The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan


Great events, says the philosophic historian, spring only from great causes, though the immediate occasion may be small; but I think his law must have exceptions. Of the not inconsiderable events which I am about to chronicle, the occasion was trivial, and I find it hard to detect the majestic agency behind them. What world-force, for example, ordained that Mr Dickson McCunn should slip into the Tod’s Hole in his little salmon-river on a bleak night in April; and, without changing his clothes, should thereafter make a tour of inspection of his young lambs? His action was the proximate cause of this tale, but I can see no profounder explanation of it than the inherent perversity of man.

The performance had immediate consequences for Mr McCunn. He awoke next morning with a stiff neck, an aching left shoulder, and a pain in the small of his back — he who never in his life before had had a touch of rheumatism. A vigorous rubbing with embrocation failed to relieve him, and, since he was accustomed to robust health, he found it intolerable to hobble about with a thing like a toothache in several parts of his body. Dr Murdoch was sent for from Auchenlochan, and for a fortnight Mr McCunn had to endure mustard plasters and mustard baths, to swallow various medicines, and to submit to a rigorous diet. The pains declined, but he found himself to his disgust in a low state of general health, easily tired, liable to sudden cramps, and with a poor appetite for his meals. After three weeks of this condition he lost his temper. Summer was beginning, and he reflected that, being now sixty-three years of age, he had only a limited number of summers left to him. His gorge rose at the thought of dragging his wing through the coming delectable months — long-lighted June, the hot July noons with the corncrakes busy in the hay, the days on August hills, red with heather and musical with bees. He curbed his distaste for medical science, and departed to Edinburgh to consult a specialist.

That specialist gave him a purifying time. He tested his blood and his blood pressure, kneaded every part of his frame, and for the better part of a week kept him under observation. At the end he professed himself clear in the general but perplexed in the particular.

“You’ve never been ill in your life?” he said. “Well, that is just your trouble. You’re an uncommonly strong man — heart, lungs, circulation, digestion, all in first-class order. But it stands to reason that you must have secreted poisons in your body, and you have never got them out. The best prescription for a fit old age is a bad illness in middle life, or, better still, a major operation. It drains off some of the middle-age humours. Well, you haven’t had that luck, so you’ve been a powder magazine with some nasty explosives waiting for the spark. Your tom-fool escapade in the Stinchar provided the spark, and here you are — a healthy man mysteriously gone sick. You’ve got to be pretty careful, Mr McCunn. It depends on how you behave in the next few months whether you will be able to fish for salmon on your eightieth birthday, or be doddering round with two sticks and a shawl on your seventieth.”

Mr McCunn was scared, penitent and utterly docile. He professed himself ready for the extremest measures, including the drawing of every tooth in his head.

The specialist smiled. “I don’t recommend anything so drastic. What you want first of all is an exact diagnosis. I can assess your general condition, but I can’t put my finger on the precise mischief. That needs a technique which we haven’t developed sufficiently in this country. Next, you must have treatment, but treatment is a comparatively simple affair if you first get the right diagnosis. So I am going to send you to Germany.”

Mr McCunn wailed. Banishment from his beloved Blaweary was a bitter pill.

“Yes, to Germany. To quite a pretty place called Rosensee, in Saxon Switzerland. There’s a kurhaus there run by a man called Christoph. You never heard his name, of course — few people have — but he is a therapeutic genius of the first order. You can take my word for that. I’ve known him again and again pull people out of their graves. His main subject is nerves, but he is good for everything that is difficult and mysterious, for in my opinion he is the greatest diagnoser in the world. . . . By the way, you live in Carrick? Well, I sent one of your neighbours to Rosensee last year — Sir Archibald Roylance — he was having trouble with a damaged leg — and now he walks nearly as well as you and me. It seems there was a misplaced sinew which everybody else had overlooked. . . . Dr Christoph will see you three times a day, stare at you like an owl, ask you a thousand questions and make no comment for at least a fortnight. Then he will deliver judgment, and you may take it that it will be right. After that the treatment is a simple matter. In a week or two you will be got up in green shorts and a Tyrolese hat and an alpenstock and a rope round your middle, climbing the little rocks of those parts. . . . Yes, I think I can promise you that you’ll be fit and ready for the autumn salmon.”

