The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 6

Arrivals at an Inn

Sir Archibald Roylance drove a motor-car well but audaciously, so that he disquieted the nerves of those who accompanied him; his new servant McTavish drove better, and with a regard for the psychology of others which made a journey with him as smooth as a trip in the Scotch express. The party left Unnutz early in the morning before the guests of the Kaiserin Augusta were out of bed, and since they had many miles to cover, Archie insisted on taking McTavish’s place for a spell every three hours. All day under a blue sky they threaded valleys, and traversed forests, and surmounted low passes among the ranges, and since the air was warm and the landscape seductive, they did not hurry unduly. Lunch, for example, on a carpet of moss beside a plunging stream, occupied a full two hours. The consequence was that when they came out of the hills and crossed the Rave and saw before them the lights of the little railway station of Zutpha, it was already evening. Clearly not a time to pay a call upon Prince Odalchini, who did not expect them. Archie inquired of McTavish where was the nearest town, and was told Tarta, where the inn of the Turk’s Head had a name for comfort. All the party was hungry and a little weary, so it was agreed to make for Tarta.

The car took a country road which followed the eastern side of Prince Odalchini’s great park. Passing through Zutpha village, Archie, whose turn it was then to drive, noticed a number of youths who appeared to be posted on some kind of system. They stared at the car, and at first seemed inclined to interfere with it. But something — the road it was taking or the badges on the front of its bonnet — satisfied them, a word was passed from one to the other, and they let it go. They wore shorts, and shirts of a colour which could not be distinguished in the dark.

“Juventus,” Archie turned his head to whisper. “We’ve come to the right shop. Thank heaven the lads don’t want to stand between us and dinner.”

Soon the road, which had lain among fields of maize and beet, turned into the shadow of woods, and was joined by many tributary tracks. Archie, who had a good sense of direction, knew the point of the compass where Tarta lay, and had an occasional glimpse of the park paling on his right to keep him straight. He was driving carelessly, for the road seemed deserted, and his mind was occupied in wondering what kind of fare the Turk’s Head would give them, when in turning a corner he saw a yard or two ahead a stationary car, drawn up dangerously in a narrow place. He clapped on his brakes, for there was no room to pass it, since its nose was poked beyond the middle of the road, and came to a standstill in a crooked echelon, his off front wheel all but touching its running board.

Archie, like many casual people, was easily made indignant by casualness in others. On this occasion surprise made him indignant in his own language. “You fool!” he shouted. “Will you have the goodness to shift your dashed perambulator?”

One man sat stiffly at the wheel. The other was apparently engaged in examining a map with the assistance of the headlight. It was the latter who replied.

“Peter,” he said, “they’re English. Thank God for that.”

The map-student straightened himself, and stood revealed in the glare of the big acetylene lamps as a smallish man in a tweed ulster. He took off his spectacles, blinked in the dazzle, and came deferentially towards Archie. His smile was so ingratiating that that gentleman’s irritation vanished.

“That’s a silly thing to do,” was all he said. “If my brakes hadn’t been good we’d have had a smash.”

“I’m awful sorry. Peter lost his head, I doubt. You see, we’ve missed our road.”

Something in the voice, with its rich Scots intonation, in the round benignant face, and in the friendly peering eyes stirred a recollection in Archie which he could not place. But he was not allowed time to drag the deeps of his memory. Alison from the back seat descended like a tornado, and was grasping the stranger’s hand.

“Dickson,” she cried, “who’d have thought of finding you here? You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

The little man beamed.

“‘Deed, so are you, Miss Alison. Mercy, but it’s a queer world.”

“This is Sir Archie Roylance. You know him? Aren’t you a neighbour of his?”

Dickson extended a grimy hand.

“Fine I know him, though I haven’t seen him for years. D’you not mind the Gorbals Die-hards, Sir Archibald, and Huntingtower where you and me fought a battle?”

“Golly, it’s McCunn!” Archie exclaimed.

“And not a day older —”

“And that,” said Alison, waving a hand towards the back of her car, “is my cousin Janet — Lady Roylance.”

Dickson bowed, and, since he was too far off to shake hands, also saluted.

“Proud to meet you, mem. This is a fair gathering of the clans. I never thought when I started this morning to run into a covey of friends.” The encounter seemed to have lifted care from his mind, for he beamed delightedly on each member of the party, not excluding McTavish.

“But what are you doing here?” Alison repeated. “I thought you were ill and at some German cure place.”

