The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 7

“Si Vieillesse Pouvait”

Mr John Galt had reason to seek refreshment, for he had had an eventful afternoon.

He had spent two days not unpleasantly in the camp of that wing of Juventus which Ashie commanded. (“Wing” was their major unit of division: they borrowed their names from the Romans, and Ashie was “Praefectus Alae.”) He was a prisoner, but in honourable captivity — an English friend of the Commander, detained not because he was hostile, but because of the delicacy of the situation. Ashie introduced him to the subordinate officers, and he found them a remarkable collection. There were old soldiers among them who attended to the military side, but there were also a number of young engineers and business men and journalists, who all had their special duties. Juventus, it appeared, was not only a trained and disciplined force, the youth of a nation in arms for defence and, it might be, offence; it was also an organisation for national planning and economic advancement. The recruits were brigaded outside their military units in groups according to their training and professions, and in each group were regular conferences and an elaborate system of education. Jaikie attended a meeting of an oil group, oil being one of Evallonia’s major industries, and was impressed by the keenness of the members and the good sense of the discussions, so far as they were explained to him. This was no mere ebullition of militarism, but something uncommonly like a national revival. He realised that it was not one man’s making. A leader would no doubt be necessary when Juventus took a hand in politics, but the movement itself had welled up from below. It was the sum of the spontaneous efforts of a multitude of people of all types and degrees, who had decided that they were tired of toy-shops and blind alleys and must break for open country.

Jaikie was a good mixer and very soon had made friends among the rank-and-file as well as among the officers. His meek cheerfulness and the obvious affection which the Commander showed for him were passports to their good-will. The language he found to be scarcely a difficulty at all. Most of the Evallonian youth had at least a smattering of English and many spoke it well, for it had long been in the schools the one obligatory foreign tongue. The second day he played in a Rugby game, a purifying experience on a torrid afternoon. Sports and gymnastics had a large part in Juventus, and every afternoon was consecrated to them. Ashie must have spread his fame, for he was invited to join the Blue fifteen, and was permitted to fill his old place at right wing three-quarters. It was a fierce, swift and not very orthodox game, the forwards doing most of the work, and the tackling being clumsy and uncertain. But he found that one or two of his side had a fair notion of the business, and some of them had certainly a fine turn of speed. One especially, the centre three-quarter next him, had clearly played a good deal, and now and then there was quite a creditable bout of passing. Jaikie had not a great deal of work to do, but in the second half he got the ball and scored a try, after a spectacular but not very difficult run down the field. However, that kind of run was apparently new to Evallonia, and it was received by the spectators with delirious applause.

Afterwards, when he was having a drink, Ashie introduced him to the centre, whose name was Ivar. The boy regarded him with open-eyed admiration.

“You have played for the English college of the Praefectus?” he asked respectfully.

“For a good deal more than that,” said Ashie. “Mr Galt is one of the most famous players in the world. He is what they call an International, and is the pride of his nation, which is Scotland.”

Ivar gasped.

“Scotland! That is a famous land. I have read romances about it. Its men dress like women but fight like lions. It loves freedom and has always helped other people to become free.”

Jaikie had a walk with Ivar within the limits of the cantonment and discovered a strong liking for the boy’s solemn enthusiasm. Ivar, it appeared, was a young electrical engineer and had been destined to a post in Brazil when Juventus called him. Now his ambition was limited to the immediate future, the great patriotic effort which the next few weeks would demand. He did not talk of it, for Juventus was schooled to reticence, but the light of it was in his eyes. But he spoke much of Evallonia, and Jaikie learned one thing from him — there was complete loyalty to the ideal of the cause, but no one leader had laid his spell upon it. Ivar mentioned with admiration and affection many names — Ashie’s among them — but there was no one that dominated the rest. “When we triumph,” he said, “we will call to our aid all good men.”

“Including the Monarchists?” Jaikie asked.

“Including the Monarchists, if they be found worthy.”

They stood for a little on a ridge above the camp, where ran the high road along which Ashie’s car had brought him. It was a clear evening and there was a wide prospect. Jaikie, who had his countrymen’s uneasiness till he had the points of the compass in his head, was now able to orientate his position. The camp was in a crook of the Rave before it bent eastward in the long curve which took it to Melina. To the south he saw the confines of a big park, and to the east the smoke of a far-away train.

Ivar was glad to enlighten him.

