The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 10

Aurunculeia

The familiar melody brought only a momentary refreshment to Jaikie’s spirit. The feeling was strong upon him that he had stumbled out of comedy into a melodrama which might soon darken into tragedy. As they entered the city of Krovolin, this mood was increased by the sight of unmistakable pistols in the hands of his guards. Some kind of watch was kept at the entrance, for both cars were stopped and what sounded like pass-words were exchanged. Krovolin he knew was the headquarters of the Monarchists, but Mastrovin, having spent all his life in intrigue, was not likely to be stopped by so small a thing as that. It was like his audacity to have domiciled himself in the enemy’s camp, and he probably knew most of that enemy’s secrets. Jaikie dismissed the thought of appealing to these Monarchist sentries and demanding to be taken to Count Casimir, for he was convinced that at that game he would be worsted. Besides, he could not talk the language.

The hour was late, and there were few people in the well-lit street which descended to the bridge of the river. The cars turned along the edge of the water over vile cobbles, and presently wove their way into a maze of ancient squalor. This was the Krovolin of the Middle Ages, narrow lanes with high houses on both sides, the tops of which bent forward so as to leave only a slender ribbon of sky. Up a side alley they went, and after many twistings came to the entrance of a yard. Here they were clearly expected, for a figure stood on watch outside, who after a word with Mastrovin opened a pair of ancient rickety gates. The car scraped through with difficulty, and Jaikie found himself in a cobbled space which might once have been the courtyard of a house. Now the moon showed it as a cross between a garage and a builder’s yard, for it held two other cars, a motor-lorry, and what looked like the debris of a recent earthquake. When he got out he promptly fell over a heap of rubble and a sheaf of spades. Somebody had recently been digging there.

He was given no time to prospect. Mastrovin came forward, bowed to Alison and shepherded her to the side of Janet and Archie. Two men took charge of the baggage, and the party were conducted indoors. For a moment Jaikie was left alone, and his hopes rose — perhaps he was too humble for Mastrovin’s attentions. He was speedily undeceived, for the man who had been with Mastrovin at Tarta gave an order, and the fellow who had been outside the gate clutched Jaikie’s arm. He was also a prisoner, only a more disconsidered one than the others. He was pushed through a door and prodded down a passage and up a narrow staircase, till he reached a little room smelling abominably of garlic. It was a bedroom, for there was a truckle bed and a deal table carrying on it the stump of a candle. His conductor nodded to the bed, on which he flung Jaikie’s rucksack, and then departed, after locking the door.

There was a window which seemed to look out upon a pit of darkness. It was not shuttered, but the sashes were firmly bolted. By bending low Jaikie could see upwards to a thin streak of light. The room must be on the street side, and what he saw was a strip of moonlit sky. It must also be on the first floor, for he had ascended only one flight of stairs. If this was meant as a prison it was an oddly insecure one.

But all thought of immediate escape was prevented by the state of his body. He was immeasurably weary, and so sleepy that his eyes were gummed together, a condition which with him usually followed a day of hard exercise in the rain. The stuffiness of the place increased his drowsiness. He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to think, but his mind refused to work. He must have sleep before he could do anything. He stripped off his sodden clothes, and found that he was not so wet as he had feared — of his under-garments only the collar and sleeves of his shirt had suffered. He hung them to dry on rusty nails with which the walls were abundantly provided. There were plenty of bedclothes and they seemed clean, so, wrapping his naked body in them, he was presently asleep.

He woke to a dusty twilight, but there was a hum out-of-doors which suggested that it was full day. A glance from the window showed him that though the sun had not yet got into the alley the morning’s life had begun. The place was full of people, and by standing on the sill he could see their heads beneath him. He had been right — the room was on the first story. It bulged out above the street, so his vision was limited; he saw the people in the middle and on the other side, but not those directly beneath him.

