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.”

Friday, 13 May 2016

Chapter Seven. The air dragoons.

The hangar was a tremendous barn of a place, brick-walled and tin-roofed - much more solid and permanent seeming than the Bessoneau hangars I’d seen in France, which were simply tents with ideas above their station. This was more like a stable, and the wooden shacks built for storage along the inside of its walls had a loose-box feel to them. But no horse had ever needed stabling on this immense scale. In the plains I would have wondered whether it had once held elephants, in the days - not so very long ago, after all - when the heavy guns of the Raj had been pulled to the battlefield by a bull elephant each, with twenty yoke of oxen standing by to take up the traces when the shelling got too heavy and too close. Elephants were still in use across India, of course, and even in England I had seen pictures in the Press of the Sheffield ironworks that had mobilised a pair from the town Zoo to haul castings from the foundry to the lathe halls. 

But heavy artillery was towed by tractor now; and here with the mountains overshadowing us and walling off half the sky, pregnant with a burden of snow clouds and pent-up freezing air like a dammed river, no sane army would have considered elephants as a weapon of war. They had given way to the building’s new occupant.

Its wings stretched almost across the width of the hangar. Every ‘plane I had seen before had had a sort of toylike quality - a little bamboo and wire, some stretched fabric and a tiny motor, the sort of thing a child might build and fling up into the air in the garden for a brief and jerking flight before it ran down and fluttered to earth. This was solid, a steam locomotive by comparison - if the idea wasn’t absurd I’d have thought it made of metal rather than wood and cloth. The nose of it was blunt and rounded like the bow of a tugboat, with a Lewis gun mounted above it. The two engines, braced between the deep, strongly cambered wings, were plough oxen compared to the flimsy aero engines I had seen in the past, a heavy engine-block gleaming between two swept-back exhaust manifolds, and the airscrews looked a clear eight feet wide. The struts separating the upper and lower wings had a sort of tapered edge to the rear, so they were teardrop-shaped in cross section rather than round, but they looked as big as pit props. Aft of the cockpit, which nestled in the lee of its angled windscreen, was another Lewis gun cocked up to the rear, and under it the humped back of the fuselage stretched and tapered to a sturdy-looking tail fin, bearing the RFC roundel in bold colours which stood out against the dark grey-brown of the rest of the ‘plane’s skin - and the same roundel, surmounted with a bold swastika, the broken-armed cross that serves as a Hindu good-luck charm, was beneath the rim of the cockpit.

“This isn’t, strictly speaking, an English ‘plane, you see,” Khan added. “Not any more. Have a closer look.”

I was no aviator, and I’d barely come within a hundred yards of a ‘plane before - except for the occasional raider which had flown low, roaring and smoking, over my head in France - but I followed his gesture and stepped closer to the darkly gleaming body of the craft.

“Take a sniff, sir.”

I was startled, but did as I was bid. Petrol and mineral oil, grease, dust from the hangar…

“No dope, you see. When she and her sisters came over from England their skins were Irish linen, coated in dope - a sort of chemical varnish that smells of pear drops. Every hangar in England and France reeks of the stuff, for you have to keep re-proofing them if you don’t want the linen to rot. 

“We stripped them down to their frames as soon as we got our hands on them. And now - look at them. That’s a native varnish coating the new skin - half a dozen different resins and gums and a few other secrets that the old fellows who boil it up won’t tell anyone but a blood relative. And the skin itself isn’t linen any more - that’s Bengal silk. The varnish stops it from rotting and gives it a little more stretch, and it’s far lighter than the old stuff.”

