The Summons (novel)/VIII
At Khartum, however, disappointment awaited him. He was received without excitement by a young aide-de-camp at the Palace.
"I heard that you had come in last night. A good trip? Dine with me to-night and you shall show me your heads. The Governor-General's in England."
"There's a telegram."
"Oh yes. It came up to us from Cairo. Some one wanted to know where you were. They'll know about it at Cairo. We just pushed it along, you know," said the aide-de-camp. He dined with Hillyard, admired his heads, arranged for his sleeping compartment, and assured him that the execution had gone off "very nicely" at Senga.
"Luttrell made a palaver, and his patent drop worked as well as anything in Pentonville, and every one went home cheered up and comfortable. Luttrell's a good man."
Thus Hillyard took the train to Wadi Haifa in a chastened mood. Obviously the message was of very little, if indeed of any, importance. A man can hardly swing up to extravagant hopes without dropping to sarcastic self-reproaches on his flightiness and vanity. He was not aware that the young aide-de-camp pushed aside some pressing work to make sure that he did go on the train; or that when the last carriage disappeared towards the great bridge, the aide-de-camp cried, "Well, that's that," like a man who has discharged one task at all events of the many left to his supervision.
One consequence of Hillyard's new humility was that he now loitered on his journey. He stayed a few days at Assouan and yet another few in Luxor, in spite of the heat, and reached Cairo in the beginning of June when the streets were thick with dust-storms and the Government had moved to Alexandria. Hillyard was in two minds whether to go straight home, but in the end he wandered down to the summer seat of government.
If Khartum had been chilly to the enthusiast, Alexandria was chillier. It was civil and polite to Hillyard and made him a member of the Club. But it was concerned with the government of Egypt, and gently allowed Hillyard to perceive it. Khartum had at all events stated "There is a cablegram." At Alexandria the statement became a question: "Is there a cablegram?" In the end a weary and indifferent gentleman unearthed it. He did not show it to Hillyard, but held it in his hand and looked over the top of it and across a roll-top desk at the inquirer.
"Yes, yes. This seems to be what you are asking about. It is for us, you know"—this with a patient smile as Hillyard's impatient hand reached out for it. "Do you know a man called Bendish—Paul Bendish?"
"Bendish?" cried Hillyard. "He was my tutor at Oxford."
"Ah! Then it does clearly refer to you. Bendish has a friend who needs your help in London."
"Do you mean to say that I was sent for from the borders of Abyssinia because Bendish has a friend in London who wants my help?"
The indifferent gentleman stroked his chin.
"It certainly looks like it, doesn't it? But I do hope that you didn't cut your expedition short on that account." He looked remorsefully into Hillyard's face. "In any case, the rainy season was coming on, wasn't it?"
"Yes, my expedition was really ended when the message reached me," Hillyard was forced to admit.
"That's good," said the indifferent gentleman, brightening. "You will see Bendish, of course, in England. By what ship do you sail? It's not very pleasant here, is it?"
"I shall sail on the Himalaya in a week's time."
"Right!" said the official, and he nodded farewell and dipped his nose once more into his papers.
Hillyard walked to the door, conscious that he looked the fool he felt himself to be. But at the door he turned in a sort of exasperation.
"Can't you tell me at all why Bendish's friend wants my help?" he asked.
It was at this moment that the indifferent gentleman had the inspiration of his life.
"I haven't an idea, Mr. Hillyard," he replied. "Perhaps he has got into difficulties in the writing of a revue."
The answer certainly drove Hillyard from the room without another word. He stood outside the door purple with heat and indignation. Hillyard neither overrated nor decried his work. But to be dragged away from the buffalo and the reed-buck of the Dinder River in order to be told that he was a writer of revues. No! That was carrying a bad joke too far.
Hillyard stalked haughtily along the corridor towards the outer door, but not so fast but that a youth passed him with a sheet of paper in his hand. The youth went into the room where Government cablegrams were coded. The sheet of paper which he held in his hand was inscribed with a message that Martin Hillyard would leave Alexandria in a week's time on the s.s. Himalaya. And the message strangely enough was not addressed to Paul Bendish at all. It was headed, "For Commodore Graham. Admiralty." The great Summons had in fact come, although Hillyard knew it not.
