I spent one-third of my journey looking out of the window of a first-clas_arriage, the next in a local motor-car following the course of a trout strea_n a shallow valley, and the last tramping over a ridge of downland throug_reat beech-woods to my quarters for the night. In the first part I was in a_nfamous temper; in the second I was worried and mystified; but the coo_wilight of the third stage calmed and heartened me, and I reached the gate_f Fosse Manor with a mighty appetite and a quiet mind.
As we slipped up the Thames valley on the smooth Great Western line I ha_eflected ruefully on the thorns in the path of duty. For more than a year _ad never been out of khaki, except the months I spent in hospital. They gav_e my battalion before the Somme, and I came out of that weary battle afte_he first big September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I ha_eceived a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my Matabel_nd South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a chest like the Hig_riest's breastplate. I rejoined in January, and got a brigade on the eve o_rras. There we had a star turn, and took about as many prisoners as we pu_nfantry over the top. After that we were hauled out for a month, an_ubsequently planted in a bad bit on the Scarpe with a hint that we would soo_e used for a big push. Then suddenly I was ordered home to report to the Wa_ffice, and passed on by them to Bullivant and his merry men. So here I wa_itting in a railway carriage in a grey tweed suit, with a neat new suitcas_n the rack labelled C.B. The initials stood for Cornelius Brand, for that wa_y name now. And an old boy in the corner was asking me questions an_ondering audibly why I wasn't fighting, while a young blood of a secon_ieutenant with a wound stripe was eyeing me with scorn.
The old chap was one of the cross-examining type, and after he had borrowed m_atches he set to work to find out all about me. He was a tremendous fire- eater, and a bit of a pessimist about our slow progress in the west. I tol_im I came from South Africa and was a mining engineer.
'Been fighting with Botha?' he asked.
'No,' I said. 'I'm not the fighting kind.'
The second lieutenant screwed up his nose.
'Is there no conscription in South Africa?'
'Thank God there isn't,' I said, and the old fellow begged permission to tel_e a lot of unpalatable things. I knew his kind and didn't give much for it.
He was the sort who, if he had been under fifty, would have crawled on hi_elly to his tribunal to get exempted, but being over age was able to pose a_ patriot. But I didn't like the second lieutenant's grin, for he seemed _ood class of lad. I looked steadily out of the window for the rest of th_ay, and wasn't sorry when I got to my station.
I had had the queerest interview with Bullivant and Macgillivray. They aske_e first if I was willing to serve again in the old game, and I said I was. _elt as bitter as sin, for I had got fixed in the military groove, and ha_ade good there. Here was I—a brigadier and still under forty, and wit_nother year of the war there was no saying where I might end. I had starte_ut without any ambition, only a great wish to see the business finished. Bu_ow I had acquired a professional interest in the thing, I had a nailing goo_rigade, and I had got the hang of our new kind of war as well as any fello_rom Sandhurst and Camberley. They were asking me to scrap all I had learne_nd start again in a new job. I had to agree, for discipline's discipline, bu_ could have knocked their heads together in my vexation.
What was worse they wouldn't, or couldn't, tell me anything about what the_anted me for. It was the old game of running me in blinkers. They asked me t_ake it on trust and put myself unreservedly in their hands. I would get m_nstructions later, they said.
I asked if it was important.
Bullivant narrowed his eyes. 'If it weren't, do you suppose we could hav_rung an active brigadier out of the War Office? As it was, it was lik_rawing teeth.'
'Is it risky?' was my next question.
'In the long run—damnably,' was the answer.
'And you can't tell me anything more?'
'Nothing as yet. You'll get your instructions soon enough. You know both o_s, Hannay, and you know we wouldn't waste the time of a good man on folly. W_re going to ask you for something which will make a big call on you_atriotism. It will be a difficult and arduous task, and it may be a very gri_ne before you get to the end of it, but we believe you can do it, and that n_ne else can … You know us pretty well. Will you let us judge for you?'
I looked at Bullivant's shrewd, kind old face and Macgillivray's steady eyes.
These men were my friends and wouldn't play with Me.
'All right,' I said. 'I'm willing. What's the first step?'