He knocked a pair of clips loose and swung open a framed panel in the side of the fuselage.
“And look at this too,” he said, his speech quickening and his accent starting to blur the edges of his words. “The main structural members - these frames here - are still ash wood, but we stripped out all the stringers between them and replaced them with laminates. And the same on the wings, and on the wing struts, and even the airscrews. That’s not just wood there, it’s layers of maple and horn and sinew, glued together. Not built here of course - that’s cow horn, and no man in Bengal would work with it for fear of losing caste. These parts were built for us up in the Punjab. By bowyers.” He brought out the antique word with a certain pride. “What you’re seeing here is a Mongol horse-archer’s composite bow, built the way it’s been built for a thousand years -”  ‘thousand’ slipped into ‘t’ousand’ and there was a slurred drag to ‘years’ as his accent got the better of him - “but in the shape of an aeroplane.”

He straightened his tunic and tugged again at the belt which seemed determined to sag down to one side.

“Even the shape is different. We’ve given her longer wings for better lift at high altitudes, and faired in the cockpit and the struts to reduce drag. We couldn’t do much for the engines, so they’re pretty much as Rolls-Royce built them. Maybe in twenty years’ time we’ll be building Indian engines to match our Indian birds; for now, we’re keeping these ones as well tuned as we can. The mountings are home-grown, though - Indian steel. And those Lewis guns were built in the Dum-Dum Arsenal, as it happens.”

“A lot of work for a bomber,” I commented.

“Ah yes. But look under the wings. No bomb racks.”

He was right - I couldn’t understand how I’d missed that.

“And that hump in the fuselage wasn’t there before - “ he pointed at a rounded ridge running down the length of the aircraft’s back. “Get in, Colonel. Please. We built her and her sisters with smaller men than you in mind, but I think you should find there’s room.”

There was - barely. Inside the fuselage a narrow wooden grating served as a floor to keep my feet off the frames and stringers and the silk skin below them, and the hump provided a little extra headroom - but my back was still bent double like a miner’s. Strung along the sides I found a couple of handropes which served to keep my balance lest I pitch over and crash through the side. I shuffled along towards the nose of the ‘plane and craned around to see Khan’s head behind me against the lighted square of the hatch. 

“A tight fit, sir. But we could fit twelve men in light order in here at a push.” It didn’t seem credible; they would have to be packed like sardines in a tin. “This ‘plane and the three others could move a platoon, and they have done, several times, on exercises around the foothills here. A platoon of a completely new kind of fighting man - not a simple infantryman, not an airman, for he won’t actually fight in the air, but an airborne trooper, a sort of aerial dragoon. In Europe it would be useless - it’s a war of divisions and army corps, and a single platoon would be swallowed up - but out here in the mountains there’s still a lot you can do with a small body of hard men, arriving without warning and without use of the roads and passes. The moral impact, you see, of the enemy realising suddenly that he is safe nowhere. By this time next year, if London and Delhi give us the airframes, we’ll be moving a company in a single lift.”

He withdrew his head and I shuffled painfully back down towards the hatch and unfolded myself through it on to the hangar floor. 

“You should come and meet them, actually. I understand from Lurgan Sahib that you may be joining them on a little journey.”

Khan’s ‘aerial dragoons’ were, as he had said, small men. I am no taller than the average Englishman, but not a man of them came higher than my shoulder. They had clearly just come back from the gallery range - the familiar scent of smoke and oil hung in the air of their barrack room, and a couple of them were still pulling their barrels through. Their high-pitched chatter died away sharply as we walked into the room and their subedar, emerging suddenly from his little cubby at the end of the building, called them to attention in a single bark in which no words - English or Gurkhali - were readily discernible.

“Three Platoon, D Company, Second/Second Gurkhas,” Khan remarked casually. “Carry on, Subedar.”

The subedar  - there didn’t seem to be a white officer in charge - pulled himself even more upright, and stalked down the centre of the room between the two lines of charpoys. 

“Platoon commander Subedar Karanbahadur Gurung, colonel sahib,” he choked out in a sort of subdued parade-ground bark. “This is One Section command Naik Lal Gurung. This is Three Section command Havildar Thaman Gurung. This is Two Section acting command Lance Naik Kul Gurung. Four Section command Naik Tej Gurung. This is platoon havildar Lalbahadur Gurung.” Broad faces, narrow faces, eyes tightened by the weather or still open with youth… forty individuals, just as different from each other as any platoon of Highlanders I had had under my command, but, just as the Jocks were, all indefinably but unmistakably made from the same unyielding raw material.

