I lay for four days like a log in that garret bed. The storm died down, th_haw set in, and the snow melted. The children played about the doors and tol_tories at night round the fire. Stumm's myrmidons no doubt beset every roa_nd troubled the lives of innocent wayfarers. But no one came near th_ottage, and the fever worked itself out while I lay in peace.
It was a bad bout, but on the fifth day it left me, and I lay, as weak as _itten, staring at the rafters and the little skylight. It was a leaky, draughty old place, but the woman of the cottage had heaped deerskins an_lankets on my bed and kept me warm. She came in now and then, and once sh_rought me a brew of some bitter herbs which greatly refreshed me. A littl_hin porridge was all the food I could eat, and some chocolate made from th_labs in my rucksack.
I lay and dozed through the day, hearing the faint chatter of children below, and getting stronger hourly. Malaria passes as quickly as it comes and leave_ man little the worse, though this was one of the sharpest turns I ever had.
As I lay I thought, and my thoughts followed curious lines. One queer thin_as that Stumm and his doings seemed to have been shot back into a lumber-roo_f my brain and the door locked. He didn't seem to be a creature of the livin_resent, but a distant memory on which I could look calmly. I thought a goo_eal about my battalion and the comedy of my present position. You see I wa_etting better, for I called it comedy now, not tragedy.
But chiefly I thought of my mission. All that wild day in the snow it ha_eemed the merest farce. The three words Harry Bullivant had scribbled ha_anced through my head in a crazy fandango. They were present to me now, bu_oolly and sanely in all their meagreness.
I remember that I took each one separately and chewed on it for hours.
Kasredin - there was nothing to be got out of that. Cancer - there were to_any meanings, all blind. V. I. - that was the worst gibberish of all.
Before this I had always taken the I as the letter of the alphabet. I ha_hought the v. must stand for von, and I had considered the German name_eginning with I - Ingolstadt, Ingeburg, Ingenohl, and all the rest of them. _ad made a list of about seventy at the British Museum before I left London.
Now I suddenly found myself taking the I as the numeral One. Idly, no_hinking what I was doing, I put it into German.
Then I nearly fell out of the bed. Von Einem - the name I had heard a_audian's house, the name Stumm had spoken behind his hand, the name to whic_ilda was probably the prefix. It was a tremendous discovery - the first rea_it of light I had found. Harry Bullivant knew that some man or woman calle_on Einem was at the heart of the mystery. Stumm had spoken of the sam_ersonage with respect and in connection with the work I proposed to do i_aising the Moslem Africans. If I found von Einem I would be getting ver_arm. What was the word that Stumm had whispered to Gaudian and scared tha_orthy? It had sounded like uhnmantl. If I could only get that clear, I woul_olve the riddle.
I think that discovery completed my cure. At any rate on the evening of th_ifth day - it was Wednesday, the 29th of December - I was well enough to ge_p. When the dark had fallen and it was too late to fear a visitor, I cam_ownstairs and, wrapped in my green cape, took a seat by the fire.
As we sat there in the firelight, with the three white-headed children starin_t me with saucer eyes, and smiling when I looked their way, the woman talked.
Her man had gone to the wars on the Eastern front, and the last she had hear_rom him he was in a Polish bog and longing for his dry native woodlands. Th_truggle meant little to her. It was an act of God, a thunderbolt out of th_ky, which had taken a husband from her, and might soon make her a widow an_er children fatherless. She knew nothing of its causes and purposes, an_hought of the Russians as a gigantic nation of savages, heathens who ha_ever been converted, and who would eat up German homes if the good Lord an_he brave German soldiers did not stop them. I tried hard to find out if sh_ad any notion of affairs in the West, but she hadn't, beyond the fact tha_here was trouble with the French. I doubt if she knew of England's share i_t. She was a decent soul, with no bitterness against anybody, not even th_ussians if they would spare her man.
That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shel_f Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see th_hole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could neve_nd the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. Bu_hat woodcutter's cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing th_uilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God an_eep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany's madness ha_riven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts lik_his and leave children's bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to b_erciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.
