The Atlantic Serial Rogue Male
CHAPTERS IX TO XVII
Rogue Male ... is a novel written in the first person. It is the confession of an English aristocrat with a name internationally known, who appears to have taken little part in politics or society, but to have earned his notoriety through exploration and big-game hunting. ’Lest what I write,’he says, ‘should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am.’
He became obsessed with the idea of stalking the biggest game of all, a European dictator. He does not tell us whether he went east or west from Poland, his starting point. He was caught when Iris telescopic sight was coming on to the target.
His claim that he never actually meant to shoot was, naturally enough, considered incredible by the secret police; indeed he himself shows a reticence about his motives which cannot altogether be accounted for by his very English reserve. He was questioned and tortured until some official recognized the name on his passport, and his story of a sporting stalk seemed possible, if unlikely. ‘By that time,’he says, with his usual genius for understatement, ‘I had, of course, been knocked about very considerably.’ So his examiners dared not let him go; they threw him over a cliff and staged his death to look like an accident.
He fell, however, into a patch of bog, and, though partially paralyzed, was able to use his woodcraft to throw off pursuit and to convince the search parties that he had been drowned or bad died in thick cover like an animal. Meanwhile he was really making his way to the sea in the guise of a village schoolmaster who had been injured in an automobile accident and advised by his doctor to take a river holiday with a small boat.
He reached London by stowing himself away in a British ship with the aid of the first officer. The next day he visited his attorney, whom he calls Saul, to settle up his affairs, and to warn Saul that he intended to disappear into the wilds for a number of years. The agents of the foreign power, having at last decided that he was alive and traced him to his port of departure, put the lawyer’s office under observation and trailed him as soon as he left. He tried to escape from his hunters in the London underground railways, but was cornered and compelled to kill one of them in self-defense.
For the moment he has shaken off the watchers; but he is a marked man, since his torturers stripped his fingertips and burned his left eye. He has to wear a bandage or dark glasses. He will not ask the police or the Foreign Office for help lest he should involve his country in what is his own private affair. He cannot go abroad without leaving a trail that could be followed. He is sitting in the darkness of a cinema, a few hours after the murder in the Aldwych station, and considering where and how he is to hide. . . .
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
I DECIDED against sleeping at a hotel. My position was becoming so complicated that it seemed wise to occupy neutral territory whence I could move according to circumstance. A hotel porter might compel me into some act or lie that was unnecessary. I took a bus to Wimbledon Common; I had never been there, but knew there was a golf course and some sort of cover where corpses were very frequently discovered — indications of a considerable stretch of country that was open to the public at night.
The Common turned out to be ideal. I spent the night in a grove of silver birch where the line soil — silver, too, it seemed to me, but the cause was probably the half-moon — held the heat of the day. There is, for me, no better resting place than the temperate forest of Europe. Can one reasonably speak of forest at half an hour from Piccadilly Circus? I think so. The trees and heath are there, and at night one sees no paper bags.
In the morning I brushed off the leaves and bought a paper in a hurry from the local tobacconist as if I were briskly on my way to the City. In my new and too smart clothes I looked the part. ‘Aldwych Mystery’ was occupying half a column of the centre page. I retired to a seat on the Common before committing myself to further dealings with the public.
The body had been discovered almost as soon as I was clear of the station. Foul play, said the paper cautiously, was suspected. In other words, the police were wondering how a man who had fallen on his back across the live rail could have suffered a smashing blow in the solar plexus.
The deceased had been identified. He was a Mr. Johns, who lived in a furnished room in those barrack squares of furnished rooms between Millbank and Victoria Station. His age, his friends, his background, were unknown (and, if he knew his job, always would be), but the paper carried an interview with his landlady. She said: '—
‘ He was a real gentleman and I’m sure I don’t know why anyone should have done him harm. His poor old mother will be broken-hearted.’
But it appeared that nobody had discovered the address of the poor old mother. The only evidence for her existence was the landlady’s statement that she would often telephone Mr. Johns, who thereupon rushed out in a great hurry to see her. I was not, of course, so cynical at the moment; but when the aged mother, such jam for journalists, was not mentioned at all in the evening papers, my conscience was easier.
The police were anxious to interview a well-dressed clean-shaven man in the early forties, with a bruised and blackened eye, who was observed to leave the Aldwych station shortly before the body was discovered, and surrendered a shilling ticket to the collector. I am not yet forty and I was not well dressed, but the description was accurate enough to be unpleasant reading.
It might have been worse. If they had wanted a man with a bandaged head, one of Saul’s clerks might have let information leak, and the taxi driver, who had, no doubt, already answered a number of mysterious questions, would have gone to the police. As it was, the public were left with the impression that the man’s eye had been injured in the struggle below ground. No one except Saul and Mr. Vaner could suspect that I might be the man concerned. Both of them would assume that the rights and wrongs were for my own conscience to settle rather than the police.
There was nothing for it but to live in the open. I sat on my bench on Wimbledon Common and considered what part of England to choose. The North was the wilder, but since I might have to endure a winter, the rigor of the climate was not inviting. My own county, though I carried the ordnance map in my eye and knew a dozen spots where I could go to ground, had to be avoided. I wonder what my tenants made of the gentleman who, at that time, was doubtless staying at the Red Lion, asking questions, and describing himself as a hiker who had fallen in love with the village. A hideous word — hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling Englishwomen whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.
I chose southern England, with a strong preference for Dorset. It is a remote county, lying as it does between Hampshire, which is becoming an outer suburb, and Devon, which is a playground. I knew one part of the county very well indeed, and, better still, there was no reason for anyone to suppose that I knew it. I had never hunted with the Cattistock. I had no intimate friends nearer than Somerset. The business that had taken me to Dorset was so precious that I kept it to myself.
There are times when I am no more self-conscious than a chimpanzee. I had chosen my destination to within ten yards; yet, that day, I couldn’t have told even Saul where I was going. This habit of thinking about myself and my motives has only grown upon me recently. In this confession I have forced myself to analyze; when I write that I did this because of that, it is true. At the time of the action, however, it was not always true; my reasons were insistent but frequently obscure.
Though the precise spot where I was going was no more nor less present in my consciousness than the dark shadows which floated before my left eye, I knew I had to have a fleece-lined, waterproof sleeping bag. I dared not return to the centre of London, so I decided to telephone and have the thing sent C. O. D. to Wimbledon station by a commissionaire.
I spoke to the shop in what I believed to be a fine disguised bass voice, but the senior partner recognized me almost at once. Either I gave myself away by showing too much knowledge of his stock, or my sentence rhythm is unmistakable.
‘Another trip, sir, I suppose?’
I could imagine him rubbing his hands with satisfaction at my continued custom.
He mentioned my name six times in one minute of ejaculations. He burbled like a fatherly butler receiving the prodigal son.
I had to think quickly. To deny my identity would evidently cause a greater mystery than to admit it. I fell, pretty safe with him. He was one of the few dozen black-coated, archbishoplike tradesmen of the West End — tailors, gunsmiths, bootmakers, hatters — who would die of shame rather than betray the confidence of a customer, to whom neither the law nor the certainty of a bad debt is as anything compared to the pride of serving the aristocracy.
‘Can anyone hear you?’ I asked him.
I thought he was probably chucking my name about for the benefit of a shop assistant or a customer. These ecclesiasts of Savile Row and Jermyn Street are about the only true dyed-in-the-wool snobs that are left.
He hesitated an instant. I imagined him looking round. I knew the telephone was in the office at the far end of the shop.
‘No, sir,’he said with a shade of regret, that made me certain he was telling the truth.
I explained to him that I wished no one to know I was in England and that I trusted him to keep my name off his lips and out of his books. He oozed dutifulness — and thoughtfulness too, for after much humming and hawing and excusing himself he asked me if I would like him to bring me some cash together with the sleeping bag. I very possibly had not wished to visit my bank, he said. Wonderful fellow! He assumed without any misgiving at all that his discretion was greater than that of my bank manager. I shouldn’t be surprised if it was.
Since I was in for it anyway, I gave him a full list of my requirements: a boy’s catapult, a billhook, and the best knife he had; toilet requisites and a rubber basin; a Primus stove and a pan; flannel shirts, heavy trousers and underclothes, and a windproof jacket. Within an hour he was at Wimbledon station in person, with the whole lot neatly strapped into the sleeping bag. I should have liked a firearm of some sort, but it was laying unfair weight on his discretion to ask him not to register or report the sale.
I took a train to Guildford, and thence by slow stages to Dorchester, where I arrived about five in the afternoon. I changed after Salisbury, where a friendly porter heaved my roll into an empty carriage on a stopping train without any corridor. By the time we reached the next station I was no longer the welldressed man. I had become a holidaymaker with Mr. Vaner’s very large and dark sun glasses.
I left my kit at Dorchester station. What, transport to take into the green depths of Dorset I hadn’t the faintest notion. I couldn’t buy a motor vehicle or a horse because of the difficulty of getting rid of it. A derelict car or a wandering horse at once arouses any amount of inquiry. To walk with my unwieldy roll was nearly impossible. To take a bus merely put off the moment when I should have to find more private conveyance.
I waited for an hour, and along came the very vehicle I wanted. I have since noticed that it is quite common on the roads, but this was the first I had seen. A tandem bicycle it was, with Pa and Ma riding and the baby slung alongside in a little sidecar. I should never have dared to carry any offspring of mine in a contraption like that, but I must admit that for a young couple with no nerves and little money it was a sensible way of taking a holiday.
I stood up and yelled to them, pointing frantically at nothing in particular. They dismounted, looked at me with surprise, then at baby, then at the back wheel.
‘ Sorry to stop you,’ I said. ‘ But might I ask where you bought that thing? Just what I want for me and the missus and the young-un!’
I thought that struck the right note.
‘I made it,’ said Pa proudly.
He was a boy of about twenty-three or four. He had the perfect self-possession and merry eyes of a craftsman. One can usually spot them, this new generation of craftsmen. They know the world is theirs, and are equally contemptuous of the professed radical and the genteel. They definitely belong in Class X, though I suppose they must learn to speak the part before being recognized by so conservative a nation.
‘Are you in the cycle trade?’
‘Not me!’ he answered with marked scorn for his present method of transport. ‘Aircraft!’
