouts on the map, but he knew that he had crossed the border of the humdrum world and was in a land of enchantments. There was nothing in the ritual of his days to justify this; his legs like compasses were measuring out the same number of miles; the environment was the same, the slow kindly peasants, the wheel of country life, the same bright mornings and cool evenings, the same plain meals voraciously eaten, and hard beds in which he fell instantly asleep. He could speak little of the language, and he did not know one soul within a hundred miles. He was the humblest of pilgrims, and the lowness of his funds would presently compel his return. Nevertheless, he was ridiculously expectant. He laughed at himself, but he could not banish the mood. He was awaiting something — or something was awaiting him.

The apple-green twilight deepened into emerald, and then into a velvet darkness, for the moon would rise late, and a haze obscured the stars. Long ago the last child had been hunted from the street into bed. Long ago the last villagers had left the seat under the vine trellis where they had been having their evening sederunt. Long ago the oxen had been brought into the byres and the goats driven in from the hillside. A wood-wagon had broken down by the bridge, and the blacksmith had been hammering at its axle, but his job was finished, and a spark of a lamp beaconed the derelict cart. Otherwise there was no light in earth or heaven, and no sound except the far-away drone of a waterfall in the high woods and an occasional stirring of beasts in byre or stable. Kremisch was in the deep sleep of those who labour hard, bed early, and rise with the dawn. Jaikie grew drowsy. He shook out his pipe, drew a long breath of the cool night air, and rose to take the lamp from the table and ascend to his bedroom.

Suddenly a voice spoke. It came from the outer air at about the level of the window. And it asked in German for a match.

Balaam was not more startled by the sudden loquacity of his ass than was Jaikie by this aerial summons. It shook him out of his sleepiness and made him nearly drop the lamp. “God bless my soul,” he said — his chief ejaculation, which he had acquired from Mr McCunn.

“He will,” said the voice, “if you’ll give me a light for my cigarette.”

The spirit apparently spoke English, and Jaikie, reassured, held the lamp to the darkness of the open casement. There was a face there, suspended in the air, a face with cheeks the colour of a dry beech leaf and a ragged yellow beard. It was a friendly face, and in the mouth was an unlit cigarette.

“What are you standing on?” Jaikie asked, for it occurred to him that this must be a man on stilts. He had heard of these as a custom in malarial foreign places.

“To be accurate, I am sitting,” was the answer. “Sitting on an elephant, if you must know. An agreeable female whom I call Aurunculeia. Out of Catullus, you remember. Almost his best poem.”

Jaikie lit a match, but the speaker waved it aside. “I think, if you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll come in and join you for a minute. One doesn’t often meet an Englishman in these parts, and Aurunculeia has no vulgar passion for haste. As you have no doubt guessed, she and I are part of a circus — an integral and vital part — what you might call the primum mobile. But we were detained by a little accident. I was asleep, and we strayed from the road and did havoc in a field of marrows, which made some unpleasantness. So our lovely companions have faded and gone ahead to savour the fleshpots of Tarta, while we follow at our leisure. You have never ridden on an elephant? If you go slow enough, believe me it is the very poetry of motion, for you are part, as it were, of a cosmic process. How does it go? ‘Moved round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks and stones and trees.’”

A word was spoken in a lower tone, there was the sound of the shuffling of heavy feet, and a man stepped lightly on to the window-sill and through the casement. His first act was to turn up the wick of the lamp on the table, and light his cigarette at its funnel.

Jaikie found himself gazing at a figure which might have been the Pied Piper. It was very tall and very ragged. It wore an old tunic of horizon-blue from which most of the buttons had gone, a scarlet cummerbund, and flapping cotton trousers which had once been white. It had no hat, and besides its clothes, its only other belonging was a long silver-mounted porcupine quill, which may have been used for the encouragement of Aurunculeia.

The scarecrow looked at Jaikie and saw something there which amused him, for he set his arms akimbo and laughed heartily. “How nature creeps up to art!” he cried. “Had this been an episode in a novel, it would have been condemned for its manifest improbability. There was an impish propulsive power about my little gold stater.”

He took a small coin from his pocket and regarded it affectionately. Then he asked a question which brought Jaikie out of his chair. “Have you any news of Cousin Alison, Mr Galt?”

Slowly, to Jaikie’s startled sight, the features of the scarecrow became the lineaments of the exquisite Mr Randal Glynde. The neat hair was now shaggy and very dusty, the beard was untrimmed, and every semblance of respectability had gone from his garments. But the long lean wrists were the same, the long slim fingers, and the penetrating blue eyes.

Mr Glynde replaced the stater in some corner of his person, and beamed upon Jaikie. He stretched an arm and grasped the jug of wine of which Jaikie had drunk about half, took a long pull at it, and set it down with a wry face.

“Vinegar,” he said. “I had forgotten that the Flosgebirge wine sours in an hour. Do not trouble yourself, Mr Galt, for I have long ago supped. We were talking about Cousin Alison, for whom I understand you have a kindness. So have I. So gracious is my memory of her that I have been reciting verses in her honour in the only tongue in which a goddess should be hymned.

