The Power-House - John Buchan - ebook

The Power-House ebook

John Buchan



Edward Leithen is a young British lawyer who learns that one of his Oxford contemporaries, Charles Pitt-Heron, has just disappeared. Leithen learns from Pitt-Heron’s wife that he has been forced to flee. But a series of strange events that follow Pitt-Heron’s disappearance convinces Leithen that he is dealing with a sinister secret society. His suspicions begin to center on a wealthy, well-known, and intelligent businessman, who reveals himself to Leithen as an ardent anarchist. The barrister finds himself the target of many „watchers”, and then, as his understanding of the conspiracy involving the „Power House” grows, he is trapped and chased unrelentingly. The Author, despite being very busy in Public Service, wrote over fifty books during his life but his particular talent was for writing fast-moving adventure stories. „The Power-House”, a good example of this genre, was published in 1916.

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My Dear General,

A recent tale of mine has, I am told, found favour in the dug-outs and billets of the British front, as being sufficiently short and sufficiently exciting for men who have little leisure to read. My friends in that uneasy region have asked for more. So I have printed this story, written in the smooth days before the war, in the hope that it may enable an honest man here and there to forget for an hour the too urgent realities, I have put your name on it, because among the many tastes which we share one is a liking for precipitous yarns.



IT all started one afternoon early in May when I came out of the House of Commons with Tommy Deloraine. I had got in by an accident at a by-election, when I was supposed to be fighting a forlorn hope, and as I was just beginning to be busy at the Bar I found my hands pretty full. It was before Tommy succeeded, in the days when he sat for the family seat in Yorkshire, and that afternoon he was in a powerful bad temper. Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river. Inside a dull debate was winding on, and an advertising member had been trying to get up a row with the Speaker. The contrast between the frowsy place and the cheerful world outside would have impressed even the soul of a Government Whip.

Tommy sniffed the spring breeze like a supercilious stag.

“This about finishes me,” he groaned. “What a juggins I am to be mouldering here! Joggleberry is the celestial limit, what they call in happier lands the pink penultimate. And the frowst on those back benches! Was there ever such a moth-eaten old museum?”

“It is the Mother of Parliaments,” I observed.

“Damned monkey-house,” said Tommy. “I must get off for a bit or I’ll bonnet Joggleberry or get up and propose a national monument to Guy Fawkes or something silly.”

I did not see him for a day or two, and then one morning he rang me up and peremptorily summoned me to dine with him. I went, knowing very well what I should find. Tommy was off next day to shoot lions on the Equator, or something equally unconscientious. He was a bad acquaintance for a placid, sedentary soul like me, for though he could work like a Trojan when the fit took him, he was never at the same job very long. In the same week he would harass an Under-Secretary about horses for the Army, write voluminously to the press about a gun he had invented for potting aeroplanes, give a fancy-dress ball which he forgot to attend, and get into the semi-final of the racquets championship. I waited daily to see him start a new religion.

That night, I recollect, he had an odd assortment of guests. A Cabinet Minister was there, a gentle being for whom Tommy professed public scorn and private affection; a sailor, an Indian cavalry fellow; Chapman, the Labour member, whom Tommy called Chipmunk; myself, and old Milson of the Treasury. Our host was in tremendous form, chaffing everybody, and sending Chipmunk into great rolling gusts of merriment. The two lived adjacent in Yorkshire, and on platforms abused each other like pick-pockets.

Tommy enlarged on the misfits of civilised life. He maintained that none of us, except perhaps the sailor and the cavalryman, were at our proper jobs. He would have had Wytham–that was the Minister–a cardinal of the Roman Church, and he said that Milson should have been the Warden of a college full of port and prejudice. Me he was kind enough to allocate to some reconstructed Imperial General Staff, merely because I had a craze for military history. Tommy’s perception did not go very deep. He told Chapman he should have been a lumberman in California. “You’d have made an uncommon good logger, Chipmunk, and you know you’re a dashed bad politician.”

When questioned about himself he became reticent, as the newspapers say. “I doubt if I’m much good at any job,” he confessed, “except to ginger up my friends. Anyhow I’m getting out of this hole. Paired for the rest of the session with a chap who has lockjaw. I’m off to stretch my legs and get back my sense of proportion.”

Someone asked him where he was going, and was told “Venezuela, to buy Government bonds and look for birds’ nests.”

Nobody took Tommy seriously, so his guests did not trouble to bid him the kind of farewell a prolonged journey would demand. But when the others had gone, and we were sitting in the little back smoking-room on the first floor, he became solemn. Portentously solemn, for he wrinkled up his brows and dropped his jaw in the way he had when he fancied he was in earnest.