The place, as I have said, was desperately poor. The woman's face had the ski_tretched tight over the bones and that transparency which means under- feeding; I fancied she did not have the liberal allowance that soldiers' wive_et in England. The children looked better nourished, but it was by thei_other's sacrifice. I did my best to cheer them up. I told them long yarn_bout Africa and lions and tigers, and I got some pieces of wood and whittle_hem into toys. I am fairly good with a knife, and I carved very presentabl_ikenesses of a monkey, a springbok, and a rhinoceros. The children went t_ed hugging the first toys, I expect, they ever possessed.
It was clear to me that I must leave as soon as possible. I had to get on wit_y business, and besides, it was not fair to the woman. Any moment I might b_ound here, and she would get into trouble for harbouring me. I asked her i_he knew where the Danube was, and her answer surprised me. 'You will reach i_n an hour's walk,' she said. 'The track through the wood runs straight to th_erry.'
Next morning after breakfast I took my departure. It was drizzling weather, and I was feeling very lean. Before going I presented my hostess and th_hildren with two sovereigns apiece. 'It is English gold,' I said, 'for I hav_o travel among our enemies and use our enemies' money. But the gold is good, and if you go to any town they will change it for you. But I advise you to pu_t in your stocking-foot and use it only if all else fails. You must keep you_ome going, for some day there will be peace and your man will come back fro_he wars.'
I kissed the children, shook the woman's hand, and went off down the clearing.
They had cried 'Auf Wiedersehen,' but it wasn't likely I would ever see the_gain.
The snow had all gone, except in patches in the deep hollows. The ground wa_ike a full sponge, and a cold rain drifted in my eyes. After half an hour'_teady trudge the trees thinned, and presently I came out on a knuckle of ope_round cloaked in dwarf junipers. And there before me lay the plain, and _ile off a broad brimming river.
I sat down and looked dismally at the prospect. The exhilaration of m_iscovery the day before had gone. I had stumbled on a worthless piece o_nowledge, for I could not use it. Hilda von Einem, if such a person existe_nd possessed the great secret, was probably living in some big house i_erlin, and I was about as likely to get anything out of her as to be asked t_ine with the Kaiser. Blenkiron might do something, but where on earth wa_lenkiron? I dared say Sir Walter would value the information, but I could no_et to Sir Walter. I was to go on to Constantinople, running away from th_eople who really pulled the ropes. But if I stayed I could do nothing, and _ould not stay. I must go on and I didn't see how I could go on. Every cours_eemed shut to me, and I was in as pretty a tangle as any man ever stumble_nto.
For I was morally certain that Stumm would not let the thing drop. I knew to_uch, and besides I had outraged his pride. He would beat the countryside til_e got me, and he undoubtedly would get me if I waited much longer. But ho_as I to get over the border? My passport would be no good, for the number o_hat pass would long ere this have been wired to every police-station i_ermany, and to produce it would be to ask for trouble. Without it I could no_ross the borders by any railway. My studies of the Tourists' Guide ha_uggested that once I was in Austria I might find things slacker and mov_bout easier. I thought of having a try at the Tyrol and I also thought o_ohemia. But these places were a long way off, and there were several thousan_hances each day that I would be caught on the road.
This was Thursday, the 30th of December, the second last day of the year. _as due in Constantinople on the 17th of January. Constantinople! I ha_hought myself a long way from it in Berlin, but now it seemed as distant a_he moon.
But that big sullen river in front of me led to it. And as I looked m_ttention was caught by a curious sight. On the far eastern horizon, where th_ater slipped round a corner of hill, there was a long trail of smoke. Th_treamers thinned out, and seemed to come from some boat well round th_orner, but I could see at least two boats in view. Therefore there must be _ong train of barges, with a tug in tow.
I looked to the west and saw another such procession coming into sight. Firs_ent a big river steamer - it can't have been much less than 1,000 tons - an_fter came a string of barges. I counted no less than six besides the tug.
They were heavily loaded and their draught must have been considerable, bu_here was plenty of depth in the flooded river.
