The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan

Chapter 9

Night in the Woods

The great forest of St Sylvester lies like a fur over the patch of country through which the little river Silf — the Amnis Silvestris of the Romans — winds to the Rave. At the eastern end, near the Silf’s junction with the main river, stands the considerable town of Krovolin; south of it stretch downs studded with the ugly headgear of oil wells; and west is the containing wall of the mountains. It is pierced by one grand highway, and seamed with lesser roads, many of them only grassy alleys among the beeches.

At one of the cross-roads, where the highway was cut at right angles by a track running from north to south, two cars were halted. The Evallonian summer is justly famed for its settled weather, but sometimes in early August there falls for twenty-four hours a deluge of rain, if the wind should capriciously shift to the west. The forest was now being favoured with such a downpour. All day it had rained in torrents, and now, at eleven o’clock at night, the tempest was slowly abating. It was dark as pitch, but if the eyes had no work for them, the ears had a sufficiency, for the water beat like a drum in the tops of the high trees, and the drip on the sodden ground was like the persistent clamour of a brook.

One of the cars had comprehensively broken down, and no exploration of its intestines revealed either the reason or the cure. It was an indifferent German car, hired some days before in the town of Rosensee; the driver was Peter Wappit, and the occupants were Prince Odalchini and Dickson McCunn. The party from the other car, which was of a good English make, had descended and joined the group beside the derelict. Three men and two women stood disconsolately in the rain, in the glow of the two sets of headlights.

Prince Odalchini had not been idle after the momentous evening session in the House of the Four Winds. He had his own means of sending messages in spite of the vigilance of the Juventus patrols, and word had gone forthwith to the Monarchist leaders and to the secretaries of the Archduke Hadrian far away in the French chateau. It had been a more delicate business getting the castle party out of the castle confines. The road used was that which led through the cellars of the Turk’s Head, and the landlord Proser, who had now to be made a confidant, had proved a tower of strength. So had Randal Glynde, whose comings and goings seemed to be as free and as capricious as the wind. The cars — and Peter Wappit — had been duly fetched from the Cirque Doré or wherever else they had been bestowed, and early that morning, before Tarta was astir, two batches of prosperous-looking tourists had left the inn, after the hearty farewells which betoken generous tipping. Their goal was the town of Krovolin, but the route they took was not direct. Under Prince Odalchini’s guidance — no one would have recognised the Prince, for Mr Glynde had made him up to look like an elderly American with a goatee — they made a wide circuit among the foothills, and entered the Krovolin highway by a route from the south-west.

The weather favoured them, for the Tarta streets were empty when they started, and they met scarcely a traveller on the roads. There was one exception, for about four miles from the town their journey was impeded by part of a travelling circus, which seemed to be bearing south. Its string of horses and lurching caravans took a long time to pass in the narrow road, and during the delay the proprietor of the circus appeared to offer his apologies. This proprietor, a tall, fantastically dressed being with a ragged beard, conversed with various members of the party while the block ahead was being cleared, and much of his conversation was in low tones and in a tongue which was neither German nor Evallonian.

The five figures in the rain had a hurried conference. The oldest of them seemed to be the most perturbed by the contretemps. He peered at a map by the light of the lamps, and consulted his watch.

“Krovolin is less than thirty kilometres distant,” he said. “We could tow this infernal car if we had such a thing as a rope, which we haven’t. We can wait here for daylight. Or one car can go on to Krovolin and send out help.”

“I’m for the last,” said Sir Archie. “I would suggest our all stowing into my car, but it would mean leaving our kit behind, and in these times I don’t think that would be safe. I tell you what. You and Mr McCunn get into my car and Peter will drive you. Janet and Alison and I will wait behind with the crock, and you can send help for us as soon as you can wake up a garage.”

Prince Odalchini nodded. “I think that will be best,” he said. “I can promise that you will not have long to wait, for at Casimir’s headquarters there is ample transport. I confess I do not want to be delayed, for I have much to do. Also it is not wise for me to be loitering in St Sylvester’s woods, since at present in this country I am somewhat contraband goods. Mr McCunn too. It is vital that no mishap should befall him. You others are still free people.”

