Two distinguished highflyers had separately been to see Dr. Acton Croke. Both were suffering from a common ailment – they had all grown too competent and comfortable and their doctor had given them both the same diagnosis and suggested treatment:
“You’ve got to rediscover the comforts of your life by losing them for a little…
You need to be made to struggle for your life again.”
The good doctor’s suggestions, as a friend and not a medical man, included dropping into another world, a harder one, for a month or two; stealing a horse in some part of the world where that crime was punishable by hanging, or to induce the newspapers to accuse them of something shady that would require a great effort to clear up.
Sir Edward Leithen, a barrister, ‘who had left forty behind him but was on the pleasant side of fifty,’ and John Palliser-Yeates, 45 years, an eminent banker known for his youthful athleticism, discovered their common complaint when they happened to dine at the same club that evening.
Lord Charles Lamancha, a cabinet minister in his early forties, was also there with a young friend, Archie Roylance, who was endeavouring to cheer him up. The three older men were close friends but were surprised to find they all suffered from the same ennui.
Archie Roylance stared blankly from one to the other, as if some new thing had broken in upon his simple philosophy of life.
“You fellows beat me,” he cried. “Here you are, every one of you a swell of sorts, with everything to make you cheerful, and you’re grousin’ like a labour battalion! You should be jolly well ashamed of yourselves.”
Archie’s advice was to go and do some hard exercise like sweating ten hours a day on a steep hill but he had a moment of illumination when the men responded that it would do no good. He recounted the story of Jim Tarras, a poacher on a grand scale, and the three men decided to take a leaf from that man’s book; to do something ‘devilish difficult, devilish pleasant, and calculated to make a man long for a dull life.’
Archie was staying at a lonely, isolated house in the Scottish Highlands and the three friends plotted to go there in secret and join him. Their plan was to inform three Scottish estates in writing that they would be poaching on their properties during a given time and would take two stags and a salmon from each estate.
‘The animal, of course, remains your property and will be duly delivered to you. It is a condition that it must be removed wholly outside your bounds. In the event of the undersigned failing to achieve his purpose he will pay as forfeit one hundred pounds, and if successful fifty pounds to any charity you may appoint.’
The letters were sent from London and signed with the nom de guerre, ‘John Macnab.’ It was imperative that whether they failed or succeeded, the trio must not be caught, but there were complications from the very start.
One of my favourite characters in this book is Sir Archie Roylance, who having implicated himself with ‘Macnab,’ is totally smitten by one of the Scottish laird’s daughters.
He was in the miserable position of having a leg in both camps, of having unhappily received the confidences of both sides, and whatever he did he must make a mess of it.
At the back of his head he had that fear of women as something mysterious and unintelligible which belongs to a motherless and sisterless childhood, and a youth spent almost wholly in the company of men. He had immense compassion for a s*x which seemed to him to have a hard patch to hoe in the world, and this pitifulness had always kept him from any conduct which might harm a woman. His numerous fancies had been light and transient like thistledown, and his heart had been wholly unscathed. Fear that he might stumble into marriage had made him as shy as a woodcock—a fear not without grounds, for a friend had once proposed to write a book called Lives of the Hunted, with a chapter on Archie.
John Macnab has been called ‘the sunniest of Buchan’s fictions’ and is his second most famous novel. It mixes comedy, adventure and friendship with an underlying attitude that life is what you make it.
Although more light-hearted than most of Buchan’s other novels, it is a great adventure story with a delightful romantic element.