In Krovolin’s best hotel, the Three Kings of the East, Jaikie enjoyed the novel blessings of comfort and consideration. By the Countess’s edict Alison, the Roylances and he were at once conducted there, and the mandate of Juventus secured them the distinguished attentions of the management. The released prisoners were little the worse, for they had not been starved as Jaikie had been, and the only casualty was Archie, who had been overpowered in a desperate effort the previous morning to get into the Street of the White Peacock. The doping had been clumsily managed, for some hours before Jaikie’s arrival the three had been given a meal quite different from the coarse fare to which they had been hitherto treated. They were offered with it a red wine, which Archie at his first sip pronounced to be corked. Alison had tasted it, and, detecting something sweet and sickly in its flavour, had suspected a drug, whereupon Janet filled their glasses and emptied them in a corner. “Look like sick owls,” she advised, when they were taken to Mastrovin’s sanctum, where the overpowering scent was clearly part of the treatment. Mastrovin’s behaviour showed that her inspiration had been right, for he had spoken to them as if they were somnambulists or half-wits. . . .
On the following morning Jaikie, feeling clean and refreshed for the first time for a week, descended late to the pleasant restaurant which overlooked the milky waters of the Rave. The little city sparkled in the sunlight, and the odour and bustle of a summer morning came as freshly to his nose and ears as if he had just risen from a sick-bed. He realised how heavy his heart had been for days, and the release sent his spirits soaring. . . . But his happiness was more than the absence of care, for last night had been an epoch in his life, like that evening two years before when, on the Canonry moor, Alison had waved him good-bye. For the first time he had held Alison in his arms and felt her lips on his cheek. That delirious experience had almost blotted out from his memory the other elements in the scene. As he dwelt on it he did not see the dead Mastrovin, and the crouched figure of Rosenbaum, and the Countess Araminta on the verge of tears, or hear the ticking of the clock, and the pistol shot which ended the drama; he saw only Alison’s pale face and her gold hair like a cloud on his shoulder, and heard that in her strained voice which he had never heard before. . . . Jaikie felt the solemn rapture of some hungry, humble saint who finds his pulse changed miraculously into the ambrosia of Paradise.
A waiter brought him the morning paper. He could not read it, but he could guess at the headlines. Something tremendous seemed to be happening in Melina. There was a portrait of the Archduke Hadrian, edged with laurels and roses, and from it stared the familiar face of Mr McCunn. There was a photograph of a street scene in which motor-cars and an escort of soldiers moved between serried ranks of presumably shouting citizens. In one, next to a splendid figure in a cocked hat, could be discerned the homely features of Dickson.
He dropped the paper, for Alison had appeared, Alison, fresh as a flower, with the colour back in her cheeks. Only her eyes were still a little tired. She came straight to him, put her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him. “Darling,” she said.
“Oh, Alison,” he stammered. “Then it’s all right, isn’t it?”
She laughed merrily and drew him to a breakfast table in the window. “Foolish Jaikie! As if it would ever have been anything else!”
There was another voice behind him, and Jaikie found another fair head beside his.
“I shall kiss you too,” said Janet Roylance, “for we’re going to be cousins, you know. Allie, I wish you joy. Jaikie, I love you. Archie? Oh, he has to stay in bed for a little — the doctor has just seen him. He’s all right, but his arm wants a rest, and he got quite a nasty smack on the head. . . . Let’s have breakfast. I don’t suppose there’s any hope of kippers.”
As they sat down at a table in the window Alison picked up the newspaper. She frowned at the pictures from Melina. Her coffee grew cold as she puzzled over the headlines.
“I wish I could read this stuff,” she said. “Everything seems to have gone according to plan, but the question is, what is the next step? You realise, don’t you, that we’ve still a nasty fence to lep. We’ve got over the worst, for the Blood-red Rook has taken Prince John to her bosom. She’ll probably insist on marrying him, for she believes he saved her life, and I doubt if he is man enough to escape her. Perhaps he won’t want to, for she’s a glorious creature, but — Jaikie, I think you are lucky to have found a homely person like me. Being married to her would be rather like domesticating a Valkyrie. You managed that business pretty well, you know.”
“I don’t deserve much credit, for I was only fumbling in the dark. Mr Glynde was the real genius. Do you think he arranged for the Countess to turn up, or was it an unrehearsed effect? If he arranged it he took a pretty big risk.”
“I believe she took the bit in her teeth. Couldn’t bear to be left out of anything. But what about Cousin Ran? He has disappeared over the skyline, and the only message he left was that we were to go back to Tarta and await developments. I’m worried about those developments, for we don’t know what may happen. Everything has gone smoothly — except of course our trouble with Mastrovin — but I’m afraid there may be an ugly snag at the end.”
“You mean Mr McCunn?”
“I mean the Archduke Hadrian, who is now in the royal palace at Melina wishing to goodness that he was safe home at Blaweary.”
“I trust him to pull it off,” said Jaikie.
“But it’s no good trusting Dickson unless other people play up. Just consider what we’ve done. We’ve worked a huge practical joke on Juventus, and if Juventus ever came to know about it everything would be in the soup. Here you have the youth of Evallonia, burning with enthusiasm and rejoicing in their young prince, whom they mean to make king instead of an elderly dotard. What is Juventus going to say if they discover that the whole thing has been a plant to which their young prince has been a consenting party? Prince John’s stock would fall pretty fast. You’ve wallowed in super-cherie from your cradle, Jaikie dear, so you don’t realise how it upsets ordinary people, especially if they are young and earnest.”
Jaikie laughed. “I believe you are right. Everybody’s got their own panache, and the public-school notion of good form isn’t really very different from what in foreigners we call melodrama. I mean, it’s just as artificial.”
“Anyhow, there’s not a scrap of humour in it,” said Alison. “The one thing the Rook won’t stand is to be made ridiculous. No more will Juventus. So it’s desperately important that Dickson should disappear into the night and leave no traces. How many people are in the plot?”
Jaikie as usual counted on his fingers.
“There’s we three — and Sir Archie — and Ashie — and Prince John — and Prince Odalchini — and I suppose Count Casimir and maybe one or two other Monarchists. Not more than that, and it’s everybody’s interest to keep it deadly secret.”
“That’s all right if we can be certain about Dickson getting quietly away in time. But supposing Juventus catches him. Then it’s bound to come out. I don’t mean that they’ll do him any harm beyond slinging him across the frontier. But he’ll look a fool and we’ll look fools — and, much more important, Prince John will look a fool and a bit of a knave — and the Monarchist leaders, who Ran says are the only people that can help Juventus to make a success of the Government. . . . We must get busy at once. Since that ruffian Ran has vanished, we must get hold of Prince John.”
But it was not the Prince who chose to visit them as they were finishing breakfast, but the Countess Araminta. Jaikie had seen her in camp as Praefectus, and was prepared to some extent for her air of command, but the others only knew her as the exotic figure of London and Geneva, and as the excited girl whose nerves the night before had been stretched to breaking-point. Now she seemed the incarnation of youthful vigour. The door was respectfully held open by an aide-decamp, and she made an entrance like a tragedy queen. She wore the uniform of Juventus, but her favourite colour glowed in a cape which hung over one shoulder. There was colour too in her cheeks, and her fine eyes had lost their sullenness. Everything about her, her trim form, the tilt of her head, the alert grace of her carriage, spoke of confidence and power. Jaikie gasped, for he had never seen anything quite like her. “Incessu patuit dea,” he thought, out of a vague classical reminiscence.