“Right,” said Archie, and began moving the kit of his party from his own car to the derelict. “You’d both be the better of a hot bath and a dressing-down, for you’ve been pretty well soaked all day. We’ll begin to expect the relief expedition in about an hour. If I can get this bus started, where do I make for in Krovolin?”

“The castle of Count Casimir,” was the answer. “It is a huge place, standing over Krovolin as the House of the Four Winds stands over Tarta.”

When the tail-lights of his own car had disappeared, Archie set himself to make another examination of Dickson’s, but without success. It was a touring car with a hood of an old-fashioned pattern, which during the day had proved but a weak defence against the weather. The seats were damp and the floor was a shallow pool. Since the rain was lessening, Archie managed to dry the seats and invited the women to make themselves comfortable. Janet Roylance and Alison had both been asleep for the past hour, and had wakened refreshed and prepared to make the best of things. Janet produced chocolate and biscuits and a thermos of coffee, and offered supper, upon which Alison fell ravenously. Archie curled his legs up on the driver’s seat and lit his pipe.

“I’m confoundedly sleepy,” he said. “A long day in the rain always makes me sleepy. I wonder why?” A gout of wet from the canvas of the hood splashed on his face. “This is a comfortless job. Looks as if the fowls of the air were one up on us to-night. I’ll get a crick in my neck if I stick here longer, and I’d get out and roost on the ground if it weren’t so sloppy. ‘A good soft pillow for my good grey head’— how does the thing go?”

“‘Were better than this churlish turf of France.’” Alison completed the quotation. “Have some coffee. It will keep you awake.”

“It won’t. That’s my paradoxical constitution. Coffee makes me sleepier.” He looked at his watch. “Moon’s due in less than an hour. I call this a rotten place — not the sound of a bird or beast, only that filthy drip. I say, you know, you two look like a brace of owls in a cage.”

It was not an inept comparison for the women in their white waterproofs, which caught dimly the back-glow of the side-lamps. The place was sufficiently eery, for the trees were felt rather than seen, and the only food for the eye was the glow made by the head-lights on the shining black tarmac of the highway. The car had been pushed on to the turf with its nose close to the main road, opposite where the track from the north debouched. Archie to cheer himself began a song, against which his wife stoutly protested.

“That’s sacrilege,” she said. “This is a wonderful place, for there must be fifteen miles of trees round us in every direction. Be quiet, Archie, and, if you can’t dose and won’t have any supper, think good thoughts.”

“The only good thought I have is the kind of food Count Casimir will give us. Is he the sort of fellow that does himself well, Alison? You’re the only one of us that knows him. I want beefsteaks — several of ’em.”

“I think so,” the girl answered. “He praised our food at Castle Gay and he gave me a very good breakfast at Knockraw. But the breakfast might have been Prince John’s affair, for he was a hungry young man. . . . I wonder where HE is now. I don’t think he was with Ran’s outfit when we passed it this morning.”

“We have properly dissipated our forces,” said Archie. “However, that’s a good rule of strategy if you know how to concentrate them later. I wonder where Jaikie is?”

“Poor Jaikie!” Alison sighed. “He has an awful job before him, for he is as shy as an antelope really, though he does brazen things. He’ll be scared into fits by the Countess Araminta. Dickson was the one to deal with her.”

“He may fall in love with her,” said Archie. “Quite possible, though she’s not the sort I fancy myself. Very beautiful, you know. When I first saw her I thought her wonderful sunburn came out of a bottle, and I considered her too much of a movie star, but when I found it was the gift of Heaven I rather took to her. But Jaikie will have to stand up to her or she’ll eat him. I say, Janet, how much use do you think Prince Odalchini is?”

“Good enough for a day with the bitch pack on the hills,” was the drowsy answer. “Not much good for the Vale and the big fences.”

“Just my own notion. He’s too old, and though he’s a brave old boy, I don’t see him exactly leading forlorn hopes. What about Count Casimir, Alison?”

The girl shook her head. “I’m not sure. He talks too much.”