“I’ve been miraculously restored to health,” said Dickson solemnly. “And I’m here because I want to have a word with a man. You know him, Miss Alison — Prince Odalchini.”

“But that’s what we’re here for too,” the girl said.

“You don’t tell me that. Have you tried to get inside his gates? That’s what I’ve been seeking to do, and they wouldn’t let me.”

“Who wouldn’t let you?”

“A lot of young lads in short breeks and green sarks. My directions were to go to a place called Zutpha, which was the proper way in. I found the lodge gates all right, but they were guarded like a penitentiary. I told the lads who I was seeking and got a lot of talk in a foreign language. I didn’t understand a word, but the meaning was plain enough that if I didn’t clear out I would get my neck wrung. One of them spoke German, and according to Peter what he said was the German for ‘Go to hell out of this.’ So I just grinned at them and nodded and told Peter to turn the car, for I saw it was no good running my head against a stone dyke. So now I’m looking for a town called Tarta, where I can bide the night and think things over.”

“But what do you want with Prince Odalchini?”

“It’s a long story, and this is not the place to tell it. It was Dougal that set me off. Dougal Crombie — you remember him at Castle Gay?”

“Dougal! You have seen him?”

“No farther back than the day before yesterday. He’s in Vienna now. He came seeking me, for Dougal’s sore concerned about this Evallonia business. Jaikie is in it, too. He had seen Jaikie.”

“Where is Jaikie?” Alison asked, her voice shrill with excitement.

“Somewhere hereabouts. Dougal says he’s a prisoner and in the hands of the same lads that shoo’ed me away from the Prince’s gates.”

Here Archie intervened. “This conference must adjourn,” he said. “We’re all famishing and Mr McCunn is as hungry as the rest of us. Dinner is the first objective. I’ll back my car, and you”— he addressed Peter Wappit —“go on ahead. It’s a straight road, and the town isn’t five miles off. We can’t talk here by the roadside, especially with Alison shrieking like a pea-hen. If Juventus has got the wind up, it’s probably lurking three deep in these bushes.”

The hostelry of the Turk’s Head drew its name from the days when John Sobieski drove the Black Sultan from the walls of Vienna. Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appanage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the townfolk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

The newcomers were received like princes. The landlord was well disposed to English milords, the class to which, from a glance at his card, he judged Archie to belong. Janet and Alison were his notion of handsome gentlewomen, for, being swarthy himself, he preferred them blonde; the two chauffeurs looked respectable; Dickson he could not place, but he had the carelessness of dress which in a Briton suggested opulence. So there was a scurrying of chambermaids in the galleries and a laborious preparation of hip-baths; the cars were duly bestowed in one of the old coach-houses, and the landlord himself consulted with Archie about dinner. McTavish and Peter were to be accommodated with their meals in a room by themselves — in old days, said the landlord, it had been the sitting-room of the Imperial couriers. The ladies and gentlemen would dine at the hour fixed in the grand parlour, which had some famous ancient carvings which learned men journeyed many miles to see. They would have the room to themselves — there were no other guests in the house. . . . He departed to see to the wine with a candlestick as large as a soup tureen.

The dinner was all that the landlord had promised. There was trout from the hills — honest, speckled trout — and a pie of partridges slain prematurely — and what Archie pronounced to be the best beef he had eaten outside England — and an omelet of kidneys and mushrooms — and little tartlets of young raspberries. It was a meal which Dickson was to regard as an epoch in his life; for, coming after the bare commons of Rosensee, it was a sort of festival in honour of his restored health. They drank a mild burgundy, and a sweet wine of the Tokay clan, and a local liqueur bottled forty years ago, and the coffee with which they concluded might have been brewed by the Ottoman whose severed head decorated the inn’s sign.

“Dickson,” Alison asked solemnly, “are you really and truly well again?”

“I’m a new man,” was the answer. “Ay, and a far younger man. I aye said, Miss Alison, that I was old but not dead-old. I’ve an awful weight of years behind me, but for all that at this moment I’m feeling younger than when I retired from business. They tell me that you’ve been to Dr Christoph too, Sir Archibald?”

“He’s a warlock,” said Archie. “I had got as lame as a duck, and he made me skip like a he-goat on the mountains. I daren’t presume too far, of course, or the confounded leg may sour on me. I got the most foul cramps the other day after a hill walk.”