A moment's reflection told me what I was looking at. Once Sandy, in one of th_iscussions you have in hospital, had told us just how the Germans munitione_heir Balkan campaign. They were pretty certain of dishing Serbia at the firs_o, and it was up to them to get through guns and shells to the old Turk, wh_as running pretty short in his first supply. Sandy said that they wanted th_ailway, but they wanted still more the river, and they could make certain o_hat in a week. He told us how endless strings of barges, loaded up at the bi_actories of Westphalia, were moving through the canals from the Rhine or th_lbe to the Danube. Once the first reached Turkey, there would be regula_elivery, you see - as quick as the Turks could handle the stuff. And the_idn't return empty, Sandy said, but came back full of Turkish cotton an_ulgarian beef and Rumanian corn. I don't know where Sandy got the knowledge, but there was the proof of it before my eyes.
It was a wonderful sight, and I could have gnashed my teeth to see those load_f munitions going snugly off to the enemy. I calculated they would give ou_oor chaps hell in Gallipoli. And then, as I looked, an idea came into my hea_nd with it an eighth part of a hope.
There was only one way for me to get out of Germany, and that was to leave i_uch good company that I would be asked no questions. That was plain enough.
If I travelled to Turkey, for instance, in the Kaiser's suite, I would be a_afe as the mail; but if I went on my own I was done. I had, so to speak, t_et my passport inside Germany, to join some caravan which had free marchin_owers. And there was the kind of caravan before me - the Essen barges.
It sounded lunacy, for I guessed that munitions of war would be as jealousl_uarded as old Hindenburg's health. All the safer, I replied to myself, once _et there. If you are looking for a deserter you don't seek him at th_avourite regimental public-house. If you're after a thief, among the place_ou'd be apt to leave unsearched would be Scotland Yard.
It was sound reasoning, but how was I to get on board? Probably the beastl_hings did not stop once in a hundred miles, and Stumm would get me lon_efore I struck a halting-place. And even if I did get a chance like that, ho_as I to get permission to travel?
One step was clearly indicated - to get down to the river bank at once. So _et off at a sharp walk across squelchy fields, till I struck a road where th_itches had overflowed so as almost to meet in the middle. The place was s_ad that I hoped travellers might be few. And as I trudged, my thoughts wer_usy with my prospects as a stowaway. If I bought food, I might get a chanc_o lie snug on one of the barges. They would not break bulk till they got t_heir journey's end.
Suddenly I noticed that the steamer, which was now abreast me, began to mov_owards the shore, and as I came over a low rise, I saw on my left _traggling village with a church, and a small landing-stage. The houses stoo_bout a quarter of a mile from the stream, and between them was a straight, poplar-fringed road.
Soon there could be no doubt about it. The procession was coming to _tandstill. The big tug nosed her way in and lay up alongside the pier, wher_n that season of flood there was enough depth of water. She signalled to th_arges and they also started to drop anchors, which showed that there must b_t least two men aboard each. Some of them dragged a bit and it was rather _ock- eyed train that lay in mid-stream. The tug got out a gangway, and fro_here I lay I saw half a dozen men leave it, carrying something on thei_houlders.
It could be only one thing - a dead body. Someone of the crew must have died, and this halt was to bury him. I watched the procession move towards th_illage and I reckoned they would take some time there, though they might hav_ired ahead for a grave to be dug. Anyhow, they would be long enough to giv_e a chance.
For I had decided upon the brazen course. Blenkiron had said you couldn'_heat the Boche, but you could bluff him. I was going to put up the mos_onstrous bluff. If the whole countryside was hunting for Richard Hannay, Richard Hannay would walk through as a pal of the hunters. For I remembere_he pass Stumm had given me. If that was worth a tinker's curse it should b_ood enough to impress a ship's captain.
Of course there were a thousand risks. They might have heard of me in th_illage and told the ship's party the story. For that reason I resolved not t_o there but to meet the sailors when they were returning to the boat. Or th_aptain might have been warned and got the number of my pass, in which cas_tumm would have his hands on me pretty soon. Or the captain might be a_gnorant fellow who had never seen a Secret Service pass and did not know wha_t meant, and would refuse me transport by the letter of his instructions. I_hat case I might wait on another convoy.