They all stood up to greet her.
“My friends, my good friends,” she cried. She put a hand on Jaikie’s shoulder, and for one awe-stricken moment he thought she was going to kiss him.
She smiled upon them in turn. “Your husband is almost well,” she told Janet. “I have seen the doctor. . . . What do you wish to do, for it is for you to choose? I must go back to my camp, for here in Krovolin during the next few days the whole forces of Juventus will concentrate. I shall be very busy, but I will instruct others to attend to you. What are your wishes? You have marched some distance with Juventus — do you care to finish the course, and enter Melina with us? You have earned the right to that.”
“You are very kind,” said Janet. “But if you don’t mind, I believe we ought to go home. You see, my husband should be in Geneva . . . and I’m responsible for my cousin Alison. . . . I think if Archie were here he would agree with me. Would it be possible for us to go back to Tarta and rest there for a day or two? We don’t want to leave Evallonia till we know that you have won, but — you won’t misunderstand me — I don’t think we should take any part in the rest of the show. You see, we are foreigners, and it is important that everybody should realise that this is your business and nobody else’s. My husband is a member of our Parliament, and there might be some criticism if he were mixed up in it — not so much criticism of him as of you. So I think we had better go to Tarta.”
Janet spoke diffidently, for she did not know how Juventus might regard the House of the Four Winds and its owner. But to her surprise the Countess made no objection.
“You shall do as you wish,” she said. “Perhaps you are right and it would be wise to have no foreign names mentioned. But you must not think that we shall be opposed and must take Melina by storm. We shall enter the city with all the bells ringing.”
She saw Janet’s glance fall on the newspaper on the floor.
“You think there is a rival king? Ah, but he will not remain. He will not want to remain. The people will not want him. Trust me, he will yield at once to the desire of his country.”
“What will you do with the Archduke?” Alison asked.
“We will treat him with distinguished respect,” was the answer. “Is he not the brother of our late king and the uncle of him who is to be our king? If his health permits, he will be the right-hand counsellor of the Throne, for he is old and very wise. At the Coronation he will carry the Sacred Lamp and the Mantle of St Sylvester, and deliver with his own voice the solemn charge given to all Evallonia’s sovereigns.”
Alison groaned inwardly, having a vision of Dickson in this august rôle.
“I must leave you,” said the Countess. “You have done great service to my country’s cause, for which from my heart I thank you. An evil thing has been destroyed, which could not indeed have defeated Juventus but which might have been a thorn in its side.”
“Have you got rid of Mastrovin’s gang?” Jaikie asked.
She looked down on him smiling, her hand still on his shoulder.
“They are being rounded up,” she replied; “but indeed they count for nothing since he is dead. Mastrovin is not of great importance — not now, though once he was Evallonia’s evil genius. At the worst he was capable of murder in the dark. He was a survivor of old black days that the world is forgetting. He was a prophet of foolish crooked things that soon all men will loath.”
Her voice had risen, her face had flushed, she drew herself up to her slim height, and in that room, amid the debris of breakfast and with the sun through the long windows making a dazzle of light around her, the Countess Araminta became for a moment her ancestress who had ridden with John Sobieski against the Turk. To three deeply impressed listeners she expounded her creed.
“Mastrovin is dead,” she said; “but that is no matter, for he and his kind were dead long ago. They were revenants, ghosts, hideous futile ghosts. They lived by hate, hating what they did not understand. They were full of little vanities and fears, and were fit for nothing but to destroy. Back-numbers you call them in England — I call them shadows of the dark which vanish when the light comes. We of Juventus do not hate, we love, but in our love we are implacable. We love everything in our land, all that is old in it and all that is new, and we love all our people, from the greatest to the humblest. We have given back to Evallonia her soul, and once again we shall make her a great nation. But it will be a new nation, for everyone will share in its government.” She paused. “All will be sovereigns, because all will be subjects.”
She was a true actress, for she knew how to make the proper exit. Her rapt face softened. With one hand still on Jaikie’s shoulder she laid the other on Alison’s head and stroked her hair.
“Will you lend me your lover, my dear?” she said. “Only for a little — since he will join you at Tarta. I think he may be useful as a liaison between Juventus and those who doubtless mean well but have been badly advised.”
Then she was gone, and all the colour and half the light seemed to have left the room.
“Gosh!” Jaikie exclaimed, when they were alone. “It looks as if I were for it.” He remembered the phrase about subjects and sovereigns as coming from a philosopher on whom at Cambridge he had once written an essay. No doubt she had got it from Dr Jagon, and he had qualms as to what might happen if the public-school code got mixed up with philosophy.
Janet looked grave.
“What a woman!” she said. “I like her, but I’m scared by her. The Blood-red Rook is not the name — she’s the genuine eagle. I’m more anxious than ever about Mr McCunn. Juventus is a marvellous thing, but she said herself that it was implacable. There’s nothing in the world so implacable as the poet if you attempt to guy his poetry, and that’s what we have been doing. There’s going to be a terrible mix-up unless Dickson can disappear in about two days and leave no traces behind him; and I don’t see how that’s to be managed now that he is planted in a palace in the middle of an excited city.”
To three anxious consultants there entered Prince John. Somehow or other he had got in touch with his kit, for he was smartly dressed in a suit of light flannels, with a rose in his buttonhole.
“I’m supposed to be still incognito,” he explained, “and I have to lurk here till the concentration of Juventus is complete. That should be some time tomorrow. Sir Archie is all right. I’ve just seen him, and he is to be allowed to get up after luncheon. I hope you can control him, Lady Roylance, for I can’t. He is determined to be in at the finish, he says, and was simply blasphemous when I told him that he was an alien and must keep out of it. It won’t do, you know. You must all go back to Tarta at once. He doesn’t quite appreciate the delicacy of the situation or what compromising people you are.”
“We do,” said Janet. “We’ve just had a discourse from the Countess. You won’t find it easy to live up to that young woman, sir.”
Prince John laughed.
“I think I can manage Mintha. She is disposed to be very humble and respectful with me, for she has always been a staunch royalist. Saved her life, too, she thinks — though I don’t believe Mastrovin meant his shot for her — I believe he spotted me, and he always wanted to do me in. She’s by way of being our prophetess, but she is no fool, and, besides, there’s any number of sober-minded people to keep her straight. What I have to live up to is Juventus itself, and that will take some doing. It’s a tremendous thing, you know, far bigger and finer than any of us thought, and it’s going to be the salvation of Evallonia. Perhaps more than that. What was it your Pitt said —‘Save its country by its efforts and Europe by its example’? But it’s youth, and youth takes itself seriously, and if anybody laughs at it or tries to play tricks with it he’ll get hurt. That’s where we are rather on the knife-edge.”
“My dear Uncle Hadrian,” he went on, “is in bed at home in France and reported to be sinking. That is Odalchini’s last word, and Odalchini has the affair well in hand. My uncle’s secretary is under his orders, and not a scrap of news is allowed to leave the chateau.”
“The Countess seems to be better disposed to Prince Odalchini,” said Janet.