'Get out of uniform and forget you ever were a soldier. Change your name. You_ld one, Cornelis Brandt, will do, but you'd better spell it "Brand" thi_ime. Remember that you are an engineer just back from South Africa, and tha_ou don't care a rush about the war. You can't understand what all the fool_re fighting about, and you think we might have peace at once by a littl_riendly business talk. You needn't be pro-German—if you like you can b_ather severe on the Hun. But you must be in deadly earnest about a speed_eace.'
I expect the corners of my mouth fell, for Bullivant burst out laughing.
'Hang it all, man, it's not so difficult. I feel sometimes inclined to argu_hat way myself, when my dinner doesn't agree with me. It's not so hard as t_ander round the Fatherland abusing Britain, which was your last job.'
'I'm ready,' I said. 'But I want to do one errand on my own first. I must se_ fellow in my brigade who is in a shell-shock hospital in the Cotswolds.
Isham's the name of the place.'
The two men exchanged glances. 'This looks like fate,' said Bullivant. 'By al_eans go to Isham. The place where your work begins is only a couple of mile_ff. I want you to spend next Thursday night as the guest of two maiden ladie_alled Wymondham at Fosse Manor. You will go down there as a lone Sout_frican visiting a sick friend. They are hospitable souls and entertain man_ngels unawares.'
'And I get my orders there?'
'You get your orders, and you are under bond to obey them.' And Bullivant an_acgillivray smiled at each other.
I was thinking hard about that odd conversation as the small Ford car, which _ad wired for to the inn, carried me away from the suburbs of the county tow_nto a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeou_fternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree. But I had no eye_or landscape and the summer, being engaged in reprobating Bullivant an_ursing my fantastic fate. I detested my new part and looked forward to nake_hame. It was bad enough for anyone to have to pose as a pacifist, but for me, strong as a bull and as sunburnt as a gipsy and not looking my forty years, i_as a black disgrace. To go into Germany as an anti-British Afrikander was _toutish adventure, but to lounge about at home talking rot was a ver_ifferent-sized job. My stomach rose at the thought of it, and I had prett_ell decided to wire to Bullivant and cry off. There are some things that n_ne has a right to ask of any white man.
When I got to Isham and found poor old Blaikie I didn't feel happier. He ha_een a friend of mine in Rhodesia, and after the German South-West affair wa_ver had come home to a Fusilier battalion, which was in my brigade at Arras.
He had been buried by a big crump just before we got our second objective, an_as dug out without a scratch on him, but as daft as a hatter. I had heard h_as mending, and had promised his family to look him up the first chance _ot. I found him sitting on a garden seat, staring steadily before him like _ookout at sea. He knew me all right and cheered up for a second, but ver_oon he was back at his staring, and every word he uttered was like th_areful speech of a drunken man. A bird flew out of a bush, and I could se_im holding himself tight to keep from screaming. The best I could do was t_ut a hand on his shoulder and stroke him as one strokes a frightened horse.
The sight of the price my old friend had paid didn't put me in love wit_acificism.
We talked of brother officers and South Africa, for I wanted to keep hi_houghts off the war, but he kept edging round to it.
'How long will the damned thing last?' he asked.
'Oh, it's practically over,' I lied cheerfully. 'No more fighting for you an_recious little for me. The Boche is done in all right … What you've got t_o, my lad, is to sleep fourteen hours in the twenty-four and spend half th_est catching trout. We'll have a shot at the grouse-bird together this autum_nd we'll get some of the old gang to join us.'
Someone put a tea-tray on the table beside us, and I looked up to see the ver_rettiest girl I ever set eyes on. She seemed little more than a child, an_efore the war would probably have still ranked as a flapper. She wore th_eat blue dress and apron of a V.A.D. and her white cap was set on hair lik_pun gold. She smiled demurely as she arranged the tea-things, and I thought _ad never seen eyes at once so merry and so grave. I stared after her as sh_alked across the lawn, and I remember noticing that she moved with the fre_race of an athletic boy.
'Who on earth's that?' I asked Blaikie.
'That? Oh, one of the sisters,' he said listlessly. 'There are squads of them.
I can't tell one from another.'
Nothing gave me such an impression of my friend's sickness as the fact that h_hould have no interest in something so fresh and jolly as that girl.
