The Summons (novel)/XVIII
It was Hillyard's creed that chance will serve a man very capably, if he is equipped to take advantage of its help; and here was an instance. The preparation had begun on the morning when Hillyard took the Dragonfly into the harbour of Palma. Chance had offered her assistance some months later in an hotel at Madrid; as Medina was now to explain.
"The day after you left Mallorca," said José Medina, "it was known all over Palma that you had come to visit me."
"Of course," answered Martin.
"I was in consequence approached almost immediately, by the other side."
"I expected that. It was only natural."
"There is a young lady in Madrid," continued José Medina.
"Rosa Hahn, then."
"Yes," said José Medina.
José rose and unlocking a drawer in his bureau took out from it a sheaf of photographs. He selected one and handed it with a smile to Hillyard. It was the portrait of a good-looking girl, tall, dark, and intelligent, but heavy about the feet, dressed in Moorish robes, and extended on a divan in Oriental indolence against a scene cloth which outdid the luxuries of Llalla Rookh.
"That's the lady, I think."
Medina gazed at the picture with delight. He touched his lips with his fingers, and threw a kiss to it. His sharp, sallow face suddenly flowered into smiles.
"Yes. What a woman! She has real intelligence," he exclaimed fervently.
José Medina was in the habit of losing his heart and keeping his head a good many times in an ordinary year.
"It's an extraordinary thing," Martin Hillyard remarked, "that however intelligent they are, not one of these young ladies can resist the temptation to have her portrait taken in Moorish dress at the photographer's in the Alhambra."
José Medina saw nothing at all grotesque or ridiculous in this particular foible.
"They make such charming pictures," he cried.
"And it is very useful for us, too," remarked Hillyard. "The photographer is a friend of mine."
José was still gazing at the photograph.
"Such a brain, my friend! She never told a story the second time differently, however emotional the moment. She never gave away a secret."
"She probably didn't know any," said Hillyard.
But José would not hear of such a reason.
"Oh, yes! She has great influence. She knows people in Berlin—great people. She is their friend, and I cannot wonder. What an intelligence!"
Martin Hillyard laughed.
"She seems to have fairly put it over you at any rate," he said. He was not alarmed at José Medina's fervour. For he knew that remarkable man's capacity for holding his tongue even in the wildest moments of his temporary passions. But he took the photograph away from Medina and locked it up again. The rapturous reminiscences of Rosa Hahn's intelligence checked the flow of that story which was to lead him to B45.
"So you know about her?" José said with an envious eye upon the locked drawer.
"A little," said Martin Hillyard.
Rosa Hahn was a clerk in the office of the Hamburg-Amerika Line before the war, and in the Spanish Department. She was sent to Spain in the last days of July, 1914, upon Government work, and at a considerable salary, which she enjoyed. She seemed indeed to have done little else, and Berlin, after a year, began to complain. Berlin had a lower opinion of both her social position and her brains than José Medina had formed. Berlin needed results, and failing to obtain them, proceeded to hint more and more definitely that Rosa had better return to her clerk's stool in Hamburg. Rosa, however, had been intelligent enough to make friends with one or two powerful Germans in Spain; and they pleaded for her with this much success. She was given another three months within which period she must really do something to justify her salary. So much Martin Hillyard already knew; he learnt now that José Medina had provided the great opportunity. To snatch him with his two hundred motor feluccas and his eighteen thousand men from the English—here was something really worth doing.
"What beats me," said Hillyard, "is why they didn't try to get at you before."
"They didn't," said Medina.
Rosa, it seemed, used the argument which is generally sound; that the old and simple tricks are the tricks which win. She discovered the hotel at which José Medina stayed in Madrid, and having discovered it she went to stay there herself. She took pains to become friendly with the manager and his staff, and by professing curiosity and interest in the famous personage, she made sure not only that she would have fore-warning of his arrival, but that José Medina himself would hear of a charming young lady to whom he appealed as a hero of romance. She knew José to be of a coming-on disposition—and the rest seemed easy. Only, she had not guarded against the workings of Chance.
The hotel was the Hotel de Napoli, not one of the modern palaces of cement and steel girders, built close to the Prado, but an old house near the Puerto del Sol, a place of lath and plaster walls and thin doors; so that you must not raise your voice unless you wish your affairs to become public property. To this house José Medina came as he had many times come before, and Chance willed that he should occupy the next room to that occupied by Rosa Hahn. It was the merest accident. It was the merest accident, too, that José Medina whilst he was unpacking his bag heard his name pronounced in the next room. José Medina, with all his qualities, was of the peasant class with much of the peasant mind. He was inquisitive, and he was suspicious. Let it be said in his defence that he had enemies enough ready to pull him down, not only, as we have seen, amongst his rivals on the coast, but here, amongst the Government officials of Madrid. It cost him a pretty penny annually to keep his balance on the tight-rope, as it was. He stepped noiselessly over to the door and listened. The voices were speaking in Spanish, one a woman's voice with a guttural accent.