Mr McCunn, trained to know a competent man when he saw him, accepted the consultant’s prescription, and rooms were taken for him at the Rosensee kurhaus. His wife did not accompany him for three reasons: first, she had a profound distaste for foreign countries and regarded Germany as still a hostile State; second, she could not believe that rheumatism, which was an hereditary ailment in her own family, need be taken seriously, so she felt no real anxiety about his health; third, he forbade her. She proposed to stay at Blaweary till the end of June, and then to await her husband’s return at a Rothesay hydropathic. So early in the month Mr McCunn a little disconsolately left these shores. He took with him as body-servant and companion one Peter Wappit, who at Blaweary was game-keeper, forester and general handy-man. Peter, having fought in France with the Scots Fusiliers, and having been two years a prisoner in Germany, was believed by his master to be an adept at foreign tongues.

Nor was there any profound reason in the nature of things why Lord Rhynns, a well-preserved gentleman of sixty-seven, should have tumbled into a ditch that spring at Vallescure and broken his left leg. He was an active man and a careful, but his mind had been busy with the Newmarket entries, so that he missed a step, rolled some yards down a steep slope of rock and bracken, and came to rest with a leg doubled unpleasantly under him. The limb was well set, but neuritis followed, with disastrous consequences to the Rhynns ménage. For his wife, whose profession was a gentle invalidism, found herself compelled to see to household affairs, and as a result was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The family moved from watering-place to watering-place, seeking a cure for his lordship’s affliction, till at the mountain village of Unnutz Lady Rhynns could bear it no longer. A telegram was despatched to their only child requiring her instant attendance upon distressed parents.

This was a serious blow to Miss Alison Westwater, who had been making very different plans for the summer. She was then in London, living with her Aunt Harriet, who two years before had espoused Mr Thomas Carlyle Craw, the newspaper magnate. It was the Craws’ purpose to go north after Ascot to the Westwater house, Castle Gay, in the Canonry, of which Mr Craw had a long lease, and Alison, for whom a very little of London sufficed, had exulted in the prospect. Now she saw before her some dismal weeks — or months — in an alien land, in the company of a valetudinarian mother and a presumably irascible father. Her dreams of Scotland, to which she was passionately attached, of salmon in the Callowa and trout in the hill lochs and bright days among the heather, had to be replaced by a dreary vista of baking foreign roads, garish foreign hotels, tarnished pine-woods, tidy clothes and all the things which her soul abominated.

There was perhaps more of a cosmic motive in the determination that summer of the doings of Mr Dougal Crombie and Sir Archibald Roylance, for in their cases we touch the fringe of high politics. Dougal was now a force, almost THE force, in the Craw Press. The general manager, Mr Archibald Bamff, was growing old, he had taken to himself a wife, and his fancy toyed pleasantly with retirement to some country hermitage. So in the past year Dougal had been gradually taking over his work, and, since he had the complete confidence of Mr Craw, and the esteem of Mr Craw’s masterful wife, he found himself in his early twenties charged with much weighty and troublesome business. He was a power behind the throne, and the more potent because few suspected his presence. Only one or two people — a Cabinet minister, an occasional financial magnate, a few highly placed Government officials — realised the authority that was wielded by this sombre and downright young man. Early in June he set out on an extensive Continental trip, the avowed purpose of which was to look into certain paper-making concerns which Mr Craw had acquired after the war. But his main object was not disclosed, for it was deeply secret. Mr Craw had long interested himself in the republic of Evallonia, his sympathies being with those who sought to restore the ancient monarchy. Now it appeared that the affairs of that country were approaching a crisis, and it was Dougal’s mission to spy out the land.