“Same with me,” said Dickson. “The doctor says I may be a well body till the end of my days if I just go easy. I’m not very good at ca’ing canny, so no doubt I’ll have my relapses and my rheumatic turns. But that’s a small cross to bear. It’s not half as bad as the gout that the old gentry used to get.”

“Everybody,” said Archie, “has gout — or its equivalent. It’s part of man’s destiny. Chacun à son goût, as they say in Gaul.”

The miserable witticism was very properly ignored. It was Alison who brought them back to business. “I want to hear what Dougal said,” she told Dickson. “I came here because Jaikie wrote telling me to. I haven’t a notion where he is — I thought he was on his way home by this time. Archie and Janet came to keep me company. We’re all bound for the same house — if we can get in. Now tell me — very slowly — everything that Dougal said.”

Dickson, as well as he could, expounded Dougal’s reading of Evallonian affairs. There was nothing new to his auditors in the exposition, for it was very much what they already knew from McTavish.

“What I don’t understand,” said Alison, “is what Dougal thought you could do, Dickson.”

“I suppose,” was the modest answer, “that he wanted a business-like view of the situation.”

“But how could you give him that when you know so little about it?”

“That’s just what I told him. I said that before I could help to redd up the mischief I had to discover exactly what the mischief was. That’s why I came on here.”

“You’re a marvel,” said Alison with wide eyes. “I didn’t know you were so keen about Evallonia.”

“I’m not. I don’t care a docken about Evallonia. But, you see, I’m under a kind of bond, Miss Alison. You’ll mind the night in the Canonry when I saw Prince John off in a boat. He gave me this ring”— he held up his left hand —“and I said to him that if ever I got the word I would cross the world to help him.”

“He sent for you?”

“Not exactly. But the poor young man is evidently in sore difficulties, and I— well, I remembered my promise. I daresay he’ll be the better of a business mind to advise him. Dougal, I could see, thought me daft, but I’m sane enough. I don’t particularly fancy the job, for I’m wearying to get home, but there it is. I thought I’d first have a crack with Prince Odalchini and get the lay-out right. And then —”

“Then?”

“Then I must find Prince John, and the dear knows how I’ll manage that.”

A glance from Alison prevented Archie from saying something.

“It’s more important,” she said, “that you should find Jaikie.”

“I daresay that will be the way of it,” Dickson smiled. “He’s a prisoner, and at Zutpha today I thought I would soon be a prisoner too, and would run up against Jaikie in some jyle.”

“Jaikie,” said Alison, “told me to come here, for he needed me. That means that sooner or later he’ll be here too. They can’t prevent us getting into the House of the Four Winds if we’re Prince Odalchini’s friends. It isn’t war yet.”

“It is not a bad imitation.” A new voice spoke, and the four at the table, who had been intent on their talk, turned startled faces to the door. A tall man had quietly insinuated himself into the room, and was now engaged in turning the key in the lock. He had a ragged blond beard, and a face the colour of an autumn beech leaf: he wore an ill-cut grey suit and a vulgar shirt; also he had a Brigade tie.

“Good evening,” he said pleasantly. “How are you, Roylance? Proser — that’s the landlord — is a friend of mine and told me you were here.” He smiled and bowed to Janet, and then he stopped short, registering extreme surprise on a face not accustomed to such manifestations. “Cousin Alison! My dear, what magic spirited you here?”

“Thank God!” Alison exclaimed fervently. “I’ve been thinking of you all day, Ran, and longing to get hold of you. This is Mr Dickson McCunn, who is a friend of Jaikie — you remember Jaikie at the Lamanchas? I don’t know why you’re here — I don’t quite know why any of us are here — but here we are, and we must do something. By the way, you were saying as you slunk in-?”

“I was observing that the present state of affairs was a rather good imitation of war. How shall I put it? The Monarchists control the centre of Evallonia and the capital and can strike there when they please. Juventus is in power round the whole circumference of the country. They control its outlets and inlets — a very important point.”

“That’s why they are besieging the castle here?”

“Not besieging. Keeping it under observation. There has been as yet no overt act of hostility.”

“But they are taking prisoners. They’ve pinched Jaikie.”

Mr Glynde’s nil admirari countenance for a second time in five minutes registered surprise.

“Jaikie?” he cried. “What do you mean?”

“He is in the hands of Juventus. He has been seen in captivity. Do you know anything about him?” Alison’s voice had the sharpness of anxiety.

