The Atlantic Serial
BY GEOFFEREY HOUSEHOLD
CHAPTERS I TO VIII
GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD Author of the new Atlantic serial, ‘Rogue Male’
THE ATLANTIC made ‘a discovery’ when, in the early spring of 1936, the editor received a long short story from an unknown Englishman with a most inviting name, Geoffrey Household. ‘The Salvation of Pisco Gabar’ was its title, and the story itself was so exceptional that it was accorded the lead position in the June issue. In the months that followed, the Atlantic bought Mr. Household’s new stories as fast as they arrived, and within the year arrangements had been made enabling Mr. Household to devote his full time to his writing and to begin work on his first novel, which eventually appeared in 1937 under the title The Third Hour.
Geoffrey Household went down from Oxford with a First Class in English Literature directly after the war. Since then he has lived in the four quarters of the earth. Business first took him to the Balkans; thence he moved to Spain, which has become his ‘other country’ and the language of which he speaks like a native. Having decided to earn his living by writing, Mr. Household crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the United States simultaneously with the Depression. Hack work kept him alive in Manhattan for two years. ‘It was not bad fun,’ he says, ‘but
too exhausting. I took the thing seriously.’ Then back he went into business, to become the representative of an English firm in Europe, the Near East, and South America. So the years passed until the Atlantic knocked at his door.
The Atlantic is confident that its readers will find the new serial, Rogue Male, a novel of great originality. By way of explanation the author has appended the following note to his title page_ —
‘The behavior of a rogue may fairly be described as individual, separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity. These solitary beasts, exasperated by chronic pain or widowerhood, are occasionally found among all the larger carnivores and graminivorcs, and are generally males, though, in the case of hippopotami, the wanton viciousness of old cows is not to be disregarded.’
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
BY GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD
I CANNOT blame them. After all, one doesn’t need a telescopic sight to shoot boar and bear; so that when they came on me watching the terrace at a range of 550 yards, it was natural enough that they should jump to conclusions. And they behaved, I think, with discretion. I am not an obvious anarchist or fanatic, and I don’t look as if I took any interest in politics; I might perhaps have sat for an agricultural constituency in the South of England, but that hardly counts as politics. I carried a British passport, and if I had been caught walking up to the house instead of watching it I should probably have been asked to lunch. It was a difficult problem for angry men to solve in an afternoon.
They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission; but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government — least of all ours — encourages assassination. Or was I a free lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be — a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?
After two or three hours of their questions I could see I had them shaken. They didn’t believe me, though they were beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the
biggest game on earth. But even if my explanation were true and the hunt were purely formal, it made no difference. I couldn’t be allowed to live.
By that time I had, of course, been knocked about very considerably. My nails are growing back, but my left eye is still pretty useless. I wasn’t a case you could turn loose with apologies. They would probably have given me a picturesque funeral, with huntsmen firing volleys and sounding horns, with all the bigwigs present in fancy dress, and put up a stone obelisk to the memory of a brother sportsman. They do those things well.
As it was, they bungled the job. They took me to the edge of a cliff and put me over, all but my hands. That was cunning. Scrabbling at the rough rock would have accounted — near enough — for the state of my fingers when I was found. I did hang on, of course. For how long I don’t know. I cannot see why I wasn’t glad to die, seeing that I hadn’t a hope of living, and the quicker the end, the less the suffering. But I wasn’t glad. One always hopes — if a clinging to life can be called hope. I am not too civilized to be influenced by that force which makes a rabbit run when the stoat is after him. The rabbit doesn’t hope for anything, I take it. His mind has no conception of the future. But he runs. And so I hung on till I dropped.
I was doubtful whether I had died or not. I have always believed that consciousness remains after physical death (though I have no opinion on how long it lasts), so I thought I was probably dead. I had been such a hell of a time falling; it didn’t seem reasonable that I could be alive. And there had been a terrifying instant of pain. I felt as if the back of my thighs and rump had been shorn off, pulled off, scraped off — off, however done. I had parted, obviously and irrevocably, with a lot of my living matter.
I had crashed into a patch of marsh; small, but deep. I couldn’t see or feel how much damage had been dealt. It was dark, and I was quite numb. I hauled myself out by the tussocks of grass, a creature of mud, bandaged and hidden in mud. A slope of scree rose sharply from the marsh. I had evidently grazed it in my fall. I didn’t feel the pain any longer. I could persuade myself that I was no more seriously hurt than when they put me over the cliff; so I determined to move off before they came to find my body.
I had, though I didn’t then know it, a good deal of time to play with; they hadn’t any intention of finding my body until it was stiff and there were independent witnesses with them. The unfortunate brother sportsman would be accidentally discovered with his corpse undisturbed, and the whole history of his fate perfectly plain on the nasty sloping rock from which he had slipped.
The country at the foot of the cliff was open woodland. I remember nothing except that there were thin shadows and thick shadows. The image in my mind is so vague that they might have been coverts or clouds or waves of the sea. I walked about a mile, I suppose, and chose a thick darkness to faint in. I came to a sort of consciousness several times during the night, but let it slide away. I wasn’t returning to this difficult world till dawn.
When it was light, I tried to stand on my feet, but of course I couldn’t. I made no second effort. Any movement of the muscles interfered with my nice cake of mud. Whenever a crust fell off I started to bleed. No, I certainly wasn’t interfering with the mud.
I knew where there was water. I had never seen that stream, and my certainty of its direction may have been due to a subconscious memory of the map. But I knew where water was, and I made for it. I traveled on my belly, using my elbows for legs and leaving a track behind me like that of a wounded crocodile, all slime and blood. I wasn’t going into the stream — I wouldn’t have washed off that mud for anything in the world.
This was the reasoning of a hunted beast; or rather, it was not reasoning at all. I don’t know whether a sedentary townsman’s mind would have worked the same way. I think it would, if he had been badly enough hurt. You must be badly hurt to reach that stage of extinction where you stop thinking what you ought to do, and merely do it.
I made the trail look as if I had taken to the stream. I crawled to the edge and drank, and turned myself round in a shallow, a safe two inches deep, where the signs of my wallowing would be washed out. They could track me to the cover where I had lain up for the night, and from there to the water. Where I had gone when I left the water they would have to guess.
Personally I had no doubt where I was going, and the decision must be credited to my useful ancestors. A deer would trot upstream or downstream and leave the water at some point that the hunter’s nose or eyes could determine. A monkey would do nothing of the sort; he would confuse his tracks and vanish into a third dimension.
When I had turned round in the shallows, I wriggled back again — back and back along the damned snake’s track I had made. It was easy to follow; indeed it looked as definite as a country lane, for my face was only six inches above the ground. Thinking about it now, I wonder that they didn’t notice, when they followed me to the stream, that some of the grass was bent the wrong way and that I must have gone back on my tracks. But who the devil would think of that? There aren’t any laws on what print a man leaves when he’s dragging his belly — and on such a monster of a trail there was no apparent need to look for details.
The outward journey had taken me under a stand of larch, where the earth was soft and free of undergrowth. I had brushed past the trunk of one tree which I now meant to climb. The lowest branch was within two feet of the ground; above that were another and another, sweet-smelling sooty branches as close together as the rungs of a ladder. The muscles of my hands were intact. I had gone beyond worrying about the state of surfaces.
Until I was well above the level of a man’s eyes I did not dare rest boots on branch; they would have left caked prints that no one could miss. I went up the first ten feet in a single burst, knowing that the longer I held on to a branch the less strength remained to reach the next. That half minute was just a compelling of one hand above the other: two pistons shooting alternately from heaven knows what cylinder of force. My friends have sometimes accused me of taking pride in the maceration of my flesh. They are right. But I did not know that I could persuade myself to such agony as that climb.
The rest was easier, for now I could let my feet bear my weight and pause as long as I wished before each hoist. My legs were not limp; they were immovable. That was no disadvantage. I couldn’t fall, wedged in as I was between the little branches of that prolific tree. When I climbed into the narrowing of the cone and the boughs were thicker and smaller and greener, I got jammed. That suited me well enough, so I fainted again. It was luxury, almost sin. I was not in pain, not hungry, not thirsty, and I was safe.
It must have been the early afternoon when I heard the search party. As they worked down the slope to the north of my tree I could watch them. The sun was in their eyes, and there was no risk of their spotting my face among the soft green feathers of the larch which I pushed aside. So far as I could tell, my legs were not bleeding; drops falling on the lower branches would be the only immediate sign of my presence. The slight bloodstains from my hands were there to be seen if anyone looked for them, but, on black boughs in the half-lit centre of a tree, not readily to be seen.
Three uniformed police were trampling down the hillside: heavy, stolid fellows enjoying the sunshine and good-humoredly following a plain-clothes man who was ranging about on my trail like a dog they had taken for a walk. I recognized him. He was the house detective who had conducted the first part of my examination. He had proposed a really obscene method of dragging the truth out of me and had actually started it when his colleagues protested. They had no objection to his technique, but they had the sense to see that it might be necessary for my corpse to be found and that it must not be found unreasonably mutilated.
When they came nearer I could hear scraps of their conversation. The policemen were looking for me with decent anxiety. They knew nothing of the truth, and were in doubt whether I had been man or woman and whether the case had been accident or attempted suicide. They had been notified, I gathered, that a cry or a fall was heard in the night; then, unobtrusively guided by the detective, they had found my knapsack and the disturbance in the patch of marsh. Of course I could not work out the situation at the time. I could only receive impressions. I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature as I listened to them. Later on, I made sense of their words.
Seeing my reptilian trail disappear into the stand of larch, the house detective perked up and took command. He seemed certain that I should be found under the trees. He shouted to his three companions to run round to the other side in case I should escape, and himself crawled under the low boughs. He nearly gave the show away there, for I was supposed to be eagerly awaiting help; but he wanted to find me himself and alone. If I were alive, it was necessary to finish me off discreetly.
