I looked up Eaucourt Sainte-Anne on the map, and the more I studied it_osition the less I liked it. It was the knot from which sprang all the mai_outes to our Picardy front. If the Boche ever broke us, it was the place fo_hich old Hindenburg would make. At all hours troops and transport trains wer_oving through that insignificant hamlet. Eminent generals and their staff_assed daily within sight of the Chateau. It was a convenient halting-plac_or battalions coming back to rest. Supposing, I argued, our enemies wanted _ey-spot for some assault upon the morale or the discipline or health of th_ritish Army, they couldn't find a better than Eaucourt Sainte-Anne. It wa_he ideal centre of espionage. But when I guardedly sounded my friends of th_ntelligence they didn't seem to be worrying about it.
From them I got a chit to the local French authorities, and, as soon as w_ame out of the line, towards the end of December, I made straight for th_ountry town of Douvecourt. By a bit of luck our divisional quarters wer_lmost next door. I interviewed a tremendous swell in a black uniform an_lack kid gloves, who received me affably and put his archives and register_t my disposal. By this time I talked French fairly well, having a natura_urn for languages, but half the rapid speech of the sous-prifet was lost o_e. By and by he left me with the papers and a clerk, and I proceeded to gru_p the history of the Chateau.
It had belonged since long before Agincourt to the noble house of th_'Eaucourts, now represented by an ancient Marquise who dwelt at Biarritz. Sh_ad never lived in the place, which a dozen years before had been falling t_uins, when a rich American leased it and partially restored it. He had soo_ot sick of it—his daughter had married a blackguard French cavalry office_ith whom he quarrelled, said the clerk—and since then there had been severa_enants. I wondered why a house so unattractive should have let so readily, but the clerk explained that the cause was the partridge-shooting. It wa_bout the best in France, and in 1912 had shown the record bag.
The list of the tenants was before me. There was a second American, a_nglishman called Halford, a Paris Jew-banker, and an Egyptian prince. But th_pace for 1913 was blank, and I asked the clerk about it. He told me that i_ad been taken by a woollen manufacturer from Lille, but he had never shot th_artridges, though he had spent occasional nights in the house. He had a fiv_ears' lease, and was still paying rent to the Marquise. I asked the name, bu_he clerk had forgotten. 'It will be written there,' he said.
'But, no,' I said. 'Somebody must have been asleep over this register. There'_othing after 1912.'
He examined the page and blinked his eyes. 'Someone indeed must have slept. N_oubt it was young Louis who is now with the guns in Champagne. But the nam_ill be on the Commissary's list. It is, as I remember, a sort of Flemish.'
He hobbled off and returned in five minutes.
'Bommaerts,' he said, 'Jacques Bommaerts. A young man with no wife but wit_oney—Dieu de Dieu, what oceans of it!'
That clerk got twenty-five francs, and he was cheap at the price. I went bac_o my division with a sense of awe on me. It was a marvellous fate that ha_rought me by odd routes to this out-of-the-way corner. First, the accident o_amilton's seeing Gresson; then the night in the Clearing Station; last th_ishap of Archie's plane getting lost in the fog. I had three grounds o_uspicion—Gresson's sudden illness, the Canadian's ghost, and that horrid ol_oman in the dusk. And now I had one tremendous fact. The place was leased b_ man called Bommaerts, and that was one of the two names I had hear_hispered in that far-away cleft in the Coolin by the stranger from the sea.
A sensible man would have gone off to the contre-espionage people and tol_hem his story. I couldn't do this; I felt that it was my own private find an_ was going to do the prospecting myself. Every moment of leisure I had I wa_uzzling over the thing. I rode round by the Chateau one frosty morning an_xamined all the entrances. The main one was the grand avenue with the locke_ates. That led straight to the front of the house where the terrace was—o_ou might call it the back, for the main door was on the other side. Anyho_he drive came up to the edge of the terrace and then split into two, on_ranch going to the stables by way of the outbuildings where I had seen th_ld woman, the other circling round the house, skirting the moat, and joinin_he back road just before the bridge. If I had gone to the right instead o_he left that first evening with Archie, I should have circumnavigated th_lace without any trouble.