“I had the pleasure of meeting your Jaikie a few days ago up in the hills. I encouraged him to pay a visit to Evallonia. I helped to entertain him at luncheon with Prince Odalchini, when we tried to make him prolong his visit. You see, I had taken a fancy to Mr Jaikie and thought that he might be useful. I was to meet him that evening, but he never turned up, so I assumed that he was tired of my company, and had gone back across the frontier as he intended. It seems that I have misjudged him. He is a prisoner of Juventus, you say? That must be the doing of his friend Count Paul, and it looks as if all parties were competing for his company. Well, it may not be a bad thing, for it gives us an ally in the enemy’s camp. You look troubled, Alison dear, but you needn’t worry. Count Paul Jovian is not a bad sort of fellow, and I am inclined to think that Jaikie is very well able to look after himself.”

“I’m not worrying about Jaikie, but about ourselves. I came here because Jaikie sent for me, and that means that he expects to meet me. He named Prince Odalchini’s house. But how are we to get into it, if Juventus spends all its time squatting round it?”

“I think that can be managed,” said Mr Glynde. “You have greatly relieved my mind, my dear. If Jaikie means to come to the House of the Four Winds, he will probably manage it, and he may be a most valuable link with the enemy. You must understand that Juventus is by no means wholly the enemy, but may with a little luck become a friend. . . . By the way, just how much do you know about the situation?”

He proceeded by means of question and answer to probe their knowledge, directing his remarks to Alison at first, but later to Dickson, when he perceived that gentleman’s keenness.

“I must tell you one piece of bad news,” and his voice became grave. “I have just heard it. Prince John was in hiding in a certain place, waiting for the summons, for everything depends on his safety, and all precautions had to be taken. But his enemies discovered his retreat, and he has been kidnapped. We know who did it — Mastrovin, the most dangerous and implacable of them all.”

He was puzzled to find that the announcement did not solemnise his hearers. Indeed, with the exception of Dickson, it seemed to amuse them. But Dickson was aghast.

“Mercy on us!” he cried. “That’s an awful business. I mind Mastrovin, and a blackguard murdering face he had. I must away at once —”

“It is the worst thing that could have happened,” Mr Glynde continued. “They may kill him, and with him the hope of Evallonia. In any case it fatally disarranges the Monarchist plans. . . . What on earth is amusing you, Roylance?” he concluded testily.

Archie spoke, in obedience to a nod from Alison.

“Sorry,” he said. “But the fact is we got in ahead of old Mastrovin. We were at Unnutz, and saw what he was up to, so we nipped in and pinched the Prince ourselves.”

“Good God!” Mr Glynde for a moment could only stare. “Who knows about that?”

“Nobody, except us.”

“Where have you put him?”

“At this moment he is upstairs having his supper along with Mr McCunn’s chauffeur. His present job is to be my servant — name of McTavish — passport and everything according to Cocker.”

For the third time that evening Mr Glynde was staggered. He rose and strode about the room, and his blue eyes had a dancing light in them.

“I begin to hope,” he cried. “No, I begin to be confident. This freak of fate shows that the hussy is on our side.” He took a glass from the sideboard and filled himself a bumper of the local liqueur. “I drink to you mountebanks. You have beaten all my records. I have always loved you, Janet. I adore you, Alison, my dear, and I have been writing you some exquisite poetry. Eructavit cor meum as the Vulgate says — now I shall write you something still more exquisite. Roylance, you are a man after my own heart. Where are you going?” he asked, for Dickson had risen from the table.

“I thought I would go up and have a word with His Royal Highness.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind. Sit down. And drop the Royal Highness business.” Mr Glynde pulled a chair up to the table and leaned his elbows on it. “We must go very carefully in this business. You have done magnificently, but it’s still dangerous ground. You say nobody knows of it except ourselves. Well, not another soul must know of it. Mastrovin is out to kill or spirit away Prince John — he must believe that the Prince is lost. Casimir and the Monarchists must believe that Mastrovin is the villain and go out hot on his trail — that will have the advantage of demobilising the Monarchists, which is precisely what is wanted at present. The Prince must be tucked away carefully till we want him — and when and how we will want him depends on the way things go. Oh, I can tell you we have scored one mighty big point which may give us the game and the rubber. But he can’t stay here as your servant.”