He passed rapidly beneath my tree, and on into the open. I heard him curse when he discovered that I had not stopped in the wood. Then I heard their faint voices as they shouted to one another up and down the stream. That surprised me. I had thought of the stream, naturally, as a morning’s march away.
I saw no more of the hunt. A few hours later there was a lot of splashing and excitement down by the water. They must have been dragging the pools for my body. The stream was a shallow mountain torrent, but quite fast enough to roll a man along with it until he was caught by rock or eddy.
In the evening I heard dogs, and felt really frightened. I started to tremble, and knew pain again, aches and stabs and throbbings, all the symphony of pain, all my members fiddling away to the beat of my heart, on it or off it or half a bar behind. I had come back to life, thanks to that healing tree. The dogs might have found me, but their master, whoever he was, never gave them a chance. He wasn’t wasting time by putting them on a trail that he could follow himself; he was casting up and down the stream.
When night fell I came down from my tree. I could stand, and, with the aid of two sticks, I could shuffle slowly forwards, flat-footed and stiff-legged. I could think, too. None of my mental activities for the past twenty-four hours could be called thinking. I had allowed my body to take charge. It knew far more about escaping and healing than I did.
I must try to make my behavior intelligible. This confession — shall I call it? — is written to keep myself from brooding, to get down what happened in the order in which it happened. I am not content with myself. With this pencil and exercise book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured. Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonored by the banners and praises of the penny press.
This shooting trip of mine started, I believe, innocently enough. Like most Englishmen, I am not accustomed to inquire very deeply into motives. I dislike and disbelieve in cold-blooded planning, whether it be suggested of me or of anyone else. I remember asking myself when I packed the telescopic sight what the devil I wanted it for; but I just felt that it might come in handy.
It is undoubtedly true that I had been speculating — a curiosity that we all share — upon the methods of guarding a great man, and how they might be circumvented. I had a fortnight’s sport in Poland, and then crossed the frontier for more. I began moving rather aimlessly from place to place, and as I found myself getting a little nearer to the house with each night’s lodging I became obsessed by this idea of a sporting stalk. I have asked myself once or twice since why I didn’t leave the rifle behind. I think the answer is that it wouldn’t have been cricket.
Police protection is based upon the assumption that an assassin is a halfcrazed idiot with a clumsy, close-range weapon — the bomb, the revolver, or the knife. It is obvious that the type of man who is a really fine shot and experienced in the approaching and killing of big game would shrink from political or any other kind of murder. He probably hasn’t any grievances, and, if he had, the rifle would not occur to him as a means of redressing them. I haven’t any grievances myself. One can hardly count the upsetting of one’s trivial private life and plans by European disturbances as a grievance. I don’t see myself yowling of love like an Italian tenor and poking at the baritone with a stiletto.
A Bond Street rifle, I say, is not a weapon that the bodyguard need consider, for the potential assassin cannot train himself to use it. The secret police, who know all about the political antecedents of anyone disaffected to the régime, are not going to allow such a man to possess a good rifle, to walk about with it, or even to turn himself into a first-class shot. So the assassin is compelled to use a weapon that can be easily concealed.
Now, I argued, here am I with a rifle, with a permit to carry it, with an excuse for possessing it. Let us see whether, as an academic point, such a stalk and such a bag are possible. I went no further than that. I planned nothing. It has always been my habit to let things take their course.
I sent my baggage home by train, and covered the last hundred miles or so on foot, traveling with only a knapsack, my rifle and sight, my maps and my field glasses. I marched by night. During daylight I lay up in timber or heath. I have never enjoyed anything so much. Whoever has stalked a beast for a couple of miles would understand what a superbly exciting enterprise it was to stalk over a hundred, passing unseen through the main herds of human beings, the outliers, the young males walking unexpectedly upon hillsides. I was killing two birds with one stone. I revived in myself a sense of adventure and — well, I don’t see why I wrote ‘two birds.’ There was only one bird: the fun of the stalk.
I arrived on the ground at dawn and spent the whole day in reconnaissance. It was an alarming day, for the forest surrounding the house was most efficiently patrolled. From tree to tree and gully to gully I prowled over most of the circuit, but only flat on the earth was I really safe. Often I hid my rifle and glasses, thinking that I was certain to be challenged and questioned. I never was.
I might have been transparent. I have learned the trick of watching shadows, and standing motionless in such a position that they cut and dapple my outline; still, there were times when even a rhinoceros could have seen me.
Here, at any rate, they had considered the offensive possibilities of the rifle. At all points commanding the terrace and the gardens clearings had been cut; nobody, even at extreme ranges, could shoot from cover. Open spaces, constantly crossed by guards, there were in plenty. I chose the narrowest of them: a ride some fifty feet broad which ran straight through the woods and ended at the edge of a low cliff. From the grass slope above the cliff the terrace and the doors leading on to it were in full sight. I worked out the range as 550 yards.
I spent the night on a couch of pine needles, well hidden under the mother tree, and finished my provisions and slept undisturbed. A little before dawn I climbed a few feet down the cliff and squatted on a ledge where the overhang protected me from anyone who might peer over the brink. A stunted elder, clawing at the gravel with the tips of its topheavy roots, was safe enough cover from distant eyes looking upwards. In that cramped position my rifle was useless, but I could, and very clearly, see the great man were he to come out and play with the dog or smell a rose or practise gestures on the gardener.
A path ran across the bottom of the ride, just above my head, and continued along the lower edge of the woods. I timed the intervals at which I heard footsteps, and discovered that somebody crossed the ride about every fourteen minutes. As soon as I was certain of that, I came out of hiding and followed.
I wanted to understand his exact routine.
He was a young guard of splendid physique with loyalty written all over him, but he had, I should think, hardly ever been out of an industrial town in his life. He couldn’t have seen me if I had been under his feet. He knew perfectly well that he was not alone, for he looked over his shoulder again and again, and stared at the bush or the fold in the ground where I was; but of course he put his sensation down to nervousness or imagination. I treated him with disrespect, but I liked him. He was such a sturdy youth, with one of those fleshy open faces and the right instincts — a boy worth teaching. His eyes when he bagged his first tiger would be enough reward for putting up with a month of his naïve ideas.
After I had been round his beat with him and behind him, I knew for how many minutes, at any given time, I could occupy the grass slope and by what route I must escape. When at last the great man came out to the terrace, my young friend had just passed. I had ten minutes to play with. I was up at once on to the slope.
I made myself comfortable, and got the three pointers of the sight steady on the V of his waistcoat. He was facing me and winding up his watch. He would never have known what shattered him
—if I had meant to fire, that is. Just at that moment I felt a slight breeze on my cheek. It had been dead calm till then. I had to allow for the wind. No doubt the great man’s disciples would see the hand of the Almighty in that. I should not disagree with them, for providence assuredly takes special care of any lone and magnificent male. Everyone who has stalked a particularly fine head knows that. It’s natural enough. The Almighty Himself is always considered to be masculine.
I heard a yell. The next thing I knew was that I was coming round from a severe blow on the back of the head, and my young friend was covering me with his revolver. He had hurled a stone at me and himself after it — immediate, instinctive action far swifter than fiddling with his holster. We stared at each other. I remember complaining incoherently that he was seven minutes early. He looked at me as if I had been the devil in person, with horror, with fear — not fear of me, but fear at the suddenly revealed depravity of this world.
‘I turned back,’ he said. ’I knew.’
Well, of course he did. I should never have been such a conceited fool as to upset his nerves and his routine by following him about. He had neither heard me nor set eyes on me, but he was aware enough to make his movements irregular.
Together with his commanding officer he took me down to the house, and there, as I have already written, I was questioned by professionals. My captor left the room after disgracing his manhood — or so he thought — by being violently sick. I myself was detached. Perhaps I should not call it detachment, for my body is sensitive and there was no interruption or hiatus in its messages to my brain. But training counts.
I hold no brief for the pre-war Spartan training of the English upper class — or middle class, as it is now the fashion to call it, leaving the upper to the angels —since in the ordinary affairs of a conventional life it is not of the slightest value to anyone; but it is of use on the admittedly rare occasions when one needs a high degree of physical endurance. I have been through an initiation ceremony on the Rio Javary — the only way I could persuade the natives to teach me how their men can exercise a slight muscular control over hemorrhage — and I thought it more a disagreeable experience than any proof of maturity. It lasted only a day and a night, whereas the initiation ceremonies of the tribal English continue for the ten years of education. We torture a boy’s spirit; rather than his body, but all torture is, in the end, directed at the spirit. I was conditioned to endure without making an ass of myself. That is all I mean by detachment.
I suspect that resignation was a lot easier for me than for a real assassin, since I had nothing at all to give away — no confederates, no motive. I couldn’t save myself by telling them anything interesting. I had no right to endanger others by irresponsible invention. So I kept on automatically repeating the truth without the slightest hope that it would be believed.
At last someone recognized my name, and my story of a sporting stalk became faintly possible; but, whether it were true or not, it was now more than ever essential that I be discreetly murdered. And that was easy. I had admitted that I had not spent a night under a roof for five days, and that nobody knew where I was. They put all my papers and possessions back into my pockets, drove me fifty miles to the north, and staged the accident.
When I came down from that blessed larch and found that my legs would carry me, I began, I say, to look forward. It wou!d be supposed either that I was drowned or that I was lying hurt and incapable in some riverside cover where my corpse would eventually be found. The police and the authorities in neighboring villages would be warned to look out for a moribund stranger, but it was most unlikely that any description of me would have been circularized to other districts. The security officers at the house had no official knowledge of my existence and would share their unofficial knowledge with as few outsiders as possible. It was a convenience to have no existence. Had I stolen a watch instead of stalking the head of a nation, my photograph would have been in all the police stations.
If I could walk, if I had new breeches, and if I could pass the danger zone with-
out calling attention to myself, my chance of getting clear out of the country was not negligible. I had my passport, my maps, and my money. I spoke the language well enough to deceive anyone but a highly educated man listening for mistakes. Dear old Holy George — my private nickname for the ambassador — insists that I speak a dialect, but to him polished grammar is more important than accent. That’s a superstition inseparable from foreign affairs.