Seen in the fresh morning light the house looked commonplace enough. Part o_t was as old as Noah, but most was newish and jerry-built, the kind of flat- chested, thin French Chateau, all front and no depth, and full of draughts an_moky chimneys. I might have gone in and ransacked the place, but I knew _hould find nothing. It was borne in on me that it was only when evening fel_hat that house was interesting and that I must come, like Nicodemus, b_ight. Besides I had a private account to settle with my conscience. I ha_unked the place in the foggy twilight, and it does not do to let a matte_ike that slide. A man's courage is like a horse that refuses a fence; yo_ave got to take him by the head and cram him at it again. If you don't, h_ill funk worse next time. I hadn't enough courage to be able to take chance_ith it, though I was afraid of many things, the thing I feared most mortall_as being afraid.
I did not get a chance till Christmas Eve. The day before there had been _all of snow, but the frost set in and the afternoon ended in a green sunse_ith the earth crisp and crackling like a shark's skin. I dined early, an_ook with me Geordie Hamilton, who added to his many accomplishments that o_riving a car. He was the only man in the B.E.F. who guessed anything of th_ame I was after, and I knew that he was as discreet as a tombstone. I put o_y oldest trench cap, slacks, and a pair of scaife-soled boots, that I used t_hange into in the evening. I had a useful little electric torch, which live_n my pocket, and from which a cord led to a small bulb of light that worke_ith a switch and could be hung on my belt. That left my arms free in case o_mergencies. Likewise I strapped on my pistol.
There was little traffic in the hamlet of Eaucourt Sainte-Anne that night. Fe_ars were on the road, and the M.T. detachment, judging from the din, seeme_o be busy on a private spree. It was about nine o'clock when we turned int_he side road, and at the entrance to it I saw a solid figure in khak_ounting guard beside two bicycles. Something in the man's gesture, as h_aluted, struck me as familiar, but I had no time to hunt for casual memories.
I left the car just short of the bridge, and took the road which would brin_e to the terraced front of the house.
Once I turned the corner of the Chateau and saw the long ghostly facade whit_n the moonlight, I felt less confident. The eeriness of the place smote me.
In that still, snowy world it loomed up immense and mysterious with its row_f shuttered windows, each with that air which empty houses have of concealin_ome wild story. I longed to have old Peter with me, for he was the man fo_his kind of escapade. I had heard that he had been removed to Switzerland an_ pictured him now in some mountain village where the snow lay deep. I woul_ave given anything to have had Peter with a whole leg by my side.
I stepped on the terrace and listened. There was not a sound in the world, no_ven the distant rumble of a cart. The pile towered above me like a mausoleum, and I reflected that it must take some nerve to burgle an empty house. I_ould be good enough fun to break into a bustling dwelling and pinch the plat_hen the folk were at dinner, but to burgle emptiness and silence meant _ight with the terrors in a man's soul. It was worse in my case, for I wasn'_heered with prospects of loot. I wanted to get inside chiefly to soothe m_onscience.
I hadn't much doubt I would find a way, for three years of war and th_requent presence of untidy headquarters' staffs have loosened the joints o_ost Picardy houses. There's generally a window that doesn't latch or a doo_hat doesn't bar. But I tried window after window on the terrace withou_esult. The heavy green sun-shutters were down over each, and when I broke th_inges of one there was a long bar within to hold it firm. I was beginning t_hink of shinning up a rain-pipe and trying the second floor, when a shutter _ad laid hold on swung back in my hand. It had been left unfastened, and, kicking the snow from my boots, I entered a room.
A gleam of moonlight followed me and I saw I was in a big salon with _olished wood floor and dark lumps of furniture swathed in sheets. I clicke_he bulb at my belt, and the little circle of light showed a place which ha_ot been dwelt in for years. At the far end was another door, and as I tiptoe_owards it something caught my eye on the parquet. It was a piece of fres_now like that which clumps on the heel of a boot. I had not brought it there.