“She is. Odalchini has opened negotiations with Juventus. He has let it be known that he and his friends will not contest my right to the throne, and that the Archduke has bowed to this view and proposes to leave the country. Of course he speaks for Casimir and the rest. That is all according to plan. Presently His Royal Highness will issue a proclamation resigning all claims. But in the meantime our unhappy Scotch friend is masquerading in the palace of Melina — in deep seclusion, of course, for the Archduke is an old and frail man, and is seeing no one as yet — but still there, with the whole capital agog for a sight of him. You will say, smuggle him out and away with him across the frontier. But Juventus has other ideas — Mintha has other ideas. There is to be a spectacular meeting between uncle and nephew — a noble renunciation — a tender reconciliation — and the two surviving males of the Evallonian royal house are to play a joint part in the restoration of the monarchy. Juventus has the good sense to understand that it needs Casimir and his lot to help it to get the land straight, and it thinks that that will be best managed by having its claimant and their claimant working in double harness. I say ‘Juventus thinks,’ but it’s that hussy Mintha who does the thinking, and the others accept it. That’s the curse of a romantic girl in politics. . . . So there’s the tangle we’re in. There will be the devil to pay if the Archduke isn’t out of the country within three days without anyone setting eyes on him, and that’s going to be a large-size job for somebody.”
“For whom?” Jaikie asked.
“Principally for you,” was the answer. “You seem to get all the worst jobs in this business. You’re young, you see — you’re our Juventus.”
“She says I have to go with her.”
“You have to stay here. I asked for you. Thank Heaven she has taken an enormous fancy to you. Miss Alison needn’t be jealous, for Mintha has about as much sex as a walking-stick. I daresay she would insist on marrying me, if she thought the country needed it, but I shall take jolly good care to avoid that. No warrior-queen for me. . . . All of you except Jaikie go back to Tarta this afternoon, and there Odalchini will keep you advised about what is happening. Jaikie stays here, and as soon as possible he goes to Melina. Don’t look so doleful, my son. You won’t be alone there. Randal Glynde, to the best of my belief, is by this time in the palace.”
Late that afternoon Janet and Alison, accompanied by a bitterly protesting Archie, left Krovolin for the House of the Four Winds. Next day there began for Jaikie two crowded days filled with a manifold of new experiences. The wings of Juventus, hitherto on the periphery of Evallonia, drew towards the centre. The whole business was a masterpiece of organisation, and profoundly impressed him with the fact that this was no flutter of youth, but a miraculous union of youth and experience. Three-fourths of the higher officers were mature men, some of them indeed old soldiers of Evallonia in the Great War. The discipline was military, and the movements had full military precision, but it was clear that this was a civilian army, with every form of expert knowledge in it, and trained more for civil reconstruction than for war.
Dr Jagon, who embraced him publicly, enlarged on its novel character. “It is triumphant democracy,” he declared, “purged of the demagogue. Its root is not emotion but reason — sentiment, indeed, of the purest, but sentiment rationalised. It is the State disciplined and enlightened. It is an example to all the world, the pioneer of marching humanity. God be praised that I have lived to see this day.”
Prince John’s presence was formally made known, and at a review of the wings he took his place, in the uniform of Juventus, as Commander-inChief. The newspapers published his appeal to the nation, in which he had judiciously toned down Dr Jagon’s philosophy and the Countess’s heroics. Presently, too, they issued another document, the submission of the Monarchist leaders. City and camp were kindled to a fervour of patriotism, and addresses poured in from every corner of the land.
On the afternoon of the second day Jaikie was summoned to the Prince’s quarters, where the Countess and the other wing commanders were present. There he was given his instructions. “You will proceed at once to Melina, Mr Galt,” said the Prince, “and confer with Count Casimir Muresco, with whom I believe you are already acquainted. To-morrow we advance to the capital, of whose submission we have been already assured. We desire that His Royal Highness the Archduke should be associated with our reception, and we have prepared a programme for the approval of His Royal Highness and his advisers. On our behalf and on behalf of Juventus you will see that this programme is carried out. I think that I am expressing the wishes of my headquarters staff.”
The wing commanders bowed gravely, and the Countess favoured Jaikie with an encouraging smile. He thought that he detected in Prince John’s eye the faintest suspicion of a wink. As he was getting into his car, with an aide-decamp and an orderly to attend him, Ashie appeared and drew him aside.
“For God’s sake,” he whispered, “get your old man out of the way. Shoot him and bury him if necessary.”
“I’d sooner shoot the lot of you,” said Jaikie.
“Well, if you don’t you’d better shoot yourself. And me, too, for I won’t survive a fiasco. Mintha has got off on her high horse, and Juventus is following her. She has drawn up a programme of ceremonies a yard long, in which your old fellow is cast for a principal part. There’ll be bloody murder if they find themselves let down. They’re a great lot, and my own lot, but they won’t stand for ragging.”
Dickson, enveloped in a military great-coat and muffled up about the neck because of his advanced age and indifferent health, enjoyed his journey in the late afternoon from Krovolin to Melina. He sat beside Prince Odalchini on the back seat of a large Daimler, with Count Casimir opposite him. There were police cars in front and behind, and a jingling escort of National Guards who made their progress slow. The movement, the mellow air, the rich and sunlit champaign raised his spirits and dispelled his nervousness. His roving eye scanned the landscape and noted with pleasure the expectant villagers and the cheering group of countrymen. On the outskirts of the capital a second troop of Guards awaited them, and as they entered by the ancient River Port there was a salute of guns from the citadel and every bell in every steeple broke into music. It had been arranged, in deference to His Royal Highness’s frailty, that there should be no municipal reception, but the streets were thronged with vociferous citizens and the click of cameras was like the rattle of machine-guns.
The cars swung through what looked like a Roman triumphal arch into a great courtyard, on three sides of which rose the huge baroque Palace. At this point Dickson’s impressions became a little confused. He was aware that troops lined the courtyard — he heard a word of command and saw rifles presented at the salute. He was conscious of being tenderly assisted from his car, and conducted between bowing servants through a high doorway and across endless marble pavements. Then came a shallow staircase, and a corridor lined with tall portraits. He came to anchor at last in what seemed to be a bedroom, though it was as big as a church. The evening was warm, but there were fires lit in two fireplaces. As he got out of his great-coat he realised that he was alone with Prince Odalchini and Count Casimir, each of whom helped himself to a stiff whisky-and-soda from a side-table.
“Thank Heaven that is over,” cried the latter. “Well over, too. Your Royal Highness will keep your chamber to-night, and you will be valeted by my own man. Do not utter one word, and for God’s sake try to look as frail as possible. You are a sick man, you understand, which is the reason for this privacy. To-morrow you will have to show yourself from one of the balconies to the people of Melina. To-morrow, too, I hope that your own equerry will arrive. It is better that you should be alone to-night. You realise, I think, how delicate the position is? Silence and great bodily weakness — these are your trump cards. It may be a little lonely for you, but that is inevitable.”
Dickson looked round the immense room, which was hung with tapestries depicting the doings in battle of the sixteenth-century King John of Evallonia. From the windows there was a wide view over the glades of the park with a shining river at the end. The two fires burned brightly, and on a bed like a field he observed his humble pyjamas. His spirits were high.
