'Drive me somewhere to breakfast, Archie,' I said, 'for I'm perishing hungry.'
He and I got into the tonneau, and the driver swung us out of the station roa_p a long incline of hill. Sir Archie had been one of my subalterns in the ol_ennox Highlanders, and had left us before the Somme to join the Flying Corps.
I had heard that he had got his wings and had done well before Arras, and wa_ow training pilots at home. He had been a light-hearted youth, who ha_ndured a good deal of rough-tonguing from me for his sins of omission. But i_as the casual class of lad I was looking for now.
I saw him steal amused glances at my appearance.
'Been seein' a bit of life, sir?' he inquired respectfully.
'I'm being hunted by the police,' I said.
'Dirty dogs! But don't worry, sir; we'll get you off all right. I've been i_he same fix myself. You can lie snug in my little log hut, for that old imag_ibbons won't blab. Or, tell you what, I've got an aunt who lives near her_nd she's a bit of a sportsman. You can hide in her moated grange till th_obbies get tired.'
I think it was Archie's calm acceptance of my position as natural and becomin_hat restored my good temper. He was far too well bred to ask what crime I ha_ommitted, and I didn't propose to enlighten him much. But as we swung up th_oorland road I let him know that I was serving the Government, but that i_as necessary that I should appear to be unauthenticated and that therefore _ust dodge the police. He whistled his appreciation.
'Gad, that's a deep game. Sort of camouflage? Speaking from my experience i_s easy to overdo that kind of stunt. When I was at Misieux the French starte_ut to camouflage the caravans where they keep their pigeons, and they did i_o damned well that the poor little birds couldn't hit 'em off, and spent th_ight out.'
We entered the white gates of a big aerodrome, skirted a forest of tents an_uts, and drew up at a shanty on the far confines of the place. The hour wa_alf past four, and the world was still asleep. Archie nodded towards one o_he hangars, from the mouth of which projected the propeller end of a_eroplane.
'I'm by way of flyin' that bus down to Farnton tomorrow,' he remarked. 'It'_he new Shark-Gladas. Got a mouth like a tree.'
An idea flashed into my mind.
'You're going this morning,' I said.
'How did you know?' he exclaimed. 'I'm due to go today, but the grouse up i_aithness wanted shootin' so badly that I decided to wangle another day'_eave. They can't expect a man to start for the south of England when he'_ust off a frowsy journey.'
'All the same you're going to be a stout fellow and start in two hours' time.
And you're going to take me with you.'
He stared blankly, and then burst into a roar of laughter. 'You're the man t_o tiger-shootin' with. But what price my commandant? He's not a bad chap, bu_ trifle shaggy about the fetlocks. He won't appreciate the joke.'
'He needn't know. He mustn't know. This is an affair between you and me til_t's finished. I promise you I'll make it all square with the Flying Corps.
Get me down to Farnton before evening, and you'll have done a good piece o_ork for the country.'
'Right-o! Let's have a tub and a bit of breakfast, and then I'm your man. I'l_ell them to get the bus ready.'
In Archie's bedroom I washed and shaved and borrowed a green tweed cap and _rand-new Aquascutum. The latter covered the deficiencies of my raiment, an_hen I commandeered a pair of gloves I felt almost respectable. Gibbons, wh_eemed to be a jack-of-all-trades, cooked us some bacon and an omelette, an_s he ate Archie yarned. In the battalion his conversation had been mostly o_ace-meetings and the forsaken delights of town, but now he had forgotten al_hat, and, like every good airman I have ever known, wallowed enthusiasticall_n 'shop'. I have a deep respect for the Flying Corps, but it is apt to chang_ts jargon every month, and its conversation is hard for the layman to follow.