I wish I could apologize to Holy George. He had certainly spent some hours of those last twenty-four in answering very confidential cables about me — wiring as respectfully as possible that the bodyguard of his revered master were a pack of bloody fools, and following up with a strong letter to the effect that I was a member of his club and that it was unthinkable I should be mixed up in any such business as was, he could hardly believe seriously, suggested. I fear he must have been reprimanded. The bodyguard were, on the face of it, right.
It was now, I think, Sunday night; it was a Saturday when I was caught, but I am not sure of the lapse of time thereafter.
I knew roughly where I was, and that, to escape from this tumbled world of rock and forest, I should follow any path which ran parallel to the stream. My journey would not have been difficult if I had had crutches, but I could find no pieces of wood of the right height and with an angle to fit under the arm. It was, when I come to think of it, a nearly impossible quest, but at the time I was angry with myself, angry to the point where I wept childish tears of impotence. I couldn’t make my hands use enough pressure on a knife, and I couldn’t find sticks of the right length and shape. For an hour I raged and cursed at myself. I thought my spirit had altogether broken. It was pardonable. When everything was impossible, it was unreasonable to expect myself to distinguish between the miracle that could be forced to happen and the miracle that could not happen.
Finally, of course, I had to accept a miracle that could be forced: to make myself progress without crutches. With a rough staff in each hand I managed about four miles, shuffling over even ground, and crawling for short distances over obstacles or for long distances whenever my legs became unbearably painful. I remember that common experience of carrying a heavy suitcase farther than it can reasonably be carried; one changes it from arm to arm at shorter and shorter intervals until one can no longer decide whether to continue the pain in the right or change to instant pain in the left. So it was with me in my changes from crawling to walking and back again.
I thanked God for the dawn, for it meant that I need not drive myself any farther. Until I knew exactly where I was, and upon what paths men came and went, I had to hide. I collapsed into a dry ditch and lay there for hours.
At last I stood up and had a look at my surroundings. I was near the top of a ridge. Below me and to the left was the wooded valley along which I had come. I had not noticed in the night that I was climbing. Part of my exhaustion had been due to the rising ground.
I shuffled upwards to the skyline. The long curve of a river was spread out at my feet. The near bank was clothed in low bushes through which ran a footpath, appearing and disappearing until it crossed the mouth of my stream by an iron bridge. On the farther bank, a mile upstream, was a country town with a few small factories. Downstream there were pastures on both banks and a small islet in the centre of the river. It was tranquil and safe as any of our hidden English Avons.
I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river, and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier.
At intervals the breeze bore to me the faint sound of cries and splashing. I thought someone was being hurt, — a morbid fancy, natural enough in the circumstances, — but then I realized that the screaming was the collective voice of several women, and that they were bathing. It occurred to me that, when commerce and education stopped for lunch, men might come to swim at the same place, and I could lay my hands on a pair of trousers.
I waited until I saw the girls cross the iron footbridge on their way back to town, and then hobbled down the ridge — a stony, barren hillside where there were, thank heaven, no fences to cross and no officious small holder to ask me what I was doing. The bathing place was plain enough, a semicircle of grass with a clean drop of three feet into the river. Above and below it the bank was covered with a dense growth of willow and alder. I took to my elbows and belly again, and crawled into the thicket. There was already a sort of runway leading into it, which, at the time, I could only assume the Lord had made for my special benefit. I realized afterwards that it had been bored through the bushes by some young fellow who was curious to know the female form and too poor to arrange for it in the ordinary way. I think of him as charitably as I can. From the end of his burrow I had an excellent view of the bushes behind which a modest bather would undress.
My necessary males were not long in coming. Indeed I had a narrow shave, for I heard them yelling and singing their way along the path before I had turned myself round. They were five hefty lads: sons, I should think, of shopkeepers and petty officials. There were two pairs of shorts, two of nondescript trousers, and an old pair of riding breeches. For my build all had the waistbands too roomy and the legs too short, and I couldn’t guess which pair would best fit me. It was that, I think, which gave me the brilliant idea of taking them all. To steal one pair of trousers would obviously direct attention to some passing tramp or fugitive; but if all disappeared the theft would be put down as the practical joke of a comrade. I remember chuckling crazily as I worked my way back to the edge of the bushes.
They undressed in the open, ten yards from the water. That meant there was only one chance for me — to do the job the moment the last man had dived in and before the first came out. It was a mad risk, but I had gone long beyond caring what risks I took.
They dived in within a few seconds of each other, all but one who remained on the bank shadowboxing with his fatbottomed, idiotic self until a friend, as fed up with his posing as I was, reached an arm for his ankles and pulled him in. I was out of my observation post on the instant and hunching myself across the grass. I got four pairs; the fifth was too far away. I just had time to slip behind a bramble bush before one of them pulled himself up the bank. He didn’t look at the clothes — why should he? — and I crawled downstream with the trousers.
Now what was the one place where they would not look? To climb a second tree was unsafe; young men in high spirits naturally think of trees. As for the bushes, they would trample them down like a herd of buffalo. The best place for me was, I decided, the water. No one would expect a practical joker, presumably fully dressed, to go to such lengths as to sink himself and his friends’ breeches in the river. I made for the bank and slid under the willows into a patch of still water full of scum and brushwood. Two of them were swimming quite close, but the boughs trailing in the water protected me well enough from casual glances.
I needn’t have taken so much trouble, for the plan succeeded more easily than I dared hope. They dashed up the path, and I heard their voices resounding from the hillside as they yelled for one Willy. When Willy was not to be found, they draped towels round the tails of their shirts and stormed through the thicket. I don’t know if they actually looked over the bank where I was. I heard one of them within a yard or two, and ducked. At last in an evil mood they took the path for home and Willy. They never doubted for a moment that the culprit was Willy. I hope they didn’t believe his denials till he was thoroughly punished. The sort of man whom one instantly accuses of any practical joke that has been played deserves whatever is coming to him.
Together with the trousers I let myself float down to the islet which I had seen from the top of the ridge. I could use only my arms for swimming. My generation never normally learned the crawl, and my old-fashioned frog’s-leg stroke was too painful to be possible. However, I managed to keep myself and my soggy raft of trousers well out into the river, and the current did the rest.
The islet was bare, but with enough low vegetation on its shores to cover me, provided I kept close to the edge, from observation by anyone on the high ground where I had lain that morning. There were four notices, neatly spaced, to the effect that it was forbidden to land. I can’t conceive why. Perhaps because any idle person in a boat would naturally want to land, and anything that encourages idleness is considered immoral.
I spread out myself, my clothes, and the breeches to dry in the afternoon sun.
I did not attempt to examine my body. It was enough that the soaking had separated textile from flesh with no worse result than a gentle oozing of matter.
I remained on the islet for the Monday night and all the following day. Probably I was there for the Tuesday night too. It was very heaven, for I lay on the sand naked and undisturbed, and allowed the sun to start the work of healing. I was barely conscious most of the time. I would hunch myself into the half-shade of the weeds and rushes and sleep till I grew cold, and I would hunch myself back again and roast and scar my wounds. I had but those two pleasures within attaining, and both were utterly satisfying. I did not want food. I was, I suppose, running a fever, so my lack of appetite was natural. I did suffer from the cold at night, but not severely. I had all the various garments to cover me, and at any other time I should have thought the weather too hot and still for easy sleep.
I awoke, feeling clear-headed and ravenously hungry, at the false dawn of what turned out to be Wednesday. I chose the riding breeches — as I held them against my body they seemed roomy enough not to rub my hide — — and threw shorts and trousers into the river. I hope that their small change was not too great a loss to the owners. Only one had a wallet, and that, since it stuck out from his hip pocket, I had managed to slip on top of the rest of his clothes.
I tied two bits of driftwood together with my belt, and put all my possessions on this improvised raft. I found that I could splash with more ease — though the regular motions of swimming were still beyond me — and reached the farther bank, the raft helping, without being carried more than a hundred yards downstream.
On dryland and within a stone’s throw of a main road, I had to take stock of my appearance. So far my looks had mattered no more to me than the condition of its fur to an animal; but now I proposed to reënter the world of men, and the impression I made was vitally important. Only my shoes and stockings were respectable. I couldn’t bend to
take them off, so the river had cleaned them.
Item: I had to shave off a four days’ beard. That was far from being the mere prejudice of an Englishman against appearing in public with his bristles. If a man is clean-shaved and has a wellfitting collar and tie — even reasonably dirty — he can get away with a multitude of suspicious circumstances.
Item: Gloves. The ends of my fingers had to be shown while paying money and taking goods, and they were not human.
Item: An eye patch. My left eye was in a condition that could not be verified without a mirror. The eyelid had stuck to a mess of what I hoped was only blood.
Item: A clothesbrush. My tweed coat had no elbows, but it might pass provided I brushed off the mud and did not turn away from anyone I spoke to.
I had to have these things. Without them I might as well have given myself up. I had not the will to crawl and hobble night after night to the frontier, nor the agility to steal enough to eat; but if I entered so much as a village shop as I was, the proprietor would promptly escort me to the police or a hospital.
The putting on of the breeches was an interminable agony. When at last I had them up, I couldn’t fasten the blasted buttons. I managed three and had to forgo the rest for fear of leaving bloodstains all over the cloth. Shirt buttons were quite impossible.
I crossed a field and stood for a moment on the empty main road. It was the hour before dawn, and there was an imperial sky of blue and gold. The tarred surface of the road was blue and calm as a canal. Only the trains were alive, dashing across the flat vale as if striving to reach the mountains before it was day. At my disposal, as the map had told me, were river, road, and railway. I was inclined to favor escape by river. A man drifting down the current in a boat doesn’t have to answer questions or fill up forms. But again there was the insuperable handicap of my appearance. I couldn’t present myself as I was to buy a boat, and if I stole one and it were missed, my arrest was certain at the next village downriver.
