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John Macnab

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Three successful but bored friends in their mid-forties decide to turn to poaching. They are Sir Edward Leithen, lawyer, Tory Member of Parliament (MP), and ex-Attorney General; John Palliser-Yeates, banker and sportsman; and Charles, Earl of Lamancha, former adventurer and present Tory Cabinet Minister. Under the collective name of John Macnab, they set up in the Highland home of Sir Archie Roylance, a disabled war hero who wishes to be a Conservative MP.

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I. — IN WHICH THREE GENTLEMEN CONFESS THEIR ENNUI-1
I. — IN WHICH THREE GENTLEMEN CONFESS THEIR ENNUI THE great doctor stood on the hearth-rug looking down at his friend who sprawled before him in an easy-chair. It was a hot day in early July, and the windows were closed and the blinds half-down to keep out the glare and the dust. The standing figure had bent shoulders, a massive clean-shaven face, and a keen interrogatory air, and might have passed his sixtieth birthday. He looked like a distinguished lawyer, who would soon leave his practice for the Bench. But it was the man in the chair who was the lawyer, a man who had left forty behind him, but was still on the pleasant side of fifty. “I tell you for the tenth time that there’s nothing the matter with you.” “And I tell you for the tenth time that I’m miserably ill.” The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Then it’s a mind diseased, to which I don’t propose to minister. What do you say is wrong?” “Simply what my housekeeper calls a ‘no-how’ feeling.” “It’s clearly nothing physical. Your heart and lungs are sound. Your digestion’s as good as anybody’s can be in London in Midsummer. Your nerves—well, I’ve tried all the stock tests, and they appear to be normal.” “Oh, my nerves are all right,” said the other wearily. “Your brain seems good enough, except for this dismal obsession that you are ill. I can find no earthly thing wrong, except that you’re stale. I don’t say run-down, for that you’re not. You’re stale in mind. You want a holiday.” “I don’t. I may need one, but I don’t want it. That’s precisely the trouble. I used to be a glutton for holidays, and spent my leisure moments during term planning what I was going to do. Now there seems to be nothing in the world I want to do—neither work nor play.” “Try fishing. You used to be keen.” “I’ve killed all the salmon I mean to kill. I never want to look the ugly brutes in the face again.” “Shooting?” “Too easy and too dull.” “A yacht.” “Stop it, old fellow. Your catalogue of undesired delights only makes it worse. I tell you that there’s nothing at this moment which has the slightest charm for me. I’m bored with my work, and I can’t think of anything else of any kind for which I would cross the street. I don’t even want to go into the country and sleep. It’s been coming on for a long time—I did not feel it so badly, for I was in a service and not my own master. Now I’ve nothing to do except to earn an enormous income, which I haven’t any need for. Work comes rolling in—I’ve got retainers for nearly every solvent concern in this land—and all that happens is that I want to strangle my clerk and a few eminent solicitors. I don’t care a tinker’s curse for success, and what is worse, I’m just as apathetic about the modest pleasures which used to enliven my life.” “You may be more tired than you think.” “I’m not tired at all.” The speaker rose from his chair yawning, and walked to the windows to stare into the airless street. He did not look tired, for his movements were vigorous, and, though his face had the slight pallor of his profession, his eye was clear and steady. He turned round suddenly. “I tell you what I’ve got, It’s what the Middle ages suffered from— I read a book about it the other day—and its called Taedium Vitae. It’s a special kind of ennui. I can diagnose my ailment well enough and Shakespeare has the words for it. I’ve come to a pitch where I find ‘nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.’” Then why do you come to me, if the trouble is not with your body?” “Because you’re you. I should come to you just the same if you were a vet., or a bone-setter, or a Christian Scientist. I want your advice, not as a fashionable consultant, but as an old friend and a wise man. It’s a state of affairs that can’t go on. What am I to do to get rid of this infernal disillusionment? I can’t go through the rest of my life dragging my wing.” The doctor was smiling. “If you ask my professional advice,” he said, “I am bound to tell you that medical science has no suggestion to offer. If you consult me as a friend, I advise you to steal a horse in some part of the world where a horse-thief is usually hanged.” The other considered. “Pretty drastic prescription for a man who has been a Law Officer of the Crown.” “I speak figuratively. You’ve got to rediscover the comforts of your life by losing them for a little. You have good food and all the rest of it at your command—well, you’ve got to be in want for a bit to appreciate them. You’re secure and respected and rather eminent—well, somehow or other get under the weather. If you could induce the newspapers to accuse you of something shady and have the devil of a job to clear yourself it might do the trick. The fact is, you’ve grown too competent. You need to be made to struggle for your life again—your life or your reputation. You have to find out the tonic of difficulty, and you can’t find it in your profession. Therefore I say ‘Steal a horse.’” A faint interest appeared in the other’s eyes. “That sounds to me good sense. But, hang it all, it’s utterly unpractical. I can’t go looking for scrapes. I should feel like play-acting if in cold blood I got myself into difficulties, and I take it that the essence of your prescription is that I must feel desperately in earnest.” “I’m not prescribing. Heaven forbid that I should advise a friend to look for trouble. I’m merely stating how in the abstract I regard your case.” The patient rose to go. “Miserable comforters are ye all,” he groaned. “Well, it appears you can do nothing for me except to suggest the advisability of crime. I suppose it’s no good trying to make you take a fee?” The doctor shook his head. “I wasn’t altogether chaffing. Honestly, you would be the better of dropping for a month or two into another world— a harder one. A hand on a cattle-boat, for instance.” Sir Edward Leithen sighed deeply as he turned from the doorstep down the long hot street. He did not look behind him, or he would have seen another gentleman approach cautiously round the corner of a side-street, and, when the coast was clear, ring the doctor’s bell. He was so completely fatigued with