He was desperately keen about the war, which he saw wholly from the viewpoin_f the air. Arras to him was over before the infantry crossed the top, and th_ough bit of the Somme was October, not September. He calculated that the bi_ir-fighting had not come along yet, and all he hoped for was to be allowe_ut to France to have his share in it. Like all good airmen, too, he was ver_odest about himself. 'I've done a bit of steeple-chasin' and huntin' and I'v_ood hands for a horse, so I can handle a bus fairly well. It's all a matte_f hands, you know. There ain't half the risk of the infantry down below you, and a million times the fun. Jolly glad I changed, sir.'
We talked of Peter, and he put him about top. Voss, he thought, was the onl_oche that could compare with him, for he hadn't made up his mind abou_ensch. The Frenchman Guynemer he ranked high, but in a different way. _emember he had no respect for Richthofen and his celebrated circus.
At six sharp we were ready to go. A couple of mechanics had got out th_achine, and Archie put on his coat and gloves and climbed into the pilot'_eat, while I squeezed in behind in the observer's place. The aerodrome wa_aking up, but I saw no officers about. We were scarcely seated when Gibbon_alled our attention to a motor-car on the road, and presently we heard _hout and saw men waving in our direction.
'Better get off, my lad,' I said. 'These look like my friends.'
The engine started and the mechanics stood clear. As we taxied over the turf _ooked back and saw several figures running in our direction. The next secon_e had left the bumpy earth for the smooth highroad of the air.
I had flown several dozen times before, generally over the enemy lines when _anted to see for myself how the land lay. Then we had flown low, and bee_icely dusted by the Hun Archies, not to speak of an occasional machine-gun.
But never till that hour had I realized the joy of a straight flight in _wift plane in perfect weather. Archie didn't lose time. Soon the hangar_ehind looked like a child's toys, and the world ran away from us till i_eemed like a great golden bowl spilling over with the quintessence of light.
The air was cold and my hands numbed, but I never felt them. As we throbbe_nd tore southward, sometimes bumping in eddies, sometimes swimming evenly i_ stream of motionless ether, my head and heart grew as light as a boy's. _orgot all about the vexations of my job and saw only its joyful comedy. _idn't think that anything on earth could worry me again. Far to the left wa_ wedge of silver and beside it a cluster of toy houses. That must b_dinburgh, where reposed my portmanteau, and where a most efficient polic_orce was now inquiring for me. At the thought I laughed so loud that Archi_ust have heard me. He turned round, saw my grinning face, and grinned back.
Then he signalled to me to strap myself in. I obeyed, and he proceeded t_ractise 'stunts'—the loop, the spinning nose-dive, and others I didn't kno_he names of. It was glorious fun, and he handled his machine as a good ride_oaxes a nervous horse over a stiff hurdle. He had that extra something in hi_lood that makes the great pilot.
Presently the chessboard of green and brown had changed to a deep purple wit_aint silvery lines like veins in a rock. We were crossing the Border hills, the place where I had legged it for weary days when I was mixed up in th_lack Stone business. What a marvellous element was this air, which took on_ar above the fatigues of humanity! Archie had done well to change. Peter ha_een the wise man. I felt a tremendous pity for my old friend hobbling about _erman prison-yard, when he had once flown a hawk. I reflected that I ha_asted my life hitherto. And then I remembered that all this glory had onl_ne use in war and that was to help the muddy British infantryman to down hi_un opponent. He was the fellow, after all, that decided battles, and th_hought comforted me.
A great exhilaration is often the precursor of disaster, and mine was to hav_ sudden downfall. It was getting on for noon and we were well into England—_uessed from the rivers we had passed that we were somewhere in the north o_orkshire—when the machine began to make odd sounds, and we bumped i_erfectly calm patches of air. We dived and then climbed, but the confounde_hing kept sputtering. Archie passed back a slip of paper on which he ha_cribbled: 'Engine conked. Must land at Micklegill. Very sorry.' So we droppe_o a lower elevation where we could see clearly the houses and roads and th_ong swelling ridges of a moorland country. I could never have found my wa_bout, but Archie's practised eye knew every landmark. We were trundling alon_ery slowly now, and even I was soon able to pick up the hangars of a bi_erodrome.
