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The River Clyde

The River Clyde
The River Clyde Near Midculter in Lanarkshire

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Part One. The Play for Jonathan Crouch. Chapter VI. Forced Move for a Minor Piece

Melrose Abbey
Having learned from Christian (Ch. III, More Blindfold Play) that Jonathan Crouch is the prisoner of George Douglas, Lymond slips into Douglas's home at Dalkeith disguised as a messenger. After being threatened by Lymond with the contents of a captured message from Lord Grey to the Protector that contains some very damning information about him, Douglas tells Lymond he no longer has Crouch but "sold" him to Andrew Hunter. Douglas also informs Lymond that he must, as a gentleman, tell Hunter someone is looking for Crouch, and broadly hints that Lymond can join his men traveling to Ballaggan as a way of getting into Hunter's home to look for Crouch. This deal is satisfactory to Lymond, who seals the agreement with a hogshead of "stirred up" beer. Douglas understands the irony in this gift, that is, it is the same beer that was destined for Lord Grey's men at Hume but which never made it.

Dorothy Dunnett's singular wit is showcased in the opening of this short chapter as she shows with delicious malice how the "hoax at Hume" gained a life of its own and traveled round the countryside and through the towns and down the valleys, growing in humorous effect as it turned every corner and crossed every stream. 

Her portrayal of George Douglas is equally delectable. Initially, Douglas is too distracted to notice the "messenger's" completely inappropriate, haughty quip about the Protector:

"Forgive the delay. I cannot always receive the Lord Protector's messages as freely as I should wish." ...
"I am sure his Grace would be unhappy to think otherwise, Sir George." 
No real messenger would ever dare say such a thing. Douglas is clearly preoccupied or he would have been all over this flippant remark in the wink of an eye. However, the next words out of the Lymond's mouth get Douglas's full attention. He says not one word until Lymond has finished his long, eloquent, and threatening soliloquy. Even then, George reacts with Lymond-like aplomb, seating himself "negligently near the door" (of course...cut off Lymond's escape or make his own easier) before coolly responding.

The intercepted message from Grey to the Protector reveals that Douglas is working to advance the marriage of Queen Mary to Edward of England and convince his brothers to betray Arran (the Governor of Scotland). This is all done under threat, clearly, but still George does not want these facts made known to anyone. The Douglases definitely do play both sides, to their advantage and to their detriment.

George really seems the only person we have thus far met who might be an adversary equal to Lymond. Notice the things they share in common: 
  • both are fastidious about grooming and dress
  • where others gaffaw, they apply thoughtful analysis
  • neither can be easily thrown off balance (George displays "undisturbed calm," even when openly threatened)
  • both are perfectly willing to lie and conceal the truth (George is lying when he says the Queen already knows about his subterfuge and Lymond again conceals his identity)
  • both are sharp-witted and admire that quality in the other
  • each man understands the other's subtle way of expressing himself (Lymond understands Douglas is offering to smuggle him into Ballaggan, and Douglas understands where the hogshead of beer came from).
I am sure Lymond reciprocates George Douglas's reaction to him: "For an instant he was overcome with an extraordinary feeling of kinship for this odd, sharp-witted person." Two sleek leopards admiring the other's sharp wit and sharper claws.

Osprey, sans collar and chain
Of course, as much as he is fascinated by his importunate visitor, George sees the "messenger" not as a leopard but as a "wild cormorant, an acidulous osprey" to be captured and chained "with 'Douglas' in fine Gothic letters on the neck." George, I'm sure, knows that the cormorant and osprey are formidable, vigorous predators.

One other small comment worth noting: when Douglas says to Lymond, "You could become a rich man," Lymond replies, "I am a rich man." This is the first indication that Francis Crawford may have more resources than we had realized before. We know his men are well paid, so does he have wealth beyond what he and his band of outlaws have stolen? I think it's worth keeping in mind as the story progresses. 

