Thursday, 26 May 2016

This project is under way, and new chapters are due to be posted every Thursday. If you enjoy it, have a look at my other project, The Nixoniad, an essay reviewing and discussing Shakespeare's modern history plays on the US presidents from Truman to Nixon, which is now complete.UPDATE: posting is going to slow down a bit now that it's caught up with the actual writing. Sorry.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Chapter One. Which begins in London.

The porter, a heavily-built pillar of London respectability, closed the door of Turpin’s room behind him quietly, with something of the air of a Society doctor leaving the sickbed of a particularly aristocratic patient. I had every confidence that Turpin was in good hands; the Club drew most of its membership from officers of the Allied armies, and Turpin was far from the worst case to pass through its doors. He was, in any event, a phlegmatic rather than a ranting drunk - but I think I would rather have dealt with Turpin yelling and tumultuous than Turpin as he had been that night.

As a favour to Innes, on whose hospitality I had trespassed on my previous leaves in England, I had agreed to sacrifice one of my days in Dorset to meet Turpin from the boat train - “catch hold of him and set him to rights,” had been Innes’ request. Louis-Vincent Lavalois, Marquis de la Tour du Pin - Turpin to everyone in England who knew him - had spent three months with his regiment of Chasseurs in a torn-apart concrete fortress north of Verdun before a combination of gassing and pneumonia had taken him back down the Sacred Way and off to his family seat for a painful autumn’s convalescence. He having recovered fully neither in body nor soul, the French G.H.Q. had perforce to find him a less rigorous billet. He had arrived in London the day before me - seconded to some ill-defined liaison job in London between our own Army’s intelligence section and the French Deuxieme.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Chapter Two. France and Switzerland

France in those days, you should remember, was two nations rather than one. When the Grand General Headquarters declared mobilisation, back in the terrible summer of 1914, a new frontier had been created clear across the middle of the country. West of it was still France as it was before the war, now the Interior Zone, each little village quiet now with its men marched off to war, the village mayors and adjoints and prefects solemnly bowing and passing documents to each other like clockwork figures, just as it was ordained in the Code Napoleon - from commune to prefect to department all the way up to the Elysée. East of it was the Zone des Armées. Here the rulers wore kepis and braid, not tricolour sashes, and the merest suggestion of civilian authority was treated with everything from disdain to outright hostility - even to suggest that M. le President or M. le Ministre might have a view on how the War was conducted was almost treasonous. M. le President might well rule France; in the Zone des Armées he was a foreign supplicant at the court of Papa Joffre. (Il s’y demenait en Grand Monarque, Turpin had said, which roughly translated implies that Joffre had a damn high conception of himself.)

Joffre had only a few days left in his monarchy - the whispering about his imminent replacement had reached even a lowly Allied colonel like myself, most recently from Turpin, who had snarled bitterly at the thought of the detested Nivelle taking over the post of the bulky old farmer who had rallied the French together and scraped a defensive line with his walking stick in the autumn mud of the fields before Paris, with half a million Germans raging towards him in the exultation of their first and last victory in the West. And the word had definitely reached every officer in the Zone des Armées; the uncertainty over the succession seemed to have struck them into a state of paralysis, and our progress south was long and tortuous.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Chapter Three. In which two respectable Swiss institutions are thoroughly undermined.

Two days later I was standing very quietly in the shadows of the darkest corner of a third-floor landing in a respectable rooming house in Zurich, making ready to ruin an innocent man’s life.
Zurich stretches along one end of a great lake ringed by mountains - from the little sailing dock at the mouth of the river, you walk back into the town towards the Hochschule on its hill through winding cobbled streets, lined with coffee houses and bakeries and shops each as brightly lit and clean as a jewel case.
Everywhere you heard Swiss German spoken - which is a dialect, true, but no more different than is the German of Bavaria from that of Prussia - and the crowds of students in caps and burghers in loden coats seem to have stepped straight from any South German or Austrian town square.
I said as much to Calloway as we walked out from the station.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Chapter Four. Late nights at Haertland Mathieu.

Back in the offices of Haertland Mathieu, with the blinds pulled firmly down, I stood on one side of the general manager’s desk and stared pointedly at Calloway. I think he was rather enjoying himself - he pointed the top of his head in my direction as he calmly and silently wrote out a grid of letters, and when he was finished he spun it round on the leather top, slid it in my direction, and said: “Well then.”