On the far side of the road was a farm cart, backed against the edge of a field of wheat. I knelt behind it to watch the passers-by. Men were already stirring — a few peasants in the fields, a few walkers on the road. From the latter I hoped to obtain help or at least, by observing them, an inspiration how to help myself.
There was a workman bound for some small factory in the town to whom I nearly spoke. He had an honest, kindly face — but so had most of them. I had no reason at all to suppose he would protect me. Two aimless wanderers went by together. They looked to be persons who would sympathize, but their faces were those of scared rabbits. I couldn’t trust them. Then there were several peasants on their way to the fields. I could only pray that they wouldn’t enter mine. They would have had some sport with me before handing me over to the police; they looked that sort. There was a wretched fellow mumbling and weeping who raised my hopes for a moment. But misery is in some way as sacred as happiness : one doesn’t intrude — not, at any rate, if there is a risk that one might merely add to the misery. Then came another factory worker, and then a tall, stooping man with a fishing rod. He cut across to the river and began to fish not far from where I had landed. He had a melancholy, intellectual face with a deal of strength in it, and I decided to have another look at him.
The tiresome conception of that state has one comforting effect: it creates so many moral lepers that no one of them, if he has a little patience, can long be lonely. The flotsam of the nation is washed together into an unrecognized, nameless, formless secret society. There isn’t much that the bits of scum can do to help one another, but at least they can cling and keep silence. And dawn, I think, is the hour when the pariah goes out. Not for him is the scornful morning with its crowds pointing the fingers of their minds at him, nor the evening when all but he may rest and be merry. But the peace before sunrise cannot be taken from him. It is the hour of the outlawed, the persecuted, the damned, for no man was ever born who could not feel some shade of hope if he were in open country with the sun about to rise. I did not formulate these thoughts at the time. I have developed them in the curious and lonely circumstances under which I write. But I give them for what they are worth to account for my intuition in choosing the right face and the fact that there were so many to choose from.
There was no cover on the farther side of the road and precious little on the bank, so that I had to make up my mind about the fisherman as I slowly and silently crossed the fields towards him. He was paying more attention to his thoughts than to his rod. By the angle of his float I could see that he had hooked the bottom, but he was quite unaware of it. I walked up behind him and wished him good-morning and asked if he had had any luck. He jumped to his feet with the butt of the rod pointed towards me as if to keep me off. I expect he hadn’t seen a creature like me in a long time; they haven’t any tramps there. Even considering me the last word in villains, he thought it best to propitiate me. He apologized for his fishing, and said he didn’t think there was anything wrong in it. He did his best to look servile, but his eyes burned with courage.
I held out my hands to him and asked if he knew how that was done. He didn’t answer a word, just waited for further information.
‘Look here!’ I said to him. ’I swear there isn’t a soul in this country who knows I am alive except yourself. I want gloves, shaving tackle, and a clothesbrush. Don’t buy them. Give me old things that have no mark on them by which they could be traced back to you if I am caught. And if you don’t mind putting your hand in my inside coat pocket you will find money.’
’I don’t want money,’ he said.
His face was absolutely expressionless. He wasn’t giving anything away. He might have meant that he wouldn’t help a fugitive for all the money in the world or that he wouldn’t take money for helping a fugitive. The next move was up to me.
‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.
I saw a flicker of interest in his eyes, but he made no sign that he had understood me. I carried on in English. I was completely in his power, so that there was no point in hiding my nationality. I hoped that the foreign tongue might break down his reserve.
‘I won’t tell you who I am or what I have done,’ I said, ‘because it is wiser that you shouldn’t know. But so long as no one sees us talking together, I don’t think you run the slightest risk in helping me.’
‘I’ll help you,’ he answered in perfect English. ‘What was it you wanted?’
I repeated my requirements and asked him to throw in an eye patch and some food if he could manage it. I also told him that I was a rich man and he needn’t hesitate to take any money he might need. He refused, — with a very sweet, melancholy smile, — but gave me an address in England to which I was to pay what I thought fit if ever I got home.
‘Where shall I put the things?’ he asked.
‘Under the cart over there,’ I answered. ‘And don’t worry. I shall be in the wheat, and I’ll take care not to be seen.’
He said good-bye and moved off abruptly. In one stride he had dissociated himself from me completely. He knew by experience that among the proscribed the truest courtesy was to waste no time in courtesy.
The traffic on the road was increasing, and I had to wait some minutes before I could safely cross into the shelter of the wheat. The sun rose and the landscape budded men and business — barges on the river, a battalion out for a route march on the road, and damned, silent bicycles sneaking up every time I raised my head.
The fisherman was back in an hour, but the road was too busy for him to drop a parcel under the cart unseen. He solved the problem by fetching his rod and sitting on the cart while he took it apart and packed it. When he got up he accidentally left the parcel behind.
To get possession of it was the devil of a job, for I could not see what was about to pass until the traffic was nearly opposite me. I knelt in the wheat, bobbing my head up and down like a pious old woman divided between silent prayer and the responses. At last I plucked up courage and reached the cart. A stream of cars went by, but they did not matter; the danger was a pedestrian or a cyclist who might be tempted to stop and talk. I kept my back to the road and pretended to be tinkering with the axle. A woman wished me good-morning, and that was the worst fright I had had since they pushed me over the cliff. I answered her surlily and she passed on. To wait for a clear road was exasperating, but I needed a full minute free from possible observation. I couldn’t plunge boldly back into the wheat. I had to tread gently, separating the stalks so as not to leave too obvious a track behind me.
At last I knelt in peace and unpacked the parcel which that blessed fisherman had left for me. There was a bottle of milk well laced with brandy, bread, and the best part of a cold chicken. He had thought of everything, even hot shaving water in a thermos flask.
When I had finished his food I felt equal to looking in the mirror. I was cleaner than I expected; the morning swim was responsible for that. But I didn’t recognize myself. It was not the smashed eye which surprised me — that was merely closed, swollen, and ugly. It was the other eye. Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt. My face was all pallors and angles, like that of a Christian martyr in a mediæval painting — and I had the added villainy of bristles. I marveled how such a beastly crop could grow in so poor and spiritual a soil.
I put on my gloves, — limp leather, God reward him, and several sizes too large! — then shaved, brushed my clothes, and dressed myself more tidily. My coat and shirt were patterned in shades of brown, and the bloodstains, weakened by my swim to the island, hardly showed. When I had cleaned up and adjusted the eye patch, I came to the conclusion that I aroused pity rather than suspicion. I looked like a poor but educated man, a clerk or schoolmaster, convalescent after some nasty accident. That was evidently the right part to play.
As soon as I was ready I left the wheat, for now I did not care how wide a track I made so long as no one actually saw me emerge. The road was clearer; it had ceased to feed and empty the town, and become an artery in a greater life. Lorries and cars sped by with the leisurely roar of through traffic. Their drivers had no neighborly feelings towards that mile of road, no damned curiosity about a lonely pedestrian. I covered the mile into town, limping along as best I could and stopping frequently to rest. At need I could walk very slowly and correctly, as if I had been waiting for somebody and hanging on each foot.
I was desperately nervous when first I engaged myself between two lines of houses. There seemed to be so many windows observing me, such crowds on the streets. Looking back on it, I cannot think that I passed more than a score of people, mostly women shopping; but, at the best of times, I have a tendency to ochlophobia. Even in London I avoid crowds at all cost; to push my way through the drift of suburban idlers in Oxford Street is torment to me. The streets of that town were really no more full or empty than those of my own county town, and normally I should not have been affected; but I seemed to have been out of human society for years.
I cut down to the river by the first turning, and came out on to a paved walk, with flower beds and a bandstand, where I could stroll at my artificial pace without making myself conspicuous. Ahead, under the bridge, were moored a dozen boats. When I came abreast of them I saw the expected notice of ‘Boats for Hire’ on a prettily painted cottage. There was a man leaning on the fence, meditative and unbuttoned, and obviously digesting his breakfast while mistaking that process for thought.
I wished him good-day and asked if I could hire a boat. He looked at me suspiciously and remarked that he had never seen me before, as if that ended the discussion. I explained that I was a schoolmaster recovering from a motor accident and had been ordered by my doctor to spend a week in the open air. He took his pipe out of his mouth and said that he didn’t hire boats to strangers. Well, had he one for sale? No, he had not. So there we were. He evidently didn’t like the look of me and wasn’t going to argue.
A shrill yell came from a bedroom window: —
‘Sell him the punt, idiot!’
I looked up. A red face and formidable bust were hanging over the window sill, both quivering with exasperation.
I bowed to her with the formality of a village teacher, and she came down.
‘Sell him what he wants, dolt!' she ordered.
Her small, screaming voice came most oddly from so huge a bulk. I imagine he had driven her voice higher and higher with impatience until it stuck permanently on its top note.
‘I don’t know who he is,’insisted her husband with stupid surliness.
‘Well, who are you?’ she shrieked, as if I had repeatedly refused her the information.
I told my story: how I couldn’t yet walk with any ease, and so had thought of spending a holiday in drifting down the river from town to town and realizing a dream of my youth.
‘Where’s your baggage?’ asked that damned boatman.
I patted my pockets, bulging with the thermos flask and shaving tackle. I told him I needed no more than a nightshirt and a toothbrush.
That set the old girl off again. She skirled like a suckling pig separated from the litter.
‘You expect him to travel with a trunk? He’s a proper man, not an ignorant, shameless idler who wastes good money on clubs and uniforms and whores, and would rather go to the river than raise his hand to pull the plug. He shall have his boat! And cheap!’
She stamped down to the waterfront and showed me the punt. It was comfortable, but far too long and clumsy to be handled by a man who couldn’t sit to paddle. It wasn’t cheap. She asked about double its fair price. Evidently her kindness was not at all disinterested.
There was a twelve-foot dinghy with a red sail, and I inquired if it was for sale. She said it was too expensive for me.
‘I shall sell it again wherever I finish the trip,’ I answered. ‘And I have a little money — compensation for my accident.’
