The Summons (novel)/XV
The night express from Paris to Narbonne and the Spanish frontier was due to leave the Quai d'Orsay station at ten. But three-quarters of an hour before that time the platform was already crowded, and many of the seats occupied. Hillyard walked down the steps a little before half-past nine with the latest of the evening papers in his hand.
"You have engaged your seat, monsieur," the porter asked, who was carrying Hillyard's kit-bag.
"Yes," said Martin absently. He was thinking that on the boulevards the newsboys might now be crying a later edition of the papers than that which he held, an edition with still more details. He saw them surrounded in the darkened street by quiet, anxious groups.
"Will you give me your ticket, monsieur?" the porter continued, and as Hillyard looked at him vacantly, "the ticket for your seat."
Hillyard roused himself.
"I beg your pardon. I have a compartment in the sleeping-car, numbers eleven and twelve."
Amongst many old principles of which Martin Hillyard had first learned the wisdom during these last years, none had sunk deeper than this—that the head of an organisation cannot do the work of any of its members and hope that the machine will run smoothly. His was the task of supervision and ultimate direction. He held himself at the beck and call of those who worked under him. He responded to their summons. And it was in response to a very urgent summons from Fairbairn that he had hurried the completion of certain arrangements with the French authorities in Paris and was now returning to the south! But he was going very reluctantly.
It was July, 1916. The first battle of the Somme, launched some days past, was at its very climacteric. The casualties had been and were terrible. Even at this moment of night the fury of the attack was not relaxed. All through the day reports, exasperating in their brevity, had been streaming into Paris, and rumour, as of old, circled swift-winged above the city, making good or ill the deficiencies of the telegrams. One fact, however, had leaped to light, unassailably true. The Clayfords, stationed on the north of the line at Thiepval, had redeemed their name and added a new lustre to their erstwhile shining record. The devotion of the officers, the discipline of the men, had borne their fruits. At a most critical moment the Clayfords had been forced to change front against a flank attack, under a galling fire and in the very press of battle, and the long extended line had swung to its new position with the steadiness of veterans, and, having reached it, had stood fast. Hillyard rejoiced with a sincerity as deep as if he himself held his commission in that regiment. But the losses had been terrible; and Martin Hillyard was troubled to the roots of his heart by doubts whether Harry Luttrell were at this moment knowing the deep contentment that the fixed aim of his boyhood and youth had been fulfilled; or whether he was lying out on the dark ground beneath the stars unaware of it and indifferent. Hillyard nursed a hope that some blunder had been made, and that he would find his compartment occupied.
The controller, in his brown uniform with the brass buttons and his peaked cap, stood at the steps of the car with the attendant.
"Eleven and twelve," said Hillyard, handing to him his ticket.
The attendant, a middle-aged, stout man with a black moustache and a greasy face, shot one keen glance from under the peak of his cap at the occupant of numbers 11 and 12, and then led the way along the corridor.
The compartment was empty. Hillyard looked around it with a grudging eye.
"I am near the middle of the coach here, I think," he said.
"Yes, monsieur, quite in the middle."
"That is well," answered Hillyard. "I am an invalid, and cannot sleep when there is much motion."
He spoke irritably, with that tone of grievance peculiar to the man who thinks his health is much worse than it is.
"Can I get coffee in the morning?" he asked.
"At half-past six, monsieur. But you must get out of the train for it."
Hillyard uttered an exclamation of disgust, and shrugged his shoulders. "What a country!" the gesture said as plainly as speech.
"But it is the war, monsieur!" the attendant expostulated with indignation.
"Oh, yes, I know! The war!" Hillyard retorted with ill-humour. "Do I want a bath? I cannot have it. It is the war. If a waiter is rude to me, it is the war. If my steak is over-cooked it is the war. The war! It is the excuse for everything."
He told the porter to place his bag upon the upper berth, and, still grumbling, gave him some money. He turned sharply on the attendant, who was smiling in the doorway.
"Ah, it seems to you funny that an invalid should be irritable, eh?" he cried. "I suppose it must be—damnably funny."
"Monsieur, there are very many men who would like to-night to be invalids with a sleeping compartment to themselves," returned the attendant severely.
"Well, I don't want to talk about it any more," said Hillyard roughly, and he shouldered his way out again on to the platform.
The attendant followed him. The smile upon his face was sleeker than ever. He was very amused and contented with his passenger in the compartment numbers 11 and 12. He took the cap off his head and wiped the perspiration from his forehead.
"Ouf! It is hot to-night." He looked after Hillyard with a chuckle, and remarked to the controller, "This is a customer who does not like his little comforts to be disarranged!"
The controller nodded contemptuously.