“It’s a pretty good camouflage,” said Archie. “He’s the image of a respectable English valet, and I’m dashed if he hasn’t picked up a Scotch accent, like the real McTavish. You’d have to examine him with a microscope before you spotted the Prince. He’s a first-class actor, and it amuses him, so he puts his heart into it.”

“Nevertheless it is too dangerous. You people will be moving in the wrong circles, and sooner or later he’ll give himself away, or somebody will turn up that has known him from childhood. Luckily he hasn’t been much in Evallonia since he was a boy, but you never know. We must bury him deeper. . . . Wait a moment. I have it. He shall go into my circus. You may not know that I’m a circus proprietor, Alison dear — the Cirque Doré— Glynde, late Aristide Lebrun — the epochal, the encyclopædic, the grandiose. We are encamped in the environs of Tarta, and every night sprigs of Juventus, who are admitted at half-price, applaud our performances. The Prince shall join my staff — I will devise for him some sort of turn — he will be buried there as deep as if he were under the Rave. It will be a joyful irony that the enemies who are looking for him will applaud his antics. Then some day, please God, we will take him out of tights and grease-paint and give him a throne.”

Mr Glynde had become a poet, but he had not ceased to be a conspirator. “To-morrow morning,” he told Archie, “you will inform the landlord that you are sending your chauffeur home by road with your car. The cars will take your baggage to Zutpha, while you will walk there at your leisure through a pleasant country to catch the evening train. Proser is a good man, but it is unkind to burden even a good man with too much knowledge. Roylance’s chauffeur will not again be heard of. I will arrange about your baggage and the cars.”

“And what about us?” Archie asked.

“Before the evening — well before the evening, I hope — you will be in the House of the Four Winds.”

The party took an affectionate farewell of the landlord next morning, their baggage was piled into the cars, luncheon baskets were furnished, and Proser was informed that they meant to drive a mile or two till they cleared the town, and then to spend the day walking the woods on the left bank of the Rave, and catch the evening train at Zutpha. The cars would go straight to the railway station. There was no sign of Mr Randal Glynde.

McTavish, however, had been well coached. They crossed the Rave Bridge, passed the common where Jaikie had first met Count Paul, and plunged into a thick belt of woodland which covered all the country between the foothills and the river. Here there was no highway but many forest tracks, one in especial much rutted by heavy wagons and showing the prints of monstrous feet. The reason of this was apparent after a mile or so, when a clearing revealed the headquarters of the Cirque Doré. It was not its show-ground — that was in the environs of Tarta — but its base, where such animals were kept as were not immediately required. It was guarded by a stout palisade, and many notices warning the public that wild beasts lived there, and that they must not enter.

Mr Glynde was awaiting them, and one or two idlers hung around the gate. Archie caught, too, what he thought was a glimpse of a green shirt. Randal received them with the elaborate courtesies of a circus proprietor welcoming distinguished patrons. The chauffeurs of the two cars he directed how to proceed to Zutpha. “They will return by another road in due course,” he whispered to Alison, “but it is altogether necessary that they should be seen to leave this place.”

Of what followed no member of the party had a very clear recollection. They were taken to a tent less odoriferous than the rest, and provided with white caps on which the name of the circus was embroidered in scarlet. “We give a matinée today,” said Randal, “an extra performance asked for by Tarta. It will be in a dance-hall, and the programme is in Luigi’s hands — gipsy dances and songs and fiddling, for we are no mere vulgar menagerie. You will accompany the artistes back to Tarta. Trust me, you will not be suspected. The Cirque Doré has become a common object of the seashore.”

So Archie and Janet, Alison and Dickson, joined a party which crowded into an old Ford bus, and jolted back the way they had come. The dance-hall proved to be a building not far from the Turk’s Head, and it was already packed when the company arrived and entered by a side door. Randal deposited the four in a little room behind the stage. “You will lunch out of your baskets,” he told them, “while I supervise the start of the show. When it is in full swing I will come back.”

So while fiddles jigged a yard or two off and the feet and hands of Tarta citizens applauded, the four made an excellent meal and conversed in whispers. The circus cap was becoming to Alison and Janet, and it made Archie look like a professional cricketer, but on Dickson’s head it sat like an incongruous cowl out of a Christmas cracker. “A daft-like thing,” he observed, “but I’m long past caring for appearances. I doubt,” he added prophetically, “that there’ll be a lot of dressing-up before we’re through with this business. It’s a pity that I’ve the kind of face you cannot properly disguise. Providence never meant me to be a play-actor.”