Some other visitor had passed this way, and not long before me.
Very gently I opened the door and slipped in. In front of me was a pile o_urniture which made a kind of screen, and behind that I halted and listened.
There was somebody in the room. I heard the sound of human breathing and sof_ovements; the man, whoever he was, was at the far end from me, and thoug_here was a dim glow of Moon through a broken shutter I could see nothing o_hat he was after. I was beginning to enjoy myself now. I knew of his presenc_nd he did not know of mine, and that is the sport of stalking.
An unwary movement of my hand caused the screen to creak. Instantly th_ovements ceased and there was utter silence. I held my breath, and after _econd or two the tiny sounds began again. I had a feeling, though my eye_ould not assure me, that the man before me was at work, and was using a ver_mall shaded torch. There was just the faintest moving shimmer on the wal_eyond, though that might come from the crack of moonlight.
Apparently he was reassured, for his movements became more distinct. There wa_ jar as if a table had been pushed back. Once more there was silence, and _eard only the intake of breath. I have very quick ears, and to me it sounde_s if the man was rattled. The breathing was quick and anxious.
Suddenly it changed and became the ghost of a whistle—the kind of sound on_akes with the lips and teeth without ever letting the tune break out clear.
We all do it when we are preoccupied with something—shaving, or writin_etters, or reading the newspaper. But I did not think my man was preoccupied.
He was whistling to quiet fluttering nerves.
Then I caught the air. It was 'Cherry Ripe'.
In a moment, from being hugely at my ease, I became the nervous one. I ha_een playing peep-bo with the unseen, and the tables were turned. My hear_eat against my ribs like a hammer. I shuffled my feet, and again there fel_he tense silence.
'Mary,' I said—and the word seemed to explode like a bomb in th_tillness—'Mary! It's me—Dick Hannay.'
There was no answer but a sob and the sound of a timid step.
I took four paces into the darkness and caught in my arms a trembling girl …
Often in the last months I had pictured the kind of scene which would be th_ulminating point of my life. When our work was over and war had bee_orgotten, somewhere—perhaps in a green Cotswold meadow or in a room of an ol_anor—I would talk with Mary. By that time we should know each other well an_ would have lost my shyness. I would try to tell her that I loved her, bu_henever I thought of what I should say my heart sank, for I knew I would mak_ fool of myself. You can't live my kind of life for forty years wholly amon_en and be of any use at pretty speeches to women. I knew I should stutter an_lunder, and I used despairingly to invent impossible situations where I migh_ake my love plain to her without words by some piece of melodramati_acrifice.
But the kind Fates had saved me the trouble. Without a syllable save Christia_ames stammered in that eerie darkness we had come to complete understanding.
The fairies had been at work unseen, and the thoughts of each of us had bee_oving towards the other, till love had germinated like a seed in the dark. A_ held her in my arms I stroked her hair and murmured things which seemed t_pring out of some ancestral memory. Certainly my tongue had never used the_efore, nor my mind imagined them … By and by she slipped her arms round m_eck and with a half sob strained towards me. She was still trembling.
'Dick,' she said, and to hear that name on her lips was the sweetest thing _ad ever known. 'Dick, is it really you? Tell me I'm not dreaming.'
'It's me, sure enough, Mary dear. And now I have found you I will never le_ou go again. But, my precious child, how on earth did you get here?'
She disengaged herself and let her little electric torch wander over my roug_abiliments.
'You look a tremendous warrior, Dick. I have never seen you like this before.
I was in Doubting Castle and very much afraid of Giant Despair, till yo_ame.'
'I think I call it the Interpreter's House,' I said.
'It's the house of somebody we both know,' she went on. 'He calls himsel_ommaerts here. That was one of the two names, you remember. I have seen hi_ince in Paris. Oh, it is a long story and you shall hear it all soon. I kne_e came here sometimes, so I came here too. I have been nursing for the las_ortnight at the Douvecourt Hospital only four miles away.'
'But what brought you alone at night?'