“Ugh,” he said, “I’ll do fine. This is a cheery place. I’ll not utter a cheep, and I’ll behave as if I was a hundred years old. I hope they’ll send me up a good dinner, for I’m mortal hungry.”
Dickson spent a strange but not unpleasant evening. Count Casimir’s valet proved to be an elderly Frenchman whose reverence for royalty was such that he kept his eyes downcast and uttered no word except “Altesse,” and that in a tone of profound humility. Dickson was conducted to an adjoining bathroom, where he bathed in pale-blue scented water. In the bathroom he nearly drowned himself by turning on all the taps at once, but he enjoyed himself hugely splashing the water about and watching it running in marble grooves to an exit. After that he was enveloped in a wonderful silk dressing-gown, which hid the humbleness of his pyjamas — pyjamas from which he observed that the name-tag had been removed.
The dinner served in his bedroom was all that his heart would wish, and its only blemish was that, from a choice of wines offered him, he selected a tokay which tasted unpleasantly like a medicine of his boyhood, so that he was forced to relapse upon a whisky-and-soda. “Even in a palace life may be lived well,” he quoted to himself from a favourite poet. After dinner he was put to bed between sheets as fine as satin, and left with a reading-lamp on his bedside table surrounded by a selection of fruit and biscuits. He turned out the lamp, and lay for some time watching the glow of the fire and the amber twilight in the uncurtained windows. Outside he could hear the tramp of the sentries and far off the rumour of crowded streets. At first he was too excited to be drowsy, for the strangeness of his position came over him in gusts, and his chuckles were mingled with an unpleasant trepidation. “You’ll need to say your prayers, Dickson my man,” he told himself, “for you’re in for a desperate business. It’s the kind of thing you read about in books.” But the long day had wearied him, and he had dined abundantly, so before long he fell asleep.
He woke to a bright morning and a sense of extreme bodily well-being. He drank his tea avidly; he ran off the hot bath which had been prepared for him, and had a cold one instead. He took ten minutes instead of five over his exercises, and two instead of five over his prayers. He put on his best blue suit — he was thankful he had brought it from Rosensee — and a white shirt and a sober tie, for he felt that this was no occasion for flamboyance in dress. From all his garments he noted with interest that the marks of identification had been removed. As he examined his face in the glass he decided that he did not look the age of the Archduke and that he was far too healthily coloured for a sick man, so he rubbed some of the powder which Count Casimir had given him over his cheeks and well into his thinning hair. The result rather scared him, for he now looked a cross between a consumptive and a badly made-up actor. At breakfast he was compelled to exercise self-denial. He could have eaten everything provided, but he dared not repeat his performance at dinner the night before, so he contented himself with three cups of coffee, a peach, and the contents of the toast rack. The servants who cleared away saw an old man resting on a couch with closed eyes, the very image of a valetudinarian.
After that time hung heavy on his hands. It was a fine morning and he felt that he could walk twenty miles. The sound of the bustle of an awaking city, and the view from the windows of miles of sunburnt grass and boats on the distant river, made him profoundly restless. His great bedroom was furnished like a room in a public building, handsomely but dully; there was nothing in it to interest him, and the only book he had brought was Sir Thomas Browne, an author for whom at the moment he did not feel inclined. Urn-burial and a doctor’s religion were clean out of the picture. A sheaf of morning papers had been provided, but he could not read them, though he observed with interest the pictures of his entry into Melina. He prowled about miserably, taking exercise as a man does in the confined space of a ship’s deck.
Then it occurred to him that he might extend his walk and do a little exploration. He cautiously opened the door and looked into a deserted corridor. The place was as empty and as silent as a tomb, so there could be no risk in venturing a little way down it. He tried one or two doors which were locked. One opened into a vast chamber where the furniture was all in dust sheets. Then he came to a circular gallery around a subsidiary staircase, and he was just considering whether he might venture down it when he heard voices and the sound of footsteps on the marble. He skipped back the road he had come, and for an awful minute was uncertain of his room. One door which he tried refused to open, and the voices were coming nearer. Happily the next door on which he hurled himself was the right one, and he dropped panting into an armchair.
This adventure shook him out of all his morning placidity. “I won’t be able to stand this place very long,” he reflected. “I can’t behave like a cripple, when I’m fair bursting with health. It’s worse than being in jyle.” And then an uglier thought came to him. “I’ve got in here easy enough, but how on earth am I going to get out? I must abdicate, and that’s simple, but what’s to become of me after that? How can I disappear, when there will be about a million folk wanting a sight of me?”
He spent a dismal forenoon. He longed for some familiar face, even Peter Wappit, who had been sent back to Tarta. He longed especially for Jaikie, and he indulged in some melancholy speculations as to that unfortunate’s fate. “He had to face the daft Countess,” he thought, “and Jaikie was always terrible nervous with women.” Then he began to be exasperated with Count Casimir and Prince Odalchini, who had left him in this anxious solitude. And Prince John. It was for Prince John’s sake that he had come here, and unless he presently got some enlightenment he would go out and look for it.
He was slightly pacified by the arrival of both the Count and Prince Odalchini about midday, for both were in high spirits. Luncheon was served to the three in his bedroom, a light meal at which no servants were present and they waited on themselves. They had news of high importance for him. Prince John was with Juventus — had been accepted with acclamation by Juventus and not least by the Countess Araminta. Juventus was in a friendly mood and appeared willing to accept the overtures of the Monarchists, who had already informed it that the Archduke would not resist what was plainly the desire of the people, but would relinquish all claims to the throne. “We must prepare your abdication,” said Count Casimir. “It should be in the papers tomorrow, or the day after at the latest. For the day after tomorrow Juventus will reach Melina.”
“Thank God for that,” said Dickson. “I’ll abdicate like a shot, but what I want to know is, how I’m to get away. I must be off long before they arrive, for yon Countess will be wanting my blood.”
“I hope not,” said the Count. “Juventus will have too much on its hands to trouble about a harmless old gentleman.”
“I’m not worrying about Juventus,” said Dickson gloomily. “It’s the woman I’m thinking about, and from all I’ve heard I wouldn’t put it past her.”
“One of your difficulties will be the Press,” Prince Odalchini said. “Correspondents are arriving here from all quarters of Europe — mostly by the air, since the frontiers are closed.”
“Here! This is awful,” cried the alarmed Dickson. “I know the breed, and they’ll be inside this place and interviewing me, and where will we all be then?”
“I think not. You are well guarded. But there’s one man I’m uncertain about. He flew here this morning from Vienna, and I don’t quite know what to do about him. He’s not a correspondent, you see, but the representative of the English Press group that has always been our chief ally.”
“What’s his name?” Dickson asked with a sudden hope.
The Prince drew a card from his pocket. “Crombie,” he read. “The right-hand man of the great Craw. I haven’t seen him, but he has written to me. I felt that I was bound to treat him with some consideration, so he is coming here at three o’clock.”
“You’ll bring him to me at once,” said Dickson joyfully. “Man, you know him — you saw him in the Canonry — a lad with a red head and a dour face. It’s my old friend Dougal, and you can trust him to the other side of Tophet. You’ll bring him straight up, and you’ll never let on it’s me. He’ll get the surprise of his life.”