"Rosa Hahn," said Hillyard as the story was told to him in the cabin of the yacht.
"The other a man's voice. But again it was a foreign voice, not a Spaniard's. But I could not distinguish the accent."
"Greek, do you think?" asked Hillyard. "There is a Levantine Greek high up in the councils of the Germans."
José Medina, however, did not know.
"Here were two foreigners talking about me, and fortunately in Spanish. I was to arrive immediately; Rosa was to make my acquaintance. What my relations were with this man, Hillyard—yes, you came into the conversation, my friend, too—I was quickly to be persuaded to tell. Oh—you have a saying—everything in your melon patch was lovely."
"Not for nothing has the American tourist come to Spain," Hillyard murmured.
"Then their voices dropped a little, and your B45 was mentioned—once or twice. And a name in connection with B45 once or twice. I did not understand what it was all about."
"But you remember the name!" Fairbairn exclaimed eagerly.
"Yes, I do."
"Well, what was it?"
It was again Fairbairn who spoke. Hillyard had not moved, nor did he even look up.
"It was Mario Escobar," said José Medina; and as he spoke he knew that the utterance of the name awakened no surprise in Martin Hillyard. Hillyard filled his pipe from the tobacco tin, and lighted it before he spoke.
"Do you know anything of this Mario Escobar?" he asked, "you who know every one?"
José Medina shrugged his shoulders, and threw up his hands.
"There was some years ago a Mario Escobar at Alicante," and José Medina saw Hillyard's eyes open and fix themselves upon him with an unblinking steadiness. Just so José Medina imagined might some savage animal in a jungle survey the man who had stumbled upon his lair.
"That Mario Escobar, a penniless, shameless person, was in business with a German, the German Vice-Consul. He went from Alicante to London."
"Thank you," said Hillyard. He rose from his chair and went to the window. But he saw nothing of the deck outside, or the sea beyond. He saw a man at a supper party in London a year before the war began, betraying himself by foolish insistent questions uttered in fear lest his close intimacy with Germans in Alicante should be known.
"I have no doubt that Mario Escobar came definitely to England, long before the war, to spy," said Hillyard gravely. He returned to the table, and took up again one of the empty glass tubes.
"I wonder what he was to do with these."
José Medina had opened the door of the saloon once more. A beam of sunlight shot through the doorway, and enveloped Hillyard's arm and hand. The tiny slim phial glittered like silver; and to all of them in the cabin it became a sinister engine of destruction.
"That, as you say, is your affair. I must go," said José, and he shook hands with Hillyard and Fairbairn, and went out on to the deck. "Hasta luego!"
"Hasta ahora!" returned Hillyard; and José Medina walked down the steps of the ladder to his felucca. The blue sea widened between the two vessels; and in a week, Hillyard descended from a train on to the platform of the Quai D'Orsay station in Paris. He had the tubes in his luggage, and one box of them he took that morning to Commandant Marnier at his office on the left bank of the river with the letter which gave warning of their arrival.
"You see what the letter says," Hillyard explained. "These tubes have been very successful in France."
Marnier nodded his head:
"If you will leave them with me, I will show them to our chemists, and perhaps, in a few days, I will have news for you."
For a week Hillyard took his ease in Paris and was glad of the rest in the midst of those strenuous days. He received one morning at his hotel, a batch of letters, many of which had been written months before. But two were of recent date. Henry Luttrell wrote to him:
"My battalion did splendidly and our debt to old Oakley is great. There is only a handful of us left and we are withdrawn, of course, from the lines. By some miracle I escaped without a hurt. Everybody has been very generous, making it up to us for our bad times. The Corps Commander came and threw bouquets in person, and we hear that D. H. himself is going out of his way to come and inspect us. I go home on leave in a fortnight and hope to come back in command of the battalion. Perhaps we may meet in London. Let me hear if that is possible."
The second letter had been sent from Rackham Park, and in it Millie Splay wrote:
"We have not heard from you for years. Will you be in England this August? We are trying to gather again our old Goodwood party. Both Dennis Brown and Harold Jupp will be home on leave. There will be no Goodwood of course, but there is a meeting at Gatwick which is easily reached from here. Do come if you can and bring your friend with you, if he is in London and has nothing better to do. We have all been reading about him in the papers, and Chichester is very proud of belonging to the same mess, and says what a wonderful thing it must be to be able to get into the papers like that, without trying to."
Hillyard could see the smile upon Lady Splay's face as she wrote that sentence. Hillyard laughed as he read it but it was less in amusement as from pleasure at the particular information which this sentence contained. Harry Luttrell had clearly won a special distinction in the hard fighting at Thiepval. There was not a word in Harry's letter to suggest it. There would not be. All his pride and joy would be engrossed by the great fact that his battalion had increased its good name.
There was a closing sentence in Millie Splay's letter which brought another smile to his lips.