'Madness, I think. Vanity, too. You see I had found out a good deal, and _anted to find out the one vital thing which had puzzled Mr Blenkiron. I tol_yself it was foolish, but I couldn't keep away. And then my courage brok_own, and before you came I would have screamed at the sound of a mouse. If _adn't whistled I would have cried.'
'But why alone and at this hour?'
'I couldn't get off in the day. And it was safest to come alone. You see he i_n love with me, and when he heard I was coming to Douvecourt forgot hi_aution and proposed to meet me here. He said he was going on a long journe_nd wanted to say goodbye. If he had found me alone—well, he would have sai_oodbye. If there had been anyone with me, he would have suspected, and h_ustn't suspect me. Mr Blenkiron says that would be fatal to his great plan.
He believes I am like my aunts, and that I think him an apostle of peac_orking by his own methods against the stupidity and wickedness of all th_overnments. He talks more bitterly about Germany than about England. He ha_old me how he had to disguise himself and play many parts on his mission, an_f course I have applauded him. Oh, I have had a difficult autumn.'
'Mary,' I cried, 'tell me you hate him.'
'No,' she said quietly. 'I do not hate him. I am keeping that for later. _ear him desperately. Some day when we have broken him utterly I will hat_im, and drive all likeness of him out of my memory like an unclean thing. Bu_ill then I won't waste energy on hate. We want to hoard every atom of ou_trength for the work of beating him.'
She had won back her composure, and I turned on my light to look at her. Sh_as in nurses' outdoor uniform, and I thought her eyes seemed tired. Th_riceless gift that had suddenly come to me had driven out all recollection o_y own errand. I thought of Ivery only as a would-be lover of Mary, and forgo_he manufacturer from Lille who had rented his house for the partridge- shooting. 'And you, Dick,' she asked; 'is it part of a general's duties to pa_isits at night to empty houses?'
'I came to look for traces of M. Bommaerts. I, too, got on his track fro_nother angle, but that story must wait.'
'You observe that he has been here today?'
She pointed to some cigarette ash spilled on the table edge, and a space o_ts surface cleared from dust. 'In a place like this the dust would settl_gain in a few hours, and that is quite clean. I should say he has been her_ust after luncheon.'
'Great Scott!' I cried, 'what a close shave! I'm in the mood at this moment t_hoot him at sight. You say you saw him in Paris and knew his lair. Surely yo_ad a good enough case to have him collared.'
She shook her head. 'Mr Blenkiron—he's in Paris too—wouldn't hear of it. H_asn't just figured the thing out yet, he says. We've identified one of you_ames, but we're still in doubt about Chelius.'
'Ah, Chelius! Yes, I see. We must get the whole business complete before w_trike. Has old Blenkiron had any luck?'
'Your guess about the "Deep-breathing" advertisement was very clever, Dick. I_as true, and it may give us Chelius. I must leave Mr Blenkiron to tell yo_ow. But the trouble is this. We know something of the doings of someone wh_ay be Chelius, but we can't link them with Ivery. We know that Ivery i_ommaerts, and our hope is to link Bommaerts with Chelius. That's why I cam_ere. I was trying to burgle this escritoire in an amateur way. It's a ba_iece of fake Empire and deserves smashing.'
I could see that Mary was eager to get my mind back to business, and with som_ifficulty I clambered down from the exultant heights. The intoxication of th_hing was on me—the winter night, the circle of light in that dreary room, th_udden coming together of two souls from the ends of the earth, th_ealization of my wildest hopes, the gilding and glorifying of all the future.
But she had always twice as much wisdom as me, and we were in the midst of _ampaign which had no use for day-dreaming. I turned my attention to the desk.
It was a flat table with drawers, and at the back a half-circle of mor_rawers with a central cupboard. I tilted it up and most of the drawers sli_ut, empty of anything but dust. I forced two open with my knife and they hel_mpty cigar boxes. Only the cupboard remained, and that appeared to be locked.
I wedged a key from my pocket into its keyhole, but the thing would not budge.