Mr McCunn was not disappointed. Dougal at three o’clock was duly ushered into the room by Count Casimir. “Your Royal Highness, I have to present Mr Crombie of the Craw Press,” he said, and bowed himself out.
Dougal made an awkward obeisance and advanced three steps. Then he stopped in his tracks and gaped.
“It’s you!” he stammered.
“Ay, it’s me,” said Dickson cheerfully. “You didn’t know what you were doing when you whippit me out of Rosensee and sent me on my travels. This was my own notion, and I’m sort of proud of it. I got it by minding what happened when Jimmy Turnbull was running for Lord Provost of Glasgow, and his backers put up David Duthie so that the other and stronger lot could run Jimmy. You’ll mind that?”
“I mind it,” said Dougal hoarsely, sinking into a chair.
“And by the mercy of Providence it turned out that I was the living image of the old Archduke. It has answered fine. Here I am as His Royal Highness, the brother of his late Majesty, and Juventus has gone daft about Prince John, and I’m about to abdicate, and in two-three days Prince John will be King of Evallonia and not a dog will bark. I think I’ve done well by that young man.”
“Ay, maybe you have,” said Dougal grimly. “But the question is, what is to become of YOU? This is not the Glasgow Town Council, and Evallonia is not Scotland. How are you going to get out of this?”
“Fine,” Dickson replied, but less confidently, for Dougal’s solemn face disquieted him. “There’s not a soul knows about it, except two or three whose interest it is to keep quiet. When I’ve abdicated I’ll just slip cannily away, and be over the border before Juventus gets here.”
“You think that will be easy? I only arrived this morning, but I’ve seen enough to know that the whole of Melina is sitting round the palace like hens round a baikie. They’re for you and they’re for Prince John, and they want to see the two of you make it up. And half the papers in Europe have sent their correspondents here, and I know too much about my own trade to take that lightly. To get you safely out of the country will be a heavy job, I can tell you.”
“I’ll trust my luck,” said Dickson stoutly, but his eyes were a little anxious. “Thank God you’re here, Dougal.”
“Yes, thank God I’m here. The trouble with you is you’re too brave. You don’t stop to think of risks. Suppose you’re found out. Juventus is a big thing, a bigger thing than the world knows, but it’s desperate serious, and it won’t understand pranks. Won’t understand, and won’t forgive. At present it’s inclined to be friendly with the Monarchists, and use them, for it badly needs them. But if it had a suspicion of this game, Count Casimir and Prince Odalchini and the rest would be in the dock for high treason. And yourself! Well, I’m not sure what would happen to you, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.”
“You’re a Job’s comforter, Dougal. Anyway, it’s a great thing to have you here. I wish I had Jaikie too. You’ll come and bide here, for I’ll want you near me?”
“Yes, I’d better move in. I’ll see the Count about it at once. Some of us will have to do some pretty solid thinking in the next twenty-four hours.”
Dougal found Count Casimir in a good humour, for he had further news from Krovolin. It appeared that Juventus not only forgave the putting forward of the Archduke, but applauded it as a chance of making the monarchical restoration impressive by enlisting both the surviving males of the royal house. The Countess Araminta was especially enthusiastic, and an elaborate programme had been drawn up — first the meeting of Prince John and his uncle — then the presentation to Melina of the young man by the old — and last, the ceremonial functioning of the Archduke at the Coronation.
“The wheel has come full circle,” said the Count. “Now all the land is royalist. But it is the more incumbent upon us to proceed with caution, for a slip now would mean a dreadful fall. We must get our friend away very soon.”
At this conference a third person was present — Randal Glynde, so very point-device that his own employees would scarcely have recognised in him the scarecrow of the Cirque Doré. His hair and beard were trimly barbered, the latter having been given a naval cut, and his morning suit was as exquisite a thing as the clothes he had worn at the Lamanchas’ party. “I am His Royal Highness’s chief equerry,” he told Dougal, “just arrived from France. The news will be in the evening papers. Since I speak Evallonian I can make life a little easier for him.”
Dougal had listened gloomily to Count Casimir’s exposition of the spectacular duties which Juventus proposed for the Archduke.
“You haven’t told Mr McCunn that?” he demanded anxiously, and was informed that the Count had only just heard it himself.
“Well, you mustn’t breathe a word of it to him. Not on your life. He’s an extraordinary man, and though I’ve studied him for years, I haven’t got near the bottom of him. He’s what you might call a desperate character. What other man would have taken on a job like this — for fun? For fun, remember. He has always been like that. He thinks it was his promise to Prince John, but that was only a small bit of it. The big thing for him was that he was living up to a notion he has of himself, and that notion won’t let him shirk anything, however daft, if it appeals to his imagination. He’s the eternal adventurer, the only one I’ve ever met — the kind of fellow Ulysses must have been — the heart of a boy and the head of an old serpent. I’ve been trying to solemnise him by telling him what a needle-point he’s standing on — how hard it will be for him to get away, and what a devil’s own mess there’ll be if he doesn’t. He was impressed, and a little bit frightened — I could see that — but in a queer way he was pleased too. He’ll go into it with a white face and his knees trembling, but he’ll go through with it, and by the mercy of God he’ll get away with it. But just let him know what Juventus proposes and he won’t budge one step. The idea of a Coronation and his carrying the Sacred Lamp and all the rest of it would fair go to his head. He would be determined to have a shot at it and trust to luck to carry him through. Oh, I know it’s sheer mania, but that’s Mr McCunn, and when he sticks his hoofs into the ground traction engines wouldn’t shift him. . . . You’ve got that clear? I want you to arrange for me to move in here, for I ought to be near him.”
Count Casimir bowed. “I accept your reading of him,” he said, “and I shall act on it.” Then he added, rather to Randal than to Dougal, “I believe he was originally a Glasgow grocer. The provision-trade in Scotland must be a remarkable profession.”
Dickson had on the whole a pleasant evening. In the first place he had Mr Glynde, an exquisite velvet-footed attendant, whose presence made other servants needless except for the mere business of fetching and carrying. Then he enjoyed the business of writing his abdication. The draft was prepared by Count Casimir, but he took pains to amend the style, assisted by Randal, in whom he discovered a literary connoisseur of a high order. I am afraid that the resulting document was a rather precious composition, full of Stevensonian cadences and with more than a hint of the prophet Isaiah. Happily Count Casimir was there to turn it into robust Evallonian prose.
Dickson and Randal dined alone together, and the former heard with excitement of the doings in the Street of the White Peacock. The peril of Alison and the Roylances, not to speak of Jaikie, made him catch his breath, and the manner of Mastrovin’s end gave him deep satisfaction.
“I’m glad yon one is out of the world,” he said. “He was a cankered body. It was your shot that did it? What does it feel like to kill a man?”
“In Mastrovin’s case rather like breaking the back of a stoat that is after your chickens. Have you ever been the death of anyone, Mr McCunn?”
“I once had a try,” said Dickson modestly. Then his thoughts fastened on Jaikie.
“You tell me he’s safe and well? And he gets on fine with the Countess?”
“He promises to be her white-headed boy. She is a lady of violent likes and dislikes, and she seems to have fallen completely for Master Jaikie. Prince John, of course, is deep in his debt. I think that if he wants it he might have considerable purchase at the new Court of Evallonia.”
