The Island of Sheep, by John Buchan

Chapter 3

The Tablet of Jade

The next chapter in this tale came at the end of March when the Clanroydens stayed with us at Fosse for a long week-end. Sandy, after his return from South America and his marriage, had settled down at Laverlaw as a Scots laird, and for the better part of a year you couldn’t dig Barbara and him out of that heavenly fastness. Then came a crisis in the Near East on which he felt called upon to hold forth in the House of Lords, and gradually he was drawn more and more into public affairs. Also Barbara took a long time to recover from the birth of her daughter, and had to be much in London within reach of doctors. The consequence was that Mary and I saw a good deal of the Clanroydens. Mary was one of the daughter’s godmothers, and Lady Clanroyden stayed at Fosse with us most of the time that Sandy was in China as chairman of an international Commission. He had only returned from the Far East at the end of February.

It was the most perfect kind of early spring weather. In February we had a fortnight’s snow, so the ground was well moistened and the spring full, and in the first week of March we had drying blasts from the north-east. Then came mild south-west winds, and a sudden outburst of life. The blackthorn was in flower, the rooks were busy in the beeches, the elms were reddening, and the lawns at Fosse were framed in gold drifts of daffodils. On the Friday after tea Sandy and I went for a walk up on to the Sharway Downs, where you look east into the shallow Oxfordshire vales and north over ridge upon ridge of green, round-shouldered hills. As the twilight drew in there was a soft bloom like peach-blossom on the landscape, a thrush was pouring out his heart in a bush, and the wild cry of lapwings, mingled with the babble of young lambs, linked the untamable with our comfortable human uses.

Sandy, as he sniffed the scents coming up from the woods and the ploughlands, seemed to feel the magic of the place.

‘Pretty good,’ he said. ‘England is the only really comfortable spot on earth — the only place where man can be utterly at home.’

‘Too comfortable,’ I said. ‘I feel I’m getting old and soft and slack. I don’t deserve this place, and I’m not earning it.’

He laughed. ‘You feel like that? So do I, often. There are times at Laverlaw when it seems that that blessed glen is too perfect for fallen humanity, and that I’m not worthy of it. It was lucky that Adam was kicked out of Paradise, for he couldn’t have enjoyed it if he had remained there. I’ve known summer mornings so beautiful that they depressed me to my boots. I suppose it is proper to feel like that, for it keeps you humble, and makes you count your mercies.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s not much good counting your mercies if you feel you have no right to them.’

‘Oh, we’ve a right to them. Both of us have been through the hards. But there’s no such thing as a final right. We have to go on earning them.’

‘But we’re not. I, at any rate. I’m sunk in cushions — lapped about in ease, like a man in a warm bath.’

‘That’s right enough, provided you’re ready to accept the cold plunge when it comes. At least that’s the way I look at it. Enjoy your comforts, but sit loose to them. You’ll enjoy them all the more if you hold them on that kind of tenure, for you’ll never take them for granted.’

We didn’t talk much on the way home, for I was meditating on what Sandy had said and wondering if it would give me that philosophy for advancing age which I was seeking. The trouble was, that I couldn’t be sure that I would ever be willing to give up my pleasant ways. Sandy would, for he would always have open ears, but I was getting pretty dull of hearing.

That night at dinner he was in his best form. Till last year he had never been farther east than India, though he knew the Near and Middle East like a book, and he was full of his new experiences. Sandy rarely talked politics, so he said nothing about the work of his Commission, but he revelled in all the whimsies and freaks of travel. Adventures are to the adventurous, and his acquaintance was so colossal that wherever he went he was certain to revive old contacts. He had something to tell me about common friends whom I had long lost sight of, and who had been washed up like driftwood on queer shores.

‘Do you remember a man called Haraldsen?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I once knew a Haraldsen, a Dane. Marius Eliaser Haraldsen.’

He nodded. ‘That’s the chap.’

It was odd to hear that name spoken, for though I had not thought of it for years, just lately it had come back to my memory, since it was in a way connected with Lombard.

‘I haven’t seen him for a quarter of a century, and he was an old man then. What’s he doing? Did you run across him?’

‘No. He is dead. But I knew him at the end of the War — and after. I’ve got something to tell you about Haraldsen, and something to show you.’

After dinner we sat round the fire in the library, and Sandy went up to his bedroom and brought down a small flat object wrapped in chamois leather. ‘First of all, Dick,’ he said, ‘what do you remember about Haraldsen?’