He was very hungry, for he had had scanty rations the day before, and he wondered if breakfast was included in this new régime. There was no sign of it, so he turned his attention to the window. It was of an old-fashioned type, with folding sashes secured by slim iron bars which ran into sockets where they were held by padlocks. Jaikie was a poor mechanic, but he saw that these bolts would be hard to tamper with. If the place were kept sealed up like this no wonder the air was foul. Fortunately the sun could not make itself felt in that cavern of a street, but, all the same, by noon it would be an oven.

This was a disheartening thought, and it took the edge off his appetite. What he particularly wanted was something to drink, beer for preference, but he would have made shift with water. He lay down on the bed, for to look out of the sealed window only distressed him.

As the morning advanced he must have slept again, for the opening of the door woke him with a start. The newcomer was Mastrovin.

He looked very square and bulky in that narrow place, and he seemed to be in an ugly temper. He walked to the window and examined the fastenings. Jaikie observed for the first time that there were no shutters. What if he smashed the glass and dropped into the street? It could not be more than ten yards, and he was as light on his feet as a cat.

Mastrovin may have guessed his thought, for he turned to him with a sour smile.

“Do not delude yourself, Mr — Galt, isn’t it? That window is only the inner works of this fortress. Even if you opened it you would be no better off. The outer works would still have to be passed, and they are human walls, stronger than stone and lime.”

“Am I to have any breakfast?” Jaikie asked. “I don’t suppose it’s any good asking you what you mean by bringing me here. But most gaolers feed their prisoners.”

“I am the exception. Life at present is too hurried with me to preserve the amenities. But a word from you will get you breakfast; liberty also — conditional liberty. You cannot be released just at once, but I will have you taken to a more comfortable place. That word is the present address of Prince John.”

Mastrovin spoke as Jaikie remembered once hearing a celebrated statesman speak when on a visit to Cambridge — slowly, pronouncing his words as if he relished the sound of them, giving his sentences an oratorical swing. It was certainly impressive.

“I haven’t the remotest idea,” he said, speaking the strictest truth.

“Let me repeat,” said Mastrovin with a great air of patience. “The English have long been suspected of dabbling in Monarchist plots. That I have already told you. You have been at Tarta in the House of the Four Winds, which is the home of such plots. Did not my people pick you out of it? You admitted to me that you were acquainted with Prince Odalchini. Where, I ask you now, is Prince Odalchini’s master?”

“I tell you, I don’t know. As I told you at Tarta, I heard a rumour that he was with some lady called the Countess Troyos.”

“That rumour is a lie,” said Mastrovin fiercely. “For a moment I believed it, but I have since proved it a lie. What is more, when you told it me you knew it was a lie. I repeat my question.” The formidable eyebrows were drawn together, and the whole man became an incarnate menace. Jaikie, empty, headachy, sitting in his shabby clothes on the edge of the bed, felt very small and forlorn. He sometimes felt like that, and on such occasions he would have given all he possessed for another stone of weight and another two inches of height.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How should I know? I’m an ordinary English tourist who came to Evallonia by accident. I don’t know anybody in it except Prince Odalchini . . . and Count Paul Jovian — and you.”

“You will know a good deal more about me very soon, my friend. Listen. You are lying — I am a judge of liars, and I can read your face. You are a friend of the three other English — the man and the two women — I find you in the forest in their company. Of these other English I know something. I last saw them in the neighbourhood of Prince John, and it is certain that they know where he has gone and what he is now doing. That knowledge I demand you to share — and at once.”

“I don’t know what the others know, but I know what I don’t know. Though you kept me here till I had a long grey beard I couldn’t give you any other answer.”

“You will not stay long enough to grow a beard. Only a little time, but it will not be a pleasant time. You will do what I ask, I think. The others — the others are, as you say in England, of the gentry — a politician and baronet — two ladies of birth. I hold such distinctions as less than rotten wood, but I am a man of the world, and now and then I must submit to the world’s valuation. . . . But you are of a different class. You are of the people, the new educated proletariat on which England prides herself. . . . With you I can use elementary methods. . . . With the others in time, if they are stubborn.. . but with you, now.”