He travelled in consequence leisurely by sea. He started from Alexandria after half the month of June had gone, and he was thus in the Bay of Biscay on that historic morning of June the twenty-eighth, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered in the streets of Saravejo. London, when he reached it, was a choir of a million voices not yet tuned to the ringing note of one. It was incredible that the storm, foreseen so often over the port wine, should really be bursting at last. Mediation will find a way. Not this time; the moment has been chosen. And what will England do? Ride safe in the calm centre of the hurricane? No ship ever did, and England won't.
A few degenerate ones threw up their hands and cried that all was over—they knew.
Of these a gaunt-visaged man, stubborn and stupid and two generations back a German, held forth in the hall of Hillyard's club.
"German organisation, German thoroughness and German brains—we are no match for them. The country's thick with spies—wonderful men. Where shall we find their equals?"
A sailor slipped across the hall and dropped into a chair by Hillyard's side.
"You take no part in these discussions? The crackling of thorns—what?"
"I have been a long time away."
"Thought so," continued the sailor. "A man was inquiring for you yesterday—a man of the name of Graham."
Hillyard shook his head.
"I don't know him."
"No, but he is a friend of a friend of yours."
Hillyard sat up in his chair. He had been four days in London, and the engrossing menace of those days had quite thrust from his recollections the telegram which had, as he thought, befooled him.
"The friend of mine is possibly Paul Bendish," he said stiffly.
"Think that was the name. Graham's the man I am speaking of," and the sailor paused. "Commodore Graham," he added.
Hillyard's indignation ebbed away. What if he had not been fooled? The quenched hopes kindled again in him. There was all this talk of war—alarums and excursions as the stage-directions had it. Service! Suddenly he realised that ever since he had left Senga, a vague envy of Harry Luttrell had been springing up in his heart. The ordered life of service—authority on the one hand, the due execution of details on the other! Was it to that glorious end in this crisis that all his life's experience had slowly been gathering? He looked keenly at his companion. Was it just by chance that he had crossed the hall in the midst of all this thistle-down discussion and dropped in the chair by his side?
"But what could I do?"
He spoke aloud, but he was putting the question to himself. The sailor, however, answered it.
He wrote an address upon a sheet of notepaper and handed it to Hillyard. Then he looked at the clock which marked ten minutes past three.
"You will find him there now."
The sailor went after his cap and left the club. Hillyard read the address. It was a number in a little street of the Adelphi, and as he read it, suspicion again seized upon Hillyard. After all, why should a Commodore want to see him in a little street of the Adelphi. Perhaps, after all, the indifferent official of Alexandria was right and the Commodore had ambitions in the line of revues!
"I had better go and have it out with him," he decided, and, taking his hat and stick, he walked eastwards to Charing Cross. He turned into a short street. At the bottom a stone arch showed where once the Thames had lapped. Now, beyond its grey-white curve, were glimpses of green lawns and the cries of children at their play. Hillyard stopped at a house by the side of the arch. A row of brass plates confronted him, but the name of Commodore Graham was engraved on none of them. Hillyard rang the housekeeper's bell and inquired.
"On the top floor on the left," he was told.
He climbed many little flights of stairs, and at the top of each his heart sank a little lower. When the stairs ended he confronted a mean, brown-varnished door; and he almost turned and fled. After all, the monstrous thing looked possible. He stood upon the threshold of a set of chambers. Was he really to be asked to collaborate in a revue? He rang the bell, and a young woman opened the door and barred the way.
"Whom do you wish to see?" she asked.
"Commodore Graham?" she repeated with an air of perplexity, as though this was the first time she had ever heard the name.
Across her shoulder Hillyard looked into a broad room, where three other girls sat at desks, and against one wall stood a great bureau with many tiny drawers like pigeon-holes. Several of these drawers stood open and disclosed cards standing on their edges and packed against each other. Hillyard's hopes revived. Not for nothing had he sat from seven to ten in the office of a shipping agent at Alicante. Here was a card-index, and of an amazing volume. But his interlocutor still barred the way.