As for Sir Archibald Roylance, he had been saddled with an honourable but distasteful duty. He had been the better part of two years in the House of Commons, and had already made a modest mark. He spoke infrequently and always on matters which he knew something about — the air, agriculture, foreign affairs — and his concise and well-informed speeches were welcomed amid the common verbiage of debate. He had become parliamentary private secretary to the Under–Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who had been at school with him. That summer the usual Disarmament Conference was dragging its slow length along; it became necessary for Mr Despenser, the Under–Secretary, to go to Geneva, and Sir Archie was ordered to accompany him. He received the mandate with little pleasure. The session that summer would end early, and he wanted to get to Crask, for he had been defrauded of his Easter holiday in the Highlands. Geneva he believed might last for months and he detested the place, which, as Lord Lamancha had once said, was full of the ghosts of mouldy old jurisconsults, and the living presence of cosmopolitan bores. But his spirits had improved when he discovered that he might take Janet with him.

“We’ll find a chance of slipping away,” he told his wife. “One merit of these beastly conferences is that they are always adjourning. We’ll hop it into eastern Europe or some other fruity place. Hang it all, now that I’ve got the use of both legs, I don’t see why we shouldn’t climb a mountain or two. Dick Hannay’s yarns have made me rather keen to try that game.”

Certain of these transmigrations played havoc with the plans of Mr John Galt, of St. Mark’s College, Cambridge, who, having just attained a second class in his Tripos and having so concluded his university career, felt himself entitled to an adequate holiday. He had intended to make his headquarters at Blaweary, which was the only home he had ever known, and thence to invade the Canonry, fishing its lochs and sleeping in its heather. But Blaweary would presently be shut up in Mr McCunn’s absence, and if Alison Westwater was not at Castle Gay, the Canonry lost all its charm. Still, he must have some air and exercise. The summer term had been busy and stuffy, and to a Rugby player there were few attractions in punts among lilied backwaters. He would probably have to go alone to the Canonry, but his fancy had begun to toy with another scheme — a walking-tour in southeastern France or among the Jura foothills, where new sights and smells and sounds would relieve his loneliness. It was characteristic of him that he never thought of finding a male companion; for the last two years Alison had been for him the only companion in the world.

On the 13th of June he was still undecided, but that night his thoughts were narrowed to a happy orbit. For Alison was dining with him before her journey abroad, and together they were going on to a party which the Lamanchas were giving to the delegates to an international conference then in session in London. For one evening at least the world was about to give him all he desired.

It was a warm night, but the great room at Maurice’s was cool with fans and sunblinds, though every table was occupied. From their corner, at the foot of the shallow staircase which is the main entrance, they had an excellent view of the company. There seemed to be a great many uniforms about, and a dazzling array of orders, no doubt in view of the Lamancha function. It was easy to talk, for at Maurice’s there is no band till supper-time.

“You shouldn’t have brought me here, Jaikie,” said Alison. “It’s too extravagant. And you’re giving me far too good a dinner.”

“It’s a celebration,” was the answer. “I’ve done with Cambridge.”

“Are you sorry?”

“No. I liked it, for I like most things, but I don’t want to linger over them.”

The girl laughed merrily, and a smile slowly crept into Jaikie’s face.

“You’re quite right,” he said. “That was a priggish thing to say, but it’s true, all the same.”

“I know. I never met anyone who wasted so little time in regrets. I wish I were like you, for I want anything I like to go on for ever. Cambridge must have slipped off you like water off a duck’s back. What did you get out of it?”

“Peace to grow up. I’ve very nearly grown up now. I have discovered most of the things I can do and the things I can’t. I know the things I like and the things I don’t.”

Alison knitted her brows. “That’s not much good. So do I. The thing to find out is, what you can do BEST and what you like MOST. You told me a year ago that that was what you were after. Have you decided?”

