Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 2 The Adventure of the Picardy Chateau

  • 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.