He spat out the last words with extraordinary venom. No doubt he thought that in that moment he was being formidable, but as a matter of fact to Jaikie he had ceased to be even impressive. He had insulted him, threatened him, had wakened the small efficient devil that lived at the back of his mind. Jaikie was very angry, and with him wrath always blanketed fear. He saw Mastrovin now, not as a sinister elemental force, but as a common posturing bully.

He yawned.

“I wish you’d send me up some breakfast,” he said. “A cup of coffee, if you’ve nothing else.”

Mastrovin moved to the door.

“You will get no food until you speak. And no drink. Soon this room will be as hot as hell, and may you roast in it!”

The exhilaration of Jaikie’s anger did not last long, though it left behind it a very solid dislike. He realised that he had got himself into an awkward place, from which every exit seemed blocked. But what struck cold at his heart was the peril of Alison. He had heard at the House of the Four Winds of her days at Unnutz, and he realised that Mastrovin had good grounds for connecting her and Janet and Archie with Prince John’s disappearance. He must have suspected them from the start, and the sight of the trio at Tarta had clinched his suspicions.

Jaikie tried to set out the case soberly and logically. Prince John was for Mastrovin the key of the whole business. If he could lay hands on him he could render the Monarchists impotent. He was probably clever enough to have foreseen the possibilities of Juventus taking up the Prince’s cause, for without the Prince or somebody like him Juventus would spend its strength on futilities. So long as it had no true figure-head it was at the mercy of Mastrovin and his underworld gang. The settlement of Evallonia was the one thing the latter must prevent: the waters must be kept troubled, for only then could he fish with success. . . . Jaikie saw all that. He saw Mastrovin’s purpose, and knew that he would stop at nothing to effect it, for he was outside the pale of the decencies. He meant to try to starve Jaikie himself into submission; but, far worse, he would play the same game with Alison and Janet. All four had stumbled out of a bright world into a mediæval gloom which stank horribly of the Inquisition.

For a moment his heart failed him. Then his sense of feebleness changed into desperation. He knew that the lives of the other three depended on him, and the knowledge stung him into action. Never had he felt so small and feeble and insignificant, but never so determined. A memory came to him of that night long ago at Huntingtower when the forlorn little band of the Gorbals Die-hards had gone into action. He remembered his cold fury, which had revealed itself in copious tears. Nowadays he did not weep, but if there had been a mirror in the room it would have shown a sudden curious pallor in his small face.

He set to work on the window. His rucksack had been searched for weapons, but he had in his pocket what is known as a sportsman’s knife, an implement with one blade as strong as a gully, and with many gadgets. He could do nothing with the bolts and the padlocks, but he might cut into the supporting wood.

It proved an easier task than he had feared. The windows across the street were shuttered, so he could work without fear of detection. The socket of the lower bolt had a metal plate surrounding it, but the upper was fair game for his knife. The wood was old and hard, but after labouring for an hour or two he managed to dig out the square into which the bolt fastened. That released the top of one window, and he turned to the harder job of the bottom.

Here he had an unexpected bit of luck. There seemed something queer about the lower padlock, and to his joy he found that he could open it. It had been locked without the tongue being driven home. This was providential, for the lower part was solidly sheathed in metal and his knife would have been useless. With some difficulty he drew the stiff bolts, and one half of the window was at his disposal.

Very gingerly he pushed it open. A hot breath of air came in on him from the baking alley, but it was fresh air and it eased his headache. Then cautiously he put his head out and looked down upon the life of the street.

Mastrovin had not been bluffing. There were strong outworks to this fortress, and the outworks were human. Few people were about, perhaps because it was the time for the midday meal. It was a squalid enough place, with garbage in the gutters, but it had one pleasant thing, a runnel of water beside the pavement on the other side, no doubt a leat from the Rave or the Silf. The sight of the stream made his thirst doubly vexatious, but he had no time to think of it, for something else filled his eye. There were men on guard — two below his window, and one on the kerb opposite. This last might have seen him, but happily he was looking the other way.