"They must travel—the English! The tourism—that is sacred, even if all Europe burns."
Hillyard strolled towards the stairs, and as he drew near to them his eyes brightened. A man about six years older than himself, tall, broad-shouldered, slim of waist, with a short, fair moustache, was descending towards him.
The war has killed many foolish legends, but none more foolish than the legend of the typical Frenchman, conceived as a short, rotund, explosive person, with a square, brown beard of curly baby-hair and a shiny silk hat with a flat brim. There have been too many young athletes of clean build on view whose nationality, language and the uniforms of powder-blue and khaki could alone decide. The more curious might, perhaps, if the youth were in mufti, cast a downward glance at the boots; but even boots were ceasing to be the sure tell-tale they once used to be. This man descending the stairs with a limp was the Commandant Marnier, of the 193rd Regiment, wounded in 1915, and now attached to the General Staff. He was in plain clothes; he was looking for Martin Hillyard, and no stranger but would have set him and the man for whom he was looking in the same category of races.
The Commandant Marnier saw Martin Hillyard clearly enough long before he reached the foot of the stairs. But nevertheless he greeted him with an appearance of surprise.
"But what luck!" he said aloud. "You leave by this train?"
"Yes. It may be that I shall find health."
"Yes, yes. So your friends will pray," returned the Commandant, falling into Hillyard's pace.
"The telegram we sent for you——" Marnier began.
"There is an answer already. Your friend is unhurt. I have brought you a copy. I thought that perhaps I might catch you before your train started."
He gave the slip of typewritten message into Hillyard's hand.
"That was most kind of you," said Hillyard. "You have removed a great anxiety. It would have been many days before I should have received this good news if you had not gone out of your way to hurry with it here."
Hillyard was moved, partly by the message, partly by the consideration of Marnier, who now waved his thanks aside.
"Bah! We may not say 'comrade' as often as the Boche, but perhaps we are it all the more. I will not come further with you towards your carriage, for I have still a few things to do."
He shook Hillyard by the hand and departed. Hillyard turned from him towards his sleeping-car, but though his chief anxiety was dispelled, his reluctance to go was not. And he looked at the long, brightly-lit train which was to carry him from this busy and high-hearted city with a desire that it would start before its time, and leave him a derelict upon the platform. He could not bend his thoughts to the work which was at his hand. The sapphire waters of the South had quite lost their sparkle and enchantment. Here, here, was the place of life! The exhilaration of his task, its importance, the glow of thankfulness when some real advantage was won, a plot foiled, a scheme carried to success—these matters were all banished from his mind. Even the war-risk of it was forgotten. He thought with envy of the men in trenches. Yet the purpose of his yacht was long since known to the Germans; the danger of the torpedo was ever present on her voyages, and the certainty that if she were sunk, and he captured, any means would be taken to force him to speak before he was shot, was altogether beyond dispute. Even at this moment he carried hidden in a match-box a little phial, which never left him, to put the sure impediment between himself and a forced confession of his aims and knowledge. But he was not aware of it. How many times had he seen the red light at Europa Point on Gibraltar's edge change to white, sometimes against the scarlet bars of dawn, sometimes in the winter against a wall of black! But on the platform of the Quai d'Orsay station, in a bustle of soldiers going on short leave to their homes, and rattling with pannikins and iron-helmets, he could remember none of these consolations.
He reached his carriage.
"Messieurs les voyageurs, en route!" cried the controller.
"What a crowd!" Hillyard grumbled. "Really, it almost disposes one to say that one will never travel again until this war is over."
He walked along the corridor to his compartment and sat down as the train started with a jerk. The door stood open, and in a few minutes the attendant came to it.
"Who is in the next compartment on the other side of the lavatory?" Hillyard asked.
"A manufacturer of Perpignan and his wife."
"Does he snore?" Hillyard asked. "If he snores I shall not sleep. It should be an offence against your bye-laws for a traveller to snore."
He crossed one leg across his knee and unlaced his shoe.
The attendant came into the room.
"It is possible, monsieur, that I might hurry and fetch you your coffee in the morning," he said.
"It is worth five francs to you if you do," replied Hillyard.
"Then monsieur will not move from his compartment until luncheon. I will see to it. Monsieur will bolt his door, and in the morning I will knock when I bring the coffee."
"Good," returned Hillyard ungraciously.
The attendant retired, and Hillyard closed the door. But the ventilating lattice in the lower part of the door was open, and Hillyard could see the legs of the attendant. He was waiting outside—waiting for what? Hillyard smiled to himself and took down his bag from the upper berth. He had hardly opened it when the attendant knocked and entered.
"You will not forget, monsieur, to bolt your door. In these days it is not wise to leave it on the latch."