“That is the nearest railway,” he said. “The station of Zutpha is four miles off, beyond where you see the cornfield in sheaf. Yes, that is a nobleman’s park, the castle called the House of the Four Winds. At the other side is the little city of Tarta, once a busy place, but now mouldering.”

Jaikie asked who owned the castle.

“It is Prince Odalchini,” said the boy with a grave face. “A famous house, the Odalchinis, and we of Juventus are not rootless Communists to despise ancient things. But this Prince Odalchini is an old man and he becomes foolish. He is a crazy Monarchist, and would bring back the old ways unchanged. Therefore he is closely watched by us. We do not permit any entry into his domain, or any exit except by our leave.”

Jaikie cast his eye over the wide expanse of forest and pasture.

“But how can you watch so big a place when you have so many other things to do? It must be eight or nine miles round.”

“It is part of our training,” said Ivar simply. “The main entrances are of course picketed. For the rest, we have our patrols, and they are very clever. We Evallonians have sharp eyes and a good sense for country, and we have been most of us in our time what you call Boy Scouts, and many of us are hill-bred or forest-bred. We have our wood-craft and our field-craft. Believe me, Prince Odalchini is as securely guarded as if battalions of foot lined his park fence. Not a squirrel can enter without our knowing it.”

“I see,” said Jaikie, feeling a little depressed. His eye crossed the Rave and ran along a line of hills ten miles or so to the west. They were only foot-hills, two thousand feet high at the most, but beyond he had a glimpse of remote mountains. He saw to his left the horseshoe in which Tarta and its Schloss lay — he could not see the pass that led to Kremisch, since it was hidden by a projecting spur. To the north the hills seemed to dwindle away into a blue plain. Just in front of him there was a deeply-recessed glen, the containing walls of which were wooded to the summit, but at the top the ridge was bare, and there was a cleft shaped like the backsight of a rifle. In that cleft the sun was most spectacularly setting.

Ivar followed his gaze. “That is what we call the Wolf’s Throat. It is the nearest road to the frontier. There in that cleft is the western gate of Evallonia.”

As Jaikie looked at the nick, sharp cut against the crimson sky, he had a sudden odd sensation. Beyond that cleft lay his old life. Down here in this great shadowy cup of Evallonia was a fantastic world full of incalculable chances. These chances pleasurably excited him, but there were dregs of discomfort in his mind; he felt that he had been enticed here and that something in the nature of a trap might close on him. Now Jaikie had a kind of claustrophobia, and anything like a trap made him feel acutely unhappy, so it comforted him to see the outlet. That blazing rifle-backsight among the hills was the road to freedom. Some day soon he might have to use it, and it was good to know that it was there.

That night he observed after supper that he must be getting on with his job, and Ashie agreed. “I was just going to say the same thing myself,” he said. “The air is full of rumours, and we can’t get a line on what the Monarchists mean to do. There must be some hitch in their plans. We hear from Melina that there’s not a Minister left in the place, only clerks carrying on, and that the National Guard are standing-to, waiting orders. We shall probably come on a Minister or two very soon trying to cross the frontier, but our orders are to speed their journey. We don’t want a pogrom. What worries me is Cousin Mintha. She is in the south, among the oil-fields, and it looks as if she were on the warpath and moving towards Melina. We are nothing like ready for that, and she may put everything in the soup. The Monarchists must be allowed to show their hand first, but in this darned fog nobody knows anything. So the sooner you get inside the House of the Four Winds, my lad, the better for everybody.”

“Can’t you release me on parole?” Jaikie asked.

“Impossible. If you were caught in this neighbourhood and I had let you out on parole, I should be suspected of double-dealing, and I can’t afford that with Mintha on her high horse. No, you must escape and go off on the loose, so that if you are caught I can deal with you firmly. I may have to put you in irons,” he added with a grin.

“It won’t be easy to get into that castle,” said Jaikie. “I’ve had a word with the young Ivar and they seem to have taped every yard.”

“Well, that’s just where your genius comes in, my dear. I put my Evallonians high, but I’m prepared to back you as a strategist against them every time. Look at the way you ran round the Green backs this afternoon.”

“Then there’s the getting in here again.”

“That will be all right if you don’t take too long. I can have your tent shut up all day and give out that you’ve a touch of malaria and mustn’t be disturbed. . . . We can make sure that you leave camp unnoticed, for I’ll tell you the dispositions. Then it’s up to you to get inside the Schloss and out again and be back here early in the night. I can tell you the best place to enter our lines.”