“I’ve taken on a queer job, Leithen,” he said, “and I want you to hear about it. None of my family know, and I would like to leave someone behind me who could get on to my tracks if things got troublesome.”

I braced myself for some preposterous confidence, for I was experienced in Tommy’s vagaries. But I own to being surprised when he asked me if I remembered Pitt-Heron.

I remembered Pitt-Heron very well. He had been at Oxford with me, but he was no great friend of mine, though for about two years Tommy and he had been inseparable. He had had a prodigious reputation for cleverness with everybody but the college authorities, and used to spend his vacations doing mad things in the Alps and the Balkans, and writing about them in the halfpenny press. He was enormously rich–cotton-mills and Liverpool ground-rents–and being without a father, did pretty much what his fantastic taste dictated. He was rather a hero for a bit after he came down, for he had made some wild journey in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan, and written an exciting book about it.

Then he married a pretty cousin of Tommy’s, who happened to be the only person that ever captured my stony heart, and settled down in London. I did not go to their house, and soon I found that very few of his friends saw much of him either. His travels and magazine articles suddenly stopped, and I put it down to the common course of successful domesticity. Apparently I was wrong.

“Charles Pitt-Heron,” said Tommy, “is blowing up for a most thundering mess.”

I asked what kind of mess, and Tommy said he didn’t know. “That’s the mischief of it. You remember the wild beggar he used to be, always off on the spree to the Mountains of the Moon or somewhere. Well, he has been damping down his fires lately, and trying to behave like a respectable citizen, but God knows what he has been thinking! I go a good deal to Portman Square, and all last year he has been getting queerer.”

Questions as to the nature of the queerness only elicited the fact that Pitt-Heron had taken to science with some enthusiasm.

“He has got a laboratory at the back of the house–used to be the billiard-room–where he works away half the night. And Lord! The crew you meet there! Every kind of heathen–Chinese and Turks, and long- haired chaps from Russia, and fat Germans. I’ve several times blundered into the push. They’ve all got an odd secretive air about them, and Charlie is becoming like them. He won’t answer a plain question or look you straight in the face. Ethel sees it too, and she has often talked to me about it.”

I said I saw no harm in such a hobby.

“I do,” said Tommy grimly. “Anyhow, the fellow has bolted.”

“What on earth–” I began, but was cut short.

“Bolted without a word to a mortal soul. He told Ethel he would be home for luncheon yesterday, and never came. His man knew nothing about him, hadn’t packed for him or anything; but he found he had stuffed some things into a kit-bag and gone out by the back through the mews. Ethel was in terrible straits and sent for me, and I ranged all yesterday afternoon like a wolf on the scent. I found he had drawn a biggish sum in gold from the bank, but I couldn’t find any trace of where he had gone.

“I was just setting out for Scotland Yard this morning when Tomlin, the valet, rang me up and said he had found a card in the waistcoat of the dress clothes that Charles had worn the night before he left. It had a name on it like Konalevsky, and it struck me that they might know something about the business at the Russian Embassy. Well, I went round there, and the long and short of it was that I found there was a fellow of that name among the clerks. I saw him, and he said he had gone to see Mr Pitt-Heron two days before with a letter from some Embassy chap. Unfortunately the man in question had gone off to New York next day, but Konalevsky told me one thing which helped to clear up matters. It seemed that the letter had been one of those passports that Embassies give to their friends–a higher-powered sort than the ordinary make–and Konalevsky gathered from something he had heard that Charles was aiming at Moscow.”

Tommy paused to let his news sink in.

“Well, that was good enough for me. I’m off to-morrow to run him to ground.”

“But why shouldn’t a man go to Moscow if he wants?” I said feebly.

“You don’t understand,” said the sage Tommy. “You don’t know old Charles as I know him. He’s got into a queer set, and there’s no knowing what mischief he’s up to. He’s perfectly capable of starting a revolution in Armenia or somewhere merely to see how it feels like to be a revolutionary. That’s the damned thing about the artistic temperament. Anyhow, he’s got to chuck it. I won’t have Ethel scared to death by his whims. I am going to hale him back from Moscow, even if I have to pretend he’s an escaped lunatic. He’s probably like enough one by this time if he has taken no clothes.”

I have forgotten what I said, but it was some plea for caution. I could not see the reason for these heroics. Pitt-Heron did not interest me greatly, and the notion of Tommy as a defender of the hearth amused me. I thought that he was working on very slight evidence, and would probably make a fool of himself.