The grid looked like this:

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Chapter Five. In the valley of Isaure.

Almost a day behind him, but at least we were on his trail. Better than on his trail; young men track where the quarry was; hounds chase after where the quarry is; old hunters go where they know the quarry is going to be. German efficiency or not, the deciphered message wasn’t exactly a Thomas Cook’s itinerary; Volkoff would spend much of his journey under the wing of one or other German agent, handed from one to the next like a parcel.

The original plan, it became clear, was for Volkoff to have met the Light of Sar in Constantinople and to be smuggled back to India, perhaps to the monastery (where the monks, O’Hara had reported, were expecting “guests from the North”) and thence into Russia to do the Germans’ dirty work there, though why the Germans felt the need to enlist a dissolute Asiatic monk to smuggle a Russian into Russia was still a mystery; O’Hara’s report had hinted that the Light of Sar had boasted of unnatural abilities to cross frontiers unnoticed, but surely the hard-headed men in the back rooms of the Great General Staff would not put their hopes in a degraded lama’s claims of mystical powers rather than the abilities of their own paid agents.

Be that as it may, O’Hara had made sure that plan died in flames, and the Light of Sar with it. But the Germans had not given up on smuggling Volkoff into Russia to raise his bloody standard, and it seemed that the monks of the Tolong La might still be part of the plan – Volkoff and his handler were headed south across the Alps by one of the few high passes still open, and thence by dubious and unspecified means to Calcutta. 

My first instinct was to go straight for the Tolong La. At sea, we would have the advantage of speed – where Volkoff would have to sneak from port to port in neutral shipping, and in disguise, to avoid being detected, we would have the Navy sweeping a path for us. In Calcutta, perhaps well in advance of Volkoff, the resources of the Raj would be at our disposal and we could travel post-haste to the Tolong La, to stop the earth before the fox reached it.

But Calloway and caution intervened. We didn’t know for sure, he pointed out, that Volkoff would indeed head for the monastery; the final instruction in the deciphered letter was simply to meet an Indian agent at a certain place. Why should he head for the monastery at all when the Light of Sar’s replacement could escort Volkoff across the Russian border, apparently, wherever he wanted? Especially since the trails to the Tolong La, perilous enough even in summer, were almost certainly impassable this late in the year.

Perhaps we could catch him in Calcutta, but even in wartime the port was aswarm with ships and sailors from every corner of the earth; what hope to catch one man among thousands of thousands?

“We’ll catch him in the mountains,” Calloway said in the end, and I nodded. Outside the window the rain had returned, and beneath the granite Swiss sky it was freezing to a film of ice as it hammered on the roof tiles.

Freezing rain down by the lake, sinking into our jackets as we hurried through the morning streets to the station; snow as the train climbed gradually away and the mountains loomed ahead of us to the south. “A bitter winter, and ahead of time,” Max commented as he shook our hands on the platform. “The St. Eusebius Pass will be closed before long. Perhaps you will catch your fox when the weather foils him, at the foot of the mountain road. We will alert our agents in the Piedmont, in case he makes it across the mountains after all, but there are many ways down from the St. Eusebius and we have few enough trustworthy men on the Italian side. The best of luck, Mr Kormann.”

Volkoff’s own cupboards had furnished us both with mountain gear: alpenstocks, windproof gabardine smocks with hoods, oiled-wool sweaters and woollen Norwegian shirts, caps and breeches and goggles. The younger clerk had rooted through his own rooms and emerged with a couple of pairs of hobnailed boots, two canvas knapsacks and a compass. “No need for sleeping bags,” he’d said with a wry smile, the first we’d seen on him; “if you’re still up there at night, in weather like this, you must find your way down, or find your way to the hospice at the summit of the pass, or die. The winter comes very fiercely to the Alps; the wind and the first snow will wipe the mountain clean.”

The train took us as far as Isaure, at the mouth of a valley as grey and straight as a gun barrel, with the snow blowing about it like powder smoke and lodging in the clefts and faults cut into the cliffs like rifling on each side. The summits were well out of sight above the cloud ceiling; “Surely the pass will be closed by now,” Calloway said. “There’s only one village between Isaure and the mouth of the pass, Max said; St. Vary, a tiny place. We’ll catch him there and his German handler with him.”

I didn’t ask what was to be done then. If Volkoff were very lucky, it might be possible to bring him back to France captive, where he could be kept safely out of the way for the duration; if not, we would have to ensure he and his German handler never left the valley of Isaure. A revolver from the Haertland Mathieu safe was resting in my jacket pocket; its fellow was in Calloway’s knapsack; and our alpenstocks were five feet of good solid wood, shod with steel and tipped, for winter mountaineering, with a steel spike like a Lochaber axe.

But Calloway’s easy decisiveness had begun to irk me, and what had seemed appealling simplicity and directness on the train to Whitby at the start of this affair now came to me as rudeness and overconfidence. I couldn’t disagree with his judgement - it was obvious that Volkoff must be at St Vary, and I know that we shared the unspoken conclusion about what must happen to him - but, after all, the old man had given me this operation, with Calloway as my second, and not the other way around. I stepped up to the station’s ticket window before he could move and conducted my own interview of the station-master, in German which was perhaps not as fluid as Calloway’s, but no less serviceable, and as I spoke to the old man my resentment continued to burn. 

The last train the day before had brought two men in Alpine gear, the station-master confirmed; they had hurried to hire the station taxi and driven off to St. Vary. One of them had indeed been “asiatische” - Volkoff’s high cheekbones and narrow eyes putting him in the same category as the Mikado of Japan from the point of view of this Swiss villager. No, without a doubt they would have stayed in St Vary, at the Gasthaus - it was almost dark when they arrived, no man would try to climb to the St Eusebius in darkness.

My spirits were lifted by this - we were not as far behind as we feared. While we had been wrestling with the cryptogram, Volkoff had not been hastening over the pass - he had been tucked up in bed in St Vary, and no doubt only after dawn would he have started up the road to the pass - as our train arrived at the mouth of the valley of Isaure. Even my irritation with Calloway began to dim.

The station taxi was not the rattletrap I expected: solidly built and heavy-set, in a previous life it seemed to have been a small lorry, and the benches in the back seemed more like church pews than anything belonging on wheels. But the tyres were holding to the road well enough, despite the scabs of ice crusting the verges from the night before, and we made good time down the road towards St Vary.

St Vary was built for snow. The houses reared off the ground like peel towers, the ground floors with only slit windows and stacked high with firewood, the carven eaves already bearing streaks of snow and overshadowing the windows beneath. At the entrance to the town, the lorry, which had been gradually slowing for the last mile, jerked to a halt with a hiss and squeal of brakes. He could go no further, the driver said - beyond this point the streets were too narrow to turn. We unfolded ourselves from the pews and swung out of the back of the taxi with our kit in hand. Even in the short distance from the station at Isaure, the weather had shifted - the freezing rain of the lowlands was well behind us, and the cold, heavy air was rolling down from the mountainside like an avalanche of wind, dragging ice-devils of pounded snow with it to whirl and leap around the houses.

The Gasthaus was the only building of any size in the town - the little chapel on the outskirts was scarcely bigger than a shed. Three minutes’ harrying of the grey-moustached innkeeper, the two of us huddled in his porch as he peered out from behind a half-closed door, to confirm what we had guessed: die asiatischer and his friend had gone “la-haut, vers l’abbaie” and an expressive thumb was jerked in the direction of the pass at the valley head.

St Vary sat almost in the rounded end of the valley of Isaure. Behind it, a bowl of flat ground - flood meadows in summer, trampled frozen mud and dead grass now - with the valley walls rising grey all around it. The walls of the valley were tumbled scree, cliffs and pines and frozen falling water - unclimbable for most of their extent. But at the very end of the valley, the rock wall gave way to a titanic staircase, rising in three great steps into the clouds at mountaintop level, each tread split dead centre by a river gully. The top step, invisible behind the clouds, was the pass, with the sanctuary of St Eusebius.  A track zigzagged up from the meadows to the first step. Calloway and I followed it.

After the hole-and-corner business of crossing into Switzerland, and the grubby work of blackmail and cipher that had occupied us in Zurich, it was wonderful to be out in the open again. The wind was as cold and powerful as a flowing river and though it chilled me even through my clothes, and froze my exposed face, it felt as though it was washing away the dust and soot of Zurich. I lengthened my stride as we climbed the track and the streaks of snow beside it widened and deepened and flowed together as we ascended. The first of those three great rock steps must have stood fully a thousand feet above the valley floor, but Calloway and I stormed up it in less than an hour - I pushed myself into a climbing stride even as my boots slipped on the smoothed rocks and heard Calloway’s footfalls fall behind me, until I slowed a little with an inner glow of satisfaction at taking the lead, and allowed the gasping Calloway to catch up. The going was easy - I suspect the track was a herder’s path in summer - and faced with smooth rounded stones like millstones, and the nails in our boots bit through the ice that glazed them and scraped hard into the sandstone beneath. It branched and branched again as we climbed, as generations of animals had wandered from side to side of the slope, but the main trail stayed clear.

It steepened as we neared the top of the slope, the various branches of the track drawing together again, and we were forced first to use our alpenstocks, and then our hands, to steady us on the last few paces. The edge of the slope was sharp and I had the absurd impulse to keep my head down - that if we looked over this snow-covered parapet we would be fired on. Calloway, ahead of me by this time, had no such qualms and swung up and over it.

No rifle fire, no burst of machine-gun bullets, only a blast of ice and wind. No Volkoff. The slope had given way to a shelf, in fact a great bowl scooped out of the rock, cupping a lake whose waters were already crusting over at the edges with ice, and leaden and wind-flurried in the middle. To our right the waters pounded over the edge of the slope and fell and were flayed into blown spray by the wind, falling eventually to become the river that flowed down the valley of Isaure. Around its fringe, a narrow shoreline of rock and ice and ice-clotted sand gave way to tumbled boulders and cliffs, and the track picked its way among them to the far end of the shelf, where it climbed the second step up a slope barely less than a cliff. Up that, on to a third shelf, and the pass of St Vary itself, with its hospice - and our quarry.  

Even as we watched the top of the cliff ahead of us faded into the swirling grey and white of a snow squall. The wind in the valley and during our climb to this height had been bitterly cold, snatching at our clothes and numbing our fingers and faces - but here, a thousand feet higher, it battered at us like a river in spate, it sent slivers of ice to crust our hoods and our packs, it seemed to rip through our jackets and the layers beneath them to drag the warmth from the cores of our bodies and the strength from our limbs. This is not the sort of cold you can survive for long, a voice seemed to tell me. Move quickly, or never again.

The sleepless night spent on the ciphered message was making its demands felt. Lack of sleep chills a man anyway and makes his fingers fumble - the cold was redoubling the effect. But we couldn’t hurry up the next slope - when we reached its foot, at the far end of the churning lake, we could see that the track was almost invisible under a layer of hardened snow that caked the entire hillside. We would have turned back but that a line of steps, cut into the ice with an axe or kicked with boots, marched up that curving sheet of white and into the mist overhead. The pass was not closed: Volkoff and his companion had gone through. Or, at any rate, they had climbed this slope and not returned. Alive or dead, they were above us, and our duty was to follow them.

The footholds that Volkoff had cut proved less helpful than we hoped. They were narrow, and silted with drifting snow, so we needed to scrape them clear with our boots before we could trust our weight to them. I drifted into a sort of state of mania - a hand up to grip the next hold, the alpenstock blade swung into the ice with the other hand to provide a more reliable anchor; then bring up one boot into the next step, bring up the other, rest while the legs started to tremble with fatigue - the occasional deep muscle pain warning of a cramp on the way - then grip, swing, kick, kick again and so on, Calloway behind me. The slope had risen from steep to near-vertical, The dim line of the top edge of the slope against the grey sky scarcely seemed to get closer. I started to ration myself to one glance upwards, through eyes narrowed against the ice, for every fifty steps - and told myself I could see progress. The wind seemed to pour directly down on us and slackened not at all - though I had anticipated being in the lee of the slope by now. At least the exertion of climbing was warming - I no longer noticed the chill, or much else for that matter, only the sheer blind focus on the rhythm of climbing, and the compulsion not to think of the height of the slope.

Calloway didn’t scream. Men tend not to when they know their end has come. I heard him grunt, more in surprise than anything else, like a man who has stubbed his toe, and it was such an unexpected noise to hear on that frigid hillside that my head twisted round and down just in time to see him peel away from the slope. I don’t know what happened to shake him free of the ice but I saw him fall away, one of his feet still lodged in the ice for a second so that he twisted and fell head downwards. He didn’t fall direct - the ice wasn’t vertical - he slid and bounded and landed again in a horrible tangle of limbs, sending up a shower of ice fragments, leapt again and landed a full sickening second later against the slanting ice, slid and tumbled and rolled over and over and landed among the rocks and crumpled to a halt by the very edge of the lake far below me.

The sight of the drop below me, and Calloway at the bottom of it, unmanned me completely. I clung to my handholds, not moving, and inside me a panicked voice screamed let this all be over, make this go away, make it stop, take me somewhere safe. I knew the voice - I had heard it before, in Flanders, after a failed attack, when the howitzers had searched out the position we held and hammered it for half an hour without respite, until the ground for a hundred yards in every direction was reeking with smoke, and the clamour of the shell bursts had left those of us still alive deaf but for a terrible clangour in our ears.
The only way through that is to fight down the voice - to tell the frightened child inside you you must move, if you move then this will soon be over and to force yourself to act. In that hellish redoubt the coming death had been German assault troopers forming for a counterattack to retake their share of the line. Here, no less fatal, it would be the cold and fatigue finally robbing me of my strength and sending me plunging down the slope to join Calloway.

But which way to move - climb up, or go back down? Carrying on meant abandoning Calloway. He was dead, almost certainly, after that fall - I was all but sure of it - but there was still a chance he could be saved. But climbing down meant abandoning the hunt. On the other hand, I thought, if I - and perhaps Calloway - survived, we could possibly pick up Volkoff’s trail in Italy, or in India. If I pushed on, and died as Calloway had, Volkoff would be free to continue as he wished - putting someone else on his trail would take too long. If Volkoff were to be caught it would have to be by us. By me.

But then, I wondered, was this really the rational thing to do? Or was I rationalising what my fears wanted me to do anyway - climb down that terrible ice to safety?

In the end I climbed down. I knew, really, that I would have to, as soon as I saw Calloway fall. Not only was there a very strong chance that I would not reach the top alive anyway - Calloway was ten years younger than me and had fallen, and I was nearly at the end of my tether - but I would not be able to leave him behind, for all my high-minded words to myself about doing my duty and maintaining the hunt for Volkoff. Men had died before when I led them - or, worse, sent them - into danger’s way, but in a scrap there had always been a chance that the wounded would be picked up. Here there were no other soldiers, no stretcher bearers - just the crumpled shape among the rocks, and me. To the devil with Volkoff and the old man’s doctrine of mission above all - I would return to Calloway, and trust to fate to set me to cross Volkoff’s trail again.

It was hard, very hard, to move my foot down and take the first step. I wanted very badly to cling to the ice with every hold I had - and it was even harder to work the point of the alpenstock blade out, to cling to the ice on two numb feet and one icy hand, and slide it back in a little further down to take my weight as I climbed down another step. By the time I neared the bottom I was almost running, and the relief of survival was flooding through me, warm as alcohol.

Calloway was dead, of course - already cold and dusted with ice by the time I reached him, staggering off the tail of the ice-slope onto the rocks at its foot, the blood thundering in my ears with effort and the euphoria of survival. Again the unworthy voice inside me spoke - at least now you won’t have to carry him down off the hill. I knelt at his side and gasped for air, did my best to straighten his twisted limbs and move him out of the water where his upper half lay, arms flung back above his head. The icy water had soaked into his clothing and hair and poured out in streams as his head came out of the lake, and I could feel the queasy grating even through his clothes as I moved him - he must have shattered almost every bone in his fall and tumble, and the broken ends moved and rasped against each other as I dragged him clear. The snow would cover him - and when the weather lifted I could make sure that men and ponies came up the first slope to the shelf, and took David Calloway down into the valley to be laid to rest.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Chapter Six. India

Miles out from the coast the waters of the Bay of Bengal still show traces of the silt and earth that the Ganges brings down from the mountains. So I was told anyway - I couldn't see any difference from the blazing blue of the sea we'd sailed over since passing out of the Red Sea many days ago, but the sub-lieutenant idling beside me on the cruiser's deck insisted that to the experienced sailor (and he must have been all of twenty) the difference was clear.

The rest of the wardroom had kept me at arm's length during our long passage from Naples, where the Alcyon had picked me up, across the grey winter Mediterranean and into the warmer waters of Suez and Aden. An army officer, it seemed, might still be a welcome guest in a wardroom of the senior service - at least if he displayed proper humility and a sincere intention of amendment -  but an army officer with no clear affiliation, without much inclination to talk, and with the ability to divert a light cruiser from its purposes for his personal use, tended to be left to himself on the whole.

The exception was this young blood, who in the best tradition of the Navy regarded the Fleet, the Alcyon and its entire crew as a convenient mechanical contrivance for transporting his thirst from bar to bar and his affectionate impulses from port to port.
I didn't begrudge him any of it - he had been on Alcyon the year before, when she had sailed twice into the teeth of Turkish guns on the Asiatic shore, first to try to force the Dardanelles, and then to cover the Australians at their landings, and before that he had been escorting minesweepers in the fogs of the east coast.

"Ever been out this way before, sir?"

I replied that I hadn't - South Africa, England, Scotland and Gibraltar marked the limits of my experience of the Empire.

"Oh, none of that is the Empire," he replied at once. "Nor is India for that matter. The Empire's over that way" - and he swept his arm out behind him, south into where the sunlight was blazing a path across the sea. "Every ocean there is. Land's just a place to coal." He'd picked that up from some old salt or other on his training ship. "The Empire won't fall because we win or lose one more territory a thousand miles inland. Even if God forbid we were to lose, say, the Malay states and Burma and Singapore and Penang all together, as long as we still held the seas and oceans... well, that's an empire through which all the trade of the world must pass. Look at the Boche now, after Jutland - whatever happens in the trenches, we'll still be holding the high seas, starving them out."

I was impressed by his enthusiasm. Less by his tact - he seemed to have forgotten completely that he was talking to a man who had spent months in the very trenches whose relevance he was dismissing so completely. But thoughtlessness is a boon as well as a handicap of youth. Forty-year-olds would make very poor trench-fighting officers; you need that blithe confidence to take you through.

Which thought led me back to the place I had been trying to avoid revisiting for the whole voyage - the valley of the Isaure.

About the only good thing to come out of the whole bloody mess had been that our failure to find Volkoff had meant that Haertland Mathieu remained uncompromised. The whole Kormann identity, so lovingly put together by the old man's forgers and tailors in London, was useless. When he stormed into St Vary asking questions about a fugitive Russian, and then returned hours later from the pass with his companion dead, he had attracted too much attention to himself. And we had to assume that the venal police captain in Zurich had let his German paymasters know - intentionally or not - that he had been confronted, which meant that Max was no longer safe in Zurich either.

He had taken it well. "My appearance is not distinguished," he admitted, adjusting his tie. "There are ten thousand men in Zurich who could be my double. But if our acquaintance of yesterday evening were to see me again he would recognise me. And if he were to do so, he could easily connect me with this office." He rose from his desk. "However, I will enjoy the chance of a change of scene. I believe I will take myself to the Hague. We have a sister office there and I would feel most at home."

Max would be a loss to Haertland Mathieu Zurich - this was the first I'd heard of a sister office and I carefully didn't enquire into its business among the neutrals of Holland - but had we encountered or even killed Volkoff and the German in the pass, there was every chance that the authorities would have become involved. Herr Kormann and his travelling companion would have had to disappear, and Haertland Mathieu too would have come under scrutiny - and, rather than risk its sub rosa activities becoming known to the vengeful Zurich police, its quick and fiery dissolution might have been the best option, which would have cost us a useful outwork in Switzerland. This thought had comforted me in the weeks since. At the time - at the end of that terrible day, back in Zurich and mustering the energy to change out of my snow-sodden clothes, while a courier waited to collect Calloway's body from the slow train and take him off for burial - I had found little warmth in it.

The bad news had kept coming. Max's forlorn hope of agents strung across the Italian side of the pass had reported nothing; our targets had eluded them. A coded wire to our embassy had passed on the latest from Calcutta, via London - despite our requests, the Indian government did not see the need for an expedition into the Tolong La to see what was happening there. They had, however, found time to instruct the Indian Special Branch ("Very reliable men" the old man had commented parenthetically) to backtrack our fake pilgrims to Calcutta, where their connections to various German-backed groups of dissatisfied Bengalis had been gradually uncovered.
"Catch Volkoff or find trail Calcutta" the old man had concluded.

And off I had gone. I won't deny I had felt some surprise - pleasant surprise - at finding that he still trusted me with the affair after I had missed my bird so clumsily in Zurich and killed one of his best officers to boot. But that was tempered with a sinking sensation as I thought about the task ahead. We had originally ruled out trying to catch Volkoff in Calcutta because of the ease with which he could vanish into the Empire's greatest port city. Now it seemed this was our (very poor) second best plan. I had never been within a thousand miles of India, and now I would have to land there and chase down a man I had never seen.

Nothing in my life had prepared me for my first steps ashore in India. The spectacle of the Calcutta waterfront brought home to me quite how empty London was by comparison - even a crowded English street would have eddies of quiet in the flow of humanity, empty windows and doors, but not Calcutta. It looked like nothing so much as a puzzle-picture mosaic - everything that looked like a gap between a porter toiling from one godown to another and a shipping clerk strolling back from lunch turned out, when you looked at it, to be filled by a street-sweeper, or a food-seller, or any of a hundred distinctly different brands of labourer. A lazy man would have compared it to an ant-heap, or a beehive, but this was far above the insect world - these were thinking men, of fifty different classes and faiths, moving the thousands of tons of freight and the myriads of people who flowed every day in and out of the city, feeding and being fed by the great machine that was Calcutta.

The sight made me optimistic, which caught me a little by surprise at first. In England, thinking of India as a mere undifferentiated horde of brown humanity, we had thought "find one man among these millions? Unthinkable" and dismissed the idea at once. But Calcutta was anything but an amorphous mass - not a Derby-day crowd writ large, but a structure with its own order and logic behind it, however impenetrable it seemed to the outsider - an unimaginably complex interlinking of buying, selling, friendship, caste, kinship and obligation.

I realised then that Calcutta wasn't a fog bank into which our bird could fly and escape - it was a net. No one could pass through it without interacting with a hundred people and being seen by a hundred times as many. Volkoff could have crossed veldt or desert without leaving any evidence more noticeable than a broken twig, but no one could evade Calcutta's million eyes and ears.

Perhaps the old man was not being overly optimistic - perhaps we would find our quarry after all.

I do not much wish to speak about what happened in Calcutta. I comfort myself that the natives involved were not ill-treated beyond the norm for a dacoit or other criminal who falls into the hands of the Indian police, who are abrupt and direct in their approach; there was no torture, none of the penny-dreadful horrors that ‘the Orient’ implies to the Englishman (though his own history is as bloodily inventive as anyone’s). The Sikhs had talked simply of “maintaining the shock of capture” - the dreamlike state of the world turned upside down that hits anyone fallen into his enemy’s hands. And Highsmith had assured me (and I had no reason to doubt him) that they would have their day in a district magistrate’s court before they were hanged. They had without question plotted a campaign of murder and rapine; the arsenals we found, Mauser rifles and Colt’s revolvers, made that very clear. They had eventually gabbled about planned dynamite atrocities and robberies, and Highsmith’s little clerk had taken it all down with his brown face shining with sweat in the police cellar and his hands clean from recent washing. Midwinter might be only weeks away now but Calcutta had been as stifling hot as ever. And in among it all they had confirmed what we had thought all along - that Volkoff had passed through their hands, though they knew him as “Captain John” and had proceeded by train on the long slow journey into the mountains.

“Colonel,” Younger said, leaning back into his chair, “the ambit of what is normal and what is not stretches rather more widely in India than at Home. You have to realise this. Our area of responsibility stretches up into the heart of the mountains; once you’ve been here as long as I have, you’ll know what that means. There are cults and monasteries and  refuges and hermitages up here that, well, that frankly do not fit with what we know about the wider world. Every spring we here are deluged with stories from our native informants about a holy man raising a pillaging army of stone men and ice beasts, or a bonze who has learned the secrets of preserving life by replacing a man’s blood with quicksilver and his eyes with sulphur, or a tribe in the high desert that has learned to ride giant burrowing worms. And, unfortunately, some of these stories are passed to us through our more credulous colleagues in the flatlands, and then my office has to investigate them. Now I will not deny that many of these persons have abilities… powers… which are difficult to explain. I have yet to see a man with quicksilver blood myself, but I have seen them perform feats that I would not have believed physically possible. Even the yogis and sadhus in the foothills here can lift great weights, can stop their hearts, even arrest the flow of blood from a wound… but, as I say, here normality has a rather wider range. And just as such activities are normal to us, I assure you that they are normal to the natives as well, and do not impress them unduly. The Mohammedans may be vulnerable to being roused into revolt by any passing tramp who hits his head on a floor, addles his brains thereby and declares himself a Mahdi; our people here are wiser in their way. You will not see a sadhu-led rebellion in the mountains.”

I gritted my teeth and shifted my weight forward in the chair. Many days on the Indian railways making my slow way up to the mountains had left me less flexible than before, both in body and in temper. “Sir, our concern was not with a rebellion. We became aware of German activity centred on the monastery of the Tolong La and requested a further examination; there’s no suggestion that a revolt is brewing. In fact, finding out exactly what was happening was -”

Younger rolled straight over me. “Colonel. We conducted the examination as soon as your superior’s telegraph request was received. The A.D.O. for the area visited some three months ago, just before the pass closed. Two of our native pundits spent several days in the company of the monks there. I will not deny that their reports were disturbing, but there is no evidence of any foreign presence there at all, far less German, and they deny that there has ever been anyone at the monastery bearing the title of the Light of Sar.”


“And we regard the matter as settled. We are not inexperienced in handling these people, Colonel!”

“Be that as it may,” I replied, as evenly as I could manage, “we believe, on strong grounds, that this monastery is at the centre of a coup which has been under way for several months, planned by the German political service.”

“Strong grounds?”

I thought back to the bloody scene in the Calcutta cellar and a shiver ran through me.

“We regard them as reliable, yes. Whether or not there was any German presence at the monastery itself, it is all but certain that it forms part of their plan to smuggle this Socialist Volkoff into Russia, in order for him to raise a revolt and throw the Russians out of the War. We - I -  have stymied conspiracies like this before, and I mean to do it again.”

“I am afraid, in that case, that you will need to find some other way to do it, Colonel. The pass is closed and has been this last week. On Tuesday a party of salt-traders who had missed the departure of the last caravan the day before tried to force the Tolong La and catch up - they were turned back by a snowstorm, and reported that it had buried the road six feet deep. If your target was in that caravan - if he even exists -  he entered the Tolong La a week ago, and the storms sealed the pass behind him. We cannot reach him now.”

“Even if -”

“The pass is closed, Colonel. I know you have a reputation as a mountaineer but we are not in the Alps here. These mountain ranges are two hundred miles deep. The passes themselves are higher than any mountain summit in Europe and the peaks are so high as to be forever unclimbable. Even in summer the Tolong La is not a place for a man alone, and you would certainly never pass it, even with a caravan, at this time of year. And I will not have you risk my people and their livestock to form a caravan to be frozen to death on a fool’s errand!”

Younger’s face had reddened still further during the delivery of this speech.

“I am sorry that your inability to complete your job in Switzerland successfully has brought you half-way round the world and into my office, but this is the end of your journey. Cut your losses, Colonel, give up on the Tolong La, and write your final report.”

I rose, nodded sharply to Younger - I didn’t trust myself to speak - and let myself out.

“Younger is entirely right, you know,” said a quiet voice in the ante-room. I started slightly. The ante-room had been empty before I had entered Younger’s office, but now, his worn white jacket and breeches seeming to fade into the whitewashed walls, an elderly man was sitting in one of the cane chairs, very still, watching me with keen attention. “The Tolong La is indeed closed. No man could manage that trek now, not until next summer at the earliest.”

He flicked the ferrule-end of his walking stick neatly round to rest between his feet and used it as a support to push himself into a shaky standing position. “Colonel, my apologies for not finding you earlier. I was Mr O’Hara’s superior in the Political Service until he vanished into the Tolong La - I recruited him into the service in the first place, for that matter - and I was saddened to hear of his death. If you are interested in following his trail, I would suggest that you tell your gharrie-driver to take you back to the cantonment, and ask at the Indian Commissioned Officers’ Mess for Major Khan of Sime’s Horse. If he is not there, you should find him in squadron lines. Even if you cannot set foot in the Tolong La, Major Khan should still be able to assist you.”