She made her husband step the mast and hoist the sail. How that man hated the pair of us! He announced with gusto that I should certainly drown myself and that his wife could take the blame. A child couldn’t have drowned himself. That boat was exactly what I wanted, The sail was hardly more than a toy, but it would be a considerable help with the wind astern, and was not large enough to be a hindrance if I let go the sheet and drifted with the current. I knew that some days must pass before I felt equal to the effort of tacking.
While she raved at her husband, I got out my wallet. I didn’t want them to see how much I had, nor to wonder too much at my fumbling with gloved hands.
‘There!’ I said, holding out to her a sheaf of notes. ‘That’s all I can afford. Tell me yes or no.’
I don’t know whether it was less or more than she intended to ask, but it was a sight more than the little tub was worth to anyone but me. She looked astonished at my rural simplicity and began to haggle just for form’s sake. I sympathized. I said that no doubt she was right, but that sum was all I could pay for a boat. She took it, of course, and gave me a receipt. In five minutes I was out on the river, and they were wondering, I suppose, why the crazy schoolmaster should kneel on the bottom boards instead of sitting on a thwart, and why he didn’t have his coat decently mended.
Of the days and nights that passed on the tributary and the main river there is little to write. I was out of any immediate danger and content — far more content than I am now, though no less solitary. I didn’t exist, and so long as I was not compelled to show my papers there was no reason why I should exist. Patience was all I needed, and that was easy enough. I recovered my strength as peacefully as if I had been the convalescent I pretended; indeed, thinking myself into the part actually helped me to recover. I nearly believed in my motor accident, my elementary school, my housekeeper, and my favorite pupils about whom I prattled when I fell in with other users of the river or took a meal in an obscure riverside tavern.
From nightfall to dawn I moored my boat in silent reaches of the river, choosing high or marshy or thickly wooded banks where no one could burst in upon me with questions. At first I had taken to the ditches and backwaters, but the danger of that amphibian habit was impressed on me when a farmer led his horses down to drink in my temporary harbor, and insisted on regarding me as a suspicious character. Rain was the greatest hardship I had to endure. After a night’s soaking I felt the chill of the morning mist. A rubber sheet was unobtainable, but I managed at last to buy a tarpaulin. It kept me dry and uncomfortably warm, but it was heavy, and hard for my hands to fold and unfold. Only the most persistent rain could force me to use it.
I made only sixty miles in the first week. My object was to heal myself rather than hurry. I took no risks and expended no effort. Until the back of my thighs had grown some sturdy scars I had to kneel while sailing or drifting, and lie on my stomach across the thwarts while sleeping. That limited my speed. I could not row.
In the second week I tried to buy an outboard motor, and only just got out of the deal in time. I found that to purchase an engine and petrol I had to sign enough papers to ensure my arrest by every political or administrative body that had heard of me. I must say, they have made the way of the transgressor uncommonly difficult. At the next town, however, there was an old-fashioned yard where I bought a businesslike lug sail and had a small foresail fitted into the bargain. Thereafter I carried my own stores, and never put in to town or village. With my new canvas and the aid of the current I could sometimes do forty miles a day and — what was more important — I could keep out of the way of the barges and tugs that were now treating the river as their own.
All the way downriver I had considered the problem of my final escape from the country, and had arrived at three possible solutions. The first was to keep on sailing and trust to luck. This was obviously very risky, for only a fast motorboat could slip past the patrol craft off the port. I should be turned back, either as a suspicious character or as an ignorant idiot who oughtn’t to be allowed in a boat — and the chances, indeed, were against my little twelve-foot tub’s being able to live in the short, breaking seas of the estuary.
The second plan was to embark openly on a passenger vessel — or train, for that matter—and trust that my name and description had never been circularized to the frontier police. This, earlier, I might have tried if I had had the strength; but as my voyage crept into its third week it seemed probable that even the most extensive search for my body would have been abandoned, that it would be assumed I was alive, and that every blessed official was praying for a sight of me and promotion.
My third solution was to hang around the docks for an opportunity of stowing away or stealing a boat or seeing a yacht which belonged to some friend. But this demanded time—and I could not sleep in a hotel without being invited to show my papers or in the open without showing them to a policeman. Whatever I did, I had to do immediately after arrival at the port.
Now of course I was thinking stupidly. The way out of the country was laughably easy. A boy who had merely hit a policeman would have thought of it at once. But in my mind I was a convalescent schoolmaster or I was a ghost. I had divested myself of my nationality and forgotten that I could call on the loyalty of my compatriots. I had nearly thrown away my British passport on the theory that no papers whatever would be safer than my own. As soon as I came in sight of the wharfs, I saw British ships and realized that I had merely to tell a good enough story to the right man to be taken aboard.
I moored my boat to a public landing stage and went ashore. I madea bad mistake in not sinking her. It did occur to me that I should, but, quite apart from the nuisance of sailing back up the river to find a quiet spot where she could be sunk unobserved, I disliked the thought of the friendly little country tub rotting away at the disgusting bottom of an industrial river.
I bought myself a nondescript outfit of blue serge at the first slopshop I came to, and changed in a public lavatory. My old clothes I sold in another slopshop — that seeming the best way to get rid of them without a trace. If ever they were bought it must have been by the poorest of workmen. He will find an unexpected bargain in my favorite coat; it will last him all his life.
Strolling along the quays, I got into conversation with two British seamen by means of the old and tried introduction (which has extracted many a sixpence from me) — ‘Got a match?’ We had a drink together. Neither of them was in a ship bound for England, but they had a pal in a motor ship which was sailing for London the next day.
The pal, haled from the bar to join us on our bench, was a bit wary of me; he was inclined to think that I was a parson from the seamen’s mission masquerading as an honest worker. I calmed his suspicions with two double whiskeys and my most engaging dirty story, whereupon he declared that I was a ‘bit of orl right’ and consented to talk about his officers. The captain, it seemed, was a stickler for correct detail. But Mr. Vaner, the first officer, was ‘a one and a fair caution’; I gathered from his wry smile that pal found the mate a hard taskmaster, while admiring his flamboyant character. Mr. Vaner was obviously the man for me. And, yes, I might catch him still on board if I hurried, because he had been out late the night before.
She was a little ship, hardly more than a coaster, lying alongside an endless ribbon of wharf with her gray and white forecastle nosing up towards the load line of the huge empty tramp in front of her, like a neat fox terrier making the acquaintance of a collie.
Two dock policemen were standing near by. I kept my back to them while I hailed the deck importantly.
‘Mr. Vaner on board ?’
The cook, who was peeling potatoes on a hatch cover, looked up from the bucket between his knees.
‘I’ll see, sir.’
That ‘sir’ was curious and comforting. In spite of my shabby foreign clothing and filthy shoes, the cook had placed me at a glance in Class X. He would undoubtedly describe me as a gent, and Mr. Vaner would feel he ought to see me.
I say Class X because there is no definition of it. To talk of an upper or a ruling class is nonsense. The upper class, if the term has any meaning at all, means landed gentry who probably do belong to Class X but form only a small proportion of it. The ruling class are, I presume, politicians and servants of the state—terms which are self-contradictory.
I wish there were some explanation of Class X. We are politically a democracy — or should I say that we are an oligarchy with its ranks ever open to talent? — and the least class-conscious of nations in the Marxian sense. The only class-conscious people are those who would like to belong to Class X and don’t: the suburban old-school-tie brigade and their wives, especially their wives. Yet we have a profound division of classes which defies analysis since it is in a continual state of flux.
Who belongs to Class X? I don’t know till I talk to him and then I know at once. It is not, I think, a question of accent, but rather of the gentle voice. It is certainly not a question of clothes. It may be a question of bearing. I am not talking, of course, of provincial society in which the division between gentry and non-gentry is purely and simply a question of education.
I should like some socialist pundit to explain to me why it is that in England a man can be a member of the proletariat by every definition of the proletariat (that is, by the nature of his employment and his poverty) and yet obviously belong to Class X, and why another can be a bulging capitalist or cabinet minister or both and never get nearer to Class X than being directed to the saloon bar if he enters the public.
I worry with this analysis in the hope of hitting on some new method of effacing my identity. When I speak a foreign language I can disguise my class, background, and nationality without effort, but when I speak English to an Englishman I am at once spotted as a member of X. I want to avoid that, and if the class could be defined I might know how.
Mr. Vaner received me in his cabin. He was a dashing young man in his early twenties, with his cap on the back of a head of brown curls. His tiny stateroom was well hung with feminine photographs, some cut from the illustrated weeklies, some personally presented and inscribed in various languages. He evidently drove himself hard on land as well as sea.
As soon as we had shaken hands, he said: —
‘Haven’t met you before, have I?'
‘No. I got your name from one of the hands. I hear you are sailing to-morrow.’
‘Well?’ he asked guardedly.
I handed him my passport.
‘Before we go any farther, I want you to satisfy yourself that I am British and really the person I pretend to be.'
He looked at my passport, then up at my face and eye patch.
‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘Take a seat, won’t you? You seem to have been in trouble, sir.’
‘I have, by God! And I want to get out of it.’
‘A passage? If it depended on me — but I’m afraid the old man —
I told him that I didn’t want a passage, that I wouldn’t put so much responsibility on either him or the captain; all I wanted was a safe place to stow away.
He shook his head and advised me to try a liner.
‘I daren’t risk it,’ I answered. ‘But show me where to hide, and I give you my word of honor that no one shall see me during the voyage or when I go ashore.’
‘You had better tell me a little more,’ he said.
He threw himself back in his chair and cocked one leg over the other. His face assumed a serious and judicial air, but his delightfully swaggering pose showed that he was enjoying himself.
I spun him a yarn which, so far as it went, was true. I told him that I was in deadly trouble with the authorities, that I had come down the river in a boat, and that an appeal to our consul was quite useless.
‘I might put you in the storeroom,’ he said doubtfully. ‘We’re going home in ballast, and there’s nowhere in the hold for you to hide.’
I suggested that the storeroom was too dangerous, that I didn’t want to take the remotest chance of being seen and getting the ship into trouble. That seemed to impress him.