“Do you say so? That would be a queer profession for a laddie that came out of the Gorbals. There’s another thing.” Dickson hesitated. “I think Jaikie is terrible fond of Miss Alison.”
Randal smiled. “I believe that affair is going well. Last night, I fancy, clinched it. They clung together like two lovers.”
Dickson’s eyes became misty.
“Well — well. It’s a grand thing to be young. That reminds me of something where I want you to help me, Mr Glynde. My will was made years ago, and is deposited with Paton and Linklater in Glasgow. I haven’t forgot Jaikie, but I think I must make further and better provision for him, as the lawyers say. I’ve prepared a codicil, and I want it signed and witnessed the morn. I’ve determined that Jaikie shall be well-tochered, and if Miss Alison has the beauty and the blood he at any rate will have the siller. No man knows what’ll happen to me in the next day or two, and I’d be easier in my mind if I got this settled.”
“To-morrow you must stay in bed,” said Randal, as he said good night. “You must profess to be exceedingly unwell.”
Dickson grinned. “And me feeling like a he-goat on the mountains!”
Next day an unwilling Dickson kept his bed. He had the codicil of his will signed and witnessed, which gave him some satisfaction. Randal translated for him the comments of the Evallonian Press on his abdication, and he was gratified to learn that he had behaved with a royal dignity and the self-abnegation of a patriot. But after that he grew more restless with every hour.
“What for am I lying here?” he asked repeatedly. “I should be up and off or I’ll be grippit.”
“Juventus works to a schedule,” Randal explained, “and its formal entry into Melina is timed for tomorrow. The Press announces today that you are seriously indisposed, and therefore you cannot appear in public before the people, which is what Melina is clamouring for. News of your being confined to bed this morning has already been issued, and a bulletin about your health will be published at midday. You appreciate the position, Mr McCunn?”
“Fine,” said Dickson.
“It is altogether necessary that you get away in good time, but it is also necessary that you have a good reason for your going — an excuse for Melina, and especially for Juventus. They are not people whose plans can be lightly disregarded. If there is to be peace in Evallonia, Count Casimir and his friends must be in favour with Juventus, and that will not happen if we begin by offending it. We must get a belief in your critical state of health firm in the minds of the people, and our excuse for your going must be that any further excitement would endanger your life. So we must move carefully and not too fast. Our plan is to get you out of here to-night very secretly, and the fact that you did not leave till the question of your health became urgent will, we hope, convince Juventus of our good intentions.”
“That’s maybe right enough,” said Dickson doubtfully, “but it’s a poor job for me. I have to lie here on my back, and I’ve nothing to read except Sir Thomas Browne, and I can’t keep my mind on him. I’m getting as nervous as a peesweep.”
Luncheon saw an anxious company round his bed, Prince Odalchini, Count Casimir, Dougal and Mr Glynde. They had ominous news. The advanced troops of Juventus had arrived, a picked body who had been instructed to take over the duty of palace guards. They had accordingly replaced the detachment of National Guards, which had been sent to occupy the approaches to the city. There had been no difficulty about the transference, but it appeared that there was going to be extreme difficulty with the palace’s new defenders. For these Juventus shock-troops had strict orders, and a strict notion of fulfilling them. No movement out of the city was permitted for the next twenty-four hours. No movement out of the Palace was permitted for the same period. Count Casimir had interviewed the officer commanding and had found him respectful but rigid. If any member of the Archduke’s entourage wished to leave it would be necessary to get permission by telephone from headquarters at Krovolin.
“I do not think that Juventus is suspicious,” said the Count. “It is only its way of doing business. It has youth’s passion for meticulous detail.”
“That puts the lid on it for us,” said Dougal. “We can’t ask permission for Mr McCunn to leave, for Juventus would be here in no time making inquiries for itself. And it will be an awful business to smuggle him out. I can tell you these lads know their work. They have sentries at every approach, and they are patrolling every yard of the back parts and the park side. Besides, once he was out of here, what better would he be? He would have still to get out of the city, and the whole countryside between here and Tarta is policed by Juventus. They are taking no chances.”
There were poor appetites at luncheon. Five reasonably intelligent men sat in a stupor of impotence, repeating wearily the essentials of a problem which they could not solve. They must get Dickson away within not more than twenty hours, and they must get him off in such a manner that they would have a convincing story to tell Juventus. Dickson sat up in his bed in extreme discomposure, Dougal had his head in his hands, Count Casimir strode up and down the room, and even Randal Glynde seemed shaken out of his customary insouciance. Prince Odalchini had left them on some errand of his own.
The last-named returned about three o’clock with a tragic face.
“I have just had a cipher telegram,” he said. “I have my own means of getting them through. The Archduke Hadrian died this morning at eleven o’clock. His death will not be announced till I give the word, but the announcement cannot be delayed more than two days — three at the most. Therefore we must act at once. There is not an hour to waste.”
“There is not an hour to waste,” Casimir cried, “but we are an eternity off having any plan.”
“I’m dead,” said Dickson. “At least the man I’m pretending to be is dead. Well, I’ll maybe soon be dead myself.” His tone was almost cheerful, as if the masterful comedy of events had obliterated his own cares.
“There is nothing to do but to risk it,” said Prince Odalchini. “We must go on with our plan for to-night, and pray that Juventus may be obtuse. The odds I admit are about a thousand to one.”
“And on these crazy odds depends the fate of a nation,” said Casimir bitterly.
To this miserable conclave entered Jaikie — Jaikie, trim, brisk and purposeful. He wore the uniform of a Juventus staff-officer, and on his right arm was the Headquarters brassard. To Dickson’s anxious eyes he was a different being from the shabby youth he had last seen at Tarta. This new Jaikie was a powerful creature, vigorous and confident, the master, not the plaything, of Fate. He remembered too that this was Alison’s accepted lover. At the sight of him all his fears vanished.
“Man Jaikie, but I’m glad to see you,” he cried. “You’ve just come in time to put us right.”
“I hope so,” was the answer. “Anyway, I’ve come to represent Juventus Headquarters here till they take over tomorrow.”
He looked round the company, and his inquiring eye induced Casimir to repeat his mournful tale. Jaikie listened with a puckered brow.
“It’s going to be a near thing,” he said at last. “And we must take some risks. . . . Still, I believe it can be done. Listen. I’ve brought a Headquarters car with the Headquarters flag on the bonnet. Also I have a pass which enables me and the car and anyone I send in the car to go anywhere in Evallonia. I insisted on that, for I expected that there might be some trouble. That is our trump card. I can send Mr McCunn off in it, and that will give us a story for Juventus tomorrow.. .. But on the other hand there is nothing to prevent the Juventus sentries from looking inside, and if they see Mr McCunn — well, his face is unfortunately too well known from their infernal papers, and they have their orders, and they’re certain to insist on telephoning to Krovolin for directions, and that would put the fat in the fire. We must get them into a frame of mind when they won’t want to look too closely. Let me think.”
“Ay, Jaikie, think,” said Dickson, almost jovially. “It must never be said that a Gorbals Die-hard was beat by a small thing like that.”
After a little Jaikie raised his head.
“This is the best I can do. Mr McCunn must show himself to Melina. In spite of his feebleness and the announcement in the Press today, he must make an effort to have one look at his affectionate people. Ring up the newspaper offices, and get it into the stop-press of the evening papers that at seven o’clock the Archduke will appear on the palace balcony. You’ve got that? Then at a quarter-past seven my car must be ready to start. You must go with it, Prince. Have you a man of your own that you can trust to drive, for I daren’t risk the Juventus chauffeur.”