Randal did not return for a good hour. He seemed satisfied. “The coast is clear,” he said, “and I’ve just had word from my camp that everything is all right there. Now we descend into the deeps, and I’m afraid it will be rather a dusty business. You can leave the circus caps behind, and put on your proper headgear. I hope you two women have nothing on that will spoil.”

He led them down a rickety wooden stair into a basement in which were stored many queer properties; then out of doors into a small dark courtyard above which beetled the walls of the castle. In a corner of this was a door, which he unlocked, and which led to further stables, this time of ancient stone. There followed a narrow passage, another door, and then a cave of a room which contained barrels and shelves and smelt of beer.

“We are now in the cellars of the Turk’s Head,” Randal expounded. “Proser knows this road, and he knows that I know it, but he does not know of our present visit.”

From the beer cellar they passed into a smaller one, one end of which was blocked by a massive wooden frame containing bottles in tiers. Randal showed that one part of this frame was jointed, and that a section, bottles and all, formed a door. He pulled this back, and his electric torch revealed a low door in a stone wall. It was bolted with heavy ancient bolts, but they seemed to have been recently in use, for they slipped easily back. Now he evidently expected it to open, but it refused. There was a keyhole, but no key.

“Some fool must have locked it,” he grumbled. “It must have been Proser, and I told him to leave the infernal thing open. I’m extremely sorry, but you’ll have to wait here till I get a key. It’s filthy dirty, but you won’t suffocate.”

They did not suffocate, but they had a spell of weary waiting, for the place was pitch-dark and no one of them had a light. Dickson tried to explore in the blackness, and ran his head hard against an out-jutting beam, after which he sat down on the floor and slept. Archie smoked five cigarettes, and did his best to keep up a flow of conversation. “This is the Middle Ages right enough,” he said. “We’re making burglarious entry into an ancient Schloss, and I feel creepy down the spine. We didn’t bargain for this Monte Cristo business, Janet, when we left Geneva. And the last thing I heard that old ass Perrier say there was that the mediæval was out of date.” But by and by he too fell silent, and it was a dispirited and headachy company that at last saw the gleam of Mr Glynde’s torch.

“I humbly apologise,” said Randal, “but I had a devil of a hunt for Proser. He had gone to see a cousin about his confounded vines. He swears he never locked the door, so it must have been done from the other side. The people in the Schloss are evidently taking no chances. But I’ve got the key.”

The thing opened readily, and the explorers repeated their recent performance, threading a maze of empty cellars till they came to a door which led to a staircase. For a long time they seemed to be climbing a spiral inside a kind of turret, and came at last to a stage where thin slits of windows let in the daylight. Archie peered out and announced that in his opinion it must be about six o’clock. At last they reached a broad landing, beyond which further steps appeared to ascend. But there was also a door, which Randal tackled confidently as if he expected it to open at once.

It refused to budge. He examined it and announced that it was locked. “It is always kept open,” he said. “I’ve used it twenty times lately. What in thunder is the matter with it today?”

It was very plain what the matter was. It had been barricaded by some heavy object on the other side. It moved slightly under his pressure, but the barricade held fast.

“The nerves of this household have gone to blazes,” he said. “Roylance, lend a hand, and you, McCunn. We must heave our weight on it.”

They heaved their weight, but it did not yield; indeed, they heaved till the three men had no breath left in them. There was a creaking and grinding beyond, but the heavy body, whatever it was, held its ground. They laboured for the better part of an hour, and by and by made a tiny aperture between door and doorpost. The door was too strong to splinter, but Archie got a foot in the crack and, supported by vigorous pressure from behind, slowly enlarged it. Then something seemed to topple down with a crash beyond the door, and they found that it yielded. They squeezed past a big Dutch armoire, from the top of which had fallen a marble torso of Hercules.

Randal was now on familiar ground. The noise they had made had woken no response in the vast silent house. He led them through stone passages, and then into carpeted corridors, and through rooms hung with tapestries and pictures. There was no sign of servants or of any human life, but Janet and Alison, feeling the approach of civilisation, tried to tidy their hair, and Mr McCunn passed a silk handkerchief over a damp forehead. At last, when it seemed that they had walked for miles, Randal knocked at a door and was bidden enter.

It was a small room lined with books, aglow with the sunset which came through a tall window. In a chair sat an old man in a suit of white linen, and on a couch beside him a youthful and dishevelled figure which was refreshing itself with a glass of beer.

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