“Too romantic, eh?”

“Too sentimental. Dickson’s romantic, which is quite a different thing.”

“I see. Well, I take it there’s no question about the Countess. By all accounts she’s a high-powered desperado. Apart from her it looks as if this show was a bit short of what Bobby Despenser calls ‘dynamic personages,’ and that what there are are mostly our own push. There’s McCunn — no mistake about him. And Jaikie — not much mistake about Jaikie. And there’s your lunatic cousin Glynde. To think that when I saw him at Charles Lamancha’s party two months ago, I thought him rather a nasty piece of work — too much the tailor’s model and the pride of the Lido. Who’d have guessed that he was a cross between a bandit and a bard?”

Conversation had dispelled Archie’s languor.

“This promises to be a merry party,” he said. “The trouble is to know how and when it will stop and what kind of heads we’ll have in the morning. Do you realise the desperate way we’re behaving? We’re taking a hand in another fellow’s revolution, and some of us have taken charge of it. And, more by token, who are we? A retired Glasgow grocer that wants to keep a crazy promise — and a Rugger tough from Cambridge — and a girl I’ve purloined from her parents — and a respectable married woman — and myself, an ornament of the Mother of Parliaments, who should be sitting at Geneva before a wad of stationery making revolutions for ever impossible. . . . Hullo, what’s this?”

There was a noise like that of a machine-gun which rapidly grew louder, and down the side road from the north came the lights of a motor-bicycle. Its rider saw the lamps of the car, slowed down, skidded on the tarmac, and came to a standstill in a clump of fern. A soaked and muddy figure stood blinking in the car lights. So dirty was his face that two of the three did not recognise him. But Alison in a trice was out of the car with a cry of “Jaikie.”

Mr John Galt had had a laborious day. Ashie had prepared for him a pass, giving him safe conduct to the camp of the Countess Araminta, but had warned him that, except for Juventus, it was of no use, and that Juventus had few representatives in the piece of country through which he must travel. He had also provided a map, and the two had planned an ingenious course, which would take him to the oil-fields by unfrequented by-ways. It had proved too ingenious, for Jaikie had lost his way, and gone too far west into the foothills. The blanket of low clouds and the incessant rain made it impossible for him to get a prospect, and the countryside seemed empty of people. The only cottages he passed were those of woodcutters whose speech he could not understand, and when he mentioned place-names he must have mispronounced them, for they only shook their heads. His only clue was the Silf, of which he struck the upper waters after midday. But no road followed the Silf, which ran in a deep ravine, and he was compelled to bear north again till he found a road which would take him south through the forest. But he knew now his position on the map, and he hoped to reach his destination before dark, when his machine began to give trouble. Jaikie was a poor mechanic and it took him three hours before he set the mischief right. By this time the dark skies were darkening further into twilight. There was no shelter for the night in the forest, so he decided to struggle on till at any rate he was out of the trees. The map showed a considerable village on the southern skirts which would surely provide an inn.

His lamp gave him further trouble, for it would not stay lit. He had been soaked since early in the day, for Ashie could not provide him with overalls, and his shabby mackintosh was no protection against the deluge. He was also hungry, for he had long ago finished his supply of biscuits and chocolate. The consolations of philosophy, of which he had a good stock, were nearly exhausted when he skidded on the tarmac of the trunk highway.

Archie laughed boisterously.

“I was just saying that we had dangerously dispersed our forces, but now we’ve begun to concentrate. Where have you been, my lad?”

Jaikie, grinning sheepishly at Alison, shook the water from his ancient hat, and pushed back a lock of hair which had straggled over his left eye.

“I’ve been circumnavigating Evallonia. I daresay I’ve come two hundred miles.”

“Was that purpose or accident?”

“Accident. I’ve been lost most of the day up on the edge of the hills. And I’ve got a relic of a bicycle. But what are you doing here?”

“Accident, too. This car of McCunn’s soured on him, so we sent him and the Prince on to Krovolin in mine, and Janet and Alison and I are waiting here like Babes in the Wood till we’re rescued.”

