The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 5

Surprising Energy of a Convalescent

Mr Dickson McCunn sat in a wicker chair with his feet on the railing of a small verandah, and his eyes on a wide vista of plain and forest which was broken by the spires of a little town. Now and then he turned to beam upon a thick-set, red-haired young man who occupied a similar chair on his left hand. He wore a suit of grey flannel, a startling pink shirt and collar, and brown suede shoes — things so foreign to his usual wear that they must have been acquired for this occasion. He was looking remarkably well, with a clear eye and a clear skin to which recent exposure to the sun had given a becoming rosiness. His hair was a little thinner than two years ago, but no greyer. Indeed, the only change was in his figure, which had become more trim and youthful. Dougal judged that he had reduced his weight by at least a stone.

He patted his companion’s arm.

“Man, Dougal, I’m glad to see you. I was thinking just yesterday that the thing I would like best in the world would be to see you and Jaikie coming up the road. I’ve been wearying terribly for the sight of a kenned face. I knew you were somewhere abroad, and I had a sort of notion that you might give me a look in. Are they making you comfortable here? It’s not just the place I would recommend for a healthy body, for they’ve a poor notion of food.”

“Me?” he exclaimed in reply to a question. “I’ve never been better in my life. It’s a perfect miracle. I walked fifteen miles the day before yesterday and never turned a hair. I’ll give the salmon a fright this back-end. I tell you, Dougal, Dr Christoph hasn’t his equal on this earth. He’s my notion of the Apostles that could make the lame walk and the blind see. When I came here I was a miserable decrepit body that couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t take his meat, and wanted to lie down when he had walked a mile. He saw me twice a day, and glowered and glunched at me, like an old-fashioned minister at the catechising, and asked me questions — he’s one that would speir a whelk out of its shell. But he wouldn’t deliver a judgment — not him — just told me to possess my soul in patience till he was ready. He made me take queer wee medicines, and he prescribed what I was to eat. Oh, and I had what they call massage — he was a wonder at that, for he seemed to flype my body as you would flype a stocking. And I had to take a daft kind of bath, with first hot water and then cold water dropping on me from the ceiling and every drop like a rifle bullet. I thought I had wandered into a demented hydropathic. . . . Then after three weeks he spoke. ‘Mr McCunn,’ he says, ‘I’m happy to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s been a heap wrong, but it’s gone now, the mischief is out of your system, and all you have to do is to build your system up. You will soon be able to eat what you like,’ he says, ‘and the more the better, and you can walk till you fall down, and you can ride on a horse’— not that I was likely to try that —‘and I don’t mind if you tumble into the burn. You’re a well man,’ he says, ‘but I’d like to keep you here for another three weeks under observation.’ Oh, and he wrote a long screed about my case for the Edinburgh professor — I’ve got a copy of it — I don’t follow it all, for it is pretty technical and Dr Christoph isn’t very grand at English. But the plain fact is, that I’ve been a sick man and am now well, and that in five days’ time I’ll be on the road for Blaweary, singing the 126th Psalm:

 “Among the heathen say the Lord
  Great things for us hath wrought.”

Mr McCunn hummed a stave from the Scots metrical version to a dolorous tune.

“You’ve been enjoying yourself fine,” said Dougal.

The other pursed his lips. “I would scarcely say that. I’ve enjoyed the fact of getting well, but I haven’t altogether enjoyed the process. There were whiles when I was terrible bored, me that used to boast that I had never been bored in my life. The first weeks it was like being back at the school. I had my bits of walks prescribed for me, and the hours when I was to lie on my back and rest, and when I sat down to my meals there was a nurse behind my chair to see that I ate the right things and didn’t forget my medicine. I had an awful lot of time on my hands. I doddered about among the fir-woods — they’re a careful folk, the Germans, and have all the hillsides laid out like gentlemen’s policies — nice tidy walks, and seats to sit down on, and directions about the road that I couldn’t read. I’ll not deny that it’s a bonny countryside — in its way, but the weather was blazing hot and I got terrible tired of these endless fir-trees. It’s a monotonous place, for when you get to the top of one rig there’s another of the same shape beyond, covered with the same woods. Man, I got fair sick for a sight of an honest bald-faced hill.