“No,” was the glum answer. “I think I have collected the material, so to speak, but I haven’t sorted it out. I was looking to you to help me this summer in the Canonry, and now you’re bolting to Italy or somewhere.”

“Not Italy, my dear. A spot called Unnutz in the Tirol. You’re not very good at geography.”

“Mayn’t I come too?”

“No, you mayn’t. You’d simply loath it. A landscape like a picture postcard. Tennis and bumble-puppy golf and promenades, all in smart clothes. Infinite boring evenings when I have to play picquet with Papa or talk hotel French to Mamma’s friends. Besides, my family wouldn’t understand you. You haven’t been properly presented to them, and Unnutz is not the place for that. You wouldn’t be at your best there.”

Two people passed on the way to their table, a tall young man with a lean ruddy face, and a pretty young woman, whose hair was nearly as bright a thing as Alison’s. The young woman stopped.

“My dear Allie,” she cried, “I haven’t seen you for ages. Archie, it’s Cousin Allie. They tell me you’re being dragged abroad, the same as us. What’s your penitentiary? Ours is Geneva.”

“Mine’s a place in the Tirol. Any chance of our meeting?”

“There might be. Archie has a notion of dashing about, for apparently an international conference is mostly adjournments. He’s so spry on his legs since Dr Christoph took him in hand that he rather fancies himself as a mountaineer. What’s your address?”

The lady scribbled it down in a notebook which she took from her bag, nodded gaily, and followed her husband and a waiter to their own table. Alison looked after them.

“That’s the nicest couple on earth. She was Janet Raden, a sort of cousin of mine. Her husband, Archie Roylance.. .”

Jaikie interrupted.

“Great Scot! Is that Sir Archibald Roylance? I once knew him pretty well — for one day. I’ve told you about the Gorbals Diehards and Huntingtower. He was the ally we enlisted — lived at a place called the Mains of Garple. Ask Mr McCunn about him. I’ve often wondered when I should see him again, for I felt pretty certain I would — some day. He hasn’t changed much.”

“He can’t change. Sir Archie is the most imperishable thing God ever created. He’ll be a wild boy till he’s ninety. Even with Janet to steady him I consider him dangerous, especially now that he has no longer a game leg. . . . Hullo, Jaikie. We’re digging into the past to-night. Look who’s over there.”

She nodded towards a very brilliant table where some twenty people were dining, most of them in uniform. Among them was a fair young man in ordinary evening dress, without any decorations. He suddenly turned his face, recognised Alison, and, with a word of apology to the others, left his seat and came towards her. When she rose and curtsied, Jaikie had a sudden recollection.

“It is Miss Westwater, is it not?” said the young man, bowing over her hand. “My adorable preserver! I have not forgotten Prince Charlie and the Solway sands.”

He turned to Jaikie.

“And the Moltke of the campaign, too! What is the name? Wait a minute. I have it — Jaikie. What fun to see you again! Are you two by any happy chance espoused?”

“Not yet,” said Alison. “What are you doing in England, sir?”

“Holidaying. I cannot think why all the world does not holiday in England. It is the only really peaceful and pleasant place.”

“How true, sir! I have to go abroad tomorrow, and I feel like an exile.”

“Then why do you go?”

“I am summoned by neglected parents. To Unnutz, in the Tirol.”

The young man’s pleasant face grew suddenly grave.

“Unnutz. Above the Waldersee, in the Firnthal?”

“The same. Do you know it, sir?”

“I know it. I do not think it a very good place for a holiday — not this summer. But if it becomes unpleasant you can return home, for you English are always free to travel. But I should be careful in Unnutz, my dear Miss Westwater, and I should take Mr Jaikie with you as a protector.”

He shook hands and departed smiling, but he left on the two the impression of an unexpected solemnity.

“What do you suppose is worrying Prince John?” Alison asked.