'It's no good,' I said. 'He wouldn't leave anything he valued in a place lik_his. That sort of fellow doesn't take risks. If he wanted to hide somethin_here are a hundred holes in this Chateau which would puzzle the bes_etective.'
'Can't you open it?' she asked. 'I've a fancy about that table. He was sittin_ere this afternoon and he may be coming back.'
I solved the problem by turning up the escritoire and putting my knee throug_he cupboard door. Out of it tumbled a little dark-green attache case.
'This is getting solemn,' said Mary. 'Is it locked?'
It was, but I took my knife and cut the lock out and spilled the contents o_he table. There were some papers, a newspaper or two, and a small bag tie_ith black cord. The last I opened, while Mary looked over my shoulder. I_ontained a fine yellowish powder.
'Stand back,' I said harshly. 'For God's sake, stand back and don't breathe.'
With trembling hands I tied up the bag again, rolled it in a newspaper, an_tuffed it into my pocket. For I remembered a day near Peronne when a Boch_lane had come over in the night and had dropped little bags like this.
Happily they were all collected, and the men who found them were wise and too_hem off to the nearest laboratory. They proved to be full of anthrax germs …
I remembered how Eaucourt Sainte-Anne stood at the junction of a dozen road_here all day long troops passed to and from the lines. From such a vantag_round an enemy could wreck the health of an army …
I remembered the woman I had seen in the courtyard of this house in the fogg_usk, and I knew now why she had worn a gas-mask.
This discovery gave me a horrid shock. I was brought down with a crash from m_igh sentiment to something earthly and devilish. I was fairly well used t_oche filthiness, but this seemed too grim a piece of the utterly damnable. _anted to have Ivery by the throat and force the stuff into his body, an_atch him decay slowly into the horror he had contrived for honest men.
'Let's get out of this infernal place,' I said.
But Mary was not listening. She had picked up one of the newspapers and wa_loating over it. I looked and saw that it was open at an advertisement o_eissmann's 'Deep-breathing' system.
'Oh, look, Dick,' she cried breathlessly.
The column of type had little dots made by a red pencil below certain words.
'It's it,' she whispered, 'it's the cipher—I'm almost sure it's the cipher!'
'Well, he'd be likely to know it if anyone did.'
'But don't you see it's the cipher which Chelius uses—the man in Switzerland?
Oh, I can't explain now, for it's very long, but I think—I think—I have foun_ut what we have all been wanting. Chelius … '
'Whisht!' I said. 'What's that?'
There was a queer sound from the out-of-doors as if a sudden wind had risen i_he still night.
'It's only a car on the main road,' said Mary.
'How did you get in?' I asked.
'By the broken window in the next room. I cycled out here one morning, an_alked round the place and found the broken catch.'
'Perhaps it is left open on purpose. That may be the way M. Bommaerts visit_is country home … Let's get off, Mary, for this place has a curse on it. I_eserves fire from heaven.'
I slipped the contents of the attache case into my pockets. 'I'm going t_rive you back,' I said. 'I've got a car out there.'
'Then you must take my bicycle and my servant too. He's an old friend o_ours—one Andrew Amos.'
'Now how on earth did Andrew get over here?'
'He's one of us,' said Mary, laughing at my surprise. 'A most useful member o_ur party, at present disguised as an infirmier in Lady Manorwater's Hospita_t Douvecourt. He is learning French, and … '
'Hush!' I whispered. 'There's someone in the next room.'
I swept her behind a stack of furniture, with my eyes glued on a crack o_ight below the door. The handle turned and the shadows raced before a bi_lectric lamp of the kind they have in stables. I could not see the bearer, but I guessed it was the old woman.
There was a man behind her. A brisk step sounded on the parquet, and a figur_rushed past her. It wore the horizon-blue of a French officer, very smart, with those French riding-boots that show the shape of the leg, and a handsom_ur-lined pelisse. I would have called him a young man, not more than thirty- five. The face was brown and clean-shaven, the eyes bright and masterful … Ye_e did not deceive me. I had not boasted idly to Sir Walter when I said tha_here was one man alive who could never again be mistaken by me.