‘Well,’he replied,‘if you can stand it, there’s an empty fresh-water tank which we never use, and I could prop up the cover so that you’d get some air. But I expect that you’ve slept in worse places, sir, now that I come to think of it.’
‘You recognized my name?’
‘Of course. I wouldn’t do this for everyone.’
All the same I think he would, given a story that appealed to him.
I asked when I could come aboard.
‘No time like the present! I don’t know who’s down in the engine room, but there’s nobody on deck except the cook. I’ll just deal with the cops!’
He waited till the couple of police had walked two hundred yards up the wharf and then started waving and shouting good-bye as if someone had just gone away between the warehouses. The two looked round and continued their stroll; they had no reason to doubt that a visitor left the ship while they had their backs to her.
Mr. Vaner sent the cook ashore to buy a bottle of whiskey.
‘You’ll need something to mix with your water,’ he chuckled, immensely pleased now that he had committed himself to the adventure, ‘and I don’t want him around while I open up the tank. You wail here and make yourself comfortable.’
I asked him what I had better say if anyone came aboard unexpectedly and found me in his cabin.
‘Say? Oh, tell ‘em you’re her father!’ He pointed to a photograph of a giggling young girl who was bashfully displaying her legs as if to advertise silk stockings.
‘I should surely have urgent business elsewhere if you were. Inside the water tank myself, as likely as not!’
He settled his cap over one ear and marched out of the cabin, whistling with such an elaborate air of unconcern that any one of his young women would have known he was planning some deception. But I was pretty sure he would take no risks. His play-acting was for his own amusement and for me, his partner in crime. To the rest of the world he was the responsible ship’s officer.
He was back in ten minutes.
‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘The cops have just gone round the corner.’
We did have to hurry. The manhole was on a level with and in full view of the wharf, being set into the quarter-deck between the after wall of the chartroom and a lifeboat slung athwartship. We took a hasty look round and I pushed myself through into a space about the size of half a dozen coffins.
‘I’ll make you comfortable later on,’ he said. ‘It will be slack water in about two hours.’
I was comfortable enough, more re-
laxed than I had been since the first week on the river. The darkness and the six walls gave me an immediate sense of safety. I had gone to ground after the hunt, and the cold iron of the closed tank was more protective than the softest grass in the open. This was the first of my dens, and I think that it provided me with the idea of the second.
At the bottom of the ebb, when the quarter-deck had sunk well below the edge of the wharf, Mr. Vaner turned up with blankets, the cushion of a settee, water, whiskey, biscuits, and a covered bucket for my personal needs.
‘Snug as a bug in a rug!’ he declared cheerfully. ‘And what’s more, I’ve given you a safety valve.’
‘I’ve disconnected the outflow. Can you see light?’
I looked down a small pipe at the bottom of the tank and did see light.
‘That’s on the wall of the captain’s bathroom,’ he said. ‘I never knew we could get fresh water there. The worst of these labor-saving ships is that one never has time to find out all the gadgets. Now, you have that and you have the air intake, so if the old man notices the manhole and I have to screw it up for a time, you’ll be all right.’
‘Where do you dock?’ I asked.
‘We’re going right up the river to Wandsworth. I’ll tell you when it’s safe to slip ashore.’
I heard steps on the deck — one heard in that tank everything that touched or struck the deck — and Mr. Vaner disappeared. I never saw him again.
I dozed uneasily until all the noises ceased; the crew, I suppose, had come on board and settled down for the night. Then I slept in good earnest and awoke to the sound of heavy boots trampling above and below me; it was morning, for I could see light at the end of my two pipes. The manhole was screwed up tight with a finality which I didn’t enjoy — not that there was the slightest risk of asphyxiation, but it suddenly occurred to me that if Mr. Vaner were washed overboard I should be in the tank until the captain discovered, if he ever did discovcr, that he could fill his bath with fresh water by making a simple connection.
That was the sort of ridiculous fear which alcohol can dispel quicker than self-control, so I poured myself a stiff whiskey and ate some biscuits.
Then we sailed —an unmistakable jangle of sounds like a hundred iron monkeys playing tag in a squash court. Some hours later my manhole was opened and propped, and a cold mutton chop, with a note attached to it instead of a frill, descended on my stomach. I ate the chop and knelt below the crack of light to read the message.
Sorry I had to screw you down. The cops found a boat and traced it to you. They turned us inside out this morning and all other ships at the wharf. Caught four stowaways, I hear. We are outside territorial waters, so you’re O.K. They know all about your eye patch. If you’re likely to run into any trouble, take it off. I’ll slip you a pair of dark glasses when it’s time to go. Dock police reported that a chap of your build had come on board and left. I said I had been asked for a passage, and refused. If you have any papers you want to get rid of, leave them in the tank and I’ll deliver them wherever you direct.
R. VANER (First Officer)
P.S. Try not to upset anything. Have just remembered that if you do it will run into the old man’s bathroom.
I wish I could have given the dashing Mr. Vaner some convincing evidence that he was serving his country instead of a — well, I can’t call myself a criminal. If there were any crimes committed, they were committed on my person. But, as I say, I do not blame the men who committed them. They had every reason to think that they had caught an assassin.
Their police organization is superb; but the finding of that paralyzed thing which had crawled and bled was a casual job for foresters. Only within the last day or two, I expect, when an exhaustive search for my corpse at last suggested that there might be no corpse to find, did they extend inquiries to road, rail, and river, and learn about the boating schoolmaster who had an eye patch and always kept on his gloves. Then the police came into action. They hadn’t picked me up, I should guess, for the simple reason that they had just begun to look for a boat with red sails and happened to miss the little yard where I changed them; but when some officials noticed an unfamiliar dinghy moored where I probably had no right to moor her, she was at once identified.
Vaner’s suggestion that my troubles might by no means be over when I reached London was disturbing. I hadn’t given the matter any thought. One’s instinct is against looking too far forward when the present demands all available resource.
I began to speculate on what would happen if I reappeared quite openly in England. I was perfectly certain that my pursuers would not appeal to the Foreign Office or to Scotland Yard. Whatever I might have done or intended, their treatment of me wouldn’t stand publicity. They couldn’t be sure how the English would react; nobody ever is. After all, we once went to war for the ear of a Captain Jenkins— though Jenkins was an obscurer person than I and had, considering the number of laws he broke, been treated with no great barbarity.
Would they, then, follow me up themselves? Mr. Vaner, with his taste for romance, appeared to think they would. I myself had assumed that, once I was over the frontier, bygones would be bygones. I now saw that this was a foolishly optimistic view. They couldn’t go to the police, true, but neither could I. I had committed an extraditable offense; if I complained of being molested, I might force them into telling why I was molested.
It came to this; I was an outlaw in my own country as in theirs, and if my death were required it could easily be accomplished. Even assuming they couldn’t fake an accident or suicide, no motive or a wrong motive would be discovered for the crime, and no murderer or the wrong murderer would be arrested.
Then I thought that I had let myself be carried away by a casual phrase of Yaner’s, and that this uneasiness was preposterous. Why on earth, I argued, should they take the unnecessary risk of removing me in my own country? Did they imagine that I was likely to put the wind up them by another of these sporting expeditions?
I reluctantly admitted that they might very well imagine it. They knew that I was an elusive person who could quite possibly return, if he chose, and upset the great man’s nerves once more. As to whether I would so choose, there were among my opponents — I can’t call them enemies—some notable big-game shots who would realize that the temptation was not unthinkable.
The manhole was never screwed up again, and I lay on my cushion suffering little more discomfort than I generally suffer at sea. I am a good sailor, but even in a first-class stateroom I feel gently and sleepily bilious, disinclined to do more than walk from my cabin to the library and back, or be faintly polite to a fellow passenger at the hour of the apéritif. On the credit side of this voyage was the fact that I hadn’t got to be polite to anyone; on the debit, that I hadn’t got a book. I passed my time in sleep and slightly nightmarish meditation.
The boom and thump of the Diesels, resonant and regular as distant tribal drums, signaled to me our progress up the Thames. They slowed to pick up the pilot; they were fussed and flurried by the engine-room telegraph in the crowded waters of Gravesend Reach; they handed over to the whir of electric capstans when we tied up, as I guess, somewhere below bridges (for she rode too high to pass upriver on the top of the flood); they beat slowly seven hours later, while I imagined them carrying us up through the Pool and the City, through Westminster and Chelsea, until the telegraph belled them into incoherent rhythms and finished with the engines.
There were bangings and tramplings, and then silence. After a while my tank settled over to port, and I assumed that we were resting on the Wandsworth mud. Another note was dropped through the manhole, accompanied by a pair of formidably dark glasses wrapped in brown paper.
Don’t go out through the gates. There’s a chap watching I don’t like the look of. The dinghy is under the starboard quarter. As soon as she floats I’ll give you a knock, and you beat it quick. Row across to the public steps by Hurlingham east wall. I’ll take the boat back later. Best of luck.
R. VANER (First Officer)
He rapped on the manhole an hour or so later, and I pushed out my arms and shoulders by merely standing up; indeed I could stand up no other way. There was a light in Mr. Vaner’s cabin, and a loud noise of conversation; he was assuring my privacy by entertaining the night watchman. I dropped into the dinghy, and pulled quietly across the river through the pink band of water that reflected the glare of London into the black band of water beneath the trees. My arrival was noticed only by a boy and girl, the inevitable boy and girl to be found in every dark corner of a great city. Better provision should be made for them — a Park of Temporary Affection, for example, from which lecherous clergymen and aged civil servants should be rigorously excluded. But such segregation is more easily accomplished by the uncivilized. Any competent witch doctor could merely declare the Park taboo for all but the nubile.
It was nearly ten o’clock. I walked to the King’s Road and found a grillroom where I ordered about all the meat they had to be put on the bars and served to me. While I waited I entered the telephone box to call my club. I always stay there when I have to be in London, and that I should stay there this time I never doubted until the door of the box shut behind me. Then I found that I could not telephone my club.