I should have guessed it. The aluminum plating and the curved, beautifully tooled ribs had the professional touch; and two projections at the front of the sidecar, which at first glance I had taken for lamps, were obviously model machine guns. I hope they were for Pa’s amusement rather than for the infant’s.
’He looks pretty comfortable,’I said to the wife.
She was a sturdy wench in corduroy shorts, with legs so red that the golden hairs showed as continuous fur. Not my taste at all. But my taste is far from eugenic.
‘’E loves it, don’t you, duck?’
She drew him from the sidecar as if uncorking a fat puppy from a riding boot. I take it that she did not get hold of him by the scruff of the neck, but my memory insists that she did. The baby chortled with joy, and made a grab for my dark glasses.
‘Now, Rodney, leave the poor gentleman alone!’ said his mother.
That was fine. There was a note of Pity the Blind about her voice. Mr. Vaner’s glasses had no delicate tints. They turned the world dark blue.
‘You wouldn’t like to sell it, I suppose?’ I asked, handing Pa a cigarette.
‘I might when we get home,’ he answered cautiously. ‘But my home’s Leicester.’
I said I was ready to make him an offer for bicycle and sidecar then and there.
‘And give up my holiday?’ he laughed. ‘Not likely, mister!’
‘Well, what would it cost?’
‘I wouldn’t let it. go a penny under fifteen quid!’
‘I might go to twelve pound ten,’ I offered —I’d have gladly offered him fifty for it, but I had to avoid suspicion. ‘I expect I could buy the whole thing new for that, but I like your sidecar and the way it’s fixed. My wife is a bit nervous, you see, and she’d never put the nipper in anything that didn’t look strong.’
‘It is strong,’ he said. ‘And fifteen quid would be my last word. But I can’t sell it you, because what would we do ? ‘
He hesitated and seemed to be summing up me and the bargain. A fine, quick-witted mind he had. Most people would be far too conservative to consider changing a holiday in the middle.
‘Haven’t anything you’d like to swap?’ he asked. ‘An old car or rooms at the seaside? We’d like a bit of beach to sit on, but what with doctor’s bills and the missus so extravagant . . .’
He gave me a broad wink, but the missus wasn’t to be drawn.
‘He’s a one for kidding!’ she informed me happily.
‘I’ve got a beach hut near Weymouth,’ I said. ‘I’ll let you have it free for a fortnight, and ten quid for the combination.’
The missus gave a squeal of joy, and was sternly frowned upon by her husband.
‘I don’t know as I want a beach hut,’ he said, ‘and it would be twelve quid. Now we’re going to Weymouth to-night. Suppose we did a swap, could we move in right away?’
I told him he certainly could, so long as I could get there ahead of him to fix things up and have the place ready. I said I would see if there was a train.
‘Oh, ask for a lift!’ he said, as if it were the obvious way of traveling any short distance. ‘I’ll soon get you one.’
That chap must have had some private countersign to the freemasonry of the road. Personally, I never have the impudence to stop a car on a main road. Why, I don’t know. I’m always perfectly willing to give a lift if I am driving.
He let half a dozen cars go by, remarking ‘Toffs!’ — and then stopped one unerringly. It was a battered Morris, very much occupied by a sporty-looking gent who might have been a bookmaker or a publican. He turned out to be an employee of the County Council whose job it was to inspect the steam rollers.
‘Hey, mister! Can you give my pal a lift to Weymouth?’
‘Look sharp, then!’ answered the driver cheerily.
I arranged to meet the family at the station at seven-thirty, and got in.
He did the eight miles to Weymouth in a quarter of an hour. I explained that I was hopping ahead to get rooms for the rest of our cycling party when they arrived, and asked him if he knew of any beach huts for rent. He said there weren’t any beach huts, and that, what was more, we should find it difficult to get rooms.
‘A wonderful season!’ he said. ‘Sleeping on the beach they were at Bank Holiday!’
This was depressing. I had evidently been rash in my offer for the family combination. I told him that I personally intended to stay some time in Weymouth, and what about a tent or a bungalow or even one of those caravans the steam-roller men slept in?
That amused him like anything.
‘Ho!’ he said. ‘They’re county property, they are! They wouldn’t let you have one of them things. But I tell you what,’ — he lowered his voice confidentially in the manner of the English when they are proposing a deal (it comes, I think, from the national habit of buying and selling in a public bar), — ‘ I know a trailer you could buy cheap, if you were thinking of buying, that is.’
He drove me to a garage kept by some in-law of his, where there was a whacking great trailer standing in the yard amid a heap of scrap iron. It appeared homemade by some enthusiast who had forgotten, in his passion for roominess and gadgets, that it had to be towed round corners behind a car. The in-law and the steam-roller man showed me over that trailer as if they were a couple of highpowered estate agents selling a mansion. It was a little home from home, they said. And it was! It had everything for two except the bedding, and it was mine for forty quid. I accepted their price on condition that they threw in the bedding and a cot for Rodney, and towed me then and there to a camp site. They drove me a couple of miles to the east of Weymouth where there was an open field with a dozen tents and trailers. I rented a site for six months from the landowner and told him that friends would be occupying the trailer for the moment, and that I myself hoped to get down for many week-ends in the autumn. He showed no curiosity whatever; if strange beings chose to camp on his land he collected five bob a week from them in advance and never went near them again.
When we got back to the town I had a quick drink with my saviors and vanished. It was nearly eight before I could reach the station. Pa and Ma were leaning disconsolately against the railings.
‘Now then, mister,’ said my aircraft mechanic, ‘time’s money, and how about it?’
He was a little peeved at my being late. Evidently he had been thinking the luck too good to be true, and that he wouldn’t see me again.
We walked wearily out to the camp site. The trailer was quite enchanting in the gathering dusk, and I damn near gave it to them. Well, at any rate he got his fortnight’s holiday rent free and I expect he managed to replace tandem and sidecar for the twelve quid. I said that I should probably be back before the end of his fortnight, but that if I was not, he should give the key to the landowner. I didn’t think the trailer could be the object of any inquiry until the six months were up; and by that time I hoped to be out of England.
I rode the beastly combination back to Weymouth, spilling myself into the ditch at the first left-hand corner, for it wasn’t easy to get the hang of it. Then I had a meal and, finding that the snack bars and tea shops were still open, filled up the sidecar with a stock of biscuits and a ham, plenty of tinned foods and fruits, tobacco, and a few bottles of beer and whiskey. At the third shop I entered, a dry-faced spinster gazed into my glasses long and suspiciously, and remarked: —
‘’Urt your eye, ‘ave you?’
I answered unctuously that it was an infliction from birth, and that I feared it was the Lord’s will to take from me the sight of the other eye. She became most sympathetic after that, but I had had my warning.
I cycled through the darkness to Dorchester, arriving there dead-heat about midnight. I picked up my kit and strapped it on the sidecar. Then I pedaled a few miles north into the silence of a valley where the only moving thing was the Frome gurgling and gleaming over the pebbles. I wheeled my combination off the road and into a copse, unpacked, and slept.
The bag was delicious. In a month I had only spent half a night in bed. I slept and slept, brought up to consciousness at intervals by the stirring of leaves or insects, but seizing upon sleep again as effortlessly as pulling a blanket over one’s ears.
It was after ten when I awoke. I lay in my fleece till noon, looking up through the oak leaves to a windy sky and trying to decide whether it was less risky to travel by day or by night. If by day I should arouse no particular curiosity, but my vehicle was so odd that dozens of people would remember having seen it; if by night, anyone who saw me would talk about me for days. But between midnight and three nothing stirs in farm or village. I was prepared to gamble that nobody would see me.
I admitted to myself now where I was going. The road I meant to take was a narrow track along the downs, a remnant of the old Roman road from Dorchester to Exeter used only by farmers’ carts. My meeting with any human being in the darkness was most improbable. Even if I were not alone on the hills I should hear before I was hoard. I remembered how in that wheat field I had cursed the silent approach of cyclists.
I started at midnight. The first three miles were on a well-used byroad, but I met only one car. I had time to lean my bicycle against a hedge and get over into the field myself. The Roman road was teeming with life: sheep and cows lying on it, rabbits dancing in and out of ancient pits, owls gliding and hooting over the thorn. I carried no light, and was continually upsetting in the ruts, for the space between them was only just wide enough to take my three wheels. Eventually I dismounted and walked.
What with the slow going and losing my way in a maze of tracks and gorse bushes, the hedges were beginning to take shape in the half-light when I coasted down into the vale, crossed the railway, and slipped silently through the sleeping village of Powerstock. It was time to leave the road. In the neighboring fields, so far as I could search them with one eye, — and that still unused to judging perspective, — there was little cover. When I came upon the four walls of a burned and derelict cottage, I laid the tandem in the nettles that covered the old floor and detached the sidecar, which I half hid under bricks and debris. I made no attempt to conceal myself, lying down in the long grass beside a stream. It was a warm, silent day, beginning with a September mist that hung low over the meadows. If anyone saw me, I was really sleeping or pretending to sleep with my head on my arms — a common enough sight by any stream in holiday time.
I reassembled my vehicle in the dusk, and started at eleven. There were no villages, and the only checks were at the crossing of two main roads. The dogs barked and cursed at me as I passed solitary farms and cottages, but I was out of sight before the householders could look out of their windows, if they ever did. I rode swiftly, for there was much to be done that night.
At half-past twelve I was on the ridge of a half-moon of low rabbit-cropped hills, the horns of which rested upon the sea, enclosing between them a small, lush valley. The outer or northern slopes look down upon the Marshwood Vale. Here I passed out of the chalk into the sandstone; the lanes, worn down by the pack horses of a hundred generations plodding up from the sea on to the dry, hard going of the ridges, were fifteen feet or more below the level of the fields. These trade-worn canyons of red and green upon the flanks of the hills are very dear to me.
I pushed my combination along the ridge until I came to a lane that dived down into the valley. In the dark I could hardly recognize it. I remembered it as a path, deep indeed, but dappled with sunlight; it looked to me now a cleft eroded in desert country, for its bottom was only a cart’s width across, and its sides, with the banks, the hedges above them, and young oaks leaping up from the hedge, seemed fifty feet of solid blackness.
I followed it down until another lane crossed at a right angle; this led northwards back to the ridge, where it came up to the surface and branched into two farm tracks. These two tracks appear to be the end and aim of the ancient little highroad, but if you ignore them and walk across an acre of pasture you come to a thick hedge running downhill into the Marshwood Vale. In the heart of this hedge, which I had been seeking all the way from London, the lane reappears. It is not marked on the map. It has not been used, I imagine, for a hundred years.