“All right,” said Jaikie a little dolefully. “My only job is to dodge your lads and have a heart-to-heart talk with the Prince. What about him, by the way? Mayn’t he have a posse of keepers taking pot-shots at any intruder?”

“No, that’s not his way. You have only us to fear. Be thankful that you can reduce your enemies to one lot. Ours seem to produce a fresh crop daily. I’ve just heard that one of Mastrovin’s gang has been seen pretty near here. If Mastrovin turns up there’s likely to be dirty work.”

Jaikie went out literally with the milk. Every morning the neighbouring farms sent up milk for the camp in great tin drums borne in little pony-carts, and with them a batch of farm boys. Discipline was relaxed on these occasions, and Ashie had indicated one route which the milk convoy invariably followed. Jaikie, in much-stained flannel bags and a rough tweed jacket and ancient shoes, might easily pass as an Evallonian rustic. So he trotted out of camp behind a milk-cart, his hands assisting an empty drum to keep its balance. A hundred yards on and he slipped inconspicuously into the roadside scrub.

The weather was cooler than it had been of late, and there was a light fresh wind blowing from the hills. Jaikie felt rejuvenated, and began to look forward to his day’s task with a mild comfort. He did not believe that any patrols of Juventus could prevent him from getting inside the park. After that the job would be harder. He remembered the gentle fanaticism in Prince Odalchini’s eyes, and considered that it might be difficult to get him to agree to any counsels of moderation, or even to listen to them. He might regard Jaikie as one who had deliberately gone over to the other side. But Randal Glynde, if he were there, would help — Jaikie hoped he would be there. And there was just a chance that Alison might have turned up. It was this last thought that strung up his whole being to a delicious expectation.

As he expected, it was not very difficult to get inside the park. His prospect from the ridge the night before had given him his bearings. He realised that his former entrance with Luigi had been on the east side, not far from the road between Zutpha and Tarta; now he was on the north side, where there was no road following the boundary, and thick coverts of chestnut undergrowth extended right up to the paling. He did not find it hard to locate the Juventus cordon. The patrols made their rounds noiselessly and well, but he discovered from their low whistles the timing of their beats, and when it would be safe to make a dash. But it took an unconscionable time, and it was midday before his chance came, for he was determined to take no needless risks. There was a point where the high paling was broken by the mossy and ruinous posts of an old gateway. That was the place he had selected, and at exactly seventeen minutes past twelve he slipped over like a weasel and dropped into the fern of the park.

He travelled a few hundred yards, and then halted to lunch off some biscuits and chocolate provided by Ashie. Then with greater freedom he resumed his journey. Beneath him the ground fell away to a small stream, a tributary of the Rave, which had been canalised in a broad stone channel. There was no bridge, but for the convenience of the estate-labourers a plank had been laid across it. Beyond was a glade of turf, at the end of which he could see the beginning of a formal garden. This was very plain sailing, and he became careless, forgetting that Juventus might have their patrols inside the park as well as without. . . . Suddenly, when he was within a few yards of the culvert, swinging along and humming to himself, he found his feet fly from beneath him. He had been tripped up neatly by a long pole, and the owner sat himself heavily on his chest.

Convinced after the first movement that he was hopelessly outmatched in physical strength, Jaikie did not struggle. Vain resistance he had always regarded as folly. His assailant behaved oddly. He ejaculated something as the result of a closer inspection, and then removed himself from his prisoner’s chest. But he did not relax a tight grip on his arm. Jaikie observed with some surprise that he was in the hands of Ivar.

Ivar’s surprise was greater. His arms imprisoned Jaikie’s to his sides, and to a spectator the couple must have had a lover-like air.

“Mr Galt!” he gasped. “What the devil are you doing here?”

“You may well ask,” said Jaikie pleasantly. “The fact is, I’ve broken bounds. I wanted to have a look at that Schloss. D’you mind not gripping my shoulder so hard? You’ve got me safe enough.”

“You have escaped?” said Ivar solemnly. “You have not been permitted to come here on parole?”

“No. Count Paul did not give me permission — he knows nothing about it — this is my own show. But look here, Ivar, you’re a sensible chap and must listen to reason. I’m on your side, and I’m trying to help your cause in my own way. I have special reasons for being here which I can’t explain to you now. I mean to be back in camp this evening — I’ll pledge you my word of honour for that. So if you’re wise you’ll let me go and never say a word about having seen me.”