What excuses I gave myself at the moment, I can’t remember. I think I told myself that it was too late, that they wouldn’t have a room, that I didn’t wish to walk through the vestibule in those clothes and in that condition.
After my supper I took a bus to Cromwell Road and put up at one of those hotels designed for gentlewomen in moderately distressed circumstances. The people didn’t much care about taking me in, but fortunately I had a couple of pound notes and they had a room with a private bath; since their regular clientele could never afford such luxury, they were glad enough to let me the room. I gave them a false name and told them some absurd story to the effect that I had just arrived from abroad and had my luggage stolen. To digest my meal I read a sheaf of morning and evening papers, and then went to my room.
Their water, thank God, was hot! I had the most pleasurable bath that I ever remember. I have spent a large part of my life out of reach of hot baths; yet, when I enjoy a tub at leisure, I wonder why any man voluntarily deprives himself of so cheap and satisfying a delight. It rested and calmed me more than any sleep; indeed I had slept so much on the ship that my bath and my thoughts while lying in it had the flavor of morning rather than of night.
I understood why I had not telephoned my club. This was the first occasion on which I recognized that I had a second enemy dogging my movements — my own unjust and impossible conscience. Utterly unfair it was that I should judge myself as a potential murderer. I insist that I was always sure I could resist the temptation to press the trigger when my sights were actually on the target.
I have good reason now for a certain malaise. I have killed a man, though in self-defense. But then I had no reason at all. I may be wrong in talking of conscience; my trouble was, perhaps, merely a vision of the social effects of what I had done. This stalk of mine made it impossible for me to enter my club. How could I, for example, talk to Holy George after all the trouble I had caused him? And how could I expose my fellow members to all the unpleasantness of being watched and questioned? No, I was an outlaw not because of my conscience (which, I maintain, has no right to torment me) but on the plain facts.
There was no lack of mirrors in the bathroom, and I made a thorough examination of my body. I shall carry some extraordinary scars for life, but the wounds had healed, and there was nothing any doctor could do to help. My fingers still appeared to have been squashed in a railway carriage door and then sharpened with a penknife, but they were in fact serviceable for all but very rough or very sensitive work. The eye was the only part of me that needed attention. I didn’t propose to have anyone monkeying with it, — I dared not give up my freedom of movement for the sake of regular treatments or an operation, — but I wanted a medical opinion and whatever lotions would do it the most good.
In the morning I changed all the foreign money in my possession, and bought myself a passable suit off the peg. Then I got a list of eye specialists and taxied round and about Harley Street until I found a man who would see me at once. He was annoyingly inquisitive. I told him that I had hurt the eye at the beginning of a long voyage and had been out of reach of medical care ever since. When he had fully opened the lid, he fumed over my neglect, folly, and idiocy and declared that the eye had been burned as well as bruised. I agreed politely that it had and shut up; whereupon he became a doctor instead of a moralist and got down to business. He was honest enough to say that he could do nothing, that I’d be lucky if I ever perceived more than light and darkness, and that, on the whole, he recommended changing it for a glass eye for the sake of appearance. He was wrong there. My eye isn’t pretty, but it functions better every day.
He wouldn’t hear of my going about in dark glasses with no bandage, so I had him extend the bandages over the whole of my head. He humored me in this, evidently thinking that I might get violent if opposed; my object was to give the impression of a man who had smashed his head rather than a man with a damaged eye. He was convinced that my face was familiar to him, and I allowed him to decide that we had once met in Vienna.
The next job was to see my solicitors in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The partner who has the entire handling of my estate is a man of about my own age and an intimate friend. He disapproves of me on only two grounds: that I refuse to sit on the board of any blasted company, and that I insist upon my right to waste money in agriculture. He doesn’t mind my spending it on anything else, finding a vicarious pleasure in my travels and outlandish hobbies. He himself has a longing for a less ordered life, shown chiefly in his attitude to clothes. During the day he is sombrely and richly attired, and has even taken in recent years to wearing a black silk stock. At night he puts on tweeds, a sweater, and a tie that would frighten a newspaper man. One can’t make him change for dinner. He would rather refuse an invitation.
Saul greeted me with concern rather than surprise; it was as if he had expected me to turn up in a hurry and the worse for wear. He locked the door and told his office manager we were not to be disturbed.
I assured him that I was all right and that the bandage was four times as long as was necessary. I asked what he knew and who had inquired for me.
’He said that there had been a pointedly casual inquiry from Holy George and that a few days later a fellow had come in to consult him about some inconceivable tangle under the Married Woman’s Property Act.
’He was so perfectly the retired military man from the West of England,’said Saul, ‘that I felt he couldn’t be real. He claimed to be a friend and neighbor of yours and was continually referring to you. When I cross-examined him a bit, it looked as if he had mugged up his case out of a law book and was really after information. Major Quive-Smith, he called himself. Ever heard of him?’
’Never,’I replied. ‘He certainly isn’t a neighbor of mine. Was he English?’
‘ I thought so. Did you expect him not to he English?’
I said I wasn’t answering any of his innocent questions, that he was, after all, an Officer of the Court, and that I didn’t wish to involve him.
’Tell me this much,’ he said. ‘Have you been abroad in the employ of our government?’
’No, on my own business. But I have to disappear.’
‘You shouldn’t think of the police as tactless,’ he reminded me gently. ’A man in your position is protected without question. You’ve been abroad so much that I don’t think you have ever realized the power of your name. You’re automatically trusted, you see.’
I told him that I knew as much of my own people as he did — perhaps more, since I had been an exile long enough to see them from the outside. But I had to vanish. There was a risk that I might be disgraced.
A nasty word, that. I am not disgraced and I will not feel it.
‘Can I vanish? Financially, I mean?’ I asked him. ‘You have my power of attorney and you know more of my affairs than I do myself. Can you go on handling my estate if I am never heard of again?’
‘So long as I know you are alive.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘A postcard this time next year will do.’
‘X marks my window, and this is a palm tree? ‘
‘Quite sufficient if in your own handwriting. You needn’t even sign it.’
‘Mightn’t you be asked for proof?’ I inquired.
‘No. If I say you are alive, why the devil should it ever be questioned? But don’t leave me without a postcard from time to time. You mustn’t put me in the position of maintaining what might be a lie.’
I told him that if he ever got one postcard, he’d probably get a lot more; it was my ever living to write the first that was doubtful.
He blew up and told me I was absurd.
He mingled abuse with affection in a way I hadn’t heard since my father died. I didn’t think he would take my disappearance so hard; I suppose he is as fond of me, after all, as I am of him, and that’s saying a lot. He begged me again to let him talk to the police. I had no idea, he insisted, of the number and the subtle beauty of the strings that could be pulled.
I could only say I was awfully sorry, and after a silence I told him I wanted five thousand pounds in cash.
He produced my deed box and accounts. I had a balance of three thousand at the bank; he wrote his own check for the other two. That was like him — no nonsense about waiting for sales of stock or arranging an overdraft.
‘Shall we go out and lunch while the boy is at the bank?’ he suggested.
‘I think I’ll leave here only once,’ I said.
‘You might be watched? Well, we’ll soon settle that.’
He sent for Peale, a gray little man in a gray little suit whom I had only seen emptying the waste-paper baskets or fetching cups of tea.
‘Anybody taking an interest in us, Peale?’
‘There is a person in the gardens between Remnant Street and here feeding the birds. He is not very successful with them, sir,’ —Peale permitted himself a dry chuckle,— ‘in spite of the fact that he has been there for the past week during office hours. And I understand from Pruce & Fothergill that there are two other persons in Newmans Row. One of them is waiting for a lady to come out of their offices — a matrimonial case, I believe. The other is not known to us, and was observed to be in communication with the pigeon man, sir, as soon as this gentleman emerged from his taxi.’
Saul thanked him, and sent him out to fetch us some beer and a cold bird.
I asked where he watched from, having a vague picture of him hanging over the parapet of the roof when he had nothing to do.
‘Good God, he doesn’t watch!’ exclaimed Saul, as if I had suggested a major impropriety. ‘He just knows all the private detectives who are likely to be hanging around Lincoln’s Inn Fields — on very good terms with them, I believe. They have to have a drink occasionally, and then they ask Peale or his counterpart in some other firm to keep his eyes open. When they see anyone who is not a member of their trades-union, so to speak, they all know it.’
Peale came back with the lunch, and a packet of information straight from the counter of the saloon bar. The birdman had been showing great interest in our windows and had twice telephoned. The chap in Newmans Row had hailed my taxi as it drove away. He would be able to trace me back to Harley Street and to the clothes shop, where, by a little adroit questioning, he could make an excuse to see the suit I discarded. My identification would be complete; it didn’t much matter, since the watchers already had a strong suspicion that I was their man.
Peale couldn’t, tell us whether another watcher had been posted in Newmans Row or whether the other exits from Lincoln’s Inn Fields were watched. I was certain that they were, and complained to Saul that all respectable firms of solicitors (who deal with far more scabrous affairs than the crooked) should have a back door. He replied that they weren’t such fools as they looked, and that Peale could take me into Lincoln’s Inn or the Law Courts and lose me completely.
Perhaps I should have trusted them; but I felt that, while their tricks might be good enough to lose a single private detective, I shouldn’t be allowed to escape so easily. I decided to throw off the hunt in my own way.
When I kept my gloves on to cat, Saul forgot his official discretion and became an anxious friend. I think he suspected what had happened to me, though not why it had happened. I had to beg him to leave the whole subject alone.
After lunch I signed a number of documents to tidy up loose ends, and we blocked out a plan I had often discussed with him of forming a sort of Tenants’ Coöperative Society. Since I never make a penny out of the land, I thought the tenants might as well make their own loans, pay rent to themselves, and do their own repairs, with the right to purchase the land by installments at a price fixed by the committee. I hope it works. At any rate Saul and my land agent will keep them from quarreling among themselves. I have no other dependents.