 Alison, bella puella candida,
 Quae bene superas lac et lilium
 Album, quae simul rosam rubidam
 Aut expolitum ebur Indicum,
 Pande, puella, pande capillulos
 Flavos, lucentes ut aurum nitidum.

What puzzles me is whether that is partly my own or wholly John the Silentiar’s. I had been reading John the Silentiar, but the book was stolen from me, so I cannot verify. . . . No, I will not sleep here. I must sleep at Tarta, though it will be broad daylight before I shut my eyes. Tatius, my manager, is a worthy man, but he is to Meleager my clown as acid to a raw wound, and without me to calm them they will be presently rubbing each other’s noses in the mud.”

“Are you a circus proprietor?” Jaikie asked.

Mr Glynde nodded pleasantly.

“In me you see the sole proprietor of the epochal, the encyclopædic, the grandiose Cirque Doré of Aristide Lebrun. The epithets are not mine, but those of the late Aristide, who these three years has been reposing in full evening dress in the cemetery of Montléry. I purchased the thing from his widow, stock-intrade, good-will and all — even the gentle Aurunculeia. I have travelled with it from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians and from the Harz to the Apennines. Some day, who knows, I will widen these limits and go from the Sierra–Nevada to the Urals, and from the Jotunheim to Parnassus. Geography has always intoxicated me.”

“I understand the fun of travelling,” said Jaikie, “but isn’t a circus rather heavy baggage to lug after you?”

“Ah, no. You do not realise the power of him who carries with him a little world of merriment, which can be linked to that substratum of merriment which is found in every human species. No fumbling for him — he finds the common touch at once. He must suit himself of course to various tastes. Clowning in one place, horse-tricks in a second, the sweet Aurunculeia in a third. The hills have different fancies from the valleys, and the valleys from the plains. The Cirque Doré is small, but I flatter myself it is select. We have as fine white barbs as ever came out of Africa, and Meleager my clown has the common denominator of comedy at which all Europe can laugh. No women. Too temperamental and troublesome. My people quarrel in every known tongue, but, being males, it is summer lightning. . . . Ah, Mr Galt, I cannot explain to you the intoxication of shifting camp weekly, not from town to town, but from one little human cosmos to another. I have the key which unlocks all doors, and can steal into the world at the back of men’s minds, about which they do not speak to their politicians and scarcely even to their priests.

“I have power, too,” Mr Glynde went on; “for I appeal to something old and deep in man’s nature. Before this I have wrecked a promising insurrection through the superior charm of my circus over an émeute in a market-place. I have protected mayors and burgomasters from broken heads, and maybe from cut throats, by my mild distractions. And I have learned many things that are hidden from diplomats and eager journalists. I, the entertainer, the fils de joie, I am becoming an expert, if I may say so modestly, on the public opinion of Europe — or rather on that incoherent soul which is greater than opinion.”

“Well, and what do you make of it?” Jaikie asked. He was fascinated by his visitor, the more so as he was a link with Alison, but sleep was descending upon him like an armed man, and he asked the conventional question without any great desire to hear the answer.

“Bad,” said Mr Glynde. “Or, since a moral judgment is unnecessary, shall I say odd? We are now in the midst of the retarded liquidation of the war. I do not mean debts and currencies and economic fabrics, but something much more vital — the thoughts of men. The democracies have lost confidence. So long as they believed in themselves they could make shift with constitutions and parliaments and dull republics. But once let them lose confidence, and they are like children in the dark, reaching out for the grasp of a strong hand. That way lies the dictator. It might be the monarch if we bred the right kind of king. . . . Also there is something more dangerous still, a stirring of youth, disappointed, aggrieved youth, which has never known the discipline of war. Imaginative and incalculable youth, which clamours for the moon and may not be content till it has damaged most of the street lamps.

“But you nod,” said Mr Glynde rising. “I weary you. You must to bed and I to Tarta. I must not presume upon the celestial patience of Aurunculeia.”

Jaikie rose too and found the tall man’s hand on his shoulder. He observed sleepily that his visitor’s face, now clear in the lamplight, had changed, the smile had gone from it, and the eyes were cool and rather grave. Also the slight artifice of his speech, which recalled an affected Cambridge don of his acquaintance, was suddenly dropped.

“I gave you certain advice,” said Mr Glynde, “when you spun my stater in London. I told you that if you wanted peace you should stick to the west. You are pretty far east, Mr Galt, so I assume that a quiet life is not your first object. You have been walking blindly and happily for weeks waiting for what the days brought forth. Have you any very clear notion where you have got to?”

“I’m rather vague, for I have a rotten map. But I know that I’ve come to the end of my money. To-morrow I must turn about and make for home. I mean to get to Munich and travel back by the cheapest way.”

“Three and a quarter miles from Kremisch the road to Tarta drops into a defile among pine-trees. At the top there are two block-houses, one on each side of the highway. If you walked that way armed guards would emerge from the huts and demand your passport. Also they would make an inquisition into your baggage more peremptory than most customs-officers. That is the frontier of Evallonia.”

Jaikie’s sleepiness left him. “Evallonia!” he cried. “I had no notion I was so near it.”

“You have read of Evallonia in the English press?”