We made Micklegill, but only by the skin of our teeth. We were so low that th_moky chimneys of the city of Bradfield seven miles to the east were hal_idden by a ridge of down. Archie achieved a clever descent in the lee of _elt of firs, and got out full of imprecations against the Gladas engine.
'I'll go up to the camp and report,' he said, 'and send mechanics down t_inker this darned gramophone. You'd better go for a walk, sir. I don't wan_o answer questions about you till we're ready to start. I reckon it'll be a_our's job.'
The cheerfulness I had acquired in the upper air still filled me. I sat dow_n a ditch, as merry as a sand-boy, and lit a pipe. I was possessed by _oyish spirit of casual adventure, and waited on the next turn of fortune'_heel with only a pleasant amusement.
That turn was not long in coming. Archie appeared very breathless.
'Look here, sir, there's the deuce of a row up there. They've been wirin'
about you all over the country, and they know you're with me. They've got th_olice, and they'll have you in five minutes if you don't leg it. I lied lik_illy-o and said I had never heard of you, but they're comin' to see fo_hemselves. For God's sake get off … You'd better keep in cover down tha_ollow and round the back of these trees. I'll stay here and try to brazen i_ut. I'll get strafed to blazes anyhow … I hope you'll get me out of th_crape, sir.'
'Don't you worry, my lad,' I said. 'I'll make it all square when I get back t_own. I'll make for Bradfield, for this place is a bit conspicuous. Goodbye, Archie. You're a good chap and I'll see you don't suffer.'
I started off down the hollow of the moor, trying to make speed atone for lac_f strategy, for it was hard to know how much my pursuers commanded from tha_igher ground. They must have seen me, for I heard whistles blown and men'_ries. I struck a road, crossed it, and passed a ridge from which I had a vie_f Bradfield six miles off. And as I ran I began to reflect that this kind o_hase could not last long. They were bound to round me up in the next half- hour unless I could puzzle them. But in that bare green place there was n_over, and it looked as if my chances were pretty much those of a hare course_y a good greyhound on a naked moor.
Suddenly from just in front of me came a familiar sound. It was the roar o_uns—the slam of field-batteries and the boom of small howitzers. I wondere_f I had gone off my head. As I plodded on the rattle of machine-guns wa_dded, and over the ridge before me I saw the dust and fumes of burstin_hells. I concluded that I was not mad, and that therefore the Germans mus_ave landed. I crawled up the last slope, quite forgetting the pursuit behin_e.
And then I'm blessed if I did not look down on a veritable battle.
There were two sets of trenches with barbed wire and all the fixings, one se_illed with troops and the other empty. On these latter shells were bursting, but there was no sign of life in them. In the other lines there seemed th_etter part of two brigades, and the first trench was stiff with bayonets. M_irst thought was that Home Forces had gone dotty, for this kind of show coul_ave no sort of training value. And then I saw other things—cameras an_amera-men on platforms on the flanks, and men with megaphones behind them o_ooden scaffoldings. One of the megaphones was going full blast all the time.
I saw the meaning of the performance at last. Some movie-merchant had got _raft with the Government, and troops had been turned out to make a war film.
It occurred to me that if I were mixed up in that push I might get the cover _as looking for. I scurried down the hill to the nearest camera-man.
As I ran, the first wave of troops went over the top. They did it uncommo_ell, for they entered into the spirit of the thing, and went over with gri_aces and that slow, purposeful lope that I had seen in my own fellows a_rras. Smoke grenades burst among them, and now and then some resourcefu_ountebank would roll over. Altogether it was about the best show I have eve_een. The cameras clicked, the guns banged, a background of boy scout_pplauded, and the dust rose in billows to the sky.
But all the same something was wrong. I could imagine that this kind o_usiness took a good deal of planning from the point of view of the movie- merchant, for his purpose was not the same as that of the officer in command.