"Linda Spavinsky is, alas, going as strong as ever. She was married last meek, in violet, as you will remember, to the Funeral March of a Marionette and already she is in the throes of domestic unhappiness. Her husband, fleshy, of course, red in the face, and accustomed to sleep after dinner, simply won't understand her."
Here again Hillyard was able to see the smile on Millicent Splay's face, but it was a smile rather rueful and it ended, no doubt, in a sigh of annoyance. Hillyard himself was caught away to quite another scene. He was once more in the small motor-car on the top of Duncton Hill, and looked out over the Weald of Sussex to the Blackdown and Hindhead, and the slopes of Leith Hill, imagined rather than seen, in the summer haze. He saw Joan Whitworth's rapt face, and heard her eager cry.
"Look out over the Weald of Sussex, so that you can carry it away with you in your breast. Isn't it worth everything—banishment, suffering—everything? Not the people so much, but the earth itself and the jolly homes upon it!"
A passage followed which disturbed him:
"There are other things too. My magnolia is still in bud. I dread a blight before the flower opens."
It was a cry of distress—nothing less than that—uttered in some moment of intense depression. Else it would never have been allowed to escape at all.
Hillyard folded up the letter. He would be going home in any case. There were those tubes. There was B-45. He had enjoyed no leave since he had left England. Yes, he would go down to Rackham Park, and take Harry Luttrell with him if he could.
Two days later the Commandant Marnier came to see him at the Ritz Hotel. They dined together in a corner of the restaurant.
"We have solved the problem of those tubes," said Marnier. "They are nothing more nor less than time-fuses."
"Time-fuses!" Hillyard repeated. "I don't understand."
Marnier looked around. There was no one near enough to overhear him, if he did not raise his voice; and he was careful to speak in a whisper.
"Two things." He ticked them off upon his fingers. "First, hydrofluoric acid when brought into contact with certain forms of explosive will create a fire. Second, hydrofluoric acid will bite its way through glass. The thicker the glass, the longer the time required to set the acid free. Do you follow?"
"Yes," said Hillyard.
"Good! Make a glass tube of such thickness that it will take hydrofluoric acid four hours and a half to eat its way through. Then fill it with acid and seal it up. You have a time-fuse which will act precisely in four hours and a half."
"If it comes into contact with the necessary explosive," Hillyard added.
"Exactly. Now attend to this! Our workmen in our munition factories work three hours and a half. Then they go to their luncheon."
"Munition factories!" said Hillyard with a start.
"Yes, my friend. Munition factories. We are short of labour as you know. Our men are in the firing line. We must get labour from some other source. And there is only one source."
"The neutrals," Hillyard exclaimed.
"Yes, the neutrals, and especially the neutrals who are near to us, who can come without difficulty and without much expense. We have a good many Spanish workmen in our munition factories and three of these factories have recently been burnt down. We have the proof now, thanks to you, that those little glass tubes so carefully manufactured in Berlin to last four hours and a half and no more, set the fires going."
"Proof, you say?" Hillyard asked earnestly. "It is not probability or moral certainty? It is actual bed-rock proof?"
"Yes. For once our chemists had grasped how these tubes could be used, we knew what to look for when the workmen were searched on entering the factory. Two days ago we caught a man. He had one of these little tubes in his mouth and in the lining of his waistcoat, just a little high explosive, so little was necessary that it must escape notice unless you knew what to search for. Yes, we caught him and he, the good fellow, the good honest neutral"—it would be difficult to describe the bitterness and scorn which rang through Marnier's words, "has been kind enough to tell me how he earned his German pay as well as his French wages."
Hillyard leaned forward.
"Yes, tell me that!"
"On his way to the factory in the morning, he makes a call."
"The one on whom he calls fills the tube or has it just filled and gives it to the workman. The time fuse is set for four hours and a half. The workman has so arranged it that he will reach the factory half an hour after the tube is filled. He passes the searcher. At his place he takes off his waistcoat and hangs it up and in the pocket, just separated from the explosive by the lining of the waistcoat, he places, secretly, the tube. The tube has now four hours of life and the workman three and a half hours of work. When the whistle goes to knock off for luncheon, the workman leaves his waist coat still hanging up on the peg and goes out in the stream. But half an hour afterwards, half-way through the hour of luncheon, the acid reaches the explosive. There is a tiny explosion in that empty hall, not enough to make a great noise, but quite enough to start a big fire; and when the workmen return, the building is ablaze. No lives are lost, but the factory is burnt down."
Hillyard sat for a little while in thought.
"Perhaps you can tell me," he said at length. "I hear nothing from England or very little; and naturally. Are we obtaining Spanish workmen, too, for our munition factories?"
It was clear now why B45 was especially suitable for this work. B45 was Mario Escobar, a Spaniard himself.
"And filling the tubes! That is simple?"
"A child could do it," answered Marnier.
"Thank you," said Martin Hillyard.
The next evening he left Paris and travelling all night to Boulogne, reached London in the early afternoon of the following day. Twenty months had passed since he had set foot there.