Prince Odalchini nodded. “I have such a man.”
“What I hope for is this,” Jaikie went on. “The Juventus guards, having seen the Archduke on the balcony a few minutes before, and having observed a tottering old man who has just risen from a sick-bed, won’t expect him to be in the car. I’ll have a word with their commandant and explain that you are taking two of your servants to Tarta, and that you have my permission, as representing the Headquarters staff.”
“But there’s a risk, all the same. If they catch a glimpse of Mr McCunn they will insist on ringing up Krovolin. I know what conscientious beggars they are, and I’m only a staff-officer, not their commander. Couldn’t we do something to distract their attention at the critical moment?” He looked towards Randal with a sudden inspiration.
Mr Glynde smiled.
“I think I can manage that,” he said. “If I may be excused, I will go off and see about it.”
As the hour of seven chimed from the three and thirty towers of Melina, there was an unusual bustle in the great front courtyard of the Palace. The evening papers had done their work, rumour with swift foot had sped through the city, and the Juventus sentries had permitted the entrance of a crowd which the Press next day estimated as not less than twenty thousand. On the balcony above the main portico, flanked by a row of palace officials, stood a little group of men. Some wore the uniform of the old Evallonian Court, and Jaikie alone had the Juventus green. They made a passage, in which appeared Count Casimir and Prince Odalchini, both showing the famous riband and star of the White Falcon. Between them they supported a frail figure which wore a purple velvet dressing-gown and a skull-cap, so that it looked like some very ancient Prince of the Church. It was an old man, with a deathly white face, who blinked his eyes wearily, smiled wanly, and bowed as with a great effort to the cheering crowds. There was a dignity in him which impressed the most heedless, the dignity of an earlier age, and an extreme fragility which caught at the heart. The guards saluted, every hat was raised, but there was some constraint in the plaudits. The citizens of Melina felt that they were in the presence of one who had but a slender hold on life.
Dickson was stirred to his depths. The sea of upturned faces moved him strangely, for he had never before stood on a pinnacle above his fellow-men. He did not need to act his part, for in that moment he felt himself the authentic Archduke, an exile returning only to die. He was wearing a dead man’s shoes. Next day the papers were to comment upon the pathetic spectacle of this old man bidding Ave atque vale to the people he loved.
The car was waiting in a small inner courtyard. It was a big limousine with the blinds drawn on one side, so that the interior was but dimly seen. Dickson entered and sat himself in the duskiest corner, wearing the military overcoat in which he had arrived, with the collar turned up and a thick muffler. Dougal took the seat by the driver. The car moved through the inner gateway and came into the outer court, which was the private entrance to the Palace. At the other end the court opened into the famous thoroughfare known as the Avenue of the Kings, and there stood the Juventus sentries.
The Headquarters flag fluttered at the car’s bonnet, and Prince Odalchini’s hand through the open window displayed the familiar green and white Headquarters pass. The sentries saluted, and their officer, whom Jaikie had already interviewed, nodded and took a step towards the car. It may have been his intention to examine the interior, but that will never be known, for his activities were suddenly compelled to take a different form.
In the Avenue was a great crowd streaming away from the ceremony in the main palace courtyard. The place was broad enough for thousands, and the sounding of the car’s horn had halted the press and made a means of egress. But coming from the opposite direction was a circus procession, which, keeping its proper side of the road, had got very close to the palace wall. It had heard the horn of the car and would have stopped, but for the extraordinary behaviour of an elephant. The driver of the animal, a ridiculous figure of a man in flapping nankeen trousers, an old tunic of horizon blue and a scarlet cummerbund, apparently tried to check it, but at the very moment that the car was about to pass the gate it backed into the archway, scattering the Juventus guards.
There was just room for the car to slip through, and, as it swung into the avenue, Dickson, through a crack in the blind, saw with delight that his retreat was securely covered by the immense rump of Aurunculeia.
The last guns of the royal salute had fired, and the cheering of the crowds had become like the murmur of a distant groundswell. The entrance hall of the Palace was lined with the tall Juventus guards, and up the alley between them came the new King-designate of Evallonia. There was now nothing of McTavish and less of Newsom about Prince John. The Juventus uniform well became his stalwart figure, and he was no more the wandering royalty who for some years had been the sport of fortune, but a man who had found again his land and his people. Yet in all the group, in the Prince and his staff and in the wing commanders, there was a touch of hesitation, almost of shyness, like schoolboys who had been catapulted suddenly into an embarrassing glory. The progress from Krovolin to Melina had been one long blaze of triumph, for again and again the lines of the escort had been broken by men and women who kissed the Prince’s stirrup, and it had rained garlands of flowers. The welcome of Melina had been more ceremonial, but not less rapturous, and they had listened to that roar of many thousands, which, whether it be meant in love or in hate, must make the heart stand still. All the group, even the Countess Araminta, had eyes unnaturally bright and faces a little pale.
At the foot of the grand staircase stood Count Casimir and Jaikie. Ashie translated for the latter the speeches that followed. The Count dropped on his knee.
“Sire,” he said, “as the Chamberlain of the king your father I welcome you home.”
Prince John raised him and embraced him.
“But where,” he asked, “is my beloved uncle? I had hoped to be welcomed by him above all others.” His eye caught Jaikie’s for a moment, and what the latter read in it was profound relief.
“Alas, Sire,” said the Count, “His Royal Highness’s health has failed him. Being an old man, the excitement of the last days was too much for him. A little more and your Majesty’s joyful restoration would have been clouded by tragedy. The one hope was that he should leave at once for the peace of his home. He crossed the frontier last night, and will complete his journey to France by air. He left with profound unwillingness, and he charged me to convey to Your Majesty his sorrow that his age and the frailty of his body should have prevented him from offering you in person his assurances of eternal loyalty and affection.”
The Countess’s face had lost its pallor. Once again she was the Blood-red Rook, and it was on Jaikie that her eyes fell, eyes questioning, commanding, suspicious. It was to her rather than to Prince John that he spoke, having imitated the Count and clumsily dropped on one knee.
“I was faithful to your instructions, Sire,” he said, “but a higher Power has made them impossible. I was assured that you would not wish this happy occasion to be saddened by your kinsman’s death.”
He saw the Countess’s lips compressed as if she checked with difficulty some impetuous speech. “True public-school,” thought Jaikie. “She would like to make a scene, but she won’t.”
Prince John saw it too, and his manner dropped from the high ceremonial to the familiar.
“You have done right,” he said aloud in English. “Man proposeth and God disposeth. Dear Uncle Hadrian — Heaven bless him wherever he is! And now, my lord Chamberlain, I hope you can give us something to eat.”
Down in the deep-cut glen it had been almost dark, for the wooded hills rose steeply above the track. But when the horses had struggled up the last stony patch of moraine and reached the open uplands the riders found a clear amber twilight. And when they had passed the cleft called the Wolf’s Throat, they saw a great prospect to the west of forest and mountain with the sun setting between two peaks, a landscape still alight with delicate, fading colours. Overhead the evening star twinkled in a sky of palest amethyst. Involuntarily they halted.