“Indoors,” he went on, “it was just the same. It’s all very well to be told to rest and keep your mind empty, but that was never my way. I brought out a heap of books with me, and was looking forward to getting a lot of quiet reading done. But the mischief was that I couldn’t settle to a book. I had intended to read the complete works of Walter Savage Landor — have you ever tried him, Dougal? I aye thought the quotations from him I came across most appetising. But I might as well have been reading a newspaper upside down, for I couldn’t keep my mind on him. I suppose that my thoughts having been so much concerned lately with my perishing body had got out of tune for higher things. So I fell back on Sir Walter — I’m not much of a hand at novels, as you know, but I can always read Scott — but I wasn’t half through Guy Mannering when it made me so homesick for the Canonry that I had to give it up. After that I became a mere vegetable, a bored vegetable.”

“You don’t look very bored,” said Dougal.

“Oh, it’s been different the last weeks, when the doctor told me I was cured, for I’ve been pretty nearly my own master. I’ve had some grand long walks — what you would call training walks, for I was out just for the exercise and never minded the scenery. I’ve sweated pounds and pounds of adipose tissue off my bones. I hired a car, too, and got Peter Wappit to drive it, and I’ve been exploring the countryside for fifty miles round. I’ve found some fine scenery and some very respectable public-houses. You’ll be surprised that I mention them, but the fact is that my mind has been dwelling shamelessly on food and drink. I’ve never been so hungry in all my days. I’m allowed to eat anything I like, but the trouble is that you can’t get it in this house. The food is deplorable for a healthy man. Endless veal, which I cannot bide — and what they call venison, but is liker goat — and wee blue trouts that are as wersh as the dowp of a candle — and they’ve a nasty habit of eating plums and gooseberries with butcher’s meat. I’ll admit the coffee is fine, but they’ve no kind of notion of tea. Tea has always been my favourite meal, but here you never see a scone or a cookie — just things like a baby’s rusks, and sweet cakes that you very soon scunner at. So I’ve had to supplement my diet at adjacent publics. . . . I tell you what, Dougal, Peter is a perfect disgrace. It’s preposterous that a man should have been two years in jyle in Germany and have picked up so little of the language. He just stammers and glowers and makes noises like a clocking hen, and it’s me that has to do the questioning, with about six words of the tongue and every kind of daft-like grimace and contortion. If the Germans weren’t an easy-tempered folk we’d have had a lot of trouble.

“But, thank God,” said Mr McCunn, “that’s all very near by with. I’ve got back my health and now I want something to occupy my mind and body.” He pushed back his chair, stood up, doubled his fists and made playful taps at Dougal’s chest to prove his vigour.

“What about yourself, Dougal?” he said. “Let’s hear what you’ve been up to. Is Mr Craw still trying to redd up the affairs of Europe?”

“He is. That’s the reason I’m out here. And that’s the reason I’ve come to see you. I want your advice.”

“In that case,” said Mr McCunn solemnly, “we’d be the better of a drink. Beer is allowed here, and it’s a fine mild brew. We’ll have a tankard apiece.”

“Now,” said he, when the tankards had been brought, and he was comfortably settled again in his chair, “I’m waiting on your story. Where have you come from?”

“From Evallonia.”

For a moment or two Dickson did not speak. The word set his mind digging into memories which had been heavily overlaid. In particular he recalled an autumn night on a Solway beach when in the moonlight a cutter swung down the channel with the tide. He saw a young man under whose greatcoat was a gleam of tartan, and he remembered vividly a scene which for him had been one of tense emotion. On the little finger of his left hand he wore that young man’s ring.

“Aye, Evallonia,” he murmured. “That’s where you would be. And how are things going in Evallonia?”

“Bad. They couldn’t be worse. Listen, Mr McCunn, and I’ll give you the rudiments of a perfectly ridiculous situation.”

Dickson listened, and his occasional grunts told of his lively interest. When Dougal had finished, he remained for a little silent and frowning heavily. Then he began to ask questions.

“You say the Monarchists have got everything arranged and can put Prince John on the throne whenever they’re so minded? Can they put up a good Government?”

“I think so. They’ve plenty of brains among them and plenty of experience. Count Casimir Muresco is a sort of lesser Cavour. I’ve seen a good deal of him and can judge. You’ll remember him?”

“Aye, I mind him well. I thought he had some kind of a business head. Prince Odalchini was a fine fellow, but a wee thing in the clouds. What about the Professor — Jagon, I think they called him?”