Jaikie drew in his head and shut the window.

That way lay no hope of escape. If he dropped into the street it would be into such arms as had received him on Prince Odalchini’s terrace.

This was disheartening, but at first he was not greatly disheartened. The fact that he had made an opening into the outer world had given him an illogical hope. Also he could now abate the stuffiness of his prison-house. The place was still an oven, but the heat was not stifling. In time evening would come — and night. Might not something be done in the darkness? He had better try to sleep.

But as he lay on the bed he found that his thoughts, quickened by anxiety for Alison, ran in a miserable whirligig and that hope was very low. Mastrovin was taking no chances. Before night he would probably examine the window; in any case his ruffians below were likely to be on stricter duty. His own bodily discomfort added to his depression, for his tongue was like a stick and he was sick with hunger. A man, he knew, could fast for many days if only he had water, but if he had neither food nor drink his strength would soon ebb.

What, he wondered, was Alison doing? Enduring the same misery? Not yet — though that would come unless he could bestir himself. But she and Janet and Archie must be pretty low in mind. . . . He remembered that he was failing Prince Odalchini and Ashie, and doing nothing about the duty which had been assigned him. But that was the least of his troubles. This infernal country might go hang for all he cared. What mattered was Alison.

One thought maddened him — that the four of them had gone clean out of the ken of their friends. It would be supposed that at the moment he was with the Countess Araminta, and no one would begin to ask questions. About the other three there might be some fuss, for the relief car would find the derelict in the forest. Also his motor-bicycle, though again that would mean nothing to anybody. Archie and his party were expected to join Dickson and Prince Odalchini at Count Casimir’s headquarters. When they did not arrive and the derelict was found there would no doubt be a hue-and-cry. But to what effect? Mastrovin would have covered his tracks, and the last place to look for the missing would be the slums of Krovolin. The best hiding-place was under the light.

The street had been almost noiseless in the early afternoon, when good citizens were taking their siesta. About three it woke up a little. There was a drunken man who sang, and from the window Jaikie saw the tops of greengrocers’ carts moving country-wards, after the forenoon market. After that there was silence again, and then the tramp of what sounded like a police patrol. Between four and five there was considerable movement and the babble of voices. Perhaps the street was a short cut between two popular thoroughfares; at any rate it became suddenly quite a lively place. There were footsteps outside his door, and Jaikie closed the window in a hurry and lay back on the bed. Was Mastrovin about to pay him another visit? But whoever it was thought better of it, and he heard the steps retreating down the stairs. They had scarcely died away, when out of doors came a sound which set Jaikie’s nerves tingling. Someone was playing on a flute, and the tune was Dvorak’s Humoresque.

He flew to the window and cautiously looked out. There was no watcher on the opposite pavement. Quite a number of people were in the street, shopgirls and clerks for the most part on their way home. A beggar was playing in the gutter, playing a few bars and then supplicating the passers-by. His face was towards Jaikie, who observed that he wore a gipsy cap of cats’ skins and for the rest was a ruin of rags. Underneath the cap there was a glimpse of dark southern eyes and a hairy unshaven face.

The man as he played kept an eye on Jaikie’s window when he was not ogling the shop-girls. The light in the street was poor, and he seemed to be looking for something and to be uncertain if he had found it. Jaikie stuck his head farther out, and this seemed to give the man what he sought. He took his eyes off the window, finished his tune, and held out his cap for alms. Jaikie saw the gleam of earrings. Then he blew into his flute, pocketed it, and started to shamble inconspicuously down the gutter till in a minute he was lost to view.

Jaikie shut the window and resolutely stretched himself on the bed. But now his mood had wholly changed. Luigi had seen him. The Cirque Doré knew his whereabouts. Soon it would be dark, and then Randal Glynde would come to his rescue.