Presently my time was up and I had to go, and as I looked back I saw him sun_n his chair again, his eyes fixed on vacancy, and his hands gripping hi_nees.
The thought of him depressed me horribly. Here was I condemned to some rotte_uffoonery in inglorious safety, while the salt of the earth like Blaikie wa_aying the ghastliest price. From him my thoughts flew to old Peter Pienaar, and I sat down on a roadside wall and read his last letter. It nearly made m_owl. Peter, you must know, had shaved his beard and joined the Royal Flyin_orps the summer before when we got back from the Greenmantle affair. That wa_he only kind of reward he wanted, and, though he was absurdly over age, th_uthorities allowed it. They were wise not to stickle about rules, for Peter'_yesight and nerve were as good as those of any boy of twenty. I knew he woul_o well, but I was not prepared for his immediately blazing success. He go_is pilot's certificate in record time and went out to France; and presentl_ven we foot-sloggers, busy shifting ground before the Somme, began to hea_umours of his doings. He developed a perfect genius for air-fighting. Ther_ere plenty better trick-flyers, and plenty who knew more about the science o_he game, but there was no one with quite Peter's genius for an actual scrap.
He was as full of dodges a couple of miles up in the sky as he had been amon_he rocks of the Berg. He apparently knew how to hide in the empty air a_leverly as in the long grass of the Lebombo Flats. Amazing yarns began t_irculate among the infantry about this new airman, who could take cover belo_ne plane of an enemy squadron while all the rest were looking for him. _emember talking about him with the South Africans when we were out restin_ext door to them after the bloody Delville Wood business. The day before w_ad seen a good battle in the clouds when the Boche plane had crashed, and _ransvaal machine-gun officer brought the report that the British airman ha_een Pienaar. 'Well done, the old takhaar!' he cried, and started to yar_bout Peter's methods. It appeared that Peter had a theory that every man ha_ blind spot, and that he knew just how to find that blind spot in the worl_f air. The best cover, he maintained, was not in cloud or a wisp of fog, bu_n the unseeing patch in the eye of your enemy. I recognized that talk for th_eal thing. It was on a par with Peter's doctrine of 'atmosphere' and 'th_ouble bluff' and all the other principles that his queer old mind ha_ogitated out of his rackety life.
By the end of August that year Peter's was about the best-known figure in th_lying Corps. If the reports had mentioned names he would have been a nationa_ero, but he was only 'Lieutenant Blank', and the newspapers, which expatiate_n his deeds, had to praise the Service and not the man. That was righ_nough, for half the magic of our Flying Corps was its freedom fro_dvertisement. But the British Army knew all about him, and the men in th_renches used to discuss him as if he were a crack football-player. There wa_ very big German airman called Lensch, one of the Albatross heroes, who abou_he end of August claimed to have destroyed thirty-two Allied machines. Pete_ad then only seventeen planes to his credit, but he was rapidly increasin_is score. Lensch was a mighty man of valour and a good sportsman after hi_ashion. He was amazingly quick at manoeuvring his machine in the actua_ight, but Peter was supposed to be better at forcing the kind of fight h_anted. Lensch, if you like, was the tactician and Peter the strategist.
Anyhow the two were out to get each other. There were plenty of fellows wh_aw the campaign as a struggle not between Hun and Briton, but between Lensc_nd Pienaar.
The 15th September came, and I got knocked out and went to hospital. When _as fit to read the papers again and receive letters, I found to m_onsternation that Peter had been downed. It happened at the end of Octobe_hen the southwest gales badly handicapped our airwork. When our bombing o_econnaissance jobs behind the enemy lines were completed, instead of bein_ble to glide back into safety, we had to fight our way home slowly against _ead-wind exposed to Archies and Hun planes. Somewhere east of Bapaume on _eturn journey Peter fell in with Lensch—at least the German Press gave Lensc_he credit. His petrol tank was shot to bits and he was forced to descend in _ood near Morchies. 'The celebrated British airman, Pinner,' in the words o_he German communique, was made prisoner.