“The affairs of Evallonia. You remember at Castle Gay we thought the Republic would blow up any moment and that a month or two would see Prince John on the throne. That’s two years ago and nothing has happened. Dougal is out there now looking into the situation. He may ginger them up.”

“What makes him so solemn about Unnutz? By all accounts it’s the ordinary gimcrack little foreign watering-place. He talked of it as if it were a sort of Chicago slum.”

“He is a wise man, for he said you should take me with you.”

They had reached the stage of coffee and cigarettes, and were now more free to watch their neighbours. It was a decorous assembly, in accordance with the tradition of Maurice’s, and the only gaiety seemed to be among the womenkind of Prince John’s party. The Prince’s own face was very clear in the light of an overhanging lamp, and both Alison and Jaikie found themselves watching it — its slight heaviness in repose, its quick vivacity when interested, the smile which drew half its charm from a most attractive wrinkling around the eyes.

“It is the face of a prince,” said Alison, “but not of a king — at any rate, not the kind of king that wins a throne. There’s no dynamite in it.”

“What sort of face do you give makers of revolutions?” Jaikie asked.

The girl swung round and regarded him steadily.

“Your sort,” she said. “You look so meek and good that everybody loves you. And wise, wise like an old terrier. And yet, in the two years I have known you, you have filled up your time with the craziest things. First”— she counted on her fingers —“you went off to Baffin Island to trade old rifles for walrus ivory.”

Jaikie grinned. “I made seventy-three pounds clear: I call that a success.”

“Then you walked from Cambridge to Oxford within a day and a night.”

“That was a failure. I was lame for a fortnight and couldn’t play in the Welsh match.”

“You went twice as a deck hand on a Grimsby trawler — first to Bear Island and then to the Whales’ Back. I don’t know where these places are, but they sound beastly.”

“They were. I was sick most of the time.”

“Last and worst, it was only your exams and my prayers that kept you from trying to circumnavigate Britain in a sailing canoe, when you would certainly have been drowned. What do you mean by it, Jaikie? It looks as if you were as neurotic as a Bloomsbury intellectual, though in a different way. Why this restlessness?”

“I wasn’t restless. I did it all quite calmly, on purpose.” Into Jaikie’s small face there had come an innocent seriousness.

“You see,” he went on, “when I was a small boy I was rather a hardy citizen. I’ve told you about that. Then Mr McCunn civilised me, which I badly needed. But I didn’t want it to soften me. We are living in a roughish world today, and it is going to get rougher, and I don’t want to think that there is any experience to which I can’t face up. I’ve been trying to keep myself tough. You see what I mean, Alison?”

“I see. It’s rather like painting the lily, you know. I wish I were going to the Canonry, for there’s a lot of things I want to have out with you. Promise to keep quiet till I come back.”

The Lamanchas’ party was so large and crowded that Alison and Jaikie found it easy to compass solitude. Once out of the current that sucked through the drawing-rooms towards the supper-room there were quiet nooks to be discovered in the big house. One such they found in an alcove, where the upper staircase ascended from the first floor, and where, at a safe distance, they could watch the procession of guests. Alison pointed out various celebrities to the interested Jaikie, and a number of relations with whom she had no desire to have closer contact. But on one of the latter she condescended to details. He was a very tall man, whose clothes, even in that well-dressed assembly, were conspicuous for their elegance. He had a neatly trimmed blond beard, and hair worn a little longer than the fashion and as wavy as a smart woman’s coiffure. They only saw his profile as he ascended the stairs, and his back as he disappeared into the main drawing-room.

“There’s another cousin of mine,” said the girl, “the queerest in all our queer clan. His name is Randal Glynde, and he has been everything in his time from cow-puncher to film star, not to mention diplomat, and various sorts of soldier, and somebody’s private secretary. The family doesn’t approve of him, for they never know what he’ll do next, but he was very nice to me when I was a little girl, and I used to have a tremendous culte for him.”

