Authors: John Buchan
THOMAS ARTHUR NELSON
(LOTHIAN AND BORDER HORSE)
My Dear Tommy,
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans
call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’—the romance where the incidents
defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During
an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was
driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like
to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest
fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted
with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If
anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have
laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of
the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements
of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard
Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and
you had better climb out.’
It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years
in Bulawayo. I had got my pile—not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and
I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out
from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a
sort of Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of my days.
But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was tired of seeing
sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and
race-meetings. I had no real pal to go about with, which probably explains things.
Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested
in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on their
own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet schoolmasters from
New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was the dismalest business of all.
Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have
a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and
get back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.
That afternoon I had been worrying my brokers about investments to give my mind something
to work on, and on my way home I turned into my club—rather a pot-house, which took
in Colonial members. I had a long drink, and read the evening papers. They were full
of the row in the Near East, and there was an article about Karolides, the Greek Premier.
I rather fancied the chap. From all accounts he seemed the one big man in the show;
and he played a straight game too, which was more than could be said for most of them.
I gathered that they hated him pretty blackly in Berlin and Vienna, but that we were
going to stick by him, and one paper said that he was the only barrier between Europe
and Armageddon. I remember wondering if I could get a job in those parts. It struck
me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.
About six o’clock I went home, dressed, dined at the Cafe Royal, and turned into a
music-hall. It was a silly show, all capering women and monkey-faced men, and I did
not stay long. The night was fine and clear as I walked back to the flat I had hired
near Portland Place. The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering,
and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and
dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown
to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked
up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day
to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the
My flat was the first floor in a new block behind Langham Place. There was a common
staircase, with a porter and a liftman at the entrance, but there was no restaurant
or anything of that sort, and each flat was quite shut off from the others. I hate
servants on the premises, so I had a fellow to look after me who came in by the day.
He arrived before eight o’clock every morning and used to depart at seven, for I never
dined at home.
I was just fitting my key into the door when I noticed a man at my elbow. I had not
seen him approach, and the sudden appearance made me start. He was a slim man, with
a short brown beard and small, gimlety blue eyes. I recognized him as the occupant
of a flat on the top floor, with whom I had passed the time of day on the stairs.
‘Can I speak to you?’ he said. ‘May I come in for a minute?’ He was steadying his
voice with an effort, and his hand was pawing my arm.
I got my door open and motioned him in. No sooner was he over the threshold than he
made a dash for my back room, where I used to smoke and write my letters. Then he
‘Is the door locked?’ he asked feverishly, and he fastened the chain with his own
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said humbly. ‘It’s a mighty liberty, but you looked the kind
of man who would understand. I’ve had you in my mind all this week when things got
troublesome. Say, will you do me a good turn?’
‘I’ll listen to you,’ I said. ‘That’s all I’ll promise.’ I was getting worried by
the antics of this nervous little chap.
There was a tray of drinks on a table beside him, from which he filled himself a stiff
whisky-and-soda. He drank it off in three gulps, and cracked the glass as he set it
‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to
I sat down in an armchair and lit my pipe.
‘What does it feel like?’ I asked. I was pretty certain that I had to deal with a
A smile flickered over his drawn face. ‘I’m not mad—yet. Say, Sir, I’ve been watching
you, and I reckon you’re a cool customer. I reckon, too, you’re an honest man, and
not afraid of playing a bold hand. I’m going to confide in you. I need help worse
than any man ever needed it, and I want to know if I can count you in.’
‘Get on with your yarn,’ I said, ‘and I’ll tell you.’
He seemed to brace himself for a great effort, and then started on the queerest rigmarole.
I didn’t get hold of it at first, and I had to stop and ask him questions. But here
is the gist of it:
He was an American, from Kentucky, and after college, being pretty well off, he had
started out to see the world. He wrote a bit, and acted as war correspondent for a
Chicago paper, and spent a year or two in South-Eastern Europe. I gathered that he
was a fine linguist, and had got to know pretty well the society in those parts. He
spoke familiarly of many names that I remembered to have seen in the newspapers.
He had played about with politics, he told me, at first for the interest of them,
and then because he couldn’t help himself. I read him as a sharp, restless fellow,
who always wanted to get down to the roots of things. He got a little further down
than he wanted.
I am giving you what he told me as well as I could make it out. Away behind all the
Governments and the armies there was a big subterranean movement going on, engineered
by very dangerous people. He had come on it by accident; it fascinated him; he went
further, and then he got caught. I gathered that most of the people in it were the
sort of educated anarchists that make revolutions, but that beside them there were
financiers who were playing for money. A clever man can make big profits on a falling
market, and it suited the book of both classes to set Europe by the ears.
He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzled me—things that
happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly came out on top, why alliances
were made and broken, why certain men disappeared, and where the sinews of war came
from. The aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.
When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their
chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world
emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up
wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew
was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.
‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and
this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go
far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you
have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant
young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business
is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow
and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers
the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real
boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair
with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just
now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged
and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’
I could not help saying that his Jew-anarchists seemed to have got left behind a little.
‘Yes and no,’ he said. ‘They won up to a point, but they struck a bigger thing than
money, a thing that couldn’t be bought, the old elemental fighting instincts of man.
If you’re going to be killed you invent some kind of flag and country to fight for,
and if you survive you get to love the thing. Those foolish devils of soldiers have
found something they care for, and that has upset the pretty plan laid in Berlin and
Vienna. But my friends haven’t played their last card by a long sight. They’ve gotten
the ace up their sleeves, and unless I can keep alive for a month they are going to
play it and win.’