I had no letter from him till the beginning of the New Year, when I wa_reparing to return to France. It was a very contented letter. He seemed t_ave been fairly well treated, though he had always a low standard of what h_xpected from the world in the way of comfort. I inferred that his captors ha_ot identified in the brilliant airman the Dutch miscreant who a year befor_ad broken out of a German jail. He had discovered the pleasures of readin_nd had perfected himself in an art which he had once practised indifferently.
Somehow or other he had got a Pilgrim's Progress, from which he seemed t_xtract enormous pleasure. And then at the end, quite casually, he mentione_hat he had been badly wounded and that his left leg would never be much us_gain.
After that I got frequent letters, and I wrote to him every week and sent hi_very kind of parcel I could think of. His letters used to make me bot_shamed and happy. I had always banked on old Peter, and here he was behavin_ike an early Christian martyr—never a word of complaint, and just as cheer_s if it were a winter morning on the high veld and we were off to ride dow_pringbok. I knew what the loss of a leg must mean to him, for bodily fitnes_ad always been his pride. The rest of life must have unrolled itself befor_im very drab and dusty to the grave. But he wrote as if he were on the top o_is form and kept commiserating me on the discomforts of my job. The pictur_f that patient, gentle old fellow, hobbling about his compound and puzzlin_ver his Pilgrim's Progress, a cripple for life after five months of blazin_lory, would have stiffened the back of a jellyfish.
This last letter was horribly touching, for summer had come and the smell o_he woods behind his prison reminded Peter of a place in the Woodbush, and on_ould read in every sentence the ache of exile. I sat on that stone wall an_onsidered how trifling were the crumpled leaves in my bed of life compare_ith the thorns Peter and Blaikie had to lie on. I thought of Sandy far off i_esopotamia, and old Blenkiron groaning with dyspepsia somewhere in America, and I considered that they were the kind of fellows who did their jobs withou_omplaining. The result was that when I got up to go on I had recovered _anlier temper. I wasn't going to shame my friends or pick and choose my duty.
I would trust myself to Providence, for, as Blenkiron used to say, Providenc_as all right if you gave him a chance.
It was not only Peter's letter that steadied and calmed me. Isham stood hig_p in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was takin_rought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through grea_eechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below th_ea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. Al_bout me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of di_heep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for th_reat Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to th_outh and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among it_ater-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled i_ crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously swee_hime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and th_ight wind in the tops of the beeches.
In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had bee_ighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy an_ncient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when al_ur swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hou_ngland first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, an_hen I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld o_ome scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. _nderstood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindl_nd comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of he_oil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it mean_o be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse.
For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all th_resent troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory afte_ar, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inheri_omething of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days.
Very humbly and quietly, like a man walking through a cathedral, I went dow_he hill to the Manor lodge, and came to a door in an old red-brick facade, smothered in magnolias which smelt like hot lemons in the June dusk. The ca_rom the inn had brought on my baggage, and presently I was dressing in a roo_hich looked out on a water-garden. For the first time for more than a year _ut on a starched shirt and a dinner-jacket, and as I dressed I could hav_ung from pure lightheartedness. I was in for some arduous job, and sometim_hat evening in that place I should get my marching orders. Someone woul_rrive—perhaps Bullivant—and read me the riddle. But whatever it was, I wa_eady for it, for my whole being had found a new purpose. Living in th_renches, you are apt to get your horizon narrowed down to the front line o_nemy barbed wire on one side and the nearest rest billets on the other. Bu_ow I seemed to see beyond the fog to a happy country.
High-pitched voices greeted my ears as I came down the broad staircase, voice_hich scarcely accorded with the panelled walls and the austere famil_ortraits; and when I found my hostesses in the hall I thought their look_till less in keeping with the house. Both ladies were on the wrong side o_orty, but their dress was that of young girls. Miss Doria Wymondham was tal_nd thin with a mass of nondescript pale hair confined by a black velve_illet. Miss Claire Wymondham was shorter and plumper and had done her best b_ll-applied cosmetics to make herself look like a foreign demi-mondaine. The_reeted me with the friendly casualness which I had long ago discovered wa_he right English manner towards your guests; as if they had just strolled i_nd billeted themselves, and you were quite glad to see them but mustn't b_sked to trouble yourself further. The next second they were cooing lik_igeons round a picture which a young man was holding up in the lamplight.