"Have you an appointment with Commodore Graham?" she asked, still with that suggestion that he had lunched too well and had lost his way.
"No. But he sent for me across half the world."
The girl raised a pair of steady grey eyes to his.
"Will you write your name here?"
She allowed him to pass and showed him some slips of paper on a table in the middle of the room. Hillyard obeyed, and waited, and in a few moments she returned, and opened a door, crossed a tiny ante-room and knocked again. Hillyard entered a room which surprised him, so greatly did its size and the wide outlook from its windows contrast with the dinginess of its approach. A thin man with the face of a French abbe sat indolently twiddling his thumbs by the side of a big bureau.
"You wanted to see me?"
Commodore Graham nodded to the girl, and Hillyard heard the door close behind him.
"Won't you sit down? There are cigarettes beside you. A match? Here is one. I hope that I didn't bring you home before your time."
"The season had ended," replied Hillyard, who was in no mood to commit himself. "In what way can I help you?"
"Bendish tells me that you know something of Spain."
"Spain?" cried Hillyard in surprise. "Spain means Madrid, Bilbao, and a host of places, and a host of people, politicians, merchants, farmers. What should I know of them?"
"You were in Spain for some years."
"Three," replied Hillyard, "and for most of the three years picking up a living along the quays. Oh, it's not so difficult in Spain, especially in summer time. Looking after a felucca while the crew drank in a cafe, holding on to a dinghy from a yacht and helping the ladies to step out, a little fishing here, smuggling a box of cigars past the customs officer there—oh, it wasn't so difficult. You can sleep out in comfort. I used to enjoy it. There was a coil of rope on the quay at Tarragona; it made a fine bed. Lord, I can feel it now, all round me as I curled up in it, and the stars overhead, seen out of a barrel, so to speak!"
Hillyard's face changed. He had the spark of the true wanderer within him. Even recollections of days long gone could blow it into clear, red flame. All the long glowing days on the hot stones of the water-side, the glitter of the Mediterranean purple-blue under the sun, the coming of night and the sudden twinkling of lights in the cave-dwellings above Almeria and across the bay from Aguilas, the plunge into the warm sea at midnight, the glorious evenings at water-side cafes when he had half a dozen coppers in his pocket; the good nature of the people! All these recollections swept back on him in a rush. The actual hardships, the hunger, the biting winds of January under a steel-cold sky, these things were all forgotten. He remembered the freedom.
"There weren't any hours to the day," he cried, and spoke the creed of all the wanderers in the world. "I saw the finest bull-fights in the world, and made money out of them by selling dulces and membrilla and almond rock from Alicante. Oh, the life wasn't so bad. But it came to an end. A shipping agent at Alicante used me as a messenger, and finally, since I knew English and no one else in his office did, turned me into a shipping clerk."
Hillyard had quite forgotten Commodore Graham, who sat patiently twiddling his thumbs throughout the autobiography, and now came with something of a start to a recognition of where he sat. He sprang up and reached for his hat.
"So, you see, you might as well ask a Chinaman at Stepney what he knows of England as ask me what I know of Spain. I am just wasting your time. But I have to thank you," and he bowed with a winning pleasantness, "for reviving in me some very happy recollections which were growing dim."
The Commodore, however, did not stir.
"But it is possible," he said quietly, "that you do know the very places which interest me—the people too."
Hillyard looked at the Commodore. He put down his hat and resumed his seat.
"Islands sixty miles from Valencia."
"With a lighthouse," interrupted Graham.
"And a little tumble-down inn with a vine for an awning."
"Oh! I didn't know there was an inn," said Graham. "Already you have told me something."
"I fished round the Columbretes all one summer," said Hillyard, with a laugh.
Graham nodded two or three times quickly.
"And the Balearics?"
"I worked on one of Island Line ships between Barcelona and Palma through a winter."
"There's a big wireless," said Commodore Graham.
"At Soller. On the other side of Mallorca from Palma. You cross a wonderful pass by the old monastery where Georges Sand and Chopin stayed and quarrelled."