“He has gone over to Juventus. Discovered that it fulfilled his notion of democracy. He was a maggotty old body.”

“Well, he’ll maybe not be much loss. You say that there’s a good Government waiting for Evallonia, but that this Juv–Juventus thing — that’s Latin isn’t it? — won’t hear of it because they didn’t invent it themselves. What kind of shape would they make at running the country?”

“Bad, I think. They’ve brains, but no experience, and not much common sense. They’re drunk with fine ideas and as full of pride as an old blackcock, but they’re babes and sucklings at the job of civil administration.”

“But they’ve power behind them?”

“All the power there is in Evallonia. They’ve an armed force uncommon well trained and disciplined — you never saw a more upstanding lot of lads. The National Guard, which is all the army that is permitted under the Peace Treaty, is good enough in its way, but it’s small, and the people don’t give a hang for it. Juventus has captured the fancy of the nation, and with these Eastern European folk, that means that the battle is won. They can no more make a good Government than they could square the circle, but they can play the devil with any Government that they don’t approve of. You may say that the real motive power in Evallonia today is destructive. But they’ll have to set up some sort of figure-head — one of themselves, though there’s nobody very obvious — and that will mean an infernal mess, the old futile dictatorship ran-dan, and no end of trouble with the Powers. I’ve the best reason to be positive on that point, for Mr Craw has seen —” and he mentioned certain august names.

Dickson asked one other question. “What about the Republicans?”

Dougal laughed. “Oh, their number’s up all right. Whoever is top-dog, they’re bound to be the bottom one for many a day. They’ve their bags packed waiting to skip over the frontier. But they’ll do their best, of course, to make the mischief worse. Mastrovin, especially. If he’s caught in Evallonia he’ll get short shrift, but he’ll be waiting outside to put spokes in the wheels.”

“Yon’s the bad one,” said Dickson reflectively. “When he is thrawn, he has a face that’s my notion of the Devil. . . . It seems that Juventus is the proposition we have to consider. What ails Juventus at Prince John?”

“Nothing. They’ve no ill-will to him — only he’s not their man. What they dislike is his supporters.”

“Why?”

“Simply because they’re the old gang and associated in their minds with all the misfortunes and degradation of Evallonia since the War. Juventus is thinking of a new world, and won’t have any truck with the old. They’re new brooms, and are blind to the merits of the old besoms. They’re like laddies at school, Mr McCunn — when catties come in they won’t look at a bool or a girr.”

Dickson whistled morosely through his teeth.

“I see,” he said. “Well, it looks ugly. What kind of advice do you want from me?”

“I want a business-like view of the situation from a wise man, and you can’t get that in Evallonia.”

“But how in the name of goodness can I give you any kind of view when I don’t know the place or the folk?”

“I’ve tried to put the lay-out before you, and I want the common sense of a detached observer. You may trust my facts. I’ve done nothing but make inquiries for the last month, for the thing is coming between Mr Craw and his sleep. I’ve seen Count Casimir and all his lot and talked with them till my brain was giddy. I’ve taken soundings in Evallonian public opinion, to which I had pretty good access.”

“Have you seen much of Juventus?”

Dougal drew down the corners of his mouth.

“Not a great deal. You see, it’s a secret society, and you can no more get inside it than into a lodge of Masons. I’ve talked, of course, to a lot of the rank-and-file, and I can judge their keenness and their popular support. There was one of them I particularly wanted to see — a woman called Countess Troyos — but I was warned that if I went near her she would have me shot against a wall — she’s a ferocious Amazon and doesn’t like journalists. But I managed to get an interview with one of the chiefs, a certain Count Paul Jovian, a son of the Jovian that was once a Republican Minister. It was that interview that gave me the notion of coming to you, for this Count Paul has some rudiments of sense, and has lived a lot in England, and I could see that he was uneasy about the way things were going. He didn’t say much, but he hinted that there ought to be some sort of compromise with the Monarchists, so there’s one man at any rate that will accept a reasonable deal. . . . And Jaikie whispered as much to me before I left.”

“Jaikie!” The word came almost like a scream from the startled Mr McCunn. “I thought he was on a walking-tour in France.”

“Well, he has walked into Evallonia. He was with Count Paul, whom it seems he knew at Cambridge. He told me he was a prisoner.”

“How was he behaving himself?”