Ivar’s face showed the confusion of his feelings.

“You know all about me,” Jaikie went on. “You know I’m a friend of the Praefectus. Well, I’m trying to help him, without his knowledge — that’s why I’m here. You won’t interfere with me if you’ve the interests of Juventus at heart.”

The boy’s face had changed from bewilderment to sternness.

“I cannot let you go. You are my prisoner and you must return with me. It is not for me to use my discretion. I must obey my orders, and the orders are clear.”

There was that in his eye which warned Jaikie that argument was futile. The discipline of Juventus allowed no quibbling. But Jaikie continued to plead, judging meantime the distance from the culvert and the plank. Then he seemed to give it up as a bad job. “All right,” he said. “So be it. I daresay it’s the only thing you can do, but it’s infernal hard luck on me. The Praefectus will think I have been trying to double-cross him, and I honestly wanted to help him. You believe that, don’t you?”

Ivar, remembering his admiration of yesterday, relented so far as to say that he did. Jaikie’s surrender, too, caused him to relax the tightness of his grip, and in an instant Jaikie acted. With an eel-like twist he was out of his clutches and Ivar found himself sprawling on the slope. Before he had found his feet Jaikie had skipped over the culvert and had kicked the plank into the water. The two faced each other across a gully which was too broad to jump, and to cross which meant the descent and ascent of slimy stone walls.

“Let’s talk sense,” said Jaikie. “You know you haven’t an earthly chance of catching me. You’ve done your duty, in arresting me — only I’ve escaped, which is your rotten luck. Now listen. I’m going on to reconnoitre that house, never mind why. But, as I told you, I’m on your side, and on Count Paul’s side, and I’m coming back. I’ll have to wait till it’s darkish — eight or nine o’clock perhaps, I daresay. Will your lads be on duty then?”

Something in Jaikie’s tone impressed Ivar. “I shall be on duty,” he said. “I return here for my second tour at eight o’clock.”

“Well, I’ll come back this way, and I’ll surrender myself to you. I don’t want to outrage your discipline. You can march me to the camp, and hand me over to the Praefectus, and it will be my business to make my peace with him. Have you got that right?”

But Ivar’s sense of duty was not to be beguiled. He started to climb down into the culvert. “Ass!” said Jaikie as he turned and trotted off in the direction of the castle. He dived into one of the side glades, and when he had reached the first terrace wall and looked back he saw that his pursuer had halted not very far from the culvert. Perhaps, he thought, there was some order of Juventus which confined their patrols to a certain distance inside the park bounds.

Jaikie, as he threaded the terrace paths, and climbed stairways between neglected creepers and decaying statuary, discovered that he had come to the northern end of the Schloss, which was one of the last-century additions, castellated, battlemented, topped with bogus machicolations. The great house had looked deserted on his first visit, but now it had the air of a forsaken mausoleum. He turned the flank of it and moved along the weedy upper terrace, looking for the door by which he and the Prince had entered after luncheon. He found it, but it was locked and apparently barricaded. He found other doors, but they were in the same condition. The House of the Four Winds seemed to have prepared itself for a siege.

This was discouraging. It occurred to him that the Prince might have departed, but in that case Juventus would have known of it and would not be maintaining its vigilant beleaguerment. He retired to the terrace wall, from which he could get a good view of the tiers of windows. All of them were blind and shuttered. If there were people in the castle they were dwelling in the dark. This he knew was the side where the chief living-rooms were, and if there were inmates anywhere it would be here.

At last his quick eyes caught sight of something on the third floor. It was a window open a little at the top. It was dark, but that might be because of blinds and not of shutters — the sun was so placed that it was hard to judge of that. By that window, and by that window only, he might effect an entrance.

It was an easy conclusion to reach, but the ways and means were not easy. Beneath each line of windows ran a narrow ledge along which it might be just possible to make a traverse. But the question was how to reach that ledge, for there were no friendly creepers on the great blank stone façade. Jaikie, moving stealthily in the cover of pots and statues, for he had an ugly feeling that he might be under hostile observation, reconnoitred carefully the whole front. Something told him that he was not alone in this business; he had the sense that somewhere else on that terrace there were human beings engaged perhaps in the same enterprise. Could Juventus have flung out their scouts thus far? He scarcely believed it, judging from Ivar’s behaviour, but he had no time for nervousness, for the day was getting on and he had still his main work to do.