The next scene at Ballaggan Castle extends the humorous tone of the preceding section, giving us an inside view of the Hunters, mother and son, as well as a priceless introduction to the mysterious Mr. Crouch. His garrulousness has been hinted at earlier, but now we see it in full flower. Crouch is a character Dickens or Austen would have been proud to call his or her own. Notice Crouch has been at Ballaggan for some time--"He droned through September until it and its captors were exhausted; then pounced on October with undimmed vigour and then worried the blameless days for a fortnight." This means he has been with Hunter for at least a month and probably longer. 

Dandy Hunter's relationship with his mother, another exquisitely drawn and memorable small character, is painfully awful. Poor Dandy tries his best to please the lady, but her tastes are not only expensive, they are also hard for him to anticipate or satisfy. She has stuffed Ballaggan with a hodgepodge of expensive items, many of which do not seem to fit in happy comfort with each other: the floors are brightly colored Spanish tile covered with a mix of Near Eastern carpets; the beds are gilded metal hung with taffeta; the furniture is wood and marble covered by tapestries. It all sounds expensive but also gauche, a word Dunnett uses to describe the keep. Mother Hunter's taste is as bad as it is pricey, but all that matters to Dandy is he must try to satisfy her. 

But satisfying her is something young Hunter cannot do. In addition to her hobby of collecting costly stuff, Lady Hunter's other favorite pastime is castigating Andrew, who cannot live up to his dead older brother. Even the fact that he has fought nobly and well brings only a comment that Crouch much later will recount to his wife. (Crouch survives to tell the tale!) "The old sow" implies the fact of Andrew's surviving the battles he fought unscathed is somehow another failure.

Symbol of Henri II
In his ongoing effort to please his mother, Dandy has a new object to offer her: a very expensive brooch. But it is not just any brooch; it appears to have belonged to Diane de Poitiers, King Henri II of France's favorite and very powerful paramour. Crouch immediately recognizes the insignia (the H entwined with the double-Ds). Where Crouch sees an extraordinary piece of jewelry purchased at great price and carrying enormous significance because of its previous owner, Lady Hunter, ironically, sees only vulgarity. Nor is she at all concerned about the money Dandy must have spent to acquire the piece, viewing it as another step in his so far failed aesthetic education.

Dandy finds a few minutes blessed relief welcoming George Douglas's secretary, even though the news he brings is disturbing. Notice that on the way back upstairs to his mother's room a torch has gone out (Dunnett's attention to detail again). The room is in semi-darkness, but it is the "miraculous silence" that alerts Hunter. What is especially noteworthy about the ensuing fight with Lymond is that Dandy appears to be getting the upper hand, but at the critical moment Hunter realizes the limp body is a ruse to put him off his guard. 

Watch for Lymond seeming to be defeated when in fact he is toying with his opponent (ruse v. reality, an important theme). Also watch for Lymond's inappropriate, barely disguised "hilarity" at such moments.

Lymond again demonstrates not only the supremacy of his fighting skill but also the potency of his venom: "I'll break you a limb in the Turkish style as often as you like." The reference to Turkish style combat is another indication of the wide range of Lymond's expertise and experience.

At last, Francis Crawford has his hands on Jonathan Crouch. Can you imagine what the ably trussed Mr. Crouch must be thinking and feeling as he watches Lymond systematically destroy Andrew Hunter, no mean fighter himself? And, of course, Mother Hunter has her poor opinion of her disappointing son reinforced. 

  1. Does George Douglas know who the "messenger" is? Remember: Lymond has covered his distinctive yellow hair.
  2. Why hasn't Andrew Hunter made the exchange of Crouch for his "beloved" cousin?
  3. The beating Lymond gives Hunter is vicious. What would drive him to this level of seemingly wanton cruelty?
Favorite Line

"With Mr. Crouch came his tongue, his teeth, his hard and soft palate, his maxillary muscles, larynx, epiglottis and lungs: all the apparatus which enabled him, ne plus ultra, to talk."

Words that Describe Lymond in Forced Move for a Minor Piece
  • playful
  • cruel
  • subtle
  • perspicacious
  • disciplined
  • deceitful
  • menacing
  • brazen
  • determined
  • imperturbable
  • strong
  • rich

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