The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together across the top, is still there; anyone who wishes can dive under the sentinel thorns at the entrance and push his way through and come out in a cross hedge that runs along the foot of the hills. But who would wish? Where there is light the nettles grow as high as a man’s shoulder; where there is not, the lane is choked by deadwood. The interior of the double hedge is of no conceivable use to the two farmers whose boundary fence it is, and nobody but an adventurous child would want to explore it.
That, indeed, was the manner of its finding. In love one becomes a child again. A rock is a cliff, a hedge a forest, a stream a river flowing to God knows what Arcadies. This lane was our discovery, a perilous passage made for us to force. It was only the spring of this year that I took her to England, choosing the Dorset downs to give her the first sight and feeling of the land that was to be her home. It was her last sight, too. I cannot say that we had any sense of premonition, unless the tenseness of our love. There is a desperate sweetness between man and woman when the wings of the four horsemen drone inwards from the corners of their world.
It was now my job to prevent children or lovers from pushing through that way again. I worked the sidecar into the thicket and deposited it in the first bare stretch of lane, where the foliage overhead was so thick that nothing grew but ferns. Then I unpacked the billhook and slashed at the deadwood on the inside of the hedges. I jammed the bicycle crosswise between the banks and piled over it a hedge of thorn that would have stopped a lion. At the lower end of the lane the trailing brambles were sufficient defense, and I reënforced them with a dead holly bush. That was all I dared do for the moment. The light was growing, and the strokes of my hook echoing down the hillside.
I cut steps up the western bank and up the inner side of a young elm; it had a top-heavy branch hanging low over the hedge and within reach of the ground on the farther side. This elm became my way in and out of the lane. I spent most of the day up the tree, whence I had a clear view to the north and west. I wanted to watch the routine of the neighboring farms and to see if I had overlooked any danger.
The field on the east of the lane was rough pasture. An hour after dawn the cows came wandering into it over the skyline, having been driven through a gate which I could not see. Farther to the cast was a down where the short turf was only good for sheep. To the west, immediately below my tree, was a fortyacre field of wheat stubble, falling away sharply to a great, gray, prosperous farm with generous barns and a duck pond.
It was as quiet a hillside as any in England. The activities of the farm below me were chiefly in the vale. Of the inhabitants of the farm to the east I saw none, only heard the boy who called the cows home in the evening — which he did without ever entering the pasture. In the lanes of the Marshwood Vale there was little traffic. I saw the postman with his motor bike and red sidecar. I saw the school bus and an occasional car, and a couple of milk lorries bobbing about among the trees to collect the cans set out on wooden platforms by the road or on the pebble bottoms of the streams.
I cut the bracken and scraped out a channel for the stream that ran down the lane after every shower. Then I slung ash poles from bank to bank, — where the distance was a bare six feet, — making a monkey’s platform on top of them with twigs and bracken. A day or two later, when I stole some bricks from a tumble-down barn and propped up my poles in the middle, the platform was as strong and dry as a floor of laths.
The eastern bank was full of rabbit holes which ran into the heavy topsoil along the upper level of the sandstone. On this same night I began the work on them which has provided me with shelter from the rain and with a hearth. By morning I had made a hollow about two feet in diameter, and long enough to receive my body. The roof and sides were of earth and the door of sandstone.
Burrowing into the stone, soft though it was, proved an interminable job; but I found that it was easy to scrape away the surface, and thus lower the floor inch by inch. In a week I had a shelter to be proud of. The roof had a high vault, packed with clay. The drip trickled down the sides and was caught on two projecting ledges which ran the length of the burrow and were channeled to lead the water into the lane. The floor was three feet below the level of the ledges and crossed by short faggots of ash which kept my sleeping bag from resting on damp stone. The hole was very much the size and shape of two large bathtubs, one inverted upon the other.
As soon as my beard had grown I walked to Beaminster and came back with a knapsack full of groceries, a grill, iron spits, and a short pick, one arm of which was shaped like a miniature battleaxe. I do not know what it was for, but it seemed admirably fitted for working sandstone in a confined space. I aroused no particular interest in Beaminster — a mere untidy holiday-maker with dark glasses — and gave out that I was camping on the hills just across the Somerset border. I had a meal in an inn and read the papers. There was only a passing reference to the Aldwych Mystery. The verdict had been murder by a person or persons unknown. When I climbed down the elm into the lane I felt that I had come home — a half-melancholy sense of slippered relaxation.
I began a routine of sleeping by day and working on the burrow at night. Working by day was too dangerous; someone might walk past the hedge while I was underground, and hear the noise of the pick. There was a morning when I was nearly caught by a party of children picking blackberries on the edge of the pasture.
I ran the hole a good ten feet back into the bank and then drove a gallery to the right, intending only to make a hearth; but I found the stone so split by tree roots and easily worked that I ended the gallery with a beehive grotto in which I could comfortably squat. After some difficult surface measurements (by sticking a pole through the hedge and climbing out to see where the tip had got to) I drove a chimney straight upwards into the centre of a blackberry bush. I could then risk a fire at night and cook fresh food.
All this while I had wondered why it was that I had no trouble with dogs. I was prepared so to frighten any dogs which investigated me that they would never come back, but it appeared that something had already scared them for me; dogs gave the lane a wide berth. The cause was Asmodeus. I observed him first as two ears and two eyes apparently attached to a black branch. When I moved my head, the ears vanished, and when I stood up the rest of him had vanished. I put out some scraps of bully beef behind the branch, and an hour later they too had vanished.
One morning when I had just gone to bed, and was lying with my head out of the burrow chewing biscuits, he slunk on to my platform and watched me, tail gripping the ground, head savage and expectant. He was a thin and powerful tomcat, black, but with many of his hairs ending in a streak of silver, like a smoothheaded Mediterranean beauty just turning gray. I don’t think that in his case it was age, but a freak of coloring inherited from some silver ancestor. I threw him a biscuit; he was out of sight while it was still in the air. It had gone, of course, when I woke up, and so had half a tin of bully beef.
He began to consider me as a curious show for his leisure hours, sitting motionless at a safe distance of ten feet. In a few more days he would snatch food from my hand, hissing and bristling if I dared advance the hand to touch him. It was then that I named him Asmodeus, for he could make himself appear the very spirit of hatred and malignity.
I won his friendship with a pheasant’s head, attached to the end of a string. I have noticed that what cats most appreciate in a human being is not the ability to produce food, — which they take for granted, — but his or her entertainment value. Asmodeus took to his toy enthusiastically. In another week he permitted me to stroke him, producing a raucous purr but, in order to save his face, pretending to be asleep. Soon afterwards he started a habit of sleeping in the burrow with me during the day, and hunting while I worked at night. But bully beef was the meat he preferred; no doubt it gave him the maximum nourishment for the minimum effort.
I made two more journeys to Beaminster, walking there and back at night and spending the intervening day —after doing my shopping — hidden on a hillside of gorse. From the first expedition I returned with food and paraffin for the Primus; from the second with a glue pot and a small door which I had ordered from the local carpenter.
This door or lid fitted exactly into the entrance to my burrow. On the inside was a stout handle by which I could lift and jam it into position; on the outside was camouflage. I sprinkled over a coating of glue a rough layer of sandstone dust, and on that stuck an arrangement of twigs and dead plants, some of which trailed over the edges of the door so that they masked the outline when it was in place.
As soon as I was satisfied with the door, I practised a drill for effacing myself completely from the lane. The platform was dismantled, the bricks scattered, and the poles thrust into the hedge; my latrine and rubbish pit were covered by a dead thorn, and I myself was inside in the burrow, all in ten minutes. Anyone forcing a way into the lane might or might not notice that some gypsy had been camping there, but could not guess that the place was inhabited at the moment. The only sign was an apparent rabbit hole, a bit artificial in spite of the droppings I scattered round the entrance, which gave me air while I was shut in the burrow.
The tandem bicycle could not be seen. I took it apart and propped the pieces against the bank, covering them with a mass of dead vegetation. The sidecar was a continual nuisance. I couldn’t bury it or take it to bits, and the bright aluminum shone through the brushwood I heaped on it. It was so new and strong that no one could be deceived into thinking it innocently abandoned. Eventually I had to spend a night tearing down my defenses in order to get the thing out of the lane, and half wheeling, half carrying it down to the vale.
I didn’t know what on earth to do with it. Wherever I put it, it might be found, and the more remote the place, the more the question as to how it came there. Nor could I waste any time; if I met anyone, he would see my gleaming and awkward burden long before I saw him. Finally I chucked it into a sheltered stream, hoping that the action of water would destroy it; I couldn’t.
I am now prepared to spend the first half of the winter where I am, subject, to the bottom of the lane being still invisible when the leaves have fallen — which seems probable. I cannot be seen and, if I am careful, I cannot be heard. I avoid chopping wood and risk the noise of my billhook only on one night a week when I fill the inner chamber with brushwood and burn it. This dries out the whole den and gives me a layer of hot ashes on which I can grill at one time whatever store of meat I have.
My dry and tinned food is sufficient, for I have been largely living on the country. There are cobnuts, sloes, and blackberries at my door, and from time to time I extract a bowl of milk from a red cow; she has a great liking for salt, and can be tempted to stand quietly among the domes and ramps of blackberry bush that flank the eastern hedge.
My catapult keeps me supplied with the rabbits I want. It’s an inefficient weapon. As one whose hobby is the craft of ballistics, ancient and modern, I ought to be ashamed of myself for depending on rubber when a far better weapon could be made from twisted hair or cord. But I have a distaste for the whole business, I have to compel myself to shoot a rabbit in these days. After all, it is perfectly justifiable to kill for food.
I am not content, in spite of the fact that this Robinson Crusoe existence ought to suit my temperament pretty well. There is not, any longer, enough to do. I am not affected by loneliness or by the memories of this place. Asmodeus helps there. He is a ridiculous outlet for a lot of sentimentality. I am uncertain of myself. Even this journal, which I was sure would exorcise my misgivings, has settled nothing.