“Have you any food to spare?” Jaikie asked. He had recovered his spirits, and saw his misadventures in a more cheerful light, since they had led to this meeting.

Alison gave him some coffee out of the thermos and the remains of the biscuits.

“You’re a grisly sight, Jaikie,” she said severely. “I’ve seen many a tattie-bogle that looked more respectable.”

“I know,” he said meekly. “I’ve been looking a bit of a ragamuffin for a long time, but today has put the lid on it.”

“You simply can’t show yourself to the Countess like that. You look like a tramp that has been struck by lightning and then drowned.”

“I thought I might find an inn where I could tidy up and get my clothes dried.”

“Nothing will tidy you up. Juventus are a dressy lot, you know, and they’ll set the dogs on you.”

“But I have letters from Ashie.” He dived into his inner pocket and drew forth a sodden sheaf. “Gosh! they’re pulp! The rain’s got at them and the ink has run. They’re unreadable. What on earth am I do?”

“You’re a child of calamity. Didn’t you think of oilskin or brown paper? . . . You’d better come on with us to Krovolin for a wash and brush up, and Prince Odalchini will find you more decent clothes.”

Jaikie shook his head. “I must obey orders. That’s the first rule of Juventus, and I belong to Juventus now. Properly speaking, I’m at present your enemy. . . . I must be getting on, for I’ve a big job before me. I’m glad you pushed off the Prince and Mr McCunn, for they also have their job. You three are only camp-followers.”

“You’re an ungrateful beast,” said Alison indignantly, “to call us camp-followers, when you know I came hundreds of miles because you said you needed me. . . . Get off then to your assignation. A pretty figure you’ll cut in a lady’s bower!”

Jaikie’s face fell. “Lord, but duty is an awful thing! I funk that interview more than anything I remember. What, by the way, is her proper name? I must get that right, for Ashie, who’s her cousin, calls her Mintha.”

“She is the Countess Araminta Troyos — have you got that? How do you propose to approach her? Mr Galt to see the Countess on private business? Or a courier from the Praefectus of the Western Wing?”

“I’m going first to the Professor man — what’s his name — Doctor Jagon. He won’t make much of this mass of pulp, but he may remember me from the Canonry. Anyway, I think I can persuade him that I’m honest.”

Jaikie was in the act of wheeling his machine into the track which ran south when he started at a shout of Archie’s, and turning his head saw the glow of a great car lighting up the aisle among the trees.

“Well done the Prince,” said Archie. “Gad, he’s done us proud and sent two cars — there’s another behind.”

“But they’re coming from the wrong direction,” said Janet.

An avalanche of light sped through the darkness, and the faces of the waiting four took on an unearthly whiteness. This was a transformation so sudden and startling that each remained motionless — Jaikie with his hand on his bicycle, Alison holding the thermos, Janet with her head poked out of the car, and Archie with one foot on the step. The lights halted, and the two cars were revealed. They were big roadsters with long rakish bonnets, and in each were two men.

Jaikie happened to be nearest, and he was the first to recognise the occupants. The man at the wheel he did not know, and what he could see of his face was only a long nose between his hat and the collar of his waterproof. But the other who sat beside him was unmistakable. He saw the forward-thrusting jaw, the blunt nose, and the ominous eyes of Mastrovin.

His first thought was to get off, for he considered that he alone of the four was likely to be interfered with. But unfortunately the recognition had been mutual. Mastrovin cried a sharp word of command which brought the two men out of the second car, and he himself with surprising agility leaped on to the road. Jaikie found himself held by strong hands and looking into a most unfriendly face.

“I am in luck,” said Mastrovin. “We did not finish our conversation the other day, Mr — Galt, I think you said the name was? I am glad to have the opportunity of continuing it, and now I think we shall not be interrupted.”

“Sorry,” said Jaikie, “but I can’t wait.”

“Sorry,” was the answer, “but you must.”

Jaikie found his hands wrenched from the bicycle handles and his person in the grip of formidable arms. He observed that Mastrovin had turned his attention to the others.