So complete was his trust in Mr Glynde that he forebore to speculate on the nature of the rescue. Had he done so he might have been less confident. Here in this squalid place Mastrovin was all powerful, and he had his myrmidons around him. The Cirque Doré could produce no fighting men; besides, any attempt at violence would probably mean death for those on whose behalf it was used. Mastrovin had the manners of the jungle. . . . Jaikie thought of none of these things. His only fear was of a second visit from his gaoler, when, if he proved recalcitrant, he might be removed to other quarters in this dark rabbit-warren. At all costs he must remain where Luigi had seen him.

Jaikie had now forgotten both his thirst and hunger. As the room darkened into twilight he lay listening for footsteps on the stairs. The falling of plaster, the scurrying of rats, the creaking of old timbers threw him into a sweat of fear. But no steps came. The noises of the street died away, and the place began to settle into its eery nightly quiet.

Suddenly from out of doors came a tumultuous and swelling sound. At first Jaikie thought that a rising had broken out in some part of the city, for the noise was that of many people shouting. But there were no shots, and the tumult had no menace in it. It grew louder, so it was coming nearer. He looked into the darkness, and far on his right he saw wavering lights, which from their inconstancy must be torches held in unsteady hands. The thing, whatever it was, was coming down this street.

There was a patter of feet below him, and he saw a mob of urchins, the forerunners of the procession, who trotted ahead with frequent backward glances. The light broadened till the alley was bright as day, but with a fearsome murky glow. It was torches, sure enough, carried and waved by four half-naked figures with leopard-skin mantles and chaplets of flowers on their heads. Behind them came four cream-coloured ponies, also garlanded, drawing a sort of Roman chariot, and in that chariot was a preposterous figure who now and then stood on its head, now and then balanced itself on the chariot’s rim, and all the time kept up a shrill patter and the most imbecile grimaces. He recognised Meleager, the clown of the Cirque Doré.

Jaikie knew that the moment had come. The rescue party had arrived and he must join it. But how? It was not halting; in a moment Meleager’s chariot had passed on, and he was looking down on zebras ridden by cowboys. It was not a big circus, and the procession could not last long, so he must get ready for action.

He noticed that it was hugging his side of the street, so that the accompanying crowd was all on the far pavement. That meant that Mastrovin’s watchers could not keep their places just below him. Did Randal Glynde mean him to drop down and move under the cover of the cavalcade? That must be it, he thought. He opened the window wide, and sat crouched on the sill.

Then he noticed another thing. The whole procession was not lit up, but clusters of torches and flares alternated with no lights at all, and the dark patches were by contrast very dark. He must descend into one of these tracts of blackness.

Marie Antoinette, or somebody like her, had just passed in a gaudy illuminated coach, and he made ready to drop into her wake. But a special tumult warned him that something odd was following. Though an unlit patch succeeded, the crowd on the opposite kerb seemed to be thicker. Straining his eyes to the right he saw a huge shadow moving up the alley, so close to his side of the street that it seemed to be shouldering the houses. It was high, not six feet below his perch, and it was broad, for it stretched across to the very edge of the runnel of water. And it moved fast, as fast as the trotting ponies, though the sound of its movement was lost in the general din.

It was under him, and, clutching his rucksack, he jumped for it. A hand caught his collar, and dumped him between two pads. He found himself looking up at the stars from the back of the elephant Aurunculeia.

He lay still for a time, breathing in the clean air, while Mr Glynde was busy with his duties as mahout. Presently they were out of the narrow street, and Aurunculeia swung more freely now that dust was under her and not cobbles.

“You did well,” said Mr Glynde. “I did not overrate your intelligence.”

Jaikie roused himself.

“Thank God you came,” he said. “I don’t know how to thank you. But the job isn’t finished, for there are three other people left in that beastly house.”

“So I guessed,” said Mr Glynde. “Well, everything in good time. First we must get you safely off. We cut things pretty fine, you know. Just as you joined our convoy someone came into your room with a light. I got a glimpse of his face and it was familiar. At present he is probably looking for you in the street. . . . But he may push his researches farther.”

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