A month ago I wrote that I did not feel lonely. It was true, and it accounts for my folly. The essence of safety is that a hunted man should feel lonely; then his whole being throws out tendrils, as it were, towards the outer world. He becomes swift to imagine, sensitive as an animal to danger. But I, I was sunk in a gentle, moody preoccupation with my cat and my conscience. Dear God, I might as well have been a retired company director living in a solitary cottage and mildly worried whether his peculations were discovered!
I committed the supreme folly of writing to Saul to send me books. Once my earth was finished, I had too much leisure and no use for it. Besides all my other incoherent dissatisfactions, questions of sex were worrying me.
For me, sex has never been a problem. Like most normal people, I have been able to suppress my desires without difficulty. When there was no need to suppress them, my appreciation has been keen, but my emotions not deeply involved. Indeed, I begin to think that I have never known truly passionate love.
I have no doubt that, say, an Italian would consider me the perfect type of frigid Anglo-Saxon.
Why, then, my strong resistance to coming to this lane? I take it that I showed a resistance, since I refused to admit to myself that this was my destination until I was within twenty miles of it — and that though the double hedge was an excellent hiding place which I was eager to reach. Well, I suppose I wished to save myself pain. But I cannot even remember her face, except that her eyes appeared violet against the tawny skin. And that I know to be a trick of memory, for I have often looked for violet eyes in man and woman and never seen them. I repeat, I was never in love. The proof of it is that I so calmly accepted the destruction of my happiness. I was prepared for it. I begged her to stay in England, or at least, if she felt it her duty to return, to temper her politics with discretion. When I heard that she was dead, I really suffered very little.
I wrote to Saul for books: meaty stuff which I could reread throughout the winter, penetrating with each reading a little further into what the author meant rather than what he said. I did not, of course, sign the letter, but wrote in block capitals, asking him to send the books to Professor Foulsham at a sub post office in Lyme Regis. Foulsham was (and still is, I trust) the professor of Christian Ethics in my day, and it seemed to me that my hairy face looked rather like his. It probably didn’t; but it is always well to choose and think oneself into a part.
I did not wish to use Beaminster any more. While the holiday season was still on, my three visits and my account of myself naturally passed unchallenged, but a man who claimed to be still camping on the downs in the gathering gales of October would start any amount of gossip about where he was and why. I picked Lyme Regis because the little town had a winter colony of visitors and strangers presumably attracted no attention.
I had a straggly beard that was quite as convincing as most of those one sees in Bloomsbury. My eye, as a result of continual washing in dew and lotion, was no longer swollen; it looked odd, but more like a bad glass eye than a wounded. There was nothing in my appearance of a harmless and rather dirty eccentric to arouse the curiosity of the police. As for my other enemies, they had then no more reason to search Dorset than Kamchatka.
I walked to the outskirts of the town in a couple of hours before dawn, and concealed myself during the day in the shrubbery of a large empty house. In the evening I called at the post office, introduced myself as Professor Foulsham, and asked if a parcel of books had come for me. It was one of those small, dark shops that sell stationery and tobacco, and have a back room with the inevitable pot of tea stewing by the fire.
‘Sorry! There is no parcel in that name,’ said the postmistress.
I asked if there were a letter.
‘I think there may be,’ she said archly, and reached under the counter for half a dozen letters.
A woman who had been examining a row of dressmaking magazines hung on strings across the window said goodnight and opened the door, letting the last of the evening light into the shop. The postmistress stared at me as if her eyes had stuck — shoe-button eyes they were, sharp and nervous.
‘There—there’s more letters in the back room,’ she stammered, and edged through the door into the parlor, still watching me.
I heard frantic whispering, and a girl’s voice say: ‘Oo, Ma, I couldn’t do that!' — followed by a resounding slap.
A schoolgirl of about twelve dashed out of the back room, dived under the flap of the counter, and with one terrified glance at me bolted down the road. The postmistress remained at the threshold of her room, still fascinated by my appearance.
I didn’t like the look of things, but what was wrong I couldn’t imagine. I was wearing my reach-me-down suit and a muffler, and had succeeded, I thought, in impersonating a weatherproof don on his hardy way from a tea party. I had left my glasses at home, believing that I should attract less attention without those tremendous blinkers. As a matter of fact it would have made no difference whether I wore them or not.
‘Now, madam,’ I said severely, ‘if you can bring yourself to attend to public business, I should like my letter.’
‘Don’t you dare come near me!’ she squeaked, shrinking back into the doorway.
It was no time for respecting His Majesty’s mails. She had dropped the letters behind the wire enclosure which protected her cash and stamps. I reached over it, and took an envelope addressed to Professor Foulsham.
‘Kindly satisfy yourself, madam,’ I said, seeing that she was mustering courage to scream, ‘that this letter is actually addressed to me. I regret that it will be my duty to report your extraordinary behavior. Good afternoon.’
This pomposity, delivered in a most professorial tone, held her with her mouth open long enough for me to move with dignity out of the shop. I jumped on a bus that was running uphill out of the town, and got off it ten minutes later at a crossroads on the Devon and Dorset border. Safe for the moment in the thick cover of a spinney, I opened my letter, hoping it would tell me why a description of me had been circulated to Dorset post offices.
The letter was typewritten and unsigned, but Saul had made his identity certain. He wrote in some such words as these:—
The parrots paid the fisherman. I must not send you books in case they are found and traced to the buyer. If you know nothing of a caravan trailer, write to me again and I will risk it.
About two weeks ago the police tried to find the owner of a trailer near Weymouth, it was a routine inquiry. The camp site was deserted, and the landlord did not wish to be held responsible for damage done by children who had broken a window and were climbing in and out of the trailer.
The police established that the owner had bought and let the caravan on the same evening, that this was the evening after a man had been found killed in the Aldwych station, and that the owner wore dark glasses.
They then got in touch with a family at Leicester who had rented the thing. They learned that the owner had taken, in exchange for rent, a tandem bicycle and baby’s sidecar, and that he had told a lot of complicated untruths to account for himself.
A woman in Weymouth from whom he bought food is sure that under his glasses one eye was worse than the other, but no one else noticed this.
The man is wanted for murder, but if the case, as I think it must, depends solely on doubtful identification by a ticket collector, no jury would convict. And let me very urgently impress it on you that if the man were a person of good character, if he pleaded self-defense and gave good reason for the attack made upon him. the case would never go to court. I earnestly advise this course. The dead man was a thoroughly undesirable fellow, suspected of being in the pay of a foreign power.
The owner of the trailer is certain to be found and detained, for he is known to be camping or living in the open on the downs near Beaminster. A person who had grown a beard but otherwise answered his description was seen three times at Beaminster before any police inquiries had begun.
I have naturally kept myself fully informed of the Aldwych investigation, and you can take it as certain that the police know as much as I have told you and no more.
He ended with a request to me to burn the letter immediately, which I did.
I had little fear of my burrow’s being discovered, and my first reaction was to thank heaven that I now knew the worst and had been warned in time. But then I perceived the full extent of my folly, and its consequences; a desultory search which had spread over the whole of Dorset, and especially over the Dorset downs miles to the northeast of where I really was, would now be concentrated on the limited patch of country between Beaminster and Lyme Regis.
That part of me which was unconsciously looking after my safety kept count of the minutes (for I dared not stay where I was more than very few) while my conscious mind lived through hours of muddled and panicky thinking.
I quite seriously considered taking Saul’s advice and telling the police my real name and enough of my trip abroad to account for my disappearance and for the attack upon me in the Aldwych.
I forgot that I had worse enemies than the police.
This longing to surrender was very insistent at the time, yet never really came out of the world of dreams. The knowledge that one pack was on my trail had only temporarily excluded fear of the other. There is no animal but man which can be hunted simultaneously by two different packs without the two becoming one; so it is not surprising that all one’s sagacity should be at fault.
Reason took over. If I resumed my identity, death or disgrace was certain. And if some unbalanced idiots chose to regard me as a martyr, I had the makings of a first-class international incident. It was my duty to kill myself—or, easier, arrange for myself to he killed incognito—rather than seek protection.
The police were at the crossroads ton minutes after I got off the bus. Neither they nor the postmistress’s daughter had wasted any time. They switched the headlights of two cars into the spinney where I was, and crashed into the undergrowth.
The immediate future didn’t worry me at all. It was already dusk, and I knew that in the dark I could pass through a multitude of policemen and possibly take their boots off as well. I moved quietly away in front of them until I had to break cover, either by crossing the road or by taking to the downs on the west. I didn’t want to cross the road, — it meant that I should lead I he chase into my own country,— nor was there any point in stealing away into unknown difficulties. I decided to stay in contact with this lot of police,— about five couple of them there were, — so I jumped on to the stone wall that bounded the spinney and pretended to remain there indecisively. At last one of them saw me and gave a holloa. I broke away into Devonshire down a long, barren slope.
I was magnificently fit as a result of my life in the open and the brisk autumn air.
I remember how easily my muscles answered the call I made on them. By God, in all this immobility and carrion thought it does me good to think of the man I was!
I intended to lie still wherever there was a scrap of not too obvious cover and to let the hunt pass me; but I didn’t reckon on a young and active inspector who shed his overcoat and seemed able to do tin quarter mile in well under sixty seconds. As we neared the bottom of the slope, I had no chance of playing hide and seek in the gorse or vanishing into a hedge. The load of a hundred and fifty yards which, in the gathering dusk, I had considered ample for my purpose had been reduced to fifty.
I had to keep running — either for a gate that led into another open field, or for a gate beyond which I saw a muddy farm track with water faintly gleaming in the deep hoof marks. I chose the mud, and vaulted the gate into eighteen inches of it, I was hogged, but so would he be, and then endurance could count; he wouldn’t be able to give me any more of his cinder-track stuff. I pounded along the track, spattering as much mud as a horse over myself and the hedges. He was now twenty yards behind, and wasting his breath by yelling at me to stop and come quietly.
While he was still in the wet clay, and the rest of the police had just entered it, I pulled out on to a hard surface. The wall of a farmhouse loomed up ahead; it was built in the usual shape of an E without the centre bar, the house at the back, the barns forming the two wings. It seemed an excellent place for the police to surround and search; they would be kept busy for the next few hours, and the cordon between Lyme Regis and Beaminster, through which I had to pass, would be relaxed.