"I won't forget," Hillyard replied surlily, and once more the attendant retired; and again he stood outside the door. He did not move until the bolt was shot. The attendant seemed very pleased that this fool of a tourist who thought of nothing but his infirmities should safely bolt the door of the compartments numbers 11 and 12; and very pleased, too, to bring to this churlish, discontented traveller his coffee in the morning, so that he need not leave compartments numbers 11 and 12 unguarded. Hillyard chuckled as the attendant moved away.
"I am to be your watch-dog, am I? Your sentinel? Very well! Come, let me deserve your confidence, my friend."
The train thundered out of the tunnel and through the suburbs of Paris. Hillyard drew a letter from Fairbairn out of his pocket and read it through.
"Compartments numbers 11 and 12 on the night train from the Quai d'Orsay station to Cerbère. Good!" murmured Hillyard. "Here I am in compartments numbers 11 and 12. Now we wait until the married couple from Perpignan and the attendant are comfortably asleep."
He undressed and went to bed, but he did not sleep. He lay in the berth in the darkness, listening intently as the train rushed out of Paris across the plains of France. Once or twice, as the hours passed, he heard a stealthy footstep in the corridor outside, and once the faintest possible little click told that the latch of his door had been lifted to make sure that the bolt was still shot home in its socket. Hillyard smiled.
"You are safe, my friend," he breathed the words towards the anxious one in the corridor. "No one can get in. The door is locked. The door of the dressing-room too. Sleep in your corner in peace."
The train sped over a moonlit country, spacious, unhurt by war. It moved with a steady, rhythmical throb, like an accompaniment to a tune or a phrase, ever repeated and repeated Hillyard found himself fitting words to the pulsation of the wheels. "Berlin ... Berne ... Paris ... Cerbere ... Barcelona ... Madrid ... Aranjuez and the world"; and back again, reversing the order: "Madrid ... Barcelona ... Cerbère ... Paris ... Berne ... Berlin."
But the throb of the train set the interrogation at the end of the string of names. So that the sequence of them was like a question demanding confirmation....
Towards three in the morning, when there was no movement in the corridor and the lights were blue and dim, Hillyard silently folded back his bedclothes and rose. In the darkness he groped gently for the door of the lavatory between his compartment and the compartment of the manufacturer of Perpignan. He found the handle, and pressed it down slowly; without a creak or a whine of the hinges the door swung open towards him. Through the clatter he could hear that the manufacturer of Perpignan was snoring. But Hillyard did not put his trust in snores. He crept with bare feet across the washing-room, and, easing over the handle of the further door, locked the manufacturer out. Again there had been no sound. He shut the door of his own compartment lest the swing of the train should set it banging and arouse the sleepers. Towards the corridor there was a window of painted glass, and through this window a pale, dim light filtered in. Hillyard noticed, for the first time, that a small diamond-shaped piece of the coloured glass was missing, at about the level of a man's head. It was advisable that Martin Hillyard should be quick—or he might find the tables turned. With his ears more than ever alert, he set up the steps for the upper berth, in the lavatory, and whilst he worked his eyes watched that little aperture at the level of a man's head, which once a diamond-shaped piece of coloured glass had closed....
The door of the manufacturer was unlocked, the steps folded in their place, and Hillyard back again in his bed before two minutes had passed. And once more the throb of the train beat into a chain of towns which went backwards and forwards like a shuttle in his brain. But there was no note of interrogation now.
"Berlin ... Berne ... Paris ... Cerbère ... Barcelona ... Madrid ... Aranjuez and the world"; and with a thump the train set a firm full stop to the sequence. Across the broad plain, meadowland and plough, flower-garden and fruit the train thundered down to the Pyrenees. Paris was far away now, and the sense of desolation at quitting it quite gone from Hillyard's breast.
"Berlin ... Berne ... Paris ... Cerbere ... Barcelona ... Madrid."
Here was one of the post-roads by which Germany reached the outer world. Others there were beyond doubt. Sweden and Rotterdam, Mexico and South America—but here was one, and to-morrow, nay, to-day, the communication would be cut, and Germany so much the poorer.
The train steamed into Cerbère at one o'clock of the afternoon.
"Every one must descend here, monsieur, for the examination of luggage and passports," said the attendant.
"But I am leaving France!" cried Hillyard. "I go on into Spain. Why should France, then, examine my luggage?"
"It is the war, monsieur."
Hillyard lifted up his hands in indignation too deep for words. He gathered together his bag and his coat and stick, handed them to a porter and descended. He passed into the waiting-room, and was directed by a soldier with a fixed bayonet to take his place in the queue of passengers. But he said quietly to the soldier:
"I would like to see M. de Cassaud, the Commissaire of Police."