Khan put in: “And this is Colonel Sahib Hannay.”

“That could be confusing, sahib,” the subedar replied. “We will probably call you Gurung to keep things simple.” 

Not a flicker, not a move on any face in the room. The subedar’s expression was as immobile as a mask. I had heard exactly the same joke from the Jocks in my first battalion, except half of them had been called “Mackay” - it gave me a feeling that I had fallen into the right sort of company.

But our party had much ground to make up. Volkoff had clearly not been at the monastery six weeks before - the A.D.O. and his party, to say nothing of the pundits, could not have missed him. The last caravan to go through before Younger’s ill-fated salt traders had left barely two weeks ago. And no one moved fast through the Tolong La.

But, as Khan explained, unrolling a map disturbingly rich in white spaces and question-marked elevations, even by air our journey to the distant monastery would neither be an easy nor a quick one.

“For a start,” he said, “we have no idea whether or not there is enough flat ground nearby to the monastery on which to land. And if we land we will need more room in which to take off again or we will be stuck there until spring - as we will be if we catch a wingtip or tuck in a wheel on landing. However, that is unlikely to be our main obstacle, since it’s very uncertain we can fly high enough to get over the pass on the way, and certainly we won’t be able to do so while carrying enough fuel to get there - let alone get back.”

This sounded grim. I was afire to catch “Captain John” and his cohorts - the looming arcs of pass and ridge reminded me too bitterly of my failure at the St. Eusebius - and Khan was not improving my hopes of recouping the ground I had lost with Calloway’s death.

“But I think we can make it work,” he continued, and grinned unexpectedly. Indian aristocrats weren’t supposed to grin like that.

We bent our heads again over the map.

“The problem isn’t the distance over the ground - it’s the height of the ridges we have to cross, and the effective operational ceiling of the ‘planes. We can’t simply fly up the Tolong La itself - the valley is too narrow as you get near the gut of the pass, the wind would carry us into the sides. We’ll have to fly up this valley here, to the east, which means we are then crossing over these two ridgelines to reach the Tolong La itself where it widens out again, around the monastery. And we don’t really even have a clear idea of how high the ridges are. The surveyors noted spot heights, and the summits of the passes, but the ridges between one valley and the next are pretty much ignored. Still, we have some elevation sketches that allow us to make reasonable guesses.”

This did not sound like a hopeful prospect.

“This is going to take several days. From these elevations” - he pulled out a sheaf of pencil sketches which persisted in trying to roll themselves up again if left unattended, and weighted them down with various engine parts (we had commandeered one of the fitters’ benches) - “from these elevations, we should be able to push one of our ‘planes with a light load over the first of these ridges. But it would barely have enough fuel to land on the other side - it certainly couldn’t push all the way from here, over both ridgelines, to the monastery. Or rather it could, but it would have to be stripped right down - certainly couldn’t carry any passengers or cargo. We could fly over the  monastery and have a look, but that’s all.”

The plan, as we evolved it on that oil-stained bench, reminded me of the accounts I had read in the press of Captain Scott’s bid for the South Pole before the war, with its painful preliminaries of depot-laying and route-finding followed by the final assault on the Pole itself - or for that matter of the building-up of shell dumps and pavé roads before a big push on the Front - and I hoped that our own project might have a happier outcome. I was aghast at first when Khan spoke of the journey taking days. I had envisaged a few hours’ flying at most. But if Volkoff, as it seemed, had dived into the Tolong La just before the snows closed it, he was still at least a week away from his goal. We had, for the first time in this infernal chase, time to spare.