You know how a photographer finicks about and is dissatisfied with a pose tha_eems all right to his sitter. I should have thought the spectacle enough t_et any cinema audience off their feet, but the man on the scaffolding near m_udged differently. He made his megaphone boom like the swan-song of a dyin_uffalo. He wanted to change something and didn't know how to do it. He hoppe_n one leg; he took the megaphone from his mouth to curse; he waved it like _anner and yelled at some opposite number on the other flank. And then hi_atience forsook him and he skipped down the ladder, dropping his megaphone, past the camera-men, on to the battlefield.
That was his undoing. He got in the way of the second wave and was swallowe_p like a leaf in a torrent. For a moment I saw a red face and a loud-checke_uit, and the rest was silence. He was carried on over the hill, or rolle_nto an enemy trench, but anyhow he was lost to my ken.
I bagged his megaphone and hopped up the steps to the platform. At last I sa_ chance of first-class cover, for with Archie's coat and cap I made a ver_ood appearance as a movie-merchant. Two waves had gone over the top, and th_inema-men, working like beavers, had filmed the lot. But there was still _air amount of troops to play with, and I determined to tangle up that outfi_o that the fellows who were after me would have better things to think about.
My advantage was that I knew how to command men. I could see that my opposit_umber with the megaphone was helpless, for the mistake which had swept my ma_nto a shell-hole had reduced him to impotence. The troops seemed to be mainl_n charge of N.C.O.s (I could imagine that the officers would try to shir_his business), and an N.C.O. is the most literal creature on earth. So wit_y megaphone I proceeded to change the battle order.
I brought up the third wave to the front trenches. In about three minutes th_en had recognized the professional touch and were moving smartly to m_rders. They thought it was part of the show, and the obedient cameras clicke_t everything that came into their orbit. My aim was to deploy the troops o_oo narrow a front so that they were bound to fan outward, and I had to b_uick about it, for I didn't know when the hapless movie-merchant might b_etrieved from the battle-field and dispute my authority.
It takes a long time to straighten a thing out, but it does not take long t_angle it, especially when the thing is so delicate a machine as discipline_roops. In about eight minutes I had produced chaos. The flanks spread out, i_pite of all the shepherding of the N.C.O.s, and the fringe engulfed th_hotographers. The cameras on their little platforms went down like ninepins.
It was solemn to see the startled face of a photographer, taken unawares, supplicating the purposeful infantry, before he was swept off his feet int_peechlessness.
It was no place for me to linger in, so I chucked away the megaphone and go_ixed up with the tail of the third wave. I was swept on and came to anchor i_he enemy trenches, where I found, as I expected, my profane and breathles_redecessor, the movie-merchant. I had nothing to say to him, so I stuck t_he trench till it ended against the slope of the hill.
On that flank, delirious with excitement, stood a knot of boy scouts. M_usiness was to get to Bradfield as quick as my legs would take me, and a_nconspicuously as the gods would permit. Unhappily I was far too great a_bject of interest to that nursery of heroes. Every boy scout is an amateu_etective and hungry for knowledge. I was followed by several, who plied m_ith questions, and were told that I was off to Bradfield to hurry up part o_he cinema outfit. It sounded lame enough, for that cinema outfit was alread_ast praying for.
We reached the road and against a stone wall stood several bicycles. _elected one and prepared to mount.
'That's Mr Emmott's machine,' said one boy sharply. 'He told me to keep an ey_n it.'
'I must borrow it, sonny,' I said. 'Mr Emmott's my very good friend and won'_bject.'
From the place where we stood I overlooked the back of the battle-field an_ould see an anxious congress of officers. I could see others, too, whos_ppearance I did not like. They had not been there when I operated on th_egaphone. They must have come downhill from the aerodrome and in al_ikelihood were the pursuers I had avoided. The exhilaration which I had wo_n the air and which had carried me into the tomfoolery of the past half-hou_as ebbing. I had the hunted feeling once more, and grew middle-aged an_autious. I had a baddish record for the day, what with getting Archie into _crape and busting up an official cinema show—neither consistent with th_uties of a brigadier-general. Besides, I had still to get to London.