I had my hand on my pistol, as I motioned Mary farther back into the shadows.
For a second I was about to shoot. I had a perfect mark and could have put _ullet through his brain with utter certitude. I think if I had been alone _ight have fired. Perhaps not. Anyhow now I could not do it. It seemed lik_otting at a sitting rabbit. I was obliged, though he was my worst enemy, t_ive him a chance, while all the while my sober senses kept calling me a fool.
I stepped into the light.
'Hullo, Mr Ivery,' I said. 'This is an odd place to meet again!'
In his amazement he fell back a step, while his hungry eyes took in my face.
There was no mistake about the recognition. I saw something I had seen onc_efore in him, and that was fear. Out went the light and he sprang for th_oor.
I fired in the dark, but the shot must have been too high. In the same instan_ heard him slip on the smooth parquet and the tinkle of glass as the broke_indow swung open. Hastily I reflected that his car must be at the moat end o_he terrace, and that therefore to reach it he must pass outside this ver_oom. Seizing the damaged escritoire, I used it as a ram, and charged th_indow nearest me. The panes and shutters went with a crash, for I had drive_he thing out of its rotten frame. The next second I was on the moonlit snow.
I got a shot at him as he went over the terrace, and again I went wide. _ever was at my best with a pistol. Still I reckoned I had got him, for th_ar which was waiting below must come back by the moat to reach the highroad.
But I had forgotten the great closed park gates. Somehow or other they mus_ave been opened, for as soon as the car started it headed straight for th_rand avenue. I tried a couple of long-range shots after it, and one must hav_amaged either Ivery or his chauffeur, for there came back a cry of pain.
I turned in deep chagrin to find Mary beside me. She was bubbling wit_aughter.
'Were you ever a cinema actor, Dick? The last two minutes have been a reall_igh-class performance. "Featuring Mary Lamington." How does the jargon go?'
'I could have got him when he first entered,' I said ruefully.
'I know,' she said in a graver tone. 'Only of course you couldn't … Besides, Mr Blenkiron doesn't want it—yet.'
She put her hand on my arm. 'Don't worry about it. It wasn't written it shoul_appen that way. It would have been too easy. We have a long road to trave_et before we clip the wings of the Wild Birds.'
'Look,' I cried. 'The fire from heaven!'
Red tongues of flame were shooting up from the out-buildings at the farthe_nd, the place where I had first seen the woman. Some agreed plan must hav_een acted on, and Ivery was destroying all traces of his infamous yello_owder. Even now the concierge with her odds and ends of belongings would b_lipping out to some refuge in the village.
In the still dry night the flames rose, for the place must have been mad_eady for a rapid burning. As I hurried Mary round the moat I could see tha_art of the main building had caught fire. The hamlet was awakened, and befor_e reached the corner of the highroad sleepy British soldiers were hurryin_owards the scene, and the Town Major was mustering the fire brigade. I kne_hat Ivery had laid his plans well, and that they hadn't a chance—that lon_efore dawn the Chateau of Eaucourt Sainte-Anne would be a heap of ashes an_hat in a day or two the lawyers of the aged Marquise at Biarritz would b_rangling with the insurance company.
At the corner stood Amos beside two bicycles, solid as a graven image. H_ecognized me with a gap-toothed grin.
'It's a cauld night, General, but the home fires keep burnin'. I havena see_uch a cheery lowe since Dickson's mill at Gawly.'
We packed, bicycles and all, into my car with Amos wedged in the narrow sea_eside Hamilton. Recognizing a fellow countryman, he gave thanks for the lif_n the broadest Doric. 'For,' said he, 'I'm not what you would call _ractised hand wi' a velocipede, and my feet are dinnled wi' standin' in th_naw.'
As for me, the miles to Douvecourt passed as in a blissful moment of time. _rapped Mary in a fur rug, and after that we did not speak a word. I had com_uddenly into a great possession and was dazed with the joy of it.