The front yielded him nothing. But at the flanking tower which he had first approached he got a glimmer of hope. There was a fire escape which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, but which was certainly still climbable. The question was would it give access to the ledge below the window? He thought that it might, and started to ascend.

Many of the rungs were rotten, and he had to move with extreme caution; indeed, at one moment he feared that the whole contraption would break loose from the wall. Now his early training proved its worth, for he was without a suspicion of vertigo, and could look down unmoved from any height. The fire-escape led up to the third story, and he found that by stepping to his left he could stand on the sill of a narrow window in the gap between the tower and the main façade. He got his hands on the ledge and to his relief found it broader than he had hoped — at least a foot and a half of hard stone. The difficulty would be to draw himself up on to it.

He achieved this, not without some tremor of the heart, for a foot and a half is not much of a landing-place. Very cautiously he laid himself along it, and then slowly raised himself to his feet. By turning his head he had a glimpse of a great swimming landscape running out into blue distances — he did not look twice, for even his cool head grew a little giddy at the sight. With his face to the wall of the castle he began to side-step along the ledge.

It proved far simpler than he had feared, for the stone was firm. He passed window after window, all closed and shuttered, till his heart began to sink. Had he blundered after all? Surely the window he had marked had been the fifth from the right. . . . And then he came to one which, as he approached it, seemed suddenly to move. A hand was lifting the lower sash, and an old face looked out into the sunlight.

Jaikie took a firm grip of the inner sill, for he felt that anything might happen, and the terrace was a long way below. “Prince Odalchini,” he said, “I’ve come back.”

The old face scarcely changed. Its eyes peered and blinked a little at the uncouth figure which seemed to be hanging in air.

“I’m Galt,” said the figure. “Do you mind me coming in?”

“Ah, yes — Mr Galt,” said the voice. “Certainly come in. You are very welcome. I do not think anyone has attempted that ledge since for a bet I did it as a boy. But my effort was limited to the traverse between two windows. You have come all the way from the North Tower! Magnificent! You will desire, I think, some refreshment.”

Dickson McCunn sat in a deep armchair sipping a mammoth cup of tea. Prince Odalchini had offered every kind of refreshment, but it had taken time to dig the old housekeeper and the older butler out of the cavernous lower regions, and indeed Janet and Alison had had to descend themselves and help to make tea. All seven were now sitting in the Prince’s cabinet, and for the last quarter of an hour the conversation had been chiefly an examination of Jaikie by the Prince and Randal Glynde. Dickson listened with only half an ear, for Jaikie was confirming what they already knew. He was more intent on savouring the full strangeness of this experience.

Two days ago he had been an ordinary convalescent at a German kurhaus, on the eve of returning to the homely delights of Blaweary. Now he found himself inside an old stone palace which was in a state of siege, a palace which he had entered like a rat through mysterious cellars. His mind kept casting back to the spring morning nine — or was it ten? — years ago, when, being freed for ever from the routine of business, he had set out on a walking-tour, and had found himself in another great house among desperate folk. He remembered his tremors and hesitations, and that final resolve which he had never regretted, which indeed had been the foundation of all his recent happiness. Was he destined to face another crisis? Looking back, it seemed to him that everything had been predestined. He had left the shop and set out on his travels because he was needed at Huntingtower. Had Providence decreed that Dr Christoph should give him back his health simply that he should come here?

Dickson felt solemn. He had that Calvinistic belief in the guidance of Allah which is stronger than any Moslem’s, and he had also the perpetual expectation of the bigoted romantic. . . . But he was getting an old man, too old for cantrips. His eye fell upon Prince Odalchini, who was also old, though he seemed to have grown considerably younger in the past half-hour. He felt that he had misjudged the Prince; his face was shrewder than he had thought, and he seemed to be talking with authority. Jaikie, too. Dickson was not following the talk, but Jaikie’s gravity was impressive, and the rest were listening to him eagerly. He felt a sudden uprush of pride in Jaikie. He was a different being now from the pallid urchin of Huntingtower, who had wept bitterly when he was getting dangerous.