life that he neglected to be cautious at crossings, as was his habit, and was all but slain by a motor-omnibus. Everything seemed weary and over-familiar—the summer smell of town, the din of traffic, the panorama of faces, pretty women shopping, the occasional sight of a friend. Long ago, he reflected with disgust, there had been a time when he had enjoyed it all. He found sanctuary at last in the shade and coolness of his club. He remembered that he was dining out, and bade the porter telephone that he could not come, giving no reason. He remembered, too, that there was a division in the House that night, an important division advertised by a three-line whip. He declined to go near the place. At any rate, he would have the dim consolation of behaving badly. His clerk was probably at the moment hunting feverishly for him, for he had missed a consultation in the great Argentine bank case which was in the paper next morning. That could also slide. He wanted, nay, he was determined, to make a mess of it. Then he discovered that he was hungry, and that it was nearly the hour when a man may dine. “I’ve only one positive feeling left,” he told himself, “the satisfaction of my brute needs. Nice position for a gentleman and a Christian!” There was one other man in the dining-room, sitting at the little table in the window. At first sight he had the look of an undergraduate, a Rugby Blue, perhaps, who had just come down from the University, for he had the broad, slightly stooped shoulders of the football-player. He had a ruddy face, untidy sandy hair, and large reflective grey eyes. It was those eyes which declared his age, for round them were the many fine wrinkles which come only from the passage of time. “Hullo, John,” said Leithen. “May I sit at your table?” The other, whose name was Palliser-Yeates, nodded. “You may certainly eat in my company, but I’ve got nothing to say to you, Ned. I’m feeling as dried-up as a dead starfish.” They ate their meal in silence, and so preoccupied was Sir Edward Leithen with his own affairs that it did not seem to him strange that Mr Palliser-Yeates, who was commonly a person of robust spirits and plentiful conversation, should have the air of a deaf-mute. When they had reached the fish, two other diners took their seats and waved them a greeting. One of them was a youth with lean, high-coloured cheeks, who limped slightly; the other a tallish older man with a long dark face, a small dark moustache, and a neat pointed chin which gave him something of the air of a hidalgo. He looked weary and glum, but his companion seemed to be in the best of tempers, for his laugh rang out in that empty place with a startling boyishness. Mr Palliser-Yeates looked up angrily, with a shiver. “Noisy brute, Archie Roylance!” he observed. “I suppose he’s above himself since Ascot. His horse won some beastly race, didn’t it? It’s a good thing to be young and an ass.” There was that in his tone which roused Leithen from his apathy. He cast a sharp glance at the other’s face. “You’re off-colour.” “No,” said the other brusquely. “I’m perfectly fit. Only I’m getting old.” This was food for wonder, inasmuch as Mr Palliser-Yeates had a reputation for a more than youthful energy and, although forty-five years of age, was still accustomed to do startling things on the Chamonix Aiguilles. He was head of an eminent banking firm and something of an authority on the aberrations of post-war finance. A gleam of sympathy came into Leithen’s eyes. “How does it take you?” he asked. “I’ve lost zest. Everything seems more or less dust and ashes. When you suddenly wake up and find that you’ve come to regard your respectable colleagues as so many fidgety old women and the job you’ve given your life to as an infernal squabble about trifles—why, you begin to wonder what’s going to happen.” “I suppose a holiday ought to happen.” “The last thing I want. That’s my complaint. I have no desire to do anything, work or play, and yet I’m not tired—only bored.” Leithen’s sympathy had become interest. “Have you seen a doctor?” The other hesitated. “Yes,” he said at length. “I saw old Acton Croke this afternoon. He was no earthly use. He advised me to go to Moscow and fix up a trade agreement. He thought that might make me content with my present lot.” “He told me to steal a horse.” Mr Palliser-Yeates stared in extreme surprise. “You! Do you feel the same way? Have you been to Croke?” “Three hours ago. I thought he talked good sense. He said I must get into a rougher life so as to appreciate the blessings of the life that I’m fed up with. Probably he is right, but you can’t take that sort of step in cold blood.” Mr. Palliser-Yeates assented. The fact of having found an associate in misfortune seemed to enliven slightly, very slightly, the spirits of both. From the adjoining table came, like an echo from a happier world, the ringing voice and hearty laughter of youth. Leithen jerked his head towards them. “I would give a good deal for Archie’s gusto,” he said. “My sound right leg, for example. Or, if I couldn’t I’d like Charles Lamancha’s insatiable ambition. If you want as much as he wants, you don’t suffer from tedium.” Palliser-Yeates looked at the gentleman in question, the tall dark one of the two diners. “I’m not so sure. Perhaps he had got too much too easily. He has come on uncommon quick, you know, and, if you do that, there’s apt to arrive a moment when you flag.” Lord Lamancha—the title had no connection with Don Quixote and Spain, but was the name of a shieling in a Border glen which had been the home six centuries ago of the ancient house of Merkland—was an object of interest to many of his countrymen. The Marquis of Liddesdale, his father, was a hale old man who might reasonably be expected to live for another ten years and so prevent his son’s career being compromised by a premature removal to the House of Lords. He had a safe seat for a London division, was a member of the Cabinet, and had a high reputation for the matter-of-fact oratory which has replaced the pre-war grandiloquence. People trusted him, because, in spite of his hidalgo-ish appearance, he was believed to have that combination of candour and intelligence which England desires in her public men. Also he was popular, for his record in the war and the rumour of a youth spent in adventurous travel touched the imagination of the ordinary citizen. At the moment he was being talked of for a great Imperial post which was soon to become vacant, and there was gossip, in the alternative, of a Ministerial readjustment which would make him the pivot of a controversial Government. It was a remarkable position for a man to have won in his early forties, who had entered public life with every disadvantage of birth.

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