“How are you, Mr Mastrovin?” he heard Archie say in a voice of falsetto cheerfulness. “We met, you remember, at Geneva?”

“We have met since,” was the answer. “We met in a hut in the mountains at Unnutz.” There was an unpleasant suggestion in his tone that that meeting had not been satisfactory.

Mastrovin peered within the car and saw Janet, who apparently did not interest him. But Alison was a different matter. He must have had a good memory for faces, for he instantly recognised her.

“Another from Unnutz,” he said. “A young lady who took early morning walks in the hills. So!” He cried a word to the driver of his car, which Jaikie did not understand. Then he faced Sir Archie, his brows drawn to a straight line and his mouth puckered in a mirthless smile.

“You are the English who have been in the House of the Four Winds. I did not think I was mistaken. . . . Two of you I have seen elsewhere — at the time I suspected you and now I know. You have meddled in what does not concern you, and you must take the consequences.”

He rasped out the final words in a voice which made it plain that these consequences would not be pleasant. Archie, whose temper was rising, found himself looking into the barrel of a pistol held in a very steady hand.

“Do not be foolish,” Mastrovin said. “We are four armed men, and we do not take chances. You will accompany us — you and the women. You are in no danger if you do as I bid you, but it is altogether necessary that for a little you should be kept out of mischief.”

Archie’s angry protests were checked on his lips, they were so manifestly futile. Janet and he were ordered into the first car, where Mastrovin took the seat opposite them. They were permitted to take their baggage, and that was bundled into the second car, whither Alison accompanied it. The man who was holding Jaikie asked a question, oddly enough in French, to which Mastrovin replied by bidding him put the “little rat” beside the luggage. Jaikie found himself on a folding seat with a corner of Archie’s kit-bag in his ribs and Alison sitting before him.

The cars sped down the Krovolin road, and after some five miles they passed another car coming in the opposite direction. That, thought Jaikie, must be the relief sent by Prince Odalchini. . . . He was in what for him was a rare thing, a mood of black despair. Partly it was due to his weary and sodden body, but the main cause was that he had suddenly realised the true posture of affairs. He had slipped idly into this business, as had the others, regarding it only as an amusing game, a sort of undergraduate “rag.” There was a puzzle to solve, where wits and enterprise could come into play, but the atmosphere was opéra-bouffe, or at the best comedy. The perplexed Ashie was a comic figure; so were Prince Odalchini and the Monarchists; so was the formidable Countess Mintha; so even two days ago had seemed Mastrovin. Alison and Janet and Archie were all votaries of the comic spirit.

But now he realised that there were darker things. Mastrovin’s pistol had suddenly dispelled the air of agreeable farce, and opened the veils of tragedy. The jungle was next door to the formal garden — and the beasts of the jungle. As in the library of Castle Gay two years before, he had a glimpse of wolfish men and an underworld of hideous things. That night for the second time he had been called a rat by Mastrovin and his friends, but the insult did not sting him, for he was in the depths of self-abasement. The bitter thought galled his mind that he had brought Alison into a grim business. For that he was alone responsible, and he saw no way out. It was bad that he should be compelled to fail Ashie, for his mission was now hopeless, but it was worse that Alison should have to pay for his folly. Mastrovin would never let them go, and if things went ill with Mastrovin’s side he would make them pay the penalty. . . . And he was utterly helpless. He knew nothing of the country and could not speak the tongue, he had no money, and only a boy’s strength. Prince Odalchini and Dickson might persist in their plot and Juventus continue its high career, but Alison and Janet and Archie and he were out of it for ever, prisoners in some dim underworld of Mastrovin’s contriving.

They came out of the forest to find that the rain had stopped and that the moon was rising among ragged clouds. He saw a gleam of water and what looked like the spires of a city. They were being taken to Krovolin, and presently they approached the first houses of its western faubourg. . . . And then something happened which brought a thin ray of hope to Jaikie’s distressed soul. There were lights in an adjacent field, and from them came the strains of a fiddle. It was playing Dvorak’s Humoresque, and that was the favourite tune of Luigi of the Cirque Doré.

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