“It’s only another of the man’s fads,” I said. “He never could do things like an ordinary mortal. What possible trouble could there be? Money?”

“Rich as Croesus,” said Tommy.

“A woman?”

“Blind as a bat to female beauty.”

“The wrong side of the law?”

“Don’t think so. He could settle any ordinary scrape with a cheque.”

“Then I give it up. Whatever it is, it looks as if Pitt-Heron would have a companion in misfortune before you are done with the business. I’m all for you taking a holiday, for at present you are a nuisance to your friends and a disgrace to your country’s legislature. But for goodness’ sake curb your passion for romance. They don’t like it in Russia.”

Next morning Tommy turned up to see me in Chambers. The prospect of travel always went to his head like wine. He was in wild spirits, and had forgotten his anger at the defaulting Pitt-Heron in gratitude for his provision of an occupation. He talked of carrying him off to the Caucasus when he had found him, to investigate the habits of the Caucasian stag.

I remember the scene as if it were yesterday. It was a hot May morning, and the sun which came through the dirty window in Fountain Court lit up the dust and squalor of my working chambers. I was pretty busy at the time, and my table was well nourished with briefs. Tommy picked up one and began to read it. It was about a new drainage scheme in West Ham. He tossed it down and looked at me pityingly.

“Poor old beggar!” he said. “To spend your days on such work when the world is chock-full of amusing things. Life goes roaring by and you only hear the echo in your stuffy rooms. You can hardly see the sun for the cobwebs on these windows of yours. Charles is a fool, but I’m blessed if he isn’t wiser than you. Don’t you wish you were coming with me?”

The queer thing was that I did. I remember the occasion, as I have said, for it was one of the few on which I have had a pang of dissatisfaction with the calling I had chosen. As Tommy’s footsteps grew faint on the stairs I suddenly felt as if I were missing something, as if somehow I were out of it. It is an unpleasant feeling even when you know that the thing you are out of is foolishness.

Tommy went off at 11 from Victoria, and my work was pretty well ruined for the day. I felt oddly restless, and the cause was not merely Tommy’s departure. My thoughts kept turning to the Pitt-Herons–chiefly to Ethel, that adorable child unequally yoked to a perverse egoist, but a good deal to the egoist himself. I have never suffered much from whimsies, but I suddenly began to feel a curious interest in the business–an unwilling interest, for I found it in my heart to regret my robust scepticism of the night before. And it was more than interest. I had a sort of presentiment that I was going to be mixed up in the affair more than I wanted. I told myself angrily that the life of an industrious common-law barrister could have little to do with the wanderings of two maniacs in Muscovy. But, try as I might, I could not get rid of the obsession. That night it followed me into my dreams, and I saw myself with a knout coercing Tommy and Pitt-Heron in a Russian fortress which faded away into the Carlton Hotel.

Next afternoon I found my steps wending in the direction of Portman Square. I lived at the time in Down Street, and I told myself I would be none the worse of a walk in the Park before dinner. I had a fancy to see Mrs Pitt- Heron, for, though I had only met her twice since her marriage, there had been a day when we were the closest of friends.

I found her alone, a perplexed and saddened lady with imploring eyes. Those eyes questioned me as to how much I knew. I told her presently that I had seen Tommy and was aware of his errand. I was moved to add that she might count on me if there were anything she wished done on this side of the Channel.

She was very little changed. There was still the old exquisite slimness, the old shy courtesy. But she told me nothing. Charles was full of business and becoming very forgetful. She was sure the Russian journey was all a stupid mistake. He probably thought he had told her of his departure. He would write; she expected a letter by every post.

But her haggard eyes belied her optimism. I could see that there had been odd happenings of late in the Pitt-Heron household. She either knew or feared something;–the latter, I thought, for her air was more of apprehension than of painful enlightenment.

I did not stay long, and, as I walked home, I had an awkward feeling that I had intruded. Also I was increasingly certain that there was trouble brewing, and that Tommy had more warrant for his journey than I had given him credit for. I cast my mind back to gather recollections of Pitt-Heron, but all I could find was an impression of a brilliant, uncomfortable being, who had been too fond of the byways of life for my sober tastes. There was nothing crooked in him in the wrong sense, but there might be a good deal that was perverse. I remember consoling myself with the thought that, though he might shatter his wife’s nerves by his vagaries, he would scarcely break her heart.

To be watchful, I decided, was my business. And I could not get rid of the feeling that I might soon have cause for all my vigilance.

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