“Yes, and I have heard a lot about it. I’ve met Evallonians too — all sorts.” He counted on his fingers. “Nine — ten, including Prince John.”

“Prince John! Ah, you saw him at Lady Lamancha’s party.”

“I saw him two years before that in Scotland, and had a good deal to do with him. With the others, too. I can tell you who they were, for I’m not likely to forget them. There were six Republicans — Mastrovin, Dedekind, Rosenbaum, Ricci, Calaman, and one whose name I never knew — a round-faced fellow in spectacles. There were three Monarchists — Count Casimir Muresco, Doctor Jagon and Prince Odalchini.”

The tall man carefully closed the window, and sat down again. When he spoke it was in a low voice.

“You know some very celebrated people. I think I can place you, Mr Galt. You are called Jaikie, are you not, by your friends? Two years ago you performed a very notable exploit, which resulted in the saving of several honest men and the confounding of some who were not so honest. That story is famous in certain circles. I have laughed over it often, not dreaming that one day I should meet the hero.”

Jaikie shifted nervously, for praise made him unhappy. “Oh, I didn’t do anything much. It was principally Alison. But what has gone wrong with Evallonia? I’ve been expecting ever since to hear that the Monarchists had kicked out Mastrovin and his lot, but the whole thing seems to have fizzled.”

Mr Glynde was regarding him with steady eyes, which even in the dim light seemed very bright.

“It has not fizzled, but Evallonia at this moment is in a critical state. It is no place for a quiet life, but then I do not think that is what you like. . . . Mr Galt, will you forgive me if I ask you a personal question? Have you any duty which requires your immediate return home?”

“None. But I’ve finished my money. I have just about enough to get me back.”

“Money is nothing — that can be arranged. I would ask another question. Have you any strong interest in Evallonian affairs?”

“No. But some of my friends have — Mr Craw, the newspaper man, for example, and Dougal Crombie, his chief manager.”

Mr Glynde brooded. “You know Mr Craw and Mr Crombie? Of course you would. But you have no prepossession in the matter? Except an inclination to back your friends’ view?”

“Yes. I thought Prince John a decent fellow, and I liked the queer old Monarchist chaps. Also I greatly disliked Mastrovin and his crowd. They tried to bully me.”

The other smiled. “That I am sure was a bad blunder on their part.” He was silent for a minute, and then he laid a hand on Jaikie’s knee. “Mr Galt,” he said solemnly, “if you continued your walking-tour tomorrow eastward down the wooded glen, and passed the frontier — I presume your passport is in order? — you would enter a strange country. How strange I have no time to tell you, but I will say this — it is at the crisis of its destiny and any hour may see a triumph or a tragedy. I believe that you might be of some use in averting tragedy. You are a young man, and, I fancy, not indisposed to adventure. If you go home you will be out of danger in that happy cosseted world of England. If you go on, you will certainly find danger, but you may also find wonderful things for which danger is a cheap price. How do you feel about it?”

Jaikie felt many things. Now he knew why all day he had had that curious sense of expectation. There was a queer little flutter at his heart.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s all rather sudden. I should want to hear more about it.”

“You shall. You shall hear everything before you take any step which is irrevocable. If you will make one day’s march into Evallonia, I will arrange that the whole situation is put honestly before you. . . . But no! I have a conscience. I can foretell what you will decide, and I have no right even to bring you within the possibility of that decision, for it will mean danger — it may even mean death. You are too young to gamble with.”

“I think,” said Jaikie, “I should like to put my nose inside Evallonia just to say I’d been there. You say I can come back if I don’t like it. Where’s that little coin of yours? It sent me out here, and it may as well decide what I do next.”

“Sportsman,” said Mr Glynde. He produced the stater and handed it to Jaikie, who spun it —“Heads go on, tails go home.” But owing to the dim light, or perhaps to sleepy eyes, he missed his catch, and the coin rolled on the floor. He took the lamp to look for it, and behold it was wedged upright in a crack in the board — neither heads nor tails.

Mr Glynde laughed merrily. “Apparently the immortal Gods will have no part in this affair. I don’t blame them, for Evallonia is a nasty handful. The omens on the whole point to home. Good night, Mr Galt. We shall no doubt meet in England.”

“I’ll sleep on it,” said Jaikie. “If I decide to go on a little farther, what do I do?”

“You will reach Tarta by midday, and just beyond the bridge you will see a gipsy-looking fellow, short but very square, with whiskers and earrings and a white hat with ‘Cirque Doré’ embroidered on it in scarlet. That is Luigi, my chief fiddler. You will ask him the way to the Cirque, and he will reply in French, which I think you understand, that he knows a better restaurant. After that you will be in his charge. Only I beg of you to keep your mind unbiased by what I have said, and let sleep give you your decision. Like Cromwell I am a believer in Providences, and since that wretched stater won’t play the game, you must wait for some other celestial guidance.”

He opened the casement, spoke a word in an unknown tongue, and a heavy body stirred in the dust below. Then he stepped lightly into the velvet darkness, and there followed a heaving and shuffling which presently died away. When a minute later the moon topped the hill, the little street was an empty silver alley.

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