Alison pointed to lights a mile down the farther slope.
“There are the cars with the baggage,” she said, “and the grooms to take the horses back. We can get to our inn in an hour. You are safe, Dickson, for we are across the frontier. Let’s stop here for supper, and have our last look at Evallonia.”
Mr McCunn descended heavily from his horse.
“Ay, I’m safe,” he said. “And tomorrow there will be a telegram from France saying I’m dead. Well, that’s the end of an auld song.” He kicked vigorously to ease his cramped legs, and while Dougal and Sir Archie took the food from the saddle-bags and the two women spread a tablecloth on a flat rock, he looked down the ravine to the dim purple hollow which was the country they had left.
Jaikie’s last word to Dougal at Melina had been an injunction to make the end crown the work. “Be sure and have a proper finish,” he had told him. “You know what he is. Let him think he’s in desperate danger till he’s over the border. He would break his heart if he thought that he was out of the game too soon.” So Dougal had been insistent with Prince Odalchini. “You owe Mr McCunn more than you can ever repay, and it isn’t much that I ask. He must believe that Juventus is after him to bring him back. Get him off to-night, and keep up the pretence that it’s deadly secret. Horses — that’s the thing that will please his romantic soul.”
So Dickson had all day been secluded in the House of the Four Winds, his meals had been brought him by Dougal, and Peter Wappit had stood sentry outside his chamber door. As the afternoon wore on his earlier composure had been shot with restlessness, and he watched the sun decline with an anxious eye. But his spirits had recovered when he found himself hoisted upon an aged mare of Prince Odalchini’s, which was warranted quiet, and saw the others booted and spurred. He had felt himself living a moment of high drama, and to be embraced and kissed on both cheeks by Prince Odalchini had seemed the right kind of farewell. The ride through secluded forest paths had been unpleasant, for he had only once been on a horse in his life before, and Archie bustled them along to keep up the illusion of a perilous flight. Dougal, no horseman himself, could do nothing to help him, but Alison rode by his side, and now and again led his beast when he found it necessary to cling with both hands to the saddle.
But once they were in the mountain cleft comfort had returned, for now the pace was easy and he had leisure for his thoughts. He realised that for days he had been living with fear. “You’re not a brave man,” he told himself. “The thing about you is that you’re too much of a coward to admit that you’re afraid. You let yourself in for daft things because your imagination carries you away, and then for weeks on end your knees knock together. . . . But it’s worth it — you know it’s worth it, you old epicurean,” he added, “for the sake of the relief when it’s over.” He realised that he was about to enjoy the peace of soul which he had known long ago at Huntingtower on the morning after the fight.
But this time there was more than peace. He cast an eye over his shoulder down the wooded gorge — all was quiet — he had escaped from his pursuers. The great adventure had succeeded. Far ahead beyond the tree-tops he saw the cleft of the Wolf’s Throat sharp against the sunset. In half an hour the frontier would be passed. His spirit was exalted. He remembered something he had read — in Stevenson, he thought — where a sedentary man had been ravished by a dream of galloping through a midnight pass at the head of cavalry with a burning valley behind him. Well, he was a sedentary man, and he was not dreaming an adventure, but in the heart of one. Never had his wildest fancies envisaged anything like this. He had been a king, acclaimed by shouting mobs. He had kept a throne warm for a friend, and now he was vanishing into the darkness, an honourable fugitive, a willing exile. He was the first grocer in all history that had been a Pretender to a Crown. The clack of hooves on stone, the jingling of bits, the echo of falling water were like strong wine. He did not sing aloud, for he was afraid of alarming his horse, but he crooned to himself snatches of spirited songs. “March, march, Ettrick and Teviotdale” was one, and “Jock o’ Hazeldean” was another.
Even on that hill-top the summer night was mild, and the fern was warm, baked by long hours of sun. The little company felt the spell of the mountain quiet after a week of alarums, and ate their supper in silence. Dickson munched a sandwich with his face turned east. He was the first to speak.
“Jaikie’s down there,” he said. “I wonder what will become of Jaikie? He’s a quiet laddie, but he’s the dour one when he’s made up his mind. Then he’s like a stone loosed from a catapult. But I’ve no fear for Jaikie now he has you to look after him.” He turned to beam upon Alison and stroked her arm.
“He doesn’t know what to do,” said the girl. “We talked a lot about it in the summer. He went on a walking-tour to think things out and discover what he wanted most.”
“Well, he has found that out,” said Dickson genially. “It’s you, Miss Alison. Jaikie’s my bairn, and now I’ve got another in yourself. I’m proud of my family. Dougal there is already a force for mischief in Europe.”
Dougal grinned. “I wonder what Mr Craw will say about all this. He’ll be over the moon about it, and he’ll think that he and his papers are chiefly responsible. Humbug! There are whiles when I’m sick of my job. They talk about the power of the Press, and it is powerful enough in ordinary times. The same with big finance. But let a thing like Juventus come along, and the Press and the stock exchange are no more than penny whistles. It’s the Idea that wins every time — the Idea with brains and guts behind it.”
“Youth,” said Janet. “Yes, youth is the force in the world today, for it isn’t tired and it can hope. But you have forgotten Mr McCunn. He made the success of Juventus possible, for he found it its leader. It’s a pity the story can’t be told, for he deserves a statue in Melina as the Great Peacemaker.”
“It’s the same thing,” said Dougal. “He’s youth.”
“In two months’ time I’ll be sixty-three,” said Dickson.
“What does that matter? I tell you you’re young. Compared to you Jaikie and I are old, done men. And you’re the most formidable kind of youth, for you’ve humour, and that’s what youth never has. Jaikie has a little maybe, but nothing to you, and I haven’t a scrap myself. I’ll be a bigger man than Craw ever was, for I haven’t his failings. And Jaikie will be a big man, too, though I’m not just sure in what way. But though I become a multimillionaire and Jaikie a prime minister, we will neither of us ever be half the man that Mr McCunn is. It was a blessed day for me when I first fell in with him.”
“Deary me,” said Dickson. “That’s a grand testimonial, but I don’t deserve it. I have a fair business mind, and I try to apply it — that’s all. It was the Gorbals Die-hards that made me. Eight years ago I retired from the shop, and I was a timid elderly body. The Die-hards learned me not to be afraid.”
“You don’t know what fear is,” said Dougal.
“And they made me feel young again.”
“You could never be anything but young.”
“You’re wrong. I’m both timid and old — the best you can say of me is that, though I’m afraid, I’m never black-afraid, and though I’m old, I’m not dead-old.”
“That’s the best that could be said about any mortal man,” said Archie solemnly. “What are you going to do now? After this game of king-making, won’t Carrick be a bit dull?”
“I’m going back to Blaweary,” said Dickson, “to count my mercies, for I’m a well man again. I’m going to catch a wheen salmon, and potter about my bits of fields, and read my books, and sit by my fireside. And to the last day of my life I’ll be happy, thinking of the grand things I’ve seen and the grand places I’ve been in. Ay, and the grand friends I’ve known — the best of all.”
“I think you are chiefly a poet,” said Alison.
Dickson did not reply for a moment. He looked at her tenderly and seemed to be pondering a new truth.
“Me!” he said. “I wish I was, but I could never string two verses together.”
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50