I looked back. The inspector had dropped back a little; the rest of the hunt I could hear plunging and cursing in the mud. I put on a spurt and dashed round the lower bar of the E. Knowing the general layout of English farms, I was sure that my wanted patch of not too obvious cover would be right at the corner, and it was. I dropped flat on my face in a pattern of mounds and shadows. I couldn’t, see myself of what they consisted. My head landed in a manure heap with a smell of disinfectant — they had probably been closing the sheep for worms — and my elbow on an old millstone; there were hurdles, and firewood; the dominating shadow was that of an old mounting block.
The inspector raced round the corner after me and into the open barns, Hashing his light on the carts, the piles of fodder, and the cider barrels. As soon as he passed me, I shot out of the yard, crouching and silent, and dropped against the outer wall. I hadn’t any luck in minor matters. This time I put my face in a patch of nettles.
The police, a full half minute behind us, dashed into the yard, rallying to their inspector. He was shouting to them to come on, boys, that he had the beggar cornered. The farm and its dogs woke up to the fact that there was a criminal in their midst, and I left the police to their search; it was probably long and exhausting, for there was not, from their point of view, the remotest possibility of my escaping from the three-sided trap into which I had run.
I had no intention of going home. There could be no peace for me in the lane until I had laid a false scent, and knew that the police were following it to the exclusion of all others.
First: I had to make a false hiding place and satisfy the police that there I had lived, so that they wouldn’t do too thorough a search between Beaminster and Lyme Regis.
Second: I must persuade the police that I had left the district for good.
I followed the main road, along which I had come in the bus, back towards Lyme Regis. I say I followed it, — I had to, since I wasn’t sure of my direction in the dark, — but I didn’t walk on it. I moved parallel, climbing a fence or forcing a hedge about every two hundred yards for three solid miles. It’s a major feat of acrobatics to follow a main road without ever setting foot, on it, and I began to feel infernally tired.
The high ground to the east of Beaminster, where a new den had to be faked, was twenty miles away. I decided to jump a lorry on the steep hill between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, where I could be pretty sure of getting a lift unknown to the driver.
A mile or so outside the town I cut down into a valley and up the other side towards the steep hairpin bend where heavy traffic had to slow to walking pace. I thought this an ingenious and original scheme, but the police, more mechanically-minded than myself, had thought of it already. At the steepest part of the road was a sergeant with a bicycle, keeping careful watch.
I cursed him heartily and silently, for now I had to go down again to the bottom of the valley, draw him off, and return to the road. My knees were very weary, but there was nothing else for it.
I stood in a little copse at the bottom and started yelling bloody murder in a terrified soprano — ‘Help!’ and ‘Let me go!’ and ‘God, won’t anybody come?’ and then a succession of hysterical screams that were horrible to hear and quite false. The screams of a terrified woman are rhythmical and wholly unnatural, and had I imitated them correctly the sergeant would have thought me a ghost or some fool yodeling.
I heard the whine of brakes hastily applied, and several dim figures ran down into the valley as I ran up. I peered over the hedge. The sergeant had gone. A grocer’s van and a sports car stood empty by the side of the road. I gave up my original idea of boarding a lorry and took the sports car. I reckoned that I should have the safe use of it for at least twenty-five minutes — ten minutes before the party gave up their search of the wooded bottom, five minutes before they could reach a telephone, and ten more minutes before patrols and police cars could be warned.
Over my head and round my beard I wrapped my mu filer. Then I pulled out in front of a noisy milk truck that was banging up the hill, in case the owner should recognize the engine of his own car. It was a fine car. I did the nine twisting miles to Bridport. in eleven minutes and ten miles along the Dorchester road in ten minutes. I hated that speed at the time, and I’m ashamed of it.
Three miles from Dorchester I turned to the left and abandoned the car in a neglected footpath, no wider than itself, between high hedges. I stuck ten pounds in the owner’s license with penciled apologies (written in block capitals with my left hand) and my sincere hope that the notes would cover his night’s lodging and any incidental loss.
It was now midnight. I crossed the down, slunk unseen round a village, and entered the Sydling Valley, which, by the map, appeared to be as remote a dead end as any in Dorset. I spent the rest, of the night in a covered stack, sleeping warmly and soundly between the hay and the corrugated iron. The chances of the police finding the car till daylight were negligible.
After a breakfast of blackberries I struck north along the watershed. There was a main road a quarter of a mile to the west. I watched the posting of constables at two crossings. Down in the valley a police car was racing towards Sydling. They made no attempt to watch the grass tracks, being convinced, I think, that criminals from London never go far from roads. No doubt Scotland Yard had exact statistics showing what my next move would be. My theft of a car had put me into the proper gangster pigeonhole — from their point of view, a blatant, self-advertising gangster.
The downs on both sides of the Sydling Valley were country after my own heart: patches of gorse and patches of woodland, connected by straggling hedges which gave me cover from the occasional shepherd or farmer but were not thick enough to compel me to climb them. I assumed that all high ground had been picketed, and reckoned unnecessarily, I expect — on field glasses as well as eyes.
The valley ended in a great bowl of turf and woodland, crossed by no road and two miles from the village. Dry bottoms ran up from the head of the valley like the sticks of a fan. In any one of them I might very reasonably have been camping since September.
That which I chose had a wood of hazel on one side and of oak on the other. Between them the brown bracken grew waist high, and through the bracken ran a ride of turf upon which the rabbits were feeding and playing. The glade smelt of fox, turf, and rabbit, the sweet musk that lingers in dry valleys where the dew is heavy and the water flows a few feet underground. The only signs of humanity were two ruined cottages, some bundles of cut hazel rods, and a few cartridge cases scattered about the turf.
It was hard to make the place look as if I had lived there for weeks. I distributed widely and messily the corpse of a rabbit that was polluting the atmosphere a little way up the valley. I fouled and trampled the interior of the cottage, stripped the apple tree, and strewed apple cores and nutshells over the ground. A pile of feathers from a wood pigeon and a rook provided further evidence of my diet. Plucking the ancient remains of a hawk’s dinner was the nastiest job of all.
I spent the day sitting in the bracken and waiting for the police, but they refused to find me. Possibly they thought that I had made for the coast. There was, after all, no earthly reason why I should be in the Sydling Valley more than anywhere else. I put the night to good use. First I collected a dozen empty tins from a rubbish heap and piled them in a corner of the cottage; then f went down to sleeping Sydling and did a smash-and-grab raid on the village shop. My objects were to draw the attention of those obstinate police, and to get hold of some dried fish. In this sporting country some damned fool was sure to try bloodhounds on my scent.
In the few seconds at my disposal I couldn’t find any kippers or bloaters, but I did get. four tins of sardines and a small bag of fertilizer. I raced for the downs while the whole village squawked and muttered and slammed its doors. It was probably the first time in all the history of Sydling that a sudden noise had been heard at night.
As soon as I was back in my cottage I pounded the sardines and fertilizer together, tied up the mixture in the bag, and rubbed the corner of the heartli where I had sat and the wall I had built. Trailing the bag on the end of a string, I laid a drag through the hazels, over the heather on the hilltop, round the oak wood, and into the bracken overlooking the cottage. There I remained, and got some sleep.
In spite of all the assistance I had given them, it was nearly midday before the police discovered the cottages. They moved around in them as respectfully as in church, dusting all likely surfaces for fingerprints. There weren’t any. I had never taken off my gloves. They must have thought they were dealing with an experienced criminal.
Half an hour later a police car came bumping over the turf and decanted an old friend of mine into the cottages. I had quite forgotten that he was now Chief Constable of Dorset. If he had looked closely at those feat hers he would have seen at once that a hawk, not a man, had done the killing; but naturally he was leaving the criminology to Scotland Yard, and they weren’t likely to go into the fine point of whether the birds had met their death through the plumage of back or breast.
The dry bottom began to look like a meet, of the Cattistock. The couple of bloodhounds that I had expected turned up, towing a bloodthirsty maiden lady in their wake. She was encouraging them with yawps and had feet so massive that. I could see them clearly at two hundred yards — great brogued boats navigating a green sea. She was followed by half the village of Sydling and a sprinkling of local gentry. Two fellows had turned out on horseback. I felt they should have paid me the compliment of pink coats.
Away went the bloodhounds on the trail of the fertilized sardines, and away I went too; I had a good half hour’s law while they followed my bag through the hazels and heather. I crossed the main road — a hasty dash from ditch to ditch while the constable on watch was occupied with the distant beauty of the sea —and slid along the hedges into a great headland of gorse above Cattistock. There I wove so complicated a pattern that, boat-footed Artemis must have thought her long-eared darlings were on the line of a hare. I skirted Cattistock and heard the lovely carillon most appropriately chime ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ at my passage, followed by ‘Lead, Kindly Light.’ It was half-past five and the dusk was falling. I waded into the Frome, passed under the Croat Western Railway, and paddled upstream for a mile or so, taking cover in the rushes whenever there was anyone to see me. Then I buried the sardines in the gravel at the bottom of the river, and proceeded under my own scent.
I moved slowly westwards, following the lanes but taking no risks slowly, deliberately slow ly, in the technique that I have developed since I became an outlaw. It was nearly four in the morning when I swung myself on to the elm branch that did duty as my front door, and climbed down into the lane. I felt Asmodeus brush against my legs but I could not see him in that safe pit of blackness. That I consider darkness safety sets me, in itself alone, apart from my fellows. Darkness is safety only on condition that all one’s enemies are human.
I ate a tremendous breakfast of beef and oatmeal, and set aside my town suit to be made into bags and lashings all it was now good for. I was relieved to be done with it ; it reminded me too forcibly of the newspapers’ ‘well-dressed man.’ Then I slipped into my bag, unwearing, damp-proof citadel of luxury, and slept till nightfall.
When I awoke I felt sufficiently strong and rested to attempt the second feint: to convince the police that I had left the county for good. This was rash, but necessary, I still think it was necessary. If I hadn’t gone the bicycle would be in the lane, and the evidence of my presence here a deal stronger than it is.
By the light of two candles— for the battery of the head lamp had run down
—I turned to the unholy job of reassembling the tandem. It was after midnight before I had the machine, entire and unpunctured, clear of the lane, and the thorns replaced in a sufficiently forbidding pat tern.
I dressed myself in the warmest of my working clothes, tearing off all distinguishing marks and the maker’s name. I put a flask of whiskey in my inside breast pocket, and took plenty of food. I could be away for days without worrying.