I remembered a good many things, especially a story into which Lombard came. But since I wanted to hear what Sandy had to tell, I only said that I had known him in Rhodesia as a rather lucky speculator in gold-mining propositions. He had been a long time in South Africa, and was believed to have made a pot of money in the earlier days of the Rand. But he was always looking for new fields, and might have dropped some of it in his Rhodesian ventures. When I had last seen him he had been exploring north of the Zambezi, and had a dozen prospectors working for him in the bend of the Kafue.

‘Yes,’ said Sandy. ‘That was Haraldsen. Let me tell you something more about him. He was the professional gold-seeker in excelsis, with a wonderful nose for the stuff and the patience of Buddha. But he wasn’t the ordinary treasure-hunter, for he had a purpose which he never lost sight of. He was a Dane, as you say, a native of Jutland, and he was bred a mining engineer. He was a pretty good mineralogist, too. But he was also, and principally, a poet. His youth was before the days of all this Nordic humbug, but he had got into his head the notion that the Northern culture was as great a contribution to civilization as the Greek and Roman, and that the Scandinavian peoples were destined to be the true leaders of Europe. He had their history at his fingers’ ends, and he knew the Sagas better than any man I’ve ever met — I’m some judge of that, for I know them pretty well myself. He had a vision of a great Northern revival, when the spirit of Harald Fairhair would revive in Norway, and Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII. would be reborn in Sweden, and Valdemar the Victorious in Denmark. Not that he wanted any conquests or federations — he wasn’t interested in politics: his ideal was a revival of the Northern mind, a sort of Northern Renaissance of which he was to be the leader. You remember what a tough bird he was in any practical question, but how he could relax sometimes and become the simplest of souls when you pressed the right button.’

I certainly remembered one instance when Haraldsen had talked to me about a house he was building in a little island somewhere in the north, and had rhapsodized over it like a boy. Otherwise he was regarded as rather a hard citizen.

‘Well, for his purpose he wanted money, and that would be difficult to come by if he stayed at home. So he started out like the gooseherd in Hans Andersen in search of fortune — a proper big fortune, for he had a lot to do with it. Somehow he drifted to Egypt, and he was one of the prospectors that Ismail sent out to look for an El Dorado in the Sudan. At that time he must have been in his early twenties. Then by way of Abyssinia and Madagascar he moved south, until he fetched up in Mozambique, where he started out to look for the Queen of Sheba’s gold-mines.

‘He wasted a lot of time in that barren game, and more than once nearly had his throat cut, and then he was lucky enough to turn up on the Rand when that show was beginning. He did well — exceedingly well in a way, but not enough to satisfy him. He had still to find his own private special Golconda. So he went north into Rhodesia, where you met him, and farther north into the Eastern Congo. And then he decided that he had had enough of Africa, and would try Asia.’

‘So that’s where he went,’ I said. ‘The old hero! When I knew him he was nearer sixty than fifty.’

‘I know. He was as tough as one of his own Saga-men. Well, he had a good many adventures in Asia — principally in Siberia and in the country east and south of the Caspian. When I came across him in Persia early in 1918 he was rather the worse for wear. You remember what a big fellow he was, with his enormous long arms and his great shoulders? When I met him he wasn’t much more than a framework, and his clothes hung on him like the rags on the props of a scarecrow. But he wasn’t ill, only indecently lean, and he was quite undefeated. He was still hunting for his Ophir.’

‘That must have been during the War,’ I put in. ‘How on earth was he allowed to wander about in those parts?’

‘He wasn’t. He simply went — there were more of those uncharted libertines in the war zones than people imagined. You see, he was an impressive old gentleman, and he had money, and he knew the ropes — all the many ropes. He travelled in some style, too, with servants and a good cook and an armed escort who were more afraid of him than of any possible enemies. He wasn’t a business man for nothing. I had about a week of his company, and in the cool of the morning, when we ate white mulberries together in the garden, he told me all about himself. He spoke to me freely, for we were two civilized men alone in the wilds, and he took a fancy to me, for I knew all about his blessed Sagas. How did he impress you, Dick, when you knew him?’

‘I liked him — we all did, but we were a little puzzled about what he was after. We thought that a Rand magnate of well over fifty would be better employed enjoying himself in Europe than in fossicking about in the bush. He was very capable and ran his outfit beautifully. You would have had to rise uncommonly early to get the better of old Haraldsen.’