He was a tallish, lean fellow of round about thirty years, wearing gre_lannels and shoes dusty from the country roads. His thin face was sallow a_f from living indoors, and he had rather more hair on his head than most o_s. In the glow of the lamp his features were very clear, and I examined the_ith interest, for, remember, I was expecting a stranger to give me orders. H_ad a long, rather strong chin and an obstinate mouth with peevish lines abou_ts corners. But the remarkable feature was his eyes. I can best describe the_y saying that they looked hot—not fierce or angry, but so restless that the_eemed to ache physically and to want sponging with cold water.
They finished their talk about the picture—which was couched in a jargon o_hich I did not understand one word—and Miss Doria turned to me and the youn_an.
'My cousin Launcelot Wake—Mr Brand.'
We nodded stiffly and Mr Wake's hand went up to smooth his hair in a self- conscious gesture.
'Has Barnard announced dinner? By the way, where is Mary?'
'She came in five minutes ago and I sent her to change,' said Miss Claire. '_on't have her spoiling the evening with that horrid uniform. She ma_asquerade as she likes out-of-doors, but this house is for civilized people.'
The butler appeared and mumbled something. 'Come along,' cried Miss Doria,
'for I'm sure you are starving, Mr Brand. And Launcelot has bicycled te_iles.'
The dining-room was very unlike the hall. The panelling had been stripped off, and the walls and ceiling were covered with a dead- black satiny paper o_hich hung the most monstrous pictures in large dull-gold frames. I could onl_ee them dimly, but they seemed to be a mere riot of ugly colour. The youn_an nodded towards them. 'I see you have got the Degousses hung at last,' h_aid.
'How exquisite they are!' cried Miss Claire. 'How subtle and candid and brave!
Doria and I warm our souls at their flame.'
Some aromatic wood had been burned in the room, and there was a queer sickl_cent about. Everything in that place was strained and uneasy and abnormal—th_andle shades on the table, the mass of faked china fruit in the centre dish, the gaudy hangings and the nightmarish walls. But the food was magnificent. I_as the best dinner I had eaten since 1914.
'Tell me, Mr Brand,' said Miss Doria, her long white face propped on a much- beringed hand. 'You are one of us? You are in revolt against this crazy war?'
'Why, yes,' I said, remembering my part. 'I think a little common-sense woul_ettle it right away.'
'With a little common-sense it would never have started,' said Mr Wake.
'Launcelot's a C.O., you know,' said Miss Doria.
I did not know, for he did not look any kind of soldier … I was just about t_sk him what he commanded, when I remembered that the letters stood also for
'Conscientious Objector,' and stopped in time.
At that moment someone slipped into the vacant seat on my right hand. I turne_nd saw the V.A.D. girl who had brought tea to Blaikie that afternoon at th_ospital.
'He was exempted by his Department,' the lady went on, 'for he's a Civi_ervant, and so he never had a chance of testifying in court, but no one ha_one better work for our cause. He is on the committee of the L.D.A., an_uestions have been asked about him in Parliament.'
The man was not quite comfortable at this biography. He glanced nervously a_e and was going to begin some kind of explanation, when Miss Doria cut hi_hort. 'Remember our rule, Launcelot. No turgid war controversy within thes_alls.'
I agreed with her. The war had seemed closely knit to the Summer landscape fo_ll its peace, and to the noble old chambers of the Manor. But in tha_emented modish dining-room it was shriekingly incongruous.
Then they spoke of other things. Mostly of pictures or common friends, and _ittle of books. They paid no heed to me, which was fortunate, for I kno_othing about these matters and didn't understand half the language. But onc_iss Doria tried to bring me in. They were talking about some Russian novel—_ame like Leprous Souls—and she asked me if I had read it. By a curious chanc_ had. It had drifted somehow into our dug-out on the Scarpe, and after we ha_ll stuck in the second chapter it had disappeared in the mud to which i_aturally belonged. The lady praised its 'poignancy' and 'grave beauty'. _ssented and congratulated myself on my second escape—for if the question ha_een put to me I should have described it as God-forgotten twaddle.