By dawn I was past Crewkerne and well into Somerset. It was now time to let myself be seen and to put the police on a trail that obviously led north to Bristol or some little port on the Bristol Channel. I shot through two scattered villages where I gave the early risers a sight to look at and talk about for the rest of the day; then on into the Fosse Way, speeding along the arrow-straight road to Bristol and drawing cheers and laughter from the passing lorry drivers. I was too incredible a sight to be thought a criminal — muddy, bearded, and riding a tandem, as odd a creature as that amusing tramp who used to do tricks on the Halls with a collapsible bicycle.
After showing myself over a mile of main road I was more than ready to hide the bicycle for good and myself till nightfall, but the country on both sides of the great Roman highway was open and unpleasantly short of cover; indeed much of it was below the level of the road. I pedaled on and on in the hope of reaching a wood or heath or quarry. It was all flat land with well-trimmed hedges and shallow drains.
By the side of the road was an empty field of cabbages one of those melancholy fields with a cinder track leading into them and a tumble-down hut leaning against a pile of refuse. Close to the hut and at a stone’s throw from the road was a derelict car. When the only traffic was a cluster of black dots a mile or two away, I lifted the tandem on to my shoulder, to avoid leaving a track, and staggered into the shelter of the hut. I smashed the two sets of handlebars so that the bicycle would lie flat on the ground, and shoved it under the car, afterwards restoring the trampled weeds to a fairly upright position. It will not be found until the car moulders away above it, and then will be indistinguishable from the other rusty debris.
I now had to take cover myself. The hut was too obvious a place. The hedges were inadequate. I dared not risk so much as a quarter-mile walk. There was nothing for it but to lie on the clay among those blasted cabbages. In the middle of the held I was perfectly safe.
It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a gray morning remind me of the classical hell — a featureless landscape where the peewits twitter and the half-alive remember hills and sunshine. And the asphodel of this Hades is the cabbage. To lie among cabbages in my own country should have been nothing after the pain and exposure I suffered during my escape; but it was summer then and it was autumn now. To lie still on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe! If the owner of that vile held had been planting, he’d have stuck his dibber into me before noticing that I wasn’t mud.
I was so bored that I was thankful when in the early afternoon a car stopped at the gate into the field, and a party of three policemen crunched up the cinder path. I had been expecting them for hours; they knew that I had been seen on the Fosse Way in the morning, and since then nowhere, so it was certain they would search every possible hiding place along the highway and its byroads. They looked into the hut and into that decaying car. I kept my face well down between my arms, so I don’t know whether they even glanced at the cabbage field. Probably not. It was so open and innocent.
There were plenty of cars and cyclists on the road, and the owner of the field, presumably advised that his hut had received a visit from the police, was leaning against it in the company of two friends and looking over his possessions with ruminative pride. I don’t suppose there had been so much excitement in the villages since Monmouth’s troops were Hying from Sedgemoor, foundering their horses in that awful ploughland, and crawling in the muck like me and the worms.
At last the cabbage man went home to his soggy tea and dusk fell and I stood up. I drank a quarter of my flask and struck eastwards away from the road. Cross-country travel in t he dark was nearly impossible. I felt my way along drains and hedges, usually circumnavigating three sides of a field before I found the way out of it — and when I did find the way out, it invariably led me into a village or back into the cabbage field.
Perhaps I should have been forced to spend another day among the cabbages if I had not stumbled across a railway line which I followed towards Yeovil, stepping quietly from sleeper to sleeper. Two railway employees passed me walking homewards, but their boots on the ballast gave me ample warning of their approach. I avoided them, and the one train, by lying down at the bottom of t he embankment.
A denser darkness on the horizon warned me that I was nearing the massed little houses of Yeovil. It was then about two in the morning, and the byroads were deserted; so I turned south towards the hills. When the slow autumn dawn turned night to mist I could feel the short, turf under my foot and sec the gleam of chalk and flint wherever man or beast had scraped the escarpment.
I drank at the piped spring which fed a cattle trough, and took refuge in the heart of a wild half acre of gorse and heather. Here I startled an old dog fox, and startled myself, when I came to consider it, a deal more. I flatter myself I am able to get as near to game as any civilized man and most savages; indeed it has been my favorite pursuit since I was given my first air rifle at. the age of six, and told — an injunction which with a single exception I have obeyed — that I must never point a gun at anyone. Yet I should certainly not have backed myself to approach within three yards of a fox, even knowing where he was and deliberately stalking him. Oddly enough, it worried me that I had come to move with such instinctive quietness. I was already on the lookout for all signs of demoralization—morbidly anxious to assure myself that I was losing none of my humanity.
I chose a south bank where short heather was gradually overcoming the turf, laying black springs under its green mattress. The sun promised a mild heat, and I spread out my coat and leather jacket to dry. I dozed sweetly, awakening whenever a bird perched on the gorse or a rabbit scuttered through the runways, but instantly and easily falling asleep again.
A little after midday I woke up for good. There was nothing immediately visible to account for the sudden clarity of my senses, so I peered over the gorse. Upwind were two men strolling along the crest, of the hill. One was a sergeant of the Dorset constabulary; the other a small farmer—to judge by the fact that he carried an old-fashioned hammer gun. They passed me within ten yards, the policeman pressing down with firm feet as if searching for a pavement beneath that silent and resilient turf, the farmer plodding along with the slightly bent knees of a man who seldom walks on the flat.
I decided to follow these two solemn wanderers and hear what they had to say. They were discussing me, since the farmer had remarked, apropos of nothing: ‘’Tis my belief he was over to Zumerset all the time’ — a final and definite pronouncement as of one who should say, ‘I believe he went to South America and died there.’
It’s curious how much cover there is on the chalk downs. A body of men couldn’t move unseen, but a single man can. In the vales of southern England, though they look like woodland from the top of lulls, hedges and fences compel the fugitive to go the way of other men, and sooner or later he is forced, as I was, to lie down and pray for the earth to cover him. But on the bare — apparently bare — downs there are prehistoric pits and trenches, tree-grown tumps, gorse and the upper edge of coverts, lonely barns and thickets of thorn. And the hedges, where there are any, are either miniature forests or full of gaps.
It was easy to catch them up. They went at an easy pace, stopping every now and then to exchange a few words. The weighty business of conversation could not be disturbed by movement. At last they settled on a gate and leaned over it, contemplating twenty acres of steely-green mangel-wurzels which sloped down to the golden hedges of the vale. I crawled the length of a dry ditch and came within earshot.
The sergeant finished a long mumble with the word ‘foreigners,’ pronounced loudly and aggressively.
‘Err, they bastards!’ said the farmer.
The sergeant considered this judicially, turning with deliberation towards his companion and me. He was a uniformed servant of the state, and thus, I imagine, predisposed to diplomacy.
‘I wouldn’t ‘ardly go so far as that,’ he said. ‘Not that I ‘old with furr’ners — but I don’t know as I’d go so far as that.’
There was a deal more conversation which I couldn’t hear because neither of them was sufficiently excited to raise his voice. The farmer, I think, must have denied that any foreigners ever came to Dorset. The suggestion that they did was almost a criticism on his county.
‘I tell ‘ee there’s been furr’ners askin’ for’m,’ said the sergeant. ‘And I knows that, because the inspector says to me, ‘e says . . .’ Then his voice trailed away again.
My two friends marched off across the downs, while I remained in the ditch digesting the scraps of news. I was perturbed, but not surprised. It was natural enough that my enemies should get possession of Scotland Yard’s clues to my whereabouts. If dear old Holy George couldn’t manage it, then one of their newspaper correspondents in London could. It wasn’t confidential information.
I returned to my form in the heart of the gorse. The early afternoon sun had a dying bite of summer in it, and I was glowing with the exertion of my stalk. At dusk I ate the last of my provisions and drank again at the spring. By good fortune I left untouched the half flask of whiskey that remained. I feared its effect — slight, but enough to give me confidence when my safe return to the lane and my peace of mind throughout the winter depended on moving now with the utmost caution.
The emptiness was infinity, darkness with distance but no shape. The southwest wind swirled over the turf, and the triple line of turf ramparts hung over me like smooth seas traveling through the night. I might have been upon the eastern slopes of the Andes with an empty continent of forest at my feel. I could have wished it so. There I should have felt alone, secure, an impregnable outpost of humanity.
As I dodged and darted home from lane to lane and farmhouse to farmhouse, I couldn’t get the sidecar out of my head. I wanted to know if it had been disturbed. Should the police have found it, and taken it from the stream for identification, they might disbelieve the evidence of the cottages—which was good only so long as no one questioned it — and search the country where I really was.
Although it was only a field away from a well-frequented byroad, the sidecar was in a safe place: a muddy little stream flowing between deep banks with the hawthorn arching overhead. It would remain unseen, I thought, for years unless some yokel took it into his head to wade up the bed of the stream or a cow rubbed her way through the bushes.
I entered the water at a cattle wallow, plunging up to my knees in mire, and forced my way under the hawthorn. I couldn’t see the sidecar. I was sure of the place, but it wasn’t there. I didn’t allow myself to worry yet, but I felt, as a slab of pain, the cold of the water. I pushed on downstream, hoping that the sidecar had been shifted by the force of the current, and knowing very well, as I now remember, that nothing but a winter flood would shift it.
At last I saw it, a faint white bulk in the darkness canted up against a bank of rushes where the stream widened. I was so glad to find it that I didn’t hesitate, didn’t listen to the intuition that was clamoring to be heard, and being ascribed to nervousness.
I was leaning over the sidecar when a voice quite softly called my name. I straightened up, so astounded and fascinated that for a second I couldn’t move. A thin beam of light flashed on my face, and dropped to my heart with a roar and a smashing blow. I was knocked backwards across the baby carriage, pitching with my right side on the mud and my head half under water. I have no memory of falling, only of the light and the simultaneous explosion. I must have been unconscious while I hit the mud, for just so long, I suppose, as my heart took to recover its habit of beating.
I remained collapsed, with eyes staring, trying to pick up the continuity of life. If I had had the energy I should have cackled with crazy laughter; it seemed so very extraordinary to have a beam of light thrust through one’s heart and be still alive. I heard my assassin give his ridiculous party war-cry in a low, fervent voice as if praising God for the slaughter of the infidel. Then a car cruised quietly up the road, and I heard a door slam as someone got out. I lay still, uncertain whether the gunman had gone to meet the newcomer or not; he had, for I heard their voices a moment later as they approached the stream, presumably to collect my body. I crawled off through the grass and rushes on the far bank, and bolted for borne. I am not ashamed to remember that I was frightened, shocked, careless. To be shot from ambush is horribly unnerving.