‘He must have changed before I met him,’ said Sandy. ‘In Africa you have to fight hard to prevent matter dominating mind, but in Asia the trouble is to keep mind in reasonable touch with matter. Haraldsen, when I knew him, was about as much mystic as gold-hunter. He told me about his past life, as if it were a thing very far away. I mentioned your name, I remember, and he recollected you, but didn’t seem greatly interested in anything that happened in Africa. He had a son somewhere in Europe, but he said very little about him — also a house, but I never discovered where. What filled his thoughts was this treasure which he was going to find some day, and which had been waiting for him since the foundation of the world. I gathered that he was a rich man, and that he was not looking for mere wealth. He told me about his dreams for the future of the Northern races, but rather as if he were repeating a lesson. The fact was that to find his Ophir had become for him an end in itself, quite apart from the use he meant to make of it. You sometimes find that in old men who have led a strenuous life. They become monomaniacs.’

‘Did he find it?’ I asked.

‘Not in Persia. The Middle East at that time wasn’t propitious for treasure-hunting. You must understand that Haraldsen wasn’t looking for gold in the void. He was proceeding on a plan, and he had his data as carefully marshalled as any Intelligence Department. He was following the reports of a whole host of predecessors, whose evidence he had collected and analysed — chiefly the trail of old caravan-routes along which he knew that gold had been carried. Well, he failed in Persia, and the next I heard of him was in Sinkiang — what they used to call Chinese Turkestan. I was in India then, keeping a watchful eye on Central Asia, and my old friend managed to give me a good deal of trouble. He got into Kashgar, and we had the deuce of a job getting him out. Sinkiang at that time was a kind of battleground between Moslem home-rulers and Soviet emissaries, with nobody to keep the peace except some weak Chinese officials and a ragtime Chinese army. However, in the end it was arranged that he should come to India, and I was looking forward to welcoming him at Simla, when news came that the Tungans had won, and that the garrison and the foreigners had been booted out and were fleeing eastward to China. I decided that it was all up with Haraldsen. He would never make the two thousand miles of desert that separated Sinkiang from China. I wrote something pious in my diary about the foolishness of treasure-hunting.’

‘Poor old chap!’ I murmured. ‘It was the kind of end he was bound to have.’

‘It wasn’t the end,’ said Sandy. ‘That was twelve years ago. Haraldsen is dead, but after he left Sinkiang he lived for ten years. He must have been eighty when he died, so he had a goodish run for his money. Moreover, he found his Ophir.’

‘How do you know?’ I asked excitedly.

‘It’s a queer story,’ said Sandy, and he took the object in his hands out of its chamois-leather wrappings. It was a tablet, about eight inches by six, of the most beautiful emerald jade I have ever seen. Sandy handed it to Mary, who handed it to me. I saw that it was covered on both sides with spidery marks, but if it was any known language it was one I couldn’t read. Mary, who loved all jewels, exclaimed at its beauty.

‘I got that in Peking,’ he said. ‘There were times when we weren’t very busy, and I liked to go foraging about the city in the sharp, bright autumn afternoons. There was one junk-shop up near the An Ting gate where I made friends with the owner. He was an old Mohammedan from Kansu whose language I could make a shot at talking, and his place was an education in every corner and century of Asia. In the front, which was open to the street, there was a glorious muddle of saddlery and rugs and palanquins and bows and arrows and furs, and even a little livestock like red desert-hawks in bamboo cages. As you went farther in the stock got smaller in size, but more valuable, things like marvellously carved walking-sticks, and damascened swords, and mandarin hats, and temple furniture, and every sort of lacquer. Some outlandish things, too, like an ordinary English grandfather’s clock marked ‘London, 1782.’ At the very back was the inner shrine which the old man only took you into when he knew all about you. It smelt of scented woods and spices and the dust of ages, and it was hard to find your way about in it with no light but the owner’s little green lamp. Here were the small precious things, some on shelves, some in locked cabinets, and some in cheap glazed cases of deal. There was everything, from raw Bhotan turquoises to mandarin’s buttons of flawed rubies, from tiny celadon cups to Ming bowls, from ivory Manchu combs to agate snuff-boxes. I was looking for something for Barbara when I found this.

‘I always liked good jade, and even in that dusk I saw that this was a fine piece. The old fellow let me take it into the light in the front shop, and I had no doubts about it. It was an exquisite bit of the true imperial stone, with the famous kingfisher’s-back colour. As you see, one side is covered with hieroglyphics which I can’t read. The other side has also an inscription, which at first I took to be in the same jargon. I asked the shop-keeper what the writing meant, and he shook his head. It was some hieratic language, he thought, which the monks used on the Tibetan border.