Hillyard was led apart; his card was taken from him; he was ushered instantly into an office where an elderly French officer sat in mufti before a table. He shook Hillyard cordially by the hand.
"You pass through? I myself hope to visit Barcelona again very soon. Jean, wait outside with monsieur's baggage," this to the porter who had pushed in behind Hillyard. M. de Cassaud rose and closed the door. He had looked at Hillyard's face and acted quickly.
"It is something more than compliments you want from me, monsieur. Well, what can I do?"
"The second sleeping-car, compartments numbers 11 and 12," said Hillyard urgently. "In the water-tank of the lavatory there is a little metal case with letters from Berlin for Barcelona and Madrid. But wait, monsieur!"
M. de Cassaud was already at the door.
"It is the attendant of the sleeping-car who hides them there. If he can be called into an office quietly on some matter of routine and held there whilst your search is made, then those in Madrid and Barcelona to whom these letters are addressed may never know they have been sent at all!"
M. de Cassaud nodded and went out. Hillyard waited nervously in the little whitewashed room. It was impossible that the attendant should have taken fright and bolted. Even if he bolted, it would be impossible that he should escape across the frontier. It was impossible that he should recover the metal case from the water-tank, while the carriage stood openly at the platform of Cerbere station. He would be certain to wait until it was shunted into the cleaning shed. But so many certainties had been disproved, so many possibilities had come to pass during the last two years, that Hillyard was sceptical to his finger-tips. M. de Cassaud was a long time away. Yes, certainly M. de Cassaud was a very long——and the door opened, and M. de Cassaud appeared.
"He is giving an account of his blankets and his towels. There are two soldiers at the door. He is safe. Come!" said the Commissaire.
They crossed the platform to the carriage, whilst Hillyard described the attendant's anxiety that he should bolt his door. "No doubt he gave the same advice to the manufacturer of Perpignan," Hillyard added.
It was M. de Cassaud who arranged and mounted the steps in the tiny washing-room.
"Look, monsieur," said Hillyard, and he pointed to the little aperture in the coloured glass of the window. "One can see from the corridor what is going on in this room. That is useful. If a traveller complains—bah, it is the war!" and Hillyard laughed.
M. de Cassaud looked at the window.
"Yes, that is ingenious," he said.
He drained off the water, folded back his sleeve, and plunged his arm into the tank. Then he uttered a little cry. He drew up into the light an oblong metal can, like a sandwich-case, with the edges soldered together to make it water-tight. He slipped it into his pocket and turned again to the window. He looked at it again curiously.
"Yes, that is ingenious," he said softly, like a man speaking to himself. Then he led the way back to his office, looking in at the guard-room on the platform to give an order on the way.
The soldered edges of the case were quickly split asunder and a small package of letters written on very thin paper revealed.
"You will let me take these on with me," pleaded Martin. "You shall have them again. But some of them may want a special treatment of which we have the secret."
M. de Cassaud was doubtful about the propriety of such a procedure.
"After all I found them," Martin urged.
"It would be unusual," said M. de Cassaud. "The regulations, you know——"
Martin Hillyard smiled.
"The regulations, for you and me, my friend, are those we make ourselves."
M. de Cassaud would admit nothing so outrageous to his trained and rather formal mind. But he made a list of these letters and of their addresses as though he was undecided. He had not finished when a sergeant entered and saluted. The attendant of the sleeping-car had been taken to the depot. He had been searched and a pistol had been found upon him. The sergeant laid a very small automatic Colt upon the table and retired. M. de Cassaud took up the little weapon and examined it.
"Do you know these toys, Monsieur Hillyard?" he asked.
"Yes. They are chiefly used against the mosquitoes."
"Oh, they will kill at twenty-five paces," continued the Commissaire; and he looked quickly at Hillyard. "I will tell you something. You ran some risk last night when you explored that water-tank. Yes, indeed! It would have been so easy. The attendant had but to thrust the muzzle of this through the opening of the window, shoot you dead, raise an alarm that he had caught you hiding something, and there was he a hero and you a traitor. Yes, that is why I said to you the little opening in the window was ingenious! Ah, if he had caught you! Yes, if he had caught you!"
Martin was quick to take advantage.
"Then let me have those letters! I will keep my French colleagues informed of everything."
"Very well," said M. de Cassaud, and he suddenly swept the letters across to Hillyard, who gathered them up hastily and buttoned them away in his pocket before de Cassaud could change his mind.
"It is all very incorrect," said the Commissaire reproachfully.
"Yes, but it is the war," replied Hillyard. "I have the authority of the attendant of the sleeping-car for saying so."