I jumped into my tree and down into the lane, regardless of darting pain whenever I moved my right arm. Then I shut the door of the den behind me and lay down to collect myself. When I had regained a more graceful mastery of my spirit, I lit a candle and explored the damage.
The bullet — from a .45 revolver — had turned on the nickel of the flask in mv breast pocket, ploughed sideways through my leather jacket, and come to rest (point foremost, thank God!) in the fleshy part of my righl shoulder. It was so near the surface that I squeezed it out with my fingers. The skin was bruised and broken right across my chest, and I felt as if I had been knocked down by a railway engine; but no serious damage had been done.
I understood why the hunter had not even taken the trouble to examine his kill. He had shot along the beam of a flash lamp, seen the bullet strike, and watched the stain of whiskey, which couldn’t in artificial light be distinguished from blood, leap to the breast of my coat and spread. It wasn’t necessary to pay me any further attention for the moment; he had no use for my pelt or liver.
I patched myself up and lit a pipe, thinking of the fellow who had shot me. He had used a revolver because a rifle couldn’t be handled in such thick cover and at so close a range, but his technique showed that he had experience of big game. He had got into my mind. He knew that sooner or later I should have a look at that sidecar. And his gentle calling of my name to make me turn my head was perfect.
They had dispatched a redoubtable emissary. He knew, as the police did not, who I was and what sort of man I was; thus he had been suspicious of my elaborate false trails. He guessed the plain facts: that I had committed a folly in going to Lyme Regis, and that my jack-in-the-box tricks thereafter were evidence of nothing but my anxiety. Therefore I had some secure hiding place not far from Lyme Regis and almost certainly on the Beaminster side of it. His private search for the sidecar, which he may have been carrying on for weeks, was then concentrated on the right spot. That he found it was due to imagination rather than luck. It had to be near a track or lane; it was probably in wood or water. And I think if I had been he I should have voted for waiter. There was a pattern in my escape. I had a preference for hiding, traveling, throwing off pursuit by water. Water, as the Spanish would say, was my querencia.
Well, he had missed. I think I wrote in some other context which I have forgotten that the Almighty looks after the rogue male. Nevertheless this sportsman (allow him the title, for he must have waited up two or three nights over his bait, and been prepared to wait for many more) would be content. He had discovered the bit of country where I had been hiding, and he could even be pretty sure whereabouts my lair was. My panic-stricken dash through the water meadow showed that I was bolting south. I wouldn’t be camping in the marshland; therefore the only place for me was on or just over the semicircle of low hills beyond. All that he had to do was to go into the long grass, as it. were, after his wounded beast. The hunt had narrowed from all England to Dorset, from Dorset to the western corner of the county, and from that to four square miles.
I had known that this fate, whether delayed for months or years, was on the way to me; but the tranquillity of ray life in the lane had taken the edge off my fear. I had been inclined to brood over my motives and congratulate myself on my superior cleverness, to look back rather than forward. There was, indeed, nothing to look forward to, no activity, no object; so I clung, and cling, to what I have—this lane. I might have escaped and lived on the country, but sooner or later one pack or the other would run me to earth, and no earth could be so deep and well-disguised as this.
It was obvious that, if I stayed where I was, I must completely reverse my policy of keeping the lane closed. The thorns must go, and the place be wide open to inspection while I myself lived underground.
I started on the work immediately. A southwest gale was sweeping down the hillside carrying along with it a solid ceiling of cloud high enough for the rain to drive and sting, so low that the whole sky seemed in movement. I welcomed the rain, for it helped me to obliterate all traces of myself and it would discourage the two men in the car from attempting to follow me up until visibility was better.
The eastern hedge, beneath which my burrow ran, was as wide as a cottage and promised to be as impenetrable in winter as in summer. The western hedge, however, which bounded the ploughed field, had not been allowed to eat up so much land and formed a thinner screen. I built up the weak stretches, thus getting rid of the poles from my platform and a lot of loose brushwood. The holly bush and the larger branches of thorn I shoved into the eastern hedge, hiding the cut ends. I stamped the earth hard down over my rubbish pit, and the water that was now rushing along the bottom of the lane covered pit and floor with a smooth expanse of dead bracken and red sand. I then retired indoors, leaving it to the rain to wash out my footprints. I have never had a chance to dry the clothes in which I was working.
The obliteration was not perfect. Bracken and nettles were crushed, but, since the whole lane was filled with the dying debris of autumn, the traces of my tramplings and removals were not very plain. There was a faint but definite smell. Worst of all, there were the steps cut up the inside of the elm which could not be disguised. If the fellow who was about to go into the covert after me had an observant eve — and I knew he had — he was bound to consider the lane suspicious; but I hoped he would judge his suspicions wrong and conclude that, whether or not I had once lived between the hedges, I had taken to the open and died of my wound.
The door was a faultless piece of camouflage; I had planted around it the same weeds as were over it, and no one could tell which had died with their roots in earth and which with their roots in glue. A few trails of living ivy hung over the door from the hedge.
Thenceforth my way out of the burrow was the chimney. The diameter of its course through the solid sandstone was already sufficient to receive my body; only the last ten feet of broken stone and earth had to be widened. I completed the job that afternoon — a nightmarish job, for my shoulder was painful and I was continually knocking off to rest. Then I would begin to dream of the root or the stone or the water that was beating me, and I would get up again and go to work, half-naked and foul with the red earth, a creature inhuman in mind and body. I think that sometimes I must have worked while asleep. It was the first time that I experienced this dazed and earthy dreaming; it has since become very common.
A queer tunnel it seemed to me when I examined it after a night’s sleep. I hadn’t attempted to cut through any roots that were thicker than a thumb; I had gone round them. At one point I had tunneled right away from the chimney, and come back to it. This was all to the good. Though the curve demanded odd contortions to get in and out, the roots acted as the rungs of a ladder, and the slope as a sump for water. The mouth was still well hidden under the blackberry bush. The only disaster was that my inner chamber was now full of wet earth, and I had no means of dumping it elsewhere.
I stared at my face to-day, hoping to see those spiritual attributes which surprised me when I first looked in the fisherman’s mirror. I wanted comfort from my face, wanted to know that this torture, like the last, had refined it. I saw my eyes fouled with earth, my hair and beard dripping with blood-red earth, my skin gray and puffed as that of a crushed earthworm. It was the mask of a beast in its den, terrified, waiting.
But I must not anticipate. To preserve my sanity it is necessary that I take things in their order. That is the object of this confession: to tell things in their order, reasonably, precisely; to recover that man with his insolence, his irony, his ingenuity. By writing of him I become him for the time.
It was Major Quive-Smith who had shot me by the stream. I am sure of it because his subsequent behavior and his character (which by now I know as an old fox, outliving his contemporaries, knows the idiosyncrasies of the huntsman) correspond to those of the man who waited patiently over the sidecar, who called my name to make me turn my head.
Two days I spent recovering from the wound, light in itself but aggravated by all that sudden toil. On the third I emerged from my chimney and crawled from bush to bush along the edge of the eastern pasture until I reached an ivycovered oak at the bottom of the lane. It was nearly dead, and a paradise of wood pigeons. From the top I could see the Marsh wood Vale spread out as on a map, and I overlooked the courtyard of Patachon’s farm.
Pat and Patachon are the names I have given to my two neighbors. I live unsuspected between them like an evil spirit, knowing their ways and their characters but not permitted to discover their true names. Pat, the farmer to whom the cows and the eastern hedge belong, is a tall, thin youth with a lined, brown face, a habit of muttering to himself, and a soul embittered by bad homemade cider. His little dairy farm can barely pay its way; but he has an active wife with a lot of healthy poultry which probably produce all the ready cash. On the other hand she is prolific as her hens. They have six children with expensive tastes. I judge the kids by the fact that they suck sweets at the same time as eating blackberries.
Patachon, who owns the western hedge and the great gray farm, is a chunky, red-faced old rascal, always with a tall ash plant in his hand when he hasn’t a gun. His terse Dorset speech delights his laborers, and is heard, I should guess, on a number of local boards. His land runs past the lower end of the lane, and round over the top of the hill, so that Pat’s pasture is an enclave in the middle of it. On warm evenings he walks his side of the hedge in the hope of picking up rabbit or wood pigeon, but the only shots he has ever fired were at Asmodeus. The old poacher was too quick for him; all you can do to Asmodeus is to shoot where he ought, to be but never is.
All morning I saw nothing of interest from the tree, but in the afternoon two men in a car drove into the yard of Patachon’s farm and dropped a bag and a gun case. Then they bumped along the lower edge of the stubble, following the farm track which joined the serviceable portion of my lane. I guessed that they must be bound for Pat’s farm; if they had been going beyond it, they would have taken a better road. I couldn’t keep them under observation, for the southern slopes were much too dangerous in daylight. There were deep lanes which had to be crossed or entered, with no possibility of avoiding other pedestrians.
In half an hour they were back at Patachon’s. One of the men got out and went indoors. The other drove the car away. Someone, then, had come to stay at the farm. I remained on watch in the tree, for I didn’t like the look of things.
In the evening Patachon and his visitor emerged from the farmhouse with their guns under their arms, prepared for a stroll round the estate. They started towards the low-lying thickets at the western end of the farm, and I didn’t see them again for an hour. Patachon owned a lot of rough land in that direction which I had never bothered to explore. I heard a few shots. A flight of three duck shot northwards and vanished in the dusk. A wood pigeon came homing to my free, saw me, banked against the wind, and dived sideways with brilliant virtuosity. When I caught sight of the two guns again, they were stealing along the edge of the lane, separated from me only by the width of the two hedges. Patachon’s visitor was Major QuiveSmith.
The farmer picked up a stone and flung it smack into the tree, just missing my feet. No pigeon flew out of the ivy, needless to say.
‘And if ’e’d a bin there,’ said Patachon bitterly, ‘’e’d a flowed t’other way.’
‘He would,’ agreed Major QuiveSmith. ‘ By Jove! I can’t think why that fellow wouldn’t let his little bit of shooting!’
That explained why he had gone to see Pat. And Pat, I am sure, refused his request rudely and finally.
‘Sour man, ‘e is!’ said the farmer. ‘Sour!’