I had shaved and made myself a fairly respectable figure before I left th_ottage. It was my cue to wait for the men when they left the church, wait o_hat quarter-mile of straight highway. I judged the captain must be in th_arty. The village, I was glad to observe, seemed very empty. I have my ow_otions about the Bavarians as fighting men, but I am bound to say that, judging by my observations, very few of them stayed at home.
That funeral took hours. They must have had to dig the grave, for I waite_ear the road in a clump of cherry-trees, with my feet in two inches of mu_nd water, till I felt chilled to the bone. I prayed to God it would not brin_ack my fever, for I was only one day out of bed. I had very little tobacc_eft in my pouch, but I stood myself one pipe, and I ate one of the thre_akes of chocolate I still carried.
At last, well after midday, I could see the ship's party returning. The_arched two by two and I was thankful to see that they had no villagers wit_hem. I walked to the road, turned up it, and met the vanguard, carrying m_ead as high as I knew how.
'Where's your captain?' I asked, and a man jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
The others wore thick jerseys and knitted caps, but there was one man at th_ear in uniform.
He was a short, broad man with a weather-beaten face and an anxious eye.
'May I have a word with you, Herr Captain?' I said, with what I hoped was _udicious blend of authority and conciliation.
He nodded to his companion, who walked on.
'Yes?' he asked rather impatiently.
I proffered him my pass. Thank Heaven he had seen the kind of thing before, for his face at once took on that curious look which one person in authorit_lways wears when he is confronted with another. He studied it closely an_hen raised his eyes.
'Well, Sir?' he said. 'I observe your credentials. What can I do for you?'
'I take it you are bound for Constantinople?' I asked.
'The boats go as far as Rustchuk,' he replied. 'There the stuff is transferre_o the railway.'
'And you reach Rustchuk when?'
'In ten days, bar accidents. Let us say twelve to be safe.'
'I want to accompany you,' I said. 'In my profession, Herr Captain, it i_ecessary sometimes to make journeys by other than the common route. That i_ow my desire. I have the right to call upon some other branch of ou_ountry's service to help me. Hence my request.'
Very plainly he did not like it.
'I must telegraph about it. My instructions are to let no one aboard, not eve_ man like you. I am sorry, Sir, but I must get authority first before I ca_all in with your desire. Besides, my boat is ill-found. You had better wai_or the next batch and ask Dreyser to take you. I lost Walter today. He wa_ll when he came aboard - a disease of the heart - but he would not b_ersuaded. And last night he died.'
'Was that him you have been burying?' I asked.
'Even so. He was a good man and my wife's cousin, and now I have no engineer.
Only a fool of a boy from Hamburg. I have just come from wiring to my owner_or a fresh man, but even if he comes by the quickest train he will scarcel_vertake us before Vienna or even Buda.'
I saw light at last.
'We will go together,' I said, 'and cancel that wire. For behold, Her_aptain, I am an engineer, and will gladly keep an eye on your boilers till w_et to Rustchuk.'
He looked at me doubtfully.
'I am speaking truth,' I said. 'Before the war I was an engineer i_amaraland. Mining was my branch, but I had a good general training, and _now enough to run a river-boat. Have no fear. I promise you I will earn m_assage.'
His face cleared, and he looked what he was, an honest, good- humoured Nort_erman seaman.
'Come then in God's name,' he cried, 'and we will make a bargain. I will le_he telegraph sleep. I require authority from the Government to take _assenger, but I need none to engage a new engineer.'
He sent one of the hands back to the village to cancel his wire. In te_inutes I found myself on board, and ten minutes later we were out in mid- stream and our tows were lumbering into line. Coffee was being made ready i_he cabin, and while I waited for it I picked up the captain's binoculars an_canned the place I had left.
I saw some curious things. On the first road I had struck on leaving th_ottage there were men on bicycles moving rapidly. They seemed to wea_niform. On the next parallel road, the one that ran through the village, _ould see others. I noticed, too, that several figures appeared to be beatin_he intervening fields.
Stumm's cordon had got busy at last, and I thanked my stars that not one o_he villagers had seen me. I had not got away much too soon, for in anothe_alf-hour he would have had me.