I had not gone two hundred yards down the road when a boy scout, pedallin_uriously, came up abreast me.
'Colonel Edgeworth wants to see you,' he panted. 'You're to come back a_nce.'
'Tell him I can't wait now,' I said. 'I'll pay my respects to him in an hour.'
'He said you were to come at once,' said the faithful messenger. 'He's in a_wful temper with you, and he's got bobbies with him.'
I put on pace and left the boy behind. I reckoned I had the better part of tw_iles' start and could beat anything except petrol. But my enemies were boun_o have cars, so I had better get off the road as soon as possible. I coaste_own a long hill to a bridge which spanned a small discoloured stream tha_lowed in a wooded glen. There was nobody for the moment on the hill behin_e, so I slipped into the covert, shoved the bicycle under the bridge, and hi_rchie's aquascutum in a bramble thicket. I was now in my own disreputabl_weeds and I hoped that the shedding of my most conspicuous garment woul_uzzle my pursuers if they should catch up with me.
But this I was determined they should not do. I made good going down tha_tream and out into a lane which led from the downs to the market-garden_ound the city. I thanked Heaven I had got rid of the aquascutum, for th_ugust afternoon was warm and my pace was not leisurely. When I was i_ecluded ground I ran, and when anyone was in sight I walked smartly.
As I went I reflected that Bradfield would see the end of my adventures. Th_olice knew that I was there and would watch the stations and hunt me down i_ lingered in the place. I knew no one there and had no chance of getting a_ffective disguise. Indeed I very soon began to wonder if I should get even a_ar as the streets. For at the moment when I had got a lift on the back of _ishmonger's cart and was screened by its flapping canvas, two figures passe_n motor-bicycles, and one of them was the inquisitive boy scout. The mai_oad from the aerodrome was probably now being patrolled by motor-cars. I_ooked as if there would be a degrading arrest in one of the suburbs.
The fish-cart, helped by half a crown to the driver, took me past the outlyin_mall-villadom, between long lines of workmen's houses, to narrow cobble_anes and the purlieus of great factories. As soon as I saw the streets wel_rowded I got out and walked. In my old clothes I must have appeared like som_econd-class bookie or seedy horse-coper. The only respectable thing I ha_bout me was my gold watch. I looked at the time and found it half past five.
I wanted food and was casting about for an eating-house when I heard the pur_f a motor-cycle and across the road saw the intelligent boy scout. He saw me, too, and put on the brake with a sharpness which caused him to skid and al_ut come to grief under the wheels of a wool-wagon. That gave me time t_fface myself by darting up a side street. I had an unpleasant sense that _as about to be trapped, for in a place I knew nothing of I had not a chanc_o use my wits.
I remember trying feverishly to think, and I suppose that my preoccupatio_ade me careless. I was now in a veritable slum, and when I put my hand to m_est pocket I found that my watch had gone. That put the top stone on m_epression. The reaction from the wild burnout of the forenoon had left m_ery cold about the feet. I was getting into the under-world again and ther_as no chance of a second Archie Roylance turning up to rescue me. I remembe_et the sour smell of the factories and the mist of smoke in the evening air.
It is a smell I have never met since without a sort of dulling of spirit.
Presently I came out into a market-place. Whistles were blowing, and there wa_ great hurrying of people back from the mills. The crowd gave me a momentar_ense of security, and I was just about to inquire my way to the railwa_tation when someone jostled my arm.
A rough-looking fellow in mechanic's clothes was beside me.
'Mate,' he whispered. 'I've got summat o' yours here.' And to my amazement h_lipped my watch into my hand.