Jaikie was not listening, for he felt very depressed. This was his last hour with Alison for months, and the light had suddenly gone out of his landscape. He had never been lonely in his life before he met her, having at the worst found good company in himself; but now he longed for a companion, and out of the many millions of the world’s inhabitants there was only one that he wanted.

“I can’t go to Scotland,” he said. “Blaweary is impossible, and if I went into the Canonry with you not there I’d howl.”

“Poor Jaikie!” Alison laid a hand upon his. “But it’s only another bit of the toughening you’re so fond of. I promise to write to you a great deal, and it won’t be long till the autumn. You won’t be half as lonely as I.”

“I wish I thought that,” said Jaikie, brightening a little. “I like being alone, but I don’t like being lonely. I think I’ll go abroad too.”

“Why don’t you join Mr McCunn?”

“He won’t let me. He’s doing a cure and is forbidden company.”

“Or Dougal?”

“He wouldn’t have me either. He thinks he’s on some silly kind of secret service, and he’s as mysterious about it as a sick owl. But I might go for a tramp somewhere. My finances will just run to it.”

“Hullo, here’s Ran,” said Alison. The tall man with the fair beard had drifted towards them, and was now looking down on the girl. On a closer view he appeared to be nearer forty than thirty. Jaikie noticed that he had Alison’s piercing blue eyes, with the same dancing light in them. There and then, being accustomed to rapid judgments, he felt well disposed towards the tall stranger.

“Alison dear.” Mr Glynde put his hand on the girl’s head. “I hear that your father has at last achieved gout.”

“No. It’s neuritis, which makes him much angrier. He would accept gout as a family legacy, but he dislikes unexpected visitations. I go out to him tomorrow.”

“Unnutz, isn’t it? A dreary little place. I fear you won’t enjoy it, my dear.”

“Where have you come from, Ran? We last heard of you in Russia.”

“I have been in many places since Russia.” Mr Glynde’s voice had an odd quality in it, as if he were gently communing with himself. “After a time in deep water I come up to breathe, and then go down again.”

“You’ve chosen very smart clothes to breathe in.”

“I always try to suit my clothes to my company. It is the only way to be inconspicuous.”

“Have you been writing any more poetry?”

“Not a word in English, but I have written some rather charming things in mediæval Latin. I’ll send you them. It is the best tongue for a vagabond.”

Alison introduced Jaikie.

“Here’s another of your totem, Cousin Ran. You can’t corrupt him, for he is quite as mad as you.”

Mr Glynde smiled pleasantly as he shook hands, and Jaikie had an impression that his eyes were the most intelligent that he had ever seen, eyes which took in everything, and saw very deep, and had a mind behind them that did not forget. He felt too that something in his own face pleased the other, for there was friendliness behind the inquisition.

“He has just finished Cambridge, and finds himself at a loose end. He is hesitating between Scotland and a tramp on the Continent. What do you advise?”

“When you are young these decisions may be fateful things. I have always trusted to the spin of a coin. I carry with me a Greek stater which has made most of my decisions for me. What about tossing for it?”

He took from the pocket of his white waistcoat a small gold coin and handed it to Jaikie.

“It’s a lucky coin,” he said. “At least it has brought me infinite amusement. Try it.”

Jaikie had a sudden queer feeling that the occasion had become rather solemn, almost sacramental. “Heads Scotland, tails abroad,” he said and tossed. It fell tails.

“Behold,” said Mr Glynde, “your mind is made up for you. You will wander along in the white dust and drink country wine and doze in the woods, knowing that the unseen Powers are with you. Where, by the way, did you think of going? You have no preference? You have been very little abroad? How fortunate to have all Europe spread out for your choice. But I should not go too far east, Mr Galt. Keep to the comfortable west if you want peace. If you go too far east this summer, you may find that the spin of my little stater has been rather too fateful.”

As Jaikie put Alison into a taxi, he observed Mr Glynde leaving the house on foot with a companion. He had a glimpse of that companion’s face, and saw that it was Prince John of Evallonia.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50