Then I passed on to him the address that the fisherman had given me, and we arranged for an income to be paid where it would do the most good — a most discreet trust that couldn’t conceivably be traced to me. It appeared to come from the estate of a recently defunct old lady who had left the bulk of her money to an institution for inoculating parrots against psittacosis, and the rest to any charitable object that Saul, as sole trustee, might direct.
There was nothing further to be done but arrange my cash in a body belt, and say good-bye. I asked him, if at any time a coroner sat on my body and brought in a verdict of suicide, not to believe it but to make no attempt to reopen the case.
Peale walked with me across the square and into Kingsway by Gate Street. I observed that we were followed by a tall, inoffensive fellow in a dirty mackintosh and shabby felt hat, who was the birdman. He looked the part. We also caught sight of a cheerful military man in Remnant Street, wearing a coat cut for riding and trousers narrower than were fashionable, whom Peale at once recognized as Major Quive-Smith. So I knew two at least whom I must throw off my track.
We parted at Holborn underground station, and I took a shilling ticket with which I could travel to the remotest end of London. The birdman had got ahead of me. I passed him on the level of the Central London, and went down the escalator to the west-bound Piccadilly Tube. Ten seconds after I reached the platform, Major Quive-Smith also appeared upon it. He was gazing at the advertisements and grinning at the comic ones, as if he hadn’t been in London for a year.
I pretended I had forgotten something, and shot out of the exit, up the stairs, and down a corridor to the northbound platform. No train was in. Even if there had been a train, the major was too close behind for me to catch it and leave him standing.
I noticed that the shuttle train to the Aldwych left from the opposite side of the same platform. This offered a way of escape if ever there were two trains in at the same time.
The escalator took me back to the Central London level. The birdman was talking to the chap in a glass box at the junction of all the runways. I’d call him a ticket collector, but he never seems to collect any tickets; probably he is there to answer silly questions such as the birdman was busily engaged in asking.
I took the second escalator to the surface, and promptly dashed down again.
The birdman followed me, but a bit late. We passed each other about midway, he going up and I going down and both running like hell. I thought I had him, that I could reach a Central London train before he could; but he was taking no risks. He vaulted over the division on to the stationary staircase. We reached the bottom separated only by the extra speed of my moving staircase— and that was a mere ten yards. The man in the glass box came to life and said: ‘’Ere! You can’t do that, you know!’ But that didn’t worry the birdman. He was content to remain and discuss his antisocial action with the ticket-non-collector. I had already turned to the right into the Piccadilly Line and on to Major Quive-Smith’s preserves.
At the bottom of the Piccadilly escalator you turn left for the north-bound trains, and continue straight on for the west-bound. To the right is the exit, along which an old lady with two wide parcels was perversely trying to force her way against the stream of outcoming passengers. Major Quive-Smith was away to the left, at the mouth of the passage to the north-bound trains; so I plunged into the stream after the old lady, and was clear of it long before he was.
I ran on to the north-bound platform. An Aldwych shuttle was just pulling in, but there was no Piccadilly train. I shot under the Aldwych line, down to the west-bound platform, into the general exit, jamming him in another stream of
outcoming passengers, and back to the north-bound Piccadilly. There was a train standing, and the Aldwych shuttle had not left. I jumped into the Piccadilly train with the major so far behind that he was compelled to get into another coach just as the doors were closing and just as I stepped out again. Having thus dispatched the major to an unknown destination, I got into the Aldwych shuttle, which at once left on its halfmile journey.
This was all done at such a pace that I hadn’t had time to think. I ought to have crossed to the west-bound Piccadilly and taken a train into the blue. But, naturally enough, I wanted to leave Holborn station as rapidly as possible for fear of running into the birdman or another unknown watcher if I waited. After half a minute in the Aldwych shuttle I realized that I had panicked like a rabbit in a warren. The mere couple of ferrets who had been after me had been magnified by my escape mechanism — a literal escape mechanism, this, and working much faster than my mind — into an infinity of ferrets.
When we arrived at the Aldwych station and I was strolling to the lifts, I sawr that it was not yet too late to return to Holborn. The birdman would still be on the Central London level, for he might lose me if he left it for a moment. Quive-Smith couldn’t have had time to telephone to anyone what had happened.
I turned back and reëntered the shuttle. The passengers were already seated in the single coach, and the platform clear; but a man in a black hat and blue flannel suit got in after me. That meant that he had turned back when I had turned back.
At Holborn I remained seated to prove whether my suspicions were correct. They were. Black Hat got out, sauntered around the platform, and got in again just before the doors closed. They had been far too clever for me! They had evidently ordered Black Hat to travel back and forth between Holborn and the Aldwych, and to go on traveling until either I entered that cursed coach or they gave him the signal that I had left by some other route. All I had done was to send Quive-Smith to Bloomsbury, whence no doubt he had already taken a taxi to some central clearing point to which all news of my movements was telephoned.
As we left again for the Aldwych, Black Hat was at the back of the coach and I was in the front. We sat as far away as possible from each other. Though we were both potential murderers, we felt, I suppose, mutual embarrassment. Mutual. I wish to God he had sat opposite me, or shown himself in some way less human than I.
The Aldwych station is a dead end. A passenger cannot leave it except by the lift or the emergency spiral staircase. Nevertheless I thought I had a wild chance of getting away. When the doors of the train opened, I dashed on to and off the platform, round a corner to the left, and up a few stairs; but instead of going ten yards farther, round to the right and so to the lift, I hopped into a little blank alley that. I had noticed on my earlier walk.
There was no cover of any sort, but Black Hat did just what I hoped. He came haring up the corridor, pushing through the passengers with his eyes fixed straight ahead, and jumped for the emergency staircase. The ticket collector called him back. He shouted a question whether anyone had gone up the stairs. The ticket collector, in turn, asked was it likely. Black Hat then entered the lift, and in the time it took him to get there and to glance over the passengers I was out of my alley and back on the platform.
The train was still in, but if I could catch it, so could Black Hat. The corridor was short, though with two rightangled twists, and he couldn’t be more than five seconds behind me. I jumped on to the line and took refuge in the tunnel. There wasn’t any employee of the Underground to see me except the driver, and he was in his box at the front of the coach. The platform, of course, was empty.
Beyond the Aldwych station there seemed to be some fifty yards of straight tube, and then a curve, its walls faintly visible in a gleam of gray light. Where the tunnel goes, or if it ends in an old shaft after the curve, I didn’t have time to find out.
Black Hat looked through the coach and saw that I wasn’t in it. The train pulled out, and when its roar had died away there was absolute silence. I had not realized that Black Hat and I should be left alone a hundred feet under London. I lay flattened against the wall in the darkest section of the tunnel.
The working of the Aldwych station is very simple. Just before the shuttle is due, the lift comes down. The departing passengers get into the train; the arriving passengers get into the lift. When the lift goes up and the train leaves, Aldwych station is deserted as an ancient mine. You can hear the drip of water and the beat of your heart.
I can still hear them, and the sound of steps and his scream and the hideous, because domestic, sound of sizzling. They echoed along that tunnel which leads Lord knows where. A queer place for a soul to find itself adrift.
It was self-defense. He had a flashlight and a pistol. I don’t know if he meant to use it. Perhaps he was only as frightened of me as I was of him. I crawled right, to his feet and sprang at him. By God, I want to die in the open! If ever I have land again, I swear I’ll never kill a creature below ground.
I lifted the bandages from my head and put them in my pocket; that expanse of white below my hat attracted too much attention to me. Then I came out, crossed the platform into the corridor, and climbed a turn of the emergency stairs. As soon as the lift came down, I mingled with the departing passengers and waited for the train. When it came in, I went up in the lift with the new arrivals. I gave up my shilling ticket and received a surprised glance from the collector, since the fare from Holborn was but a penny. The only alternative was to pretend I had lost my ticket and to pay; that would have meant still closer examination.
I left the station free, unwatched, unhurried, and took a bus back to the respectable squares of Kensington. Who would look for a fugitive between the Cromwell and Fulham roads? I dined at leisure, and then went to a cinema to think.
In these days of visas and identification cards it is impossible to travel without leaving a trail that can, with patience, bribery, and access to public records, be picked up. In the happy years between 1925 and 1930 you could talk yourself over any western European frontier, so long as you looked respectable and explained your movements and business with a few details that could be checked; you could treat frontier police as men of decency and common sense — two virtues that they could then afford to indulge. But now, unless a traveler has some organization — subversive or benevolent — to help him, frontiers are an efficient bar to those who find it inconvenient or impossible to show their papers; and even if a frontier be crossed without record, there isn’t the remotest village where a man can live without justifying himself and his reasons for being himself. Thus Europe, for me, was a mere trap with a delayed action.
Where then could I go? I thought at once of a job on a ship, for there’s a shortage of seamen in these days; but it wasn’t worth visiting shipping offices with my hands in the state they were. Rule out a long voyage as a stowaway. Rule out a discreet passage on a cargo ship. I could easily have got such a passage, but only by revealing my identity and presence in England to some friend. That I wanted to avoid at all costs. Only Saul and Peale and the admirable secret service which was hunting me knew that I wasn’t in Poland. None of them would talk.
There remained a voyage on a passenger vessel. I could certainly get on to the ship without showing my passport; I might be able to get off it. But passenger lists are open to inspection, and if my name appeared on one some blasted reporter would consider it news and save my hunters trouble. They would, anyway, be watching the lists themselves.
Then I needed a false passport. In normal circumstances I have no doubt that Saul or my friends in the Foreign Office could have arranged some tactful documentation for me, but, as it was, I could not involve any of them. It was unthinkable, just as police protection was unthinkable. I could not risk embarrassing the officials of my country. If the extraordinary being at whose waistcoat I had looked through a telescopic sight were moved by his cæmon or digestion to poison international relations even further, a very pretty case could be built up against a government that helped me to escape.
As I sat back in that cheap cinema seat, with my eyes closed and with the meaningless noises and music forcing my mind from plan to plan, I saw that I could disappear only by not leaving England at all. I must bury myself in some farm or country pub until the search for me had slackened.
(To be continued)
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