His eyes roamed round the walls, taking in a square of old tapestry, and a line of dark kit-kat portraits. The window showed a patch of golden evening sky. The light caught Alison’s hair, and he began to wonder about her and Jaikie. Would they ever be man and wife? It would be a queer match between long descent and no descent at all — but it was a queer world, and nothing could be queerer than this place. Janet and Archie belonged to a familiar sphere, but Mr Glynde was like nothing so much as the Pied Piper of Hamelin. What was he, Dickson McCunn, doing among such outlandish folk? Dougal had said that they wanted his advice; but he felt as impotent as Thomas the Rhymer no doubt felt when he was consulted on the internal affairs of Fairyland. . . . Still, common sense was the same all the world over. But what if common sense was not wanted here, but some desperate quality of rashness, some insane adventurousness? He wished he were twenty years younger, for he remembered Prince John. He was sworn to do his best for the exiled monarch, and that very morning with a break in his voice he had renewed the pledge to the chauffeur McTavish.

By this time he was coming out of his dreams, and hearing something of the conversation. As he finished his tea Jaikie was putting the heart of his problem in staccato sentences, and Prince Odalchini and Mr Glynde with gloomy faces were nodding their assent. Something in the words stirred a reminiscence. . . .

“I mind,” said Dickson out of the depths of his chair.

It was the first time he had spoken, and the others turned to him, so that he felt a little embarrassed.

“I mind,” he said, “when Jimmy Turnbull was running for Lord Provost of Glasgow. He was well liked and far the best man for the job, but the feck of the Town Council didn’t fancy his backers, and if it had come to the vote Jimmy would have been beat. So Tam Dickson — he was my own cousin and was Baillie then and afterwards Lord Provost himself — Tam was the wily one and jerked his brains to think of a way out. What he did was this. He got Jimmy’s friends to drop Jimmy and put up one David Duthie, who was a blethering body that was never out of the papers. He had a sore job persuading them, he told me, but he managed it in the end. The consequence was that the very men that were opposed to Jimmy’s backers, now that he was quit of them, took up Jimmy, and since they were a majority of the Council he was triumphantly elected.”

Dickson’s apologue was received with blank faces by the others, with the exception of Randal Glynde. Into that gentleman’s eyes came a sudden comprehending interest, and Dickson saw it and was encouraged. His own mind was awaking to a certain clearness.

“If Prince John didn’t exist,” he asked, “is there anybody else the Monarchists could put up?”

“There is no one,” said Prince Odalchini sadly. “There is, of course, his uncle, the late king’s brother, the Archduke Hadrian, but he is impossible.”

“Tell us about the Archduke,” said Dickson.

“He is an old man, and very frail. He has not been in Evallonia for many years, and even his name is scarcely remembered. He is believed to be one of the greatest living numismatologists, and he has given his life to his hobby. I alone of the Evallonian nobility have kept in touch with him, and it was only yesterday that I had a letter from his secretary. His Royal Highness is a bachelor, and for long has lived in a chateau in France near Chantilly, scarcely going beyond his park walls. He is as strict a recluse as any mediæval hermit. Now he is bedridden, and I fear cannot have many months to live.”

Prince Odalchini rose, opened a cabinet, and took out a photograph.

“That is His Royal Highness, taken two years ago at my request, for I desired to have a memento of him. In my youth he was kind to me.”

He handed it to Dickson, who studied it carefully. It showed a man not unlike Mr Pickwick or the great Cavour, with a round face, large innocent eyes, and grey hair thinning on the temples — a man of perhaps seventy years, but, so far as could be judged from the photograph, still chubby and fresh-complexioned. It was passed round the company. Janet and Archie scarcely glanced at it, but Mr Glynde looked at it and then looked at Dickson, and his brow furrowed. Jaikie did the same, and when it came to Alison she cried out —“Why, Dickson, it might be you, if your hair was greyer.”

“I was just thinking that,” was the answer. Dickson retrieved the photograph and studied it again.

“What size of a man is he?” he asked. His clearness of mind was becoming acid.

“Shortish, about your own height,” said the Prince.

“Umphm! Now what hinders you to do the same with the Archduke as my cousin Tam Dickson did with David Duthie? Jaikie says that Juventus would be for Prince John but for you and your friends. Well, if you run the Archduke, they’ll take up Prince John, and since you tell me they’ll have the upper hand of you, they’ll put Prince John on the throne. D’you see what I mean? It’s surely common sense.”

This speech had a considerable effect on the others. Archie laughed idiotically, and Mr Glynde found it impossible to remain seated. But Prince Odalchini only shook his head.

“Ingenious,” he said, “but impossible. His Royal Highness is old and frail and bedridden. He would not consent, and even if he consented, he would be dead before he reached Evallonia.”