‘Does he shoot at all himself?’
‘No. ‘E baint a man for fun. But don’t ‘ee go botherin’ ‘im, Major, for there’s nobbut in the ‘edge this year.’
‘How’s that?' asked Quive-Smith.
I could see the swift, suspicious turn of his head, and hear the bark in the question,
‘A perishin’ cat! Can’t trap un. Can’t shoot un.’
‘Very shy of man, I suppose?’
‘Knows as well as we what us would do to un if us could catch un,’ Patachon agreed.
I observed that the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels. As a rifle, it ts inaccurate at 200 yards; as a gun, unnecessarily heavy. But the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.
I don’t yet know Quive-Smith’s true nationality or name. As a retired military man he had nearly, but not quite, convinced Saul. In his present part, a nondescript gentleman amusing himself with a farm holiday and some cheap and worthless shooting, there was no fault to be found. Tall, fair, slim, and a clever actor, he could pass as a member of half a dozen different nations according to the way he cut his hair and moustache. His cheekbones are too high to be typically English, but so are my own. His nose is that unmistakable AngloRoman which with few exceptions again I am one of them — seems to lead its possessor to Sandhurst. He might have been a Hungarian or Swede, and I have seen faces and figures like his among fair-haired Arabs. I think he is not of pure European origin; his hands, feet, and bone structure are too delicate.
To rent the shooting over three quarters of the country where I was likely to be was a superb conception. He had every right to walk about with a gun and to fire it. If he bagged me, the chances were a thousand to one against the murder ever being discovered. In a year or two Saul would have to assume that I was dead. But where had I died? Anywhere between Poland and Lyme Regis. And where was my body? At the bottom of the sea or in a pit of quicklime if Quive-Smith and his unknown friend with the car knew their business.
I was glad of my two unconscious protectors: Asmodeus, whose presence in the Lane made my own rather improbable, and Pat, who wouldn’t have trespassers on his land and wouldn’t let his little bit of shooting. I know that type of dyspeptic John Bull. When he has forbidden a person to enter his ground, he is ready to desert the most urgent jobs merely to watch his boundary fence. Quive-Smith couldn’t be prevented from exploring Pat’s side of the hedge, but he would have to do it with discretion and preferably at night.
I returned to my burrow, now no larger than it had been in the first few weeks, and much damper. I cursed myself for not having widened the chimney before I cleaned up the lane; I could then have thrown out the earth and allowed the rain to distribute it. The inner chamber was uninhabitable and so remains.
I stayed in my sleeping bag for two wretched days. I envied Quive-Smith. He was showing great courage in hunting single-handed a fugitive whom he believed to be desperate. Twice Asmodeus came home with a rush through the ventilation hole and crouched at the back of the den, untouchable and malignant.
a sure sign that somebody was in the lane. I lay still underground. Desperate I was, and am, but I want no violence.
On the third afternoon I found the immobility and dirt no longer endurable, and decided to reconnoitre. Asmodeus was out, so I knew that there was no human being in the immediate vicinity.
I hoped that Quive-Smith was already paying attention to some other part of the county, or at least to some other farm, but I warned myself not to underestimate his patience. I poked my filthy head and shoulders out into the heart of the blackberry bush and remained there, listening. It was a long and intricate process to leave the bush; I had to lie flat on the ground, separating the trailing thorny stems with gloved hands and pushing myself forwards with my toes.
I sat among my green fortifications, enjoying the open air and watching Pat’s field and the sheep down beyond. It wasn’t much to have under observation. Behind me was my own lane, and fifty yards to my left the cross hedge in which was another lane running up to the down; there might have been a platoon of infantry in both for all that I could have seen of them or they of me. Opposite me was another hedge that separated Pat’s pasture from Patachon’s sheep; to my right, the skyline of the pasture.
About five o’clock Pat came into the field to drive the cows home himself — a task that hitherto he had always left to a boy — and remained for some time staring about him truculently and swinging a stick. At sunset Major QuiveSmith detached himself from a brownscarred rabbit warren on the hillside, and put his field glasses back in their case. I had not the remotest notion that he was there, but, since I had been assuming he was everywhere, I knew he had not seen me. To let me see him I thought obliging.
He struck down the hillside into the lane leading to Patachon’s farm. As soon as he was in dead ground I crawled to the corner to have a look at him while he passed beneath me. A clump of gorse covered me from observation from the pasture as I crouched in the angle of the hedges.
I waited, but he didn’t come. Then it occurred to me that he must hate those deep tracks almost as much as I did; a man walking along them was completely at the mercy of anyone above him. So he was possibly behind the opposite hedge, working his way back to the farm across the fields. It seemed odd that he should take all that trouble when he could have gone home by the vale and run no risks whatever; it seemed so odd that I suddenly realized I had been outmanœuvred. He had shown himself deliberately. If I were haunting the lane, which he suspected, and out for revenge, of which he must have been sure, then I should have waited for him just in that corner where I was.
I turned round and peered through the gorse. He was racing silently down the slope towards me. He had decoyed me info the corner of two hedges, from which there was no escape.
He hadn’t seen me. He didn’t know I was there; he could only hope I was there. I tried a desperate bluff.
‘Git off my land!’ I yelled. ’Gil off ut, I tell ‘ee, or I’ll ’ave the law on ‘ee!’
It was a good enough imitation of Pat’s high-pitched voice, but it wasn’t very good Dorset. However, I speak my county dialect as richly as my old nurse, and we’re near enough to the Bristol Channel to have the West Country burr. I hoped Quive-Smith had not learned to distinguish between dialects.
The major stopped in his stride. It was quite possible that Pat was standing in the lane and looking at him through the hedge, and he didn’t want to quarrel more than could be helped.
‘Go round by t’ ga-ate, and git off my land! ‘ I shouted.
’I say, I’m very sorry!’ said QuiveSmith in a loud and embarrassed military voice — he was acting his part every bit as well as I was acting mine.
I bought I’d be late for supper, you know. Just taking a short cut!’
‘Well, cut oop ba-ack, dam’ ‘ee!’ I yelled,
He turned, and strolled back up the field with offended dignity. I did not even wait for him to reach the skyline, for he might have lain down and continued observation. I sprinted along the twenty yards of straight hedge between the gorse and my own bramble patch, wriggled under the blackberry bush, and popped into my burrow. I remained till nightfall with my head and shoulders above ground, but heard no more of him.
I have a reasonable certainly that Quive-Smith will never discover the deception. Pat is sure to be rude and taciturn in any conversation. If the major apologizes when they next meet, Pat will accept the apologies with a grunt, and, if asked straight out whether or not he ordered the major off his land on such a day at such an hour, will allow it to be thought he did. My presence in the lane is still not proved. Suspected, yes. Before Quive-Smith got home to supper, he had no doubt kicked himself for not walking right up to the angle of the hedges.
How much did he know? He had decided, obviously, that I had not been badly wounded; I had, after all, left the stream at a pace that defied pursuit, and there had not been a spot of blood. Then where was I ? He had, I presumed, explored all the cover on Patachon’s farm and on the two or three others over which he was shooting. He had found no trace of me except in the lane, and he knew that at some time it had been my headquarters. Was l still there? No, but 1 might return; the lane was well worth watching until the police or the public reported me elsewhere.
His general routine was more or less predictable. If he made a habit of scouting around Pat’s pasture in daylight, he ran a real risk of being assaulted or sued for trespass, and he had at all costs to avoid drawing attention to himself by a large local row. By day, then, he might be on the high ground or in the lane itself or on Patachon’s side of it. After dusk he would explore or lie up in the pasture.
I was confident that, under these circumstances, he would not find the mouth of my earth; but on one condition — that I cleaned it up and never used it again. There must not be a stem of the bush out of place, nor a blade of grass bent, nor any loose earth.
I resigned myself to remaining in the burrow, however unendurable. I have determined not to give way to impatience. I have been underground for nine days.
I dure not smoke or cook, but I have plenty of food: a large store of nuts and most of the tinned meat and groceries that I brought back from my last trips to Beaminster. Of water I have far more than I need. It collects in the sandstone channels that run like wainscoting along the sides of the den and slops over on to the floor. Lest it should undermine the door I have driven two holes, half an inch in diameter, through to the lane, drilling with a tin-opener attached to the end of a stick. I keep them plugged during the day for fear that Quive-Smith might notice such unnatural springs.
Space I have none. The inner chamber is a tumbled morass of wet earth which I am compelled to use as a latrine. I am confined to my original excavation, the size of three large dog kennels, where I lie on or inside my sleeping bag. I cannot extend it. The noise of working would be audible in the lane.
I spend a part of each day wedged in the enlarged chimney, with my head out of the top: but that is more for change of position than for fresh air. The domed, prolific bush is so thick and so shadowed by its companions and by the hedge that I can only be sure it is day when the sun is in the east. The lifeless centre seems full of gases, unsatisfying in themselves and carrying in suspension the brown dust and debris that fall from above and the soot from my fires that has accumulated on the underside of the leaves.
Asmodeus, as always, is my comfort. It is seldom that one can give to and receive from an animal close, silent, and continuous attention. We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field mice. During the hours while he sits cleaning himself, and I motionless in my dirt, there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us. I cannot ’order’ or even ‘hope’ that he should perform a given act, but back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action. I should call these dreams madness did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.
All initiative is at an end. All luck is at an end. We are so dependent on luck, good and bad. I think of those men and women — cases faintly parallel to mine — who live in one room and eat poorly and lie in bed, since their incomes are too small for any marked activity. Their lives would be unbearable were it not for their hopes of good luck and fears of bad. They have, in fact, little of either; but illusion magnifies what there is.
I have no chance even of illusion. Luck has reached a state of equilibrium and stopped. I had one stroke of evil when that trailer innocently attracted the notice of the police, one stroke of magnificent luck when Quive-Smith’s bullet hit the flask. In most other cases I have been able to account for the march of events by conscious planning or by my own instinctive and animal reactions under stress.
Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think, is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts. I remind myself that I have extended and presumably will extend again in the time of the outer world. At present I exist only in my own time, as one does in a nightmare, forcing myself to a fanaticism of endurance. Without a God, without a love, without a bate — yet a fanatic! An embodiment of that myth of foreigners, the English gentleman, the gentle Englishman. I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object.
(To be concluded)
With each twelve months ofthe Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR