BY PETER USTINOV
JOHN KERMIDGE walked down the street in Highgate to the letter box, a bulky package in his hand. He felt as though he had been plunged backwards into another, more ample century, when the legs of men were still in constant use as a means of propulsion, not just as members groping for brake and accelerator. He smiled at the sky as though greeting a half-forgotten friend. There was a trace of troubled conscience in his smile. He had kept the sky waiting for so long. Usually, when he looked up, he saw nothing but the perpetual night of his laboratory.
Since he was a scientist, it would have been inhuman if he had not in some measure surrendered to tradition and been a little absent-minded. Not in his work, but in relatively unimportant matters. When he wrote, he did so with vast application, and the meaning of his words could only be fathomed by a few dozen endowed creatures in various universities; but often, as now, having filled pages with mysterious logic, he forgot to stick any stamps to the envelope. The letter was addressed to Switzerland, to a Doctor Nussli, in Zurich. Considering that Dr. Nussli was perhaps John’s best friend, it was strange, if typical, that the name on the envelope was spelled with a single s.
“Where did you go?” asked his wife anxiously when he returned.
“I posted that letter to Hans.”
“Couldn’t it have waited until the morning?”
Although the weather was cold, John mopped his brow with his handkerchief. “No,” he said.
“The last mail’s gone anyway,” Veronica grumbled.
It was curious that John should feel irritated in his hour of triumph, but he allowed himself a moment of harshness.
“No,” he repeated, unnecessarily loud.
There was a pause, with thunder in the air.
For quite a few months, Veronica and John had seen very little of each other. Veronica had permitted herself quite a few questions during this time; John had failed to gratify her with even a single answer.
“I thought you might like to see the children before they went to bed,” she said.
He grunted and asked, “Where’s Bill?”
“Bill? I don’t know. Sir Humphrey called.”
“Sir Humphrey?” John started angrily. “What the hell did he want?”
“He didn’t say, but he was unusually nice to me.”
“That’s a bad sign.”
“Seemed very elated.”
“Elated?” John kicked a chair.
“What’s the matter with you?" Veronica almost shouted.
The doorbell rang.
“That’ll be the champagne,” John said, going into the entrance hall.
It wasn’t the champagne. It was Bill Hensey, John’s assistant, a bearded fellow in an old sports jacket, with a dead pipe permanently in his mouth. He seized John by the arm, didn’t even acknowledge Veronica, and started speaking agitatedly in a soft voice. Veronica wished she’d married a bank clerk, a man with simple problems and a little courtesy. She heard nothing of the conversation apart from an occasional reference to Sir Humphrey, but she saw Bill’s baleful blue eyes darting hither and thither with excitement.
She was a pleasant girl without much temperament, the ideal wife for John, if there was such a thing. She didn’t wish to attract attention to herself, since she knew that both men were engaged in important work and that they were under some strain which it was her unhappy duty to understand without being inquisitive. Just then, however, the children burst into the room, engaged in a running fight over the cactus-covered plains of the frontier badlands. Dick, dressed as a sheriff over his pajamas, opened murderous fire with a cap pistol from behind an armchair, while Timothy plunged into cover behind the radiogram, his eyes shining evilly through the slits of his bandit’s mask.
John exploded. “Get out of here,” he yelled.
It was only natural for Veronica to leap to her children’s defense. “They’re only playing,” she cried. “God Almighty, what’s the matter with you?”
“Can’t you see we’re working?” answered John, covering up his guilt in testiness.
But Veronica was roused, and launched into a big scene. While the children slunk out unhappily, she released all her resentment in a flood of tears and invective. She had been packing for this blasted trip to Washington. Did he think she wanted to go to Washington? She’d much rather stay home. Why didn’t he go alone? And if he went, why didn’t he stay? What thanks did she get? To her the unglamorous lot: the paying of bills, the checking of accounts, the necessary bedtime stories which taxed the imagination. Why didn’t he marry Bill?
She was interrupted by the doorbell. The champagne, no doubt.
It wasn’t the champagne. It was Sir Humphrey Utteridge, accompanied by an affected youth in a bowler hat.
“Kermidge, allow me to congratulate you,” Sir Humphrey said in a voice that was quivering with emotion.
John and Bill exchanged a quick, anxious look.
“Thank you, Sir Humphrey,” John answered, with some impatience.
“This event will mark the beginning of a new era, not only in the annals of recorded history, but in the indelible odyssey of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
This was the fine, rolling language for launching a ship, but nobody wants a ship launched in his living room.
“Old ass,” thought John, but said, “It’s very good of you to say so.”
“D’you remember me, Kermidge?” asked the affected youth, leaning heavily on his umbrella. “Oliver de Vouvenay. We were at Charterhouse together.”
Good gracious. No wonder John didn’t remember him, he hadn’t changed a bit. John’s hair was turning white, but this immaculate, pink creature looked exactly as he had at school. If he was now successful, it was a triumph of conformity. He was successful.
After John had grudgingly shaken hands, Oliver de Vouvenay announced that he hadn’t done badly, since he was now the Principal Private Secretary of the Prime Minister, the Right Honorable Arthur Backworth, and hoped to stand in the next election.
“Not as a socialist,” said John.
Oliver de Vouvenay laughed uproariously and expressed his conviction that the joke was a good one.
Before there was time for more banter, the doorbell rang again.
“That’ll be —” Sir Humphrey began, but John interrupted him.
“I ordered some champagne,” he said. “I’ll go.”
JOHN opened the door and found himself face to face with a detective. The man didn’t say he was a detective, but it was obvious. His disguise would only have deceived another detective.
“This is it, sir,'’ called the detective to a waiting Rolls-Royce.
The door of the limousine opened slowly, and an elderly man of some distinction struggled cautiously onto the pavement.
John felt the color draining from his face. He recognized the man as the Right Honorable Arthur Backworth, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“May I come in?” said the Prime Minister, with a vote-catching smile.
Here was a wonderful, perverse moment to say no, but John said yes.
Veronica, amazed, and with an intense feeling of shame at having even mentioned such trivialities as accounts and packing, watched her humble suburban boudoir gradually filling with celebrities who had only graced it previously as guests on the television screen.
“You will probably wonder why I am here,” crooned Mr. Backworth.
Once again John was seized with a desire to say no, but to the Prime Minister the question was a rhetorical one, and he continued in august and measured tones.
“When Sir Humphrey informed me early today of the success of your experiment, I immediately called a cabinet meeting, which ended not half an hour ago. It goes without saying that what you have achieved is perhaps the most glorious, the most decisive step forward in the history of science — nay, of the human race. What recognition a mere government may accord you will be yours, rest assured.”
“It would have been impossible without Bill here —” John said.
“Yes, yes, both of you, both of you,” the Prime Minister went on with some impatience. He was used to the interruptions of politicians, but the interruptions of laymen were an impertinence. “Now, it must be obvious to you,” he continued, “that what you have accomplished is of such magnitude that it cannot fail to affect the policy of nations, and,” he added, with a trace of exalted mischief, “of this nation in particular. After all, the Russians will, at any moment, be able to land a dog on the moon; the Americans have, I am told, a mouse in readiness; but we, without fanfares or magniloquence, have bypassed these intermediary stages and are ready to land a man, or men. You may not realize what this means.”
John smiled and said modestly, “I am very fortunate, sir, that it should have fallen to me to head the team which managed, perhaps more by luck than by virtue, to achieve this success. I am, of course, looking forward immensely to my visit to Washington, and to the possibility of breaking this news to our American friends.” John was slightly annoyed with himself for adopting this formal tone, but in talking to Prime Ministers one apparently didn’t talk, one made a speech.
Mr. Backworth looked at John curiously, and smiled. “I want you to come to dinner on Thursday at Number 10,” he said.
“I can’t, I’ll be in Washington.”
“No, you won’t.”
The Prime Minister nodded at Sir Humphrey, who cleared his throat and spoke. “It has been decided by the cabinet — and I was present at the meeting —to send Gwatkin-Pollock to Washington in your place. We need you here.”
“But Gwatkin-Pollock knows not the first thing about interplanetary travel!” John cried.
“Then he will give nothing away,” said the Prime Minister, pleasantly.
“This is outrageous. I want to go!”
“You can’t,” replied the Prime Minister.
“Can’t!” echoed John, and then fell back on the conventional reaction of the perplexed democrat. “This is a free country.”
“Yes,” growled the Prime Minister, in his heroic style, “and we must keep it free.”
His remark didn’t mean much, but any student of politics will recognize the fact that it is more important to make the right noise than to talk sense.
The Prime Minister smiled, relaxing the unexpected tension. “Do you really think that we have sunk so low as to reward you by curbing your liberties?” he asked.
John felt childish. “I was looking forward to Washington,” he said.
“You scientists take such a long view of events that it needs simple souls like ourselves to open your eyes to the obvious on occasion. Of course you are flushed with pride of achievement. Of course you wish to announce your world-shattering discovery to your colleagues. That is only human. But alas! Your colleagues may be near to you in spirit, but they also carry passports, they also speak their various languages and boast their various prejudices. There can be no pure relationship between you and, say, a Russian scientist, because you both have divergent responsibilities, however warm and cordial your contact in your laboratories or over a cup of coffee. Now, you harbor a tremendous, a dangerous secret. Have you the experience to keep it, all by yourself, without help from us? Will not the strain on you be utterly inhuman, however loyal your intentions? These are questions to which we must find answers within the next few weeks.”
“How do you intend to go about it?" asked John, too surprised to be really angry.
“By keeping your mind occupied,” said the Prime Minister, earnestly. “Thursday is the day after tomorrow. I wish you to dine with me and with General Sir Godfrey Toplett, Chief of General Staff.”
“We will have absolutely nothing in common,” said John.
“Before dinner, perhaps not. After dinner, I believe you will,” replied the Prime Minister coolly.
“I presume that I may go on seeing which friends I please?” asked John, his voice charged with irony.
The Prime Minister ignored the irony and said, “ Up to a point.”
John looked at Oliver do Vouvenay, who smiled fatuously.
Bill rose from his seat. He hadn’t said anything, but was visibly dismayed. “If you’ll excuse me . .”he began.
“Don’t be alarmed if you should feel yourself followed,” said the Prime Minister. “You will be.”
GWATKIN-POLLOCK was a man of science often selected by the British government for official missions, since he had a quality of aloof and calculating majesty which those seated with him round a conference table never failed to find disturbing. He always seemed to be hiding something. He also had a habit of suddenly, unreasonably laughing at a comic situation of a day, a week, a year ago, usually while a serious statement was being read by someone else. His enigmatic quality was completed by his utter silence when it was his turn to make a statement.
It so happened that at the very moment Gwatkin-Pollock was seated with American scientists at a top-level conference in Washington, John was puffing one of the Prime Minister’s better cigars and rather losing his critical sense in its lullaby of fumes. The dark plans of the British government were working well for the time being on both fronts. A brilliant American scientist, who spoke for some reason with a thick German accent, was just expounding a remarkable plan for projecting a whole battalion of white mice into space, when Gwatkin-Pollock, remembering a humorous event from his youth, laughed loudly. The American delegation looked at each other with consternation and asked themselves whether the President had been wise to let the British into these top-secret conferences.
In London, meanwhile, General Toplett, a soldier with a face like a whiskered walnut, was busy producing some large photographs from his portfolio.
“You see,” he said to John and to the Prime Minister, “it’s quite clear that whatever nation is the first to land even light forces on Crater K here — I’ve marked it in red — will control all the lateral valleys on this side of the moon’s face. My plan, therefore, is to land light airborne forces as near the perimeter of the crater as possible, and to advance from there in four columns until we reach this green line here.”
This was too much for John, who leaped to his feet. “It’s revolting!” he cried. “I didn’t evolve a man-carrying moon rocket in order to see it subjected to the kind of thought which has made such a mess of our planet! I don’t want dim soldiers and soiled politicians to pollute my moon!”
“Steady there, steady,” snarled the General, holding the photograph of the crater in the air as though it were a hand grenade.
The Prime Minister laughed. “Don’t you think, Kermidge,” he said quietly, “that there is a pleasant irony in this turn of events? Don’t misunderstand me; the Americans are, and always will be, our allies. That goes without saying. But in a way, we do have a ... a friendly score to settle, don’t you think?”
“In the world of science there is always an element of quite innocuous rivalry—” John said, as reasonably as he could.
“I wasn’t referring to the world of science,” the Prime Minister interrupted. “I was referring to history. Kermidge, we are taxing our ingenuity to the limit to keep over fifty million people fully employed and well fed on this tiny island. Naturally our rules are stringent, our taxation inhuman, and naturally we tend to appear to other nations as somewhat avaricious in our methods and as almost ludicrously inflexible in our regulations. Can this give us pleasure? We, who gave the world so much?”
“We took quite a lot, too,” said John.
“I must ask you to listen to me without interruption,” replied the Prime Minister with a trace of irritation. He had to put up with this kind of thing from the opposition all the year round. There was no reason, he felt, why he should put up with contradiction in his own dining room, in his own cigar smoke. “The Americans are a most generous people,” he continued, “but they can afford to be. A man with one hundred pounds in the bank giving a penny to a beggar is making the same financial sacrifice as a man with one million pounds in the bank giving four pounds, three shillings, and fourpence to a beggar.” These statistics were so glib that they obviously formed a staple argument of the Prime Minister’s.
“The widow’s mite,” said John.
The Prime Minister gave him a withering look, which dissolved rapidly into a winning smile. Politics taught a man self-control as no other profession.
“Call it what you will, the facts are clear. We need space. We need to expand, not only in order to survive, but in order to conserve our national character, our even temper, our serenity.”
“Even Hitler thought of better reasons than that,” John heard himself saying.
The Prime Minister was unruffled.
“Would we ever attack our neighbors to achieve this end? Never. But” — and he leaned forward, searchingly — “once there is space, who knows? We’ve never shied at adventure. And think of it — rolling acres on the moon, or on other planets. Untold mineral wealth. Kermidge, we are in the shoes of Columbus, with the added proof of the unknown continents’ existence. Look out of the window. You will see it. And we have the ship to get us there.”
“You want to paint the moon red,” murmured John. “You want a moon worthy of Kipling, on which the sun never sets.”
“Rather well put,” said the General, now that the conversation had taken an understandable turn.
“Exactly — and why not?” cried the Prime Minister. “Nothing in history is final. History is like the sea, constantly changing, a patchwork of phases, a mosaic of impermanent achievements. We were an occupied people once. The Saxons, the Danes, and the Romans had their will of us. Then we rose, with the determination of underdogs, and conquered the greatest empire the world has ever known. Times changed, and with them the conception of Empire. Whether we like it or not, we now live in an Era of Liberality, in which every tin-pot republic has its own voice in the United Nations. We, in our great wisdom and experience, must sit silently by while Guatemala lays claim to British Honduras. This kind of thing taxes our dignity to the uttermost, but need it last? Must we accept the defeat of Burgoyne as final? We say we lose every battle but the last. Has the last battle been fought?” He dropped his voice from a rhetorical level into the intimacy of sincerity. “Please understand me, I do not advocate war, least of all war with America. That would be unthinkable and stupid. In any event, we would lose it. However, I, for one, do not accept Burgoyne’s defeat as the end of a story.”
“Burgoyne was a fool,” said the General gratuitously.
“Let us reach the moon first. This would not only give us the space we need, it would also give us the enormous moral ascendancy necessary to resume the leadership of the free world. There can be no doubt whatever that Russia is working rapidly toward the results you have so brilliantly attained. She is, as it were, breathing down our neck. Sharing our information with the Americans would only waste valuable weeks at this juncture, and by the time we had put our mutual scheme into operation, the Americans would be taking all the credit. They are too flushed with their own technological efficiency to admit that anyone can achieve anything without stealing their plans. Kermidge, we have made our gesture. We have sent them Gwatkin-Pollock. Let us do the rest ourselves.”
There was a pause.
John began speaking slowly, trying hard to control his voice, which was quivering. “I hold no brief for American scientists, or for Russian scientists, or for British scientists for that matter. I have friends and enemies in all camps, since to the true men of science there are no frontiers, only advances; there are no nations, only humanity. This may sound subversive to you, but it is true, and I will explain, as temperately as I can, why it is true, what has made it true. You, sir, talked of Columbus. In his day, men, for all their culture, fine painting, architecture, humanism, the rest, were still relatively savage. Life was cheap. Death was the penalty for a slight misdemeanor, slavery the penalty for an accident of birth. And why? Because there was space to conquer, horizons full of promise. Conquest was the order of the day. The avid fingers of Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal stretched into the unknown. Then, abruptly, all was found, all was unraveled. Germany and Italy attempted to put the clock back, and behaved as everyone had once behaved, and were deemed criminal for no other reason than that they were out of date and that their internal persecutions were carried against men of culture, and white men at that, instead of against their colonial subjects. They were condemned by mankind, and rightly so, because they were hungry for glory at a time when other nations were licking their chops, sated by a meal which had lasted for centuries. And why did we all become civilized, so abruptly? Because, sir, there was nothing left to conquer, nothing left to seize without a threat of general war; there was no space left.” John mopped his brow briefly and continued. “Now what has happened? We have become conscious of space again. Cheated of horizons down on earth, we have looked upwards, and found horizons there. What will that do to us? It will put us back to pre-Columbian days. It will be the signal for military conquest, for religious wars. There will be crusades for a Catholic moon, a Protestant moon, a Muslim moon, a Jewish moon. If there are inhabitants up there, we will persecute them mercilessly before we begin to realize their value. You can’t feel any affection for a creature you have never seen before, especially if it seems ugly by our standards. The United Nations will lose all control, because its enemy is the smell of space in the nostrils of the military. Life will become cheap again, and so will glory. We will put the clock back to the days of darkness, and our growing pains in the stratosphere will be at least as painful as those we suffered here on earth. I want no part of it.”
The Prime Minister looked at him with genuine affection and offered him another cigar, which he accepted automatically, with a shaking hand.
“You are looking at the world with the eyes of a historian,” said the Prime Minister, “but the world is not run by historians. It is a luxury we cannot afford. We can’t study events from such a comfortable distance, nor can we allow ourselves to be embittered so easily by the unfortunate parallels and repetitions of history. As a historian, you are no doubt right, since you look back so far in order to look forward, but as a politician you are wrong, you are wrong as a patriot.”
“I have no ambitions as a patriot,” John answered. “I want to be a man the world is proud of.”
“You are young,” said the Prime Minister, lighting a match for John. “Incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed an urgent desire to meet you.”
“I knew it,” cried John, “a Church of England moon!”
WHEN he returned home, John sat up all night writing a letter. Veronica, as she lay sleepless, heard the febrile stutter of the typewriter and an occasional angry outburst. The cabin trunks still stood half filled in the bedroom, a measure of how disappointed John and Veronica were at not going to Washington and of their uncertainty about the future.
John didn’t go to bed that night, but left the house at six thirty to post his letter. He noticed a detective loitering on the opposite pavement, but ignored him.
There was practically no conversation between Veronica and John all day, and even the children modified their games. It was as though disaster had struck the family.
After lunch, they suffered the surprise visit of a grave Sir Humphrey, accompanied by Oliver de Vouvenay at his most petulant, and a rosy-faced inspector from Scotland Yard called Peddick.
“What may I offer you?” asked John, investing his question with sarcasm. He seemed incapable of saying anything without sarcasm these days.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” answered Sir Humphrey.
“Perhaps we could sit down?” said de Vouvenay.
“I see nothing to prevent you,” said John.
There was a brief, awkward silence.
In silence, Oliver de Vouvenay opened his brief case and produced the letter which John had posted that morning. It was open.
“What are you doing with that?” John asked hotly.
“Perhaps I should take over, sir?” It was Inspector Peddick speaking. “Did you write this?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“It’s addressed to Switzerland, sir.”
“I can explain that. It is addressed to Switzerland because I intended it to arrive in Switzerland.”
“I gather, sir, that it contains information of a highly secret nature.”
“It contains information which emanated from my brain and which I do not consider secret. And in any case, for how long has it been the practice, in this free country, for the police to intercept private letters?”
“We have authority, sir, under the official secrets act.”
“Could you tell me what you find particularly secret about the information contained in this letter?”
The inspector smiled. “That’s hardly my province, sir. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but I’ve been told it’s secret from higher-up, and I acted accordingly.”
“But you’ve read it?”
“Oh, I skimmed through part of it, yes sir, in the course of duty.”
John broke a vase and shouted a profanity.
Sir Humphrey raised a restraining hand. “You must realize, John, that you must be in some measure subject to government policy. You can’t go on being a rebel all your grown life. What you have accomplished is far too important for us all for you to attempt to destroy it by what you imagine to be scientific integrity. John, I implore you to regard yourself as the caretaker of a secret, and not to do anything in your moment of imminent triumph which will bring you into disrepute.”
“I am not the caretaker of a secret,” thundered John, “I am the inventor of a public utility!”
“You wrote a letter to Switzerland, to a Professor Nussli. Professor Nussli has been to Moscow recently,” said de Vouvenay, smoothly.
“So what?” snapped John. “I’ve been to Trinidad, that doesn’t mean I sing calypsos all day. What God-awful idiots you all are. Just because a man is inquisitive, just because he wants to find out, you think automatically that he’s tarnished by whatever he went to investigate.”
“I didn’t insinuate that at all.”
“Why did you mention it then? What do people mean when they say the word ‘Moscow’ out of the blue? How naïve do you think I am? I’ve known Nussli for nearly forty years — in other words, all my life. I was brought up in Switzerland when I was young because I had asthma. I went to school with Hans. We were firm friends. He’s a brilliant man now as he was a brilliant boy then, and he knows probably more about my particular field than any other man alive today. He’s a thoroughly enlightened, liberal chap.”
“I’m very gratified to hear it,” said de Vouvenay.
“You’re gratified to hear it?” shouted John, losing his temper. “And who the hell d’you think you are? I very much regret leaving my Swiss school, where I worked and had fun, to come back here for the sole privilege of watching your nasty little career developing from the self-righteous goody-goody with the only unbroken voice in school which could do justice to the soprano solos in the Messiah to the pompous prig who has the impertinence to ventilate opinions about which he knows nothing, nothing, nothing! Get out of here.”
De Vouvenay rose, flushed with anger, his yellow hair falling over one eye. “Your letter will be confiscated for the time being,” he said, “and perhaps, in time, you will learn to behave yourself sufficiently for us to be able to entrust you with Herr Nussli’s answers.”
John was aghast. “D’you mean —”
Sir Humphrey looked at him steadily and openly. “I will apologize for Mr. de Vouvenay,” he said, “since Mr. de Vouvenay evidently hasn’t the resources to apologize himself.”
“Letters to me —”
“Yes, John. I deplore the practice of opening other people’s mail. Especially do I deplore it when it is perpetrated by a government. But, as an Englishman, and as one who recognized your great talent early in your life, I must say that I realize the necessity for such an emergency measure at this time. We must not only protect our secret from any enemy, but we must protect you from yourself. I don’t know what you have been writing to Professor Nussli during these past months, but the one answer in our possession suggests that he has a detailed and even a brilliant insight into our methods. What is especially disturbing is his apparent knowledge of our fuel—”
“Our fuel, fiddlesticks. It was his fuel as much as mine. How do you think two friends work when they are fired by the same ambition? They share their information, selflessly, for the common good.”
“In the mail? Neither of these letters was so much as registered.”
“Surely the mail is more discreet than the telephone, and it’s certainly less expensive. I never for one moment believed that my letters would be opened. Had I known that, I would have found other methods of communication.”