‘I took a tremendous fancy to the piece, and we chaffered over it for the better part of an afternoon. In the end I got it at quite a reasonable price — reasonable, that is, for jade, which would keep its value in China if the bottom dropped out of everything else. I think that the only reason why it was unsold was its size, which made it too clumsy for personal adornment, and because of the inscriptions on it which made it hard to fashion it into an ordinary jewel. The old fellow was doubtful about its provenance. From the quality of the stone he thought that it should have come from Siberia, from the Lake Baikal neighbourhood, but at the same time he was positive that the inscriptions belonged to the south-west corner of China. He couldn’t read them, but he said he recognized the characters.

‘That night in my hotel, when I examined the tablet by the light of a good lamp, I got the surprise of my life. The close lettering on one side, all whorls and twists, I could make nothing of. But on the other side the few lines inscribed were perfectly comprehensible. They consisted of a Latin sentence, a place-name, and a date. The Latin was “Marius Haraldsen moriturus haec scripsit thesauro feliciter invento”—“Marius Haraldsen, being on the point of death and having happily found his treasure, has written these words.” The place-name was Gutok. The date was the fifteenth of October the year before last. What do you think of that for a yarn?’

I looked at the translucent green tablet in which the firelight woke wonderful glints of gold and ruby. I saw the maze of spidery writing on one side, and on the other the Latin words, not very neatly incised — probably with a penknife. It seemed a wonderful thing to get this news of my old friend out of the darkness four thousand miles from where I had known him. I handled it reverently, and passed it back to Sandy. ‘What do you make of it?’ I asked.

‘I think it’s simple,’ he said. ‘I raced back next morning to the old man to find out how he had got hold of it. But he could tell me nothing. It had come to him with other junk — he was always getting consignments — some caravan had picked it up — bought it from a pedlar or a thief. Then I went to the Embassy, and one of the secretaries helped me to hunt for Gutok. We ran it to earth at last — in a Russian gazetteer published just before the War. It was a little place down in the province of Shu-san, where a trade-route sent a fork south to Burma. An active man with proper backing could have reached it in the old days from Shanghai in a month.’

‘Are you going there?’ I asked.

‘Not I. I have never cared about treasure. But I think we can be certain what happened. Haraldsen found his Ophir — God knows what it was — an old mine or an outcrop or something — anyhow, it must have been the real thing, for he knew too much to make mistakes. But he discovered also that he was dying. Now Gutok is not exactly a convenient centre of transport. He probably wrote letters, but he couldn’t be certain that they would ever get to their destination. Two years ago all that corner of Asia was a rabble of banditry and guerrillas. So he adopted the sound scheme of writing poorish Latin on a fine bit of jade, in the hope that sooner or later it would come into the hands of some one who could construe it and give his friends news of his fate. He probably entrusted it to a servant, who was robbed and murdered, but he knew that the jade was too precious to disappear, and he was pretty certain that it would drift east and fetch up in some junk-shop in Peking or Shanghai. That was rather his way of doing things, for he was a fatalist, and left a good deal to Providence.’

‘Yes, that was the old chap,’ I said. ‘Well, he has won out. You and I were his friends, and we know when and where he died and that he had found what he was looking for. He’d have liked us to know the last part, for he wasn’t fond of being beaten. But his treasure wasn’t much use to him and his Northern races. It’s buried again for good.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Sandy. ‘I’m fairly certain that that spidery stuff on the other side is an account of how to reach it. It was done at the same time as the Latin, either by Haraldsen himself or more likely by one of his Chinese assistants. I can’t read it, but I expect I could find somebody who can, and I’m prepared to bet that if we had it translated we should know just what Haraldsen discovered. You’re an idle man, Dick. Why not go out and have a shot at digging it up?’

‘I’m too old,’ I said, ‘and too slack.’

I took the tablet in my hands again and examined it. It gave me a queer feeling to look at this last testament of my old friend, and to picture the conditions under which it had been inscribed in some godless mountain valley at the back of beyond, and to consider the vicissitudes it must have gone through before it reached the Peking curio-shop. Heaven knew what blood and tears it had drawn on its road. I felt too — I don’t know why — that there was something in this for me, something which concerned me far more closely than Sandy. As I looked at my pleasant library, with the fire reflected from the book-lined walls, it seemed to dislimn and expand into the wild spaces where I had first known Haraldsen, and I was faced again by the man with his grizzled, tawny beard and his slow, emphatic speech. I suddenly saw him as I remembered him, standing in the African moonlight, swearing me to a pact which I hadn’t remembered for twenty years.

‘If you are not sleepy, I’ll tell you a story about Haraldsen,’ I said.

‘Go on,’ said Sandy, as he lit his pipe. He and Mary are the best listeners I know, and till well after midnight they gave their attention to the tale which is set down in the next chapter.

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