“Just as Jaikie would. Pretending to be good and meek and sleepy. The same old flat-catcher. If Juventus knew the type of fellow Jaikie was they wouldn’t rest till they saw him safe in bed in the Canonry.”

Dickson grinned. “I’m sure they wouldn’t.” But the grin soon faded. He strode up and down the little verandah with his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back. He did this for perhaps five minutes, and then, with a “Just you bide here” to his companion, he disappeared into the house.

He was absent for the better part of an hour, and when he returned it was with a gloomy and puzzled countenance.

“I got the Head Schwester to telephone for me to Katzensteg to the aerodrome. There’s some jukery-pukery on, and it seems I can’t get a machine for the job. The frontier is closed to private planes and only the regular air service is allowed.”

“Whatever do you want an aeroplane for?” Dougal asked.

“To get to Evallonia,” said Dickson simply. “I’ve never been in one, but they tell me it’s the quickest way to travel. There’ll be nothing for it but to go by road. I’ll have to attend strictly to the map, for Peter has no more sense of direction than a sheep.”

“But what will you do when you get there?”

“I thought of having a crack with Prince Odalchini in the first place. . . . ”

“The thing’s impossible,” Dougal cried. “Man, the country is already almost in a state of siege. Juventus won’t let you near the Prince. They’re sitting three-deep round his park wall. They carted me over the frontier yesterday with instructions that I wasn’t to come back if I valued my life — and, mind you, I had their safe conduct.”

“All the same, I must find some way of getting to him.” In Dickson’s voice there was a note of dismal obstinacy which Dougal knew well.

“But it’s perfectly ridiculous,” said Dougal. “I wish to Heaven I had never come here. You can’t do a bit of good to anybody and you can do the devil of a lot of harm to yourself.”

“I can see the place and some of the folk, and give you that business advice you said you wanted.”

“You’ll see nothing except the inside of a guardroom,” Dougal wailed. “Listen to reason, Mr McCunn. I must be in Vienna tomorrow, for I have to sign a contract about paper for Mr Craw. Stay quietly here till I come back, and then maybe we’ll be able to think of a plan.”

“I can’t,” said Dickson. “I must go at once. . . . See here, Dougal. Do you observe that ring?” He held up his left hand. “I got it two years back come October on the Solway sands. ‘I’ve gotten your ring, Sire,’ I says to him, ‘and if I get the word from you I’ll cross the world.’ Well, the word has come. Not direct from Prince John, maybe, but from what they call the logic of events. I would think shame to be found wanting. It’s maybe the great chance of my life. . . . Where more by token is his Royal Highness?”

“How should I know?” said Dougal wearily. “Not in Evallonia, but lurking somewhere near, waiting on a summons that will likely never come. Poor soul, I don’t envy him his job. . . . And you’re going to stick your head into a bees’ byke, when nobody asks you to. You say it’s your sense of duty. If that’s so, it’s a misguided sense not very different from daftness. My belief is that the real reason is that you’re looking for excitement. You’re too young. You’re like a horse with too much corn. You’re doing this because it amuses you.”

“It doesn’t,” was the solemn answer. “Make no mistake about that, Dougal. I’m simply longing to be back at Blaweary. I want to be on the river again — I hear the water’s in fine trim — and I want to get on with my new planting — I’m trying Douglas firs this time. . . . I don’t care a docken for Evallonia and its politics. But I’m pledged to Prince John, and in all my sixty-three years I’ve never broken my word. I’m sweir to go — I’ll tell you something more, I’m feared to go. I’ve never had much truck with foreigners, and their ways are not my ways, and I value my comfort as much as anybody. That was why I tried to get an aeroplane, for I thought it would commit me and get the first plunge over, for I was feared of weakening. As it is I’ll have to content myself with the car and that sumph Peter Wappit. But some way or other I’m bound to go.”

Dougal’s grim face relaxed into an affectionate smile.

“You’re a most extraordinary man. I’ll not argue with you, for I know it’s about as much good as making speeches to a tombstone. I’ll go back to Evallonia as soon as my business is finished, and I only hope I don’t see your head stuck up on a spike on Melina gate-house.”

“Do you think that’s possible?” Dickson asked with a curious mixture of alarm and rapture.

“Not a bit of it. I was only joking. The worst that can happen is that you and Peter will be sent back over the border with a flea in your ear. If Juventus catches you they’ll deport you as a harmless lunatic. . . . But for God’s sake don’t get into the same parish as Mastrovin.”

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