Dickson’s mind was moving by leaps to a supreme boldness.

“What for should he come near Evallonia? He need never leave his chateau, and indeed the closer he lies there the better. It’s not his person, but his name that you want. . . . See here, Prince. You say that nobody in Evallonia knows him, and few have ever seen him, but that there’s a general notion of what he looks like. Can you persuade your friends to change their minds about Prince John and declare for the Archduke as the older and wiser man and more suited for this crisis? If you do that, and put him or something like him on the throne, Juventus will come along in a week and fling him out and set up Prince John, and then you’ll all be happy together.”

The company was staring at him open-mouthed and wide-eyed, all except Prince Odalchini, who seemed inclined to be cross.

“But I tell you we cannot get His Royal Highness,” he said.

“I said ‘or something like him,’” was Dickson’s answer. His mind was now as limpid as an April morning.

“What on earth do you mean?”

“I mean somebody you can pass off as the Archduke.”

“And where shall we find him?” The Prince’s tone was ironical.

“What about myself?” said Dickson.

For an instant there was utter silence.

Prince Odalchini’s face showed a range of strong emotions, anger, perplexity, incredulity and then something that was almost hope. When he spoke, his words were inadequate to his feelings. “Are you mad?” he asked.

“‘Deed I’m not. I came here as a business man to give you my advice, and there it is. It’s a perfectly simple proposition, and there’s just the one answer. By the mercy of God I’m reasonably like the old man, though I’m a good deal younger, and anyway there is nobody to tell the differ. I’m willing to take the chance, though I suppose it will be high treason if I’m grippit, for I’m not going back on my word to Prince John. I’ll see yon lad with his hinder parts on the throne before I leave Evallonia, or my name’s not Dickson McCunn.”

“You realise that you would be running tremendous risks?”

“Ugh, ay, but I’ve taken risks before this. The only thing I stipulate is that I’m not left too long on the throne, for I wouldn’t be up to the job. I might manage a week before I went skelping across the frontier — but not more.”

Prince Odalchini’s expression had changed. There was now respect in it, and excitement, and a twitching humour.

“I think you are the boldest man I have ever met,” he said.

“Never heed that,” said Dickson. “My knees will likely be knocking together before I’ve done. What I want to know is, can you persuade the rest of your lot, Muresco particularly, to agree to this plan?”

The Prince considered. “It may be difficult, but I think it can be done. After all, it is the only way.”

“And can you upset the Republic and set up the Archduke?”

“Beyond doubt. For a little while — that is to say.”

“Last and most important, can Juventus be persuaded to accept Prince John?”

It was Jaikie who answered.

“I believe they could. Count Paul would jump at him, and so would the rank-and-file. I don’t know about the other leaders. There’s a woman who matters a good deal.”

“Prince John must marry her then. That’s all. We’re desperate folk and we’re not going to stick at trifles.” Dickson was in that mood of excited authority which always with him followed the taking of a great resolution. “But, Jaikie, it’s terrible important that, if I get that far, Juventus must force me to abdicate in a week — I couldn’t manage longer. It would be an awful business if at my time of life I was kept cocked up on a throne I didn’t want. There’s just the one job for you, and that’s to manage Juventus, and, mind, I’ve trusted you often and never known you fail. Away with you back to your camp, for there’s no time to lose.”

“We dine in half an hour,” said Prince Odalchini.

“Well, let’s get pencil and paper and work out the details.”

But they did not immediately get to business, for Alison rose and ceremoniously embraced Mr McCunn. Her kiss was like that of Saskia’s years before in the house of Huntingtower; it loosed a force of unknown velocity upon the world.

The twilight had fallen when Jaikie emerged from one of the terrace doors, which was promptly locked behind him. He proposed to return the way he had come and surrender himself to Ivar. After that he and Ashie must hold high converse. He had a task before him of immense difficulty and his head was already humming with plans. But Dickson’s certainty had given him hope, and he thanked his stars that he had not gone home, for now he was in the kind of adventure he had dreamed of, and his comrades were the people he loved best in the world. This was his notion of happiness.

He must hurry, if he was not to miss Ivar, so he short-circuited his route, by dropping from the successive terrace walls instead of going round by the stairways. . . . At the last of them he found that he had dropped into a human embrace which was strict and powerful, but not friendly.

His instinct of the afternoon had been right. Others besides himself had been lurking among the paths and statues of the terraces.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/house/chapter7.html

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