The literary reminiscence left Commodore Graham unmoved.
"Did you ever go to Iviza?"
"For a month with a tourist who dug for ancient pottery."
Graham swung round to his bureau and drummed with the tips of his fingers upon the leather pad. He made no sign which could indicate whether he was satisfied or no. He lit a cigarette and handed the box to Hillyard.
"Did you ever come across a man called José Medina?"
Eleven years had passed since the strange days in Spain, and those eleven years not without their sharp contrasts and full hours. Hillyard's act of memory was the making of a picture. One by one he called up the chain of coast cities wherein he had wandered. Malaga, with its brown cathedral; Almeria and its ancient castle and bright blue-painted houses glowing against the brown and barren hills; Aguilas, with its islets; Cartagena, Gandia, Alicante of the palms; Valencia—and under the trees and on the quays, the boatmen and the captains and the resplendent officials whom he had known! They took shape before him and assumed their names. He dived amongst them for one José Medina.
"Yes," he replied at last, "there was a José Medina. He was a young peasant of Mallorca. He always said jo for yo."
Graham's eyes brightened and his lips twitched to a smile. He glanced aside to his bureau, whereon lay a letter written by Paul Bendish at Oxford.
"He probably has a larger acquaintance with the queer birds of the Mediterranean ports than any one else in England. But he does not seem to be aware of it. But if you persist in sitting quiet his knowledge will trickle out."
Commodore Graham persisted, and facts concerning José Medina began to trickle out. José's father had left him, the result of a Spanish peasant's thrift, a couple of thousand pesetas. With this José Medina had gone to Gibraltar, where he bought a felucca, with a native of Gibraltar as its nominal owner; so that José Medina might fly the flag of Britain and sleep more surely for its protection. At Gibraltar, with what was left of his two thousand pesetas and the credit which his manner gained him, he secured a cargo of tobacco.
"Gibraltar's a free port, you see," said Hillyard. "José ran the cargo along the coast to Benicassim, a little watering-place with a good beach about thirty kilometres east of Valencia. He ran the felucca ashore one dark night." Suddenly he stopped and smiled to himself. "I expect José Medina's in prison now."
"On the contrary," said Graham, "he's a millionaire."
Hillyard stared. Then he laughed.
"Well, those were the two alternatives for José Medina. But I am judging by one night's experience. I never saw him again."
Commodore Graham touched with his heel a bell by the leg of his bureau. The bell did not ring, but displaced a tiny shutter in front of the desk of his secretary in the ante-room; and Hillyard had hardly ended when the girl was in the room and announced:
Commodore Graham looked annoyed.
"What a nuisance! I am afraid that I must see him, Mr. Hillyard."
"Of course," said Hillyard. "Admirals are admirals."
"And they know it!" said Commodore Graham with a sigh.
Hillyard rose and took his hat.
"Well, I am very grateful to you, Mr. Hillyard," said Graham. "I can't say anything more to you now. Things, as you know, are altogether very doubtful. We may slip over into smooth water. On the other hand," and he twiddled his thumbs serenely, "we may be at war in a month. If that were to be the case, I might want to talk with you again. Will you leave your address with Miss Chayne?"
Hillyard was led out by another door, no doubt so that he might not meet the impatient admiral. He might have gone away disheartened from that interview with its vague promises. But there are other and often surer indications than words. When Miss Chayne took down his address, her manner had quite changed towards him. She had now a frank and pleasant comradeship. The official had gone. Her smile said as plainly as print could do: "You are with us now."
Meanwhile Commodore Graham read through once more the letter of Paul Bendish. He turned from that to a cabled report from Khartum of the opinion which various governors of districts had formed concerning the ways and the discretion of Martin Hillyard. Then once more he rang his bell.
"There was a list of suitable private yachts to be made out," he said.
"It is ready," replied Miss Chayne, and she brought it to him.
Over that list Commodore Graham spent a great deal of time. In the end his finger rested on the name of the steam-yacht Dragonfly, owned by Sir Charles Hardiman, Baronet.