“Such as?” asked de Vouvenay.
“Pigeons,” spat John.
When the visitors had left, John chided himself for not having hit de Vouvenay. He had actually been forced to defend himself from a position which was as strong as any position could be in a country with democratic traditions. His correspondence had been confiscated, and yet somehow he didn’t feel that he had been able to bring it home to his tormentors how unethical their conduct had been. He had certainly become very angry, but his anger had somehow been dissipated by his sheer amazement that such things were possible in this day and age, in the twentieth century. The twentieth century? The threshold of the second fifteenth century more likely: the age of discovery, of casual death and roughshod life.
He made a quick decision. Lifting the telephone, he called British European Airways and booked a flight on the plane to Zurich. With two hours to kill, he paced the room reconstructing the scene with his three visitors and his dinner with the Prime Minister, his mood settling into one of cold and righteous indignation as he thought of all the choice phrases he would have used had he had the presence of mind.
Then, with forty minutes to go, he put his passport in his pocket, decided not to say good-by to his wife, since explanations would only dilute his fury, and left the house, quietly closing the front door. The taxi arrived at London Airport with some minutes to spare, and John went into the departure hall. The young ladies were very polite and directed him into Immigration. Here, a colorless gentleman looked at his passport for a small eternity, seeming to read mysterious meanings into old visas. Eventually the colorless gentleman looked up, not at John, but past him.
A voice in John’s ear said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kermidge.”
It was Inspector Peddick.
VERONICA worried about John for the next three weeks. Although he was not ill, he showed no inclination to rise, and began to grow a beard out of sheer indolence. He never spoke, except to say on one occasion: “I’m a patriot, my dear. I’m staying in bed to make it easy for the police. In these hard days of intensive burglary and juvenile delinquency, it would be unfair to put too much pressure on the Yard by moving around.”
Sir Humphrey came to the house once or twice, but John just stared at the ceiling, refusing to say a word. Preparations were being made to launch John’s rocket, and Sir Humphrey, a kind and devoted man at heart, sought to cheer up Veronica by telling her that a peerage was in the air: “Even if John bridles at being Lord Kermidge, he’d surely wish to see you Lady Kermidge.”
“I don’t care so long as he eats.”
One night, some twenty-five days after John’s attempt to fly to Zurich, the press the world over noticed mysterious and intensive diplomatic activity.
It was remarked by vigilant American journalists that the Secretary of State left a public dinner at Cincinnati in order to fly to Washington. A few minutes later, the President of the United States interrupted a fishing holiday and left for Washington by helicopter. The faces of these two dignitaries were exceptionally grave.
Newspapermen in Moscow observed that a meeting of the Supreme Soviet had been called at only an hour’s notice and that grim-faced deputies were disrupting the traffic as they poured into the Kremlin. Areas were cordoned off, and the police were uncommunicative. In Paris, a crisis was stopped in midstream as a rumor spread, making the rising spiral of the cost of living seem frivolous indeed.
The Right Honorable Arthur Backworth left Chequers at four in the morning for Number 10 Downing Street. Observers caught a glimpse of his ashen face in the dark bowels of his RollsRoyce.
The wires from America reported not only the unexpected presence of the President and the Secretary of State in the federal capital, but also of an unusual number of generals and admirals, all of them sullen and thunderous. Businessmen attempting transatlantic calls found that there were endless delays. Tempers were frayed the world over.
One of the last to know the reason why was John, who was fast asleep when Veronica and Bill burst into his room with all the morning papers. He glanced at the headline of the first paper and began to laugh, slowly at first, then hysterically, until the tears poured from his eyes in a stream, coursing through his young beard, staining his pajama top. For a full quarter of an hour he laughed, weeping, moaning, gripping his sides, tearing the sheets with a delight which overlapped into anguish, panting like a dying man, and dragging Bill and Veronica with him in his lunatic joy. Suddenly the laughter stopped, and John, Bill, and Veronica looked at each other without energy, without emotion.
John, breathing deeply, took up the newspaper and read the headline again.
It said, in banner type, SWISS REACH THE MOON.