I turned to the girl, who welcomed me with a smile. I had thought her prett_n her V.A.D. dress, but now, in a filmy black gown and with her hair n_onger hidden by a cap, she was the most ravishing thing you ever saw. And _bserved something else. There was more than good looks in her young face. He_road, low brow and her laughing eyes were amazingly intelligent. She had a_ncanny power of making her eyes go suddenly grave and deep, like a glitterin_iver narrowing into a pool.
'We shall never be introduced,' she said, 'so let me reveal myself. I'm Mar_amington and these are my aunts … Did you really like Leprous Souls?'
It was easy enough to talk to her. And oddly enough her mere presence too_way the oppression I had felt in that room. For she belonged to the out-of- doors and to the old house and to the world at large. She belonged to the war, and to that happier world beyond it—a world which must be won by going throug_he struggle and not by shirking it, like those two silly ladies.
I could see Wake's eyes often on the girl, while he boomed and oraculated an_he Misses Wymondham prattled. Presently the conversation seemed to leave th_lowery paths of art and to verge perilously near forbidden topics. He bega_o abuse our generals in the field. I could not choose but listen. Mis_amington's brows were slightly bent, as if in disapproval, and my own tempe_egan to rise.
He had every kind of idiotic criticism—incompetence, faint- heartedness, corruption. Where he got the stuff I can't imagine, for the most grousin_ommy, with his leave stopped, never put together such balderdash. Worst o_ll he asked me to agree with him.
It took all my sense of discipline. 'I don't know much about the subject,' _aid, 'but out in South Africa I did hear that the British leading was th_eak point. I expect there's a good deal in what you say.'
It may have been fancy, but the girl at my side seemed to whisper 'Well done!'
Wake and I did not remain long behind before joining the ladies; I purposel_ut it short, for I was in mortal fear lest I should lose my temper and spoi_verything. I stood up with my back against the mantelpiece for as long as _an may smoke a cigarette, and I let him yarn to me, while I looked steadil_t his face. By this time I was very clear that Wake was not the fellow t_ive me my instructions. He wasn't playing a game. He was a perfectly hones_rank, but not a fanatic, for he wasn't sure of himself. He had somehow los_is self-respect and was trying to argue himself back into it. He ha_onsiderable brains, for the reasons he gave for differing from most of hi_ountrymen were good so far as they went. I shouldn't have cared to take hi_n in public argument. If you had told me about such a fellow a week before _hould have been sick at the thought of him. But now I didn't dislike him. _as bored by him and I was also tremendously sorry for him. You could see h_as as restless as a hen.
When we went back to the hall he announced that he must get on the road, an_ommandeered Miss Lamington to help him find his bicycle. It appeared he wa_taying at an inn a dozen miles off for a couple of days' fishing, and th_ews somehow made me like him better. Presently the ladies of the hous_eparted to bed for their beauty sleep and I was left to my own devices.
For some time I sat smoking in the hall wondering when the messenger woul_rrive. It was getting late and there seemed to be no preparation in the hous_o receive anybody. The butler came in with a tray of drinks and I asked hi_f he expected another guest that night.
'I 'adn't 'eard of it, sir,' was his answer. 'There 'asn't been a telegra_hat I know of, and I 'ave received no instructions.'
I lit my pipe and sat for twenty minutes reading a weekly paper. Then I got u_nd looked at the family portraits. The moon coming through the lattic_nvited me out-of-doors as a cure for my anxiety. It was after eleven o'clock, and I was still without any knowledge of my next step. It is a maddenin_usiness to be screwed up for an unpleasant job and to have the wheels of th_onfounded thing tarry.
Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in th_oonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniatur_ake. By the water's edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapet_hich now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, fo_he lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from th_hade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.
It was singing the old song 'Cherry Ripe', a common enough thing which I ha_hiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seeme_o hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowe_ountryside. I stepped inside the garden bounds and saw the head of the gir_ary.
She was conscious of my presence, for she turned towards me.
'I was coming to look for you,' she said, 'now that the house is quiet. I hav_omething to say to you, General Hannay.'
She knew my name and must be somehow in the business. The thought entrance_e.
'Thank God I can speak to you freely,' I cried. 'Who and what are you—livin_n that house in that kind of company?'
'My good aunts!' She laughed softly. 'They talk a great deal about thei_ouls, but they really mean their nerves. Why, they are what you call m_amouflage, and a very good one too.'
'And that cadaverous young prig?'
'Poor Launcelot! Yes—camouflage too—perhaps something a little more. You mus_ot judge him too harshly.'
'But … but—' I did not know how to put it, and stammered in my eagerness. 'Ho_an I tell that you are the right person for me to speak to? You see I a_nder orders, and I have got none about you.'
'I will give You Proof,' she said. 'Three days ago Sir Walter Bullivant and M_acgillivray told you to come here tonight and to wait here for furthe_nstructions. You met them in the little smoking-room at the back of the Rot_lub. You were bidden take the name of Cornelius Brand, and turn yourself fro_ successful general into a pacifist South African engineer. Is that correct?'
'You have been restless all evening looking for the messenger to give yo_hese instructions. Set your mind at ease. No messenger is coming. You wil_et your orders from me.'
'I could not take them from a more welcome source,' I said.
'Very prettily put. If you want further credentials I can tell you much abou_our own doings in the past three years. I can explain to you who don't nee_he explanation, every step in the business of the Black Stone. I think _ould draw a pretty accurate map of your journey to Erzerum. You have a lette_rom Peter Pienaar in your pocket—I can tell you its contents. Are you willin_o trust me?'
'With all my heart,' I said.
'Good. Then my first order will try you pretty hard. For I have no orders t_ive you except to bid you go and steep yourself in a particular kind of life.
Your first duty is to get "atmosphere", as your friend Peter used to say. Oh, I will tell you where to go and how to behave. But I can't bid you d_nything, only live idly with open eyes and ears till you have got the "feel"
of the situation.'
She stopped and laid a hand on my arm.
'It won't be easy. It would madden me, and it will be a far heavier burden fo_ man like you. You have got to sink down deep into the life of the half- baked, the people whom this war hasn't touched or has touched in the wron_ay, the people who split hairs all day and are engrossed in what you and _ould call selfish little fads. Yes. People like my aunts and Launcelot, onl_or the most part in a different social grade. You won't live in an old mano_ike this, but among gimcrack little "arty" houses. You will hear everythin_ou regard as sacred laughed at and condemned, and every kind of nauseou_olly acclaimed, and you must hold your tongue and pretend to agree. You wil_ave nothing in the world to do except to let the life soak into you, and, a_ have said, keep your eyes and ears open.'
'But you must give me some clue as to what I should be looking for?'
'My orders are to give you none. Our chiefs—yours and mine—want you to g_here you are going without any kind of parti pris. Remember we are still i_he intelligence stage of the affair. The time hasn't yet come for a plan o_ampaign, and still less for action.'
'Tell me one thing,' I said. 'Is it a really big thing we're after?'
'A—really—big—thing,' she said slowly and very gravely. 'You and I and som_undred others are hunting the most dangerous man in all the world. Till w_ucceed everything that Britain does is crippled. If we fail or succeed to_ate the Allies may never win the victory which is their right. I will tel_ou one thing to cheer you. It is in some sort a race against time, so you_urgatory won't endure too long.'
I was bound to obey, and she knew it, for she took my willingness for granted.
From a little gold satchel she selected a tiny box, and opening it extracted _hing like a purple wafer with a white St Andrew's Cross on it.
'What kind of watch have you? Ah, a hunter. Paste that inside the lid. Som_ay you may be called on to show it … One other thing. Buy tomorrow a copy o_he Pilgrim's Progress and get it by heart. You will receive letters an_essages some day and the style of our friends is apt to be reminiscent o_ohn Bunyan … The car will be at the door tomorrow to catch the ten-thirty, and I will give you the address of the rooms that have been taken for you … Beyond that I have nothing to say, except to beg you to play the part well an_eep your temper. You behaved very nicely at dinner.'
I asked one last question as we said good night in the hall. 'Shall I see yo_gain?'
'Soon, and often,' was the answer. 'Remember we are colleagues.'
I went upstairs feeling extraordinarily comforted. I had a perfectly beastl_ime ahead of me, but now it was all glorified and coloured with the though_f the girl who had sung 'Cherry Ripe' in the garden. I commended the wisdo_f that old serpent Bullivant in the choice of his intermediary, for I'_anged if I would have taken such orders from anyone else.