'It was took by mistake. We're friends o' yours. You're right enough if you d_hat I tell you. There's a peeler over there got his eye on you. Follow me an_'ll get you off.'
I didn't much like the man's looks, but I had no choice, and anyhow he ha_iven me back my watch. He sidled into an alley between tall houses and _idled after him. Then he took to his heels, and led me a twisting cours_hrough smelly courts into a tanyard and then by a narrow lane to the back- quarters of a factory. Twice we doubled back, and once we climbed a wall an_ollowed the bank of a blue-black stream with a filthy scum on it. Then we go_nto a very mean quarter of the town, and emerged in a dingy garden, strew_ith tin cans and broken flowerpots. By a back door we entered one of th_ottages and my guide very carefully locked it behind him.
He lit the gas and drew the blinds in a small parlour and looked at me lon_nd quizzically. He spoke now in an educated voice.
'I ask no questions,' he said, 'but it's my business to put my services a_our disposal. You carry the passport.'
I stared at him, and he pulled out his watch and showed a white- and-purpl_ross inside the lid.
'I don't defend all the people we employ,' he said, grinning. 'Men's moral_re not always as good as their patriotism. One of them pinched your watch, and when he saw what was inside it he reported to me. We soon picked up you_rail, and observed you were in a bit of trouble. As I say, I ask n_uestions. What can we do for you?'
'I want to get to London without any questions asked. They're looking for m_n my present rig, so I've got to change it.'
'That's easy enough,' he said. 'Make yourself comfortable for a little an_'ll fix you up. The night train goes at eleven-thirty… . You'll find cigar_n the cupboard and there's this week's Critic on that table. It's got a goo_rticle on Conrad, if you care for such things.'
I helped myself to a cigar and spent a profitable half-hour reading about th_ices of the British Government. Then my host returned and bade me ascend t_is bedroom. 'You're Private Henry Tomkins of the 12th Gloucesters, and you'l_ind your clothes ready for you. I'll send on your present togs if you give m_n address.'
I did as I was bid, and presently emerged in the uniform of a British private, complete down to the shapeless boots and the dropsical puttees. Then my frien_ook me in hand and finished the transformation. He started on my hair wit_cissors and arranged a lock which, when well oiled, curled over my forehead.
My hands were hard and rough and only needed some grubbiness and hacking abou_he nails to pass muster. With my cap on the side of my head, a pack on m_ack, a service rifle in my hands, and my pockets bursting with penny pictur_apers, I was the very model of the British soldier returning from leave. _ad also a packet of Woodbine cigarettes and a hunch of bread-and-cheese fo_he journey. And I had a railway warrant made out in my name for London.
Then my friend gave me supper—bread and cold meat and a bottle of Bass, whic_ wolfed savagely, for I had had nothing since breakfast. He was a curiou_ellow, as discreet as a tombstone, very ready to speak about genera_ubjects, but never once coming near the intimate business which had linke_im and me and Heaven knew how many others by means of a little purple-and- white cross in a watch-case. I remember we talked about the topics that use_o be popular at Biggleswick—the big political things that begin with capita_etters. He took Amos's view of the soundness of the British working-man, bu_e said something which made me think. He was convinced that there was _remendous lot of German spy work about, and that most of the practitioner_ere innocent. 'The ordinary Briton doesn't run to treason, but he's not ver_right. A clever man in that kind of game can make better use of a fool than _ogue.'
As he saw me off he gave me a piece of advice. 'Get out of these clothes a_oon as you reach London. Private Tomkins will frank you out of Bradfield, bu_t mightn't be a healthy alias in the metropolis.'
At eleven-thirty I was safe in the train, talking the jargon of the returnin_oldier with half a dozen of my own type in a smoky third-class carriage. _ad been lucky in my escape, for at the station entrance and on the platform _ad noticed several men with the unmistakable look of plainclothes police.
Also—though this may have been my fancy—I thought I caught in the crowd _limpse of the bagman who had called himself Linklater.