Like Scott, we would need to lay our depots with care. The first push would use eight sorties - two from each ‘plane - to shuttle fuel and the heavier weapons and ammunition up our wider approach glen, and over the first ridge to what seemed to be a flat area of hard, wind-packed snow where a landing should be possible with care - we christened this Cache Valley. We would carry forward food and tents to Cache Valley as well, so that any forced landing would not be fatal to the stranded crew - there was every chance that they would be able to march out on snowshoes, or to stay where they were in relative safety until a relief party could march to reach them overland and bring them out.  All of this would have to be preceded by a single-’plane reconnaissance of Cache Valley, to check that the landing ground was still in existence, first by flying low over it to inspect it by eye, then by checking the hardness of the snow by “the proven method in mountain aviation; we will drop a rock on it”. 

Once all this had been achieved, we would bring forward our platoon of Gurkha aerial dragoons to Cache Valley, in ‘planes otherwise stripped down to the bare minimum weight and fuel. They would land at Cache Valley, refuel and load up, and take off for the leap over the second ridge into the Tolong La. 

Where, of course, we would be landing blind. If there was nowhere broad enough in the valley of the Tolong La to land, could we claw our way back over the second ridge and return to Cache Valley? “If we dumped the heavy cargo, and the reserve fuel… oh, yes, I think so. Probably, anyway,” Khan said. “Depends on the wind really - the air over these ridges can be rather brutal. If not, we can always fly back down the Tolong La as far as we can get before it narrows, and look for somewhere else to land - we’ll have the range, and there’s bound to be enough room to get down somewhere in the pass. Even if we can’t take off again.”

In the teeth of Younger’s apoplectic objections, I ordered a caravan put together, with a company of mountain-trained infantry attached, to set off and push as far into the Tolong La as it could go, dumping supplies at intervals. If we ended up in a forced landing somewhere down the valley, it would be useful to know that our rescue force had already set off. And there was always a chance that they could make it all the way to the monastery - and either relieve us if we had succeeded, or take the monastery if we had failed. I put their officer - a piratical-looking Borderer - in the picture the evening before he left, and made no bones about the chances of success for our aerial move. He would be two or three days behind Volkoff, and with any luck he would be able to force the monks to put him on the man’s trail again. 

Wherever he was going. The more I thought about it, the less sense this plan made - and the bigger seemed to bulk the objections that had first come to mind in Zurich, as we pored over the deciphered message in the Haertland Mathieu offices. Why, if you wanted to move a man from Zurich to Moscow or Petrograd, would you try to do it first via Turkey and then via India? Why plan to take him a thousand miles out of his way and then, when that failed, drag him halfway round the world by ship and then across a thousand miles of British territory - when surely a neutral passport and a berth on a tramp steamer from Sweden or Norway would serve as well? Norway was a playground for secret agents from all sides, and Russian customs hardly made a hermetic seal around the country… certainly not for an experienced revolutionary with a veteran German intelligence officer as his handler! What on earth were the Germans playing at? If they had taken Volkoff north, he would have been home in Russia in a couple of weeks. Now here we were, months after the Light of Sar had burned to death in Constantinople and O’Hara died in that chilly room in Whitby, and Volkoff was further from Moscow than he had been when he started. 

Khan and his pilots were caballing over loading plans and takeoff runs and likely wind speeds, and I kept returning to the question like a hound trying to chew the last scraps of meat from a bone. Had we misjudged their plan after all? Originally, of course, O’Hara had assumed that the Shield Order meant to raise a rebellion in India. Then he had fallen in with the Light of Sar, on his journey west, and learned (while in the guise of the Indian renegade Rao) that Russia was the target.

Had the Light of Sar lied? 

Surely he had not seen through O’Hara’s disguise; O’Hara would have been killed on the spot were that the case. Or, more likely, O’Hara would have survived the Light of Sar’s attempt to kill him and counter-attacked. Sly though the monk was, O’Hara was one of the old man’s picked hands, and such were not easily deceived; unlikely that any novice would be able to hoodwink such a tiercel. 

No, O’Hara had not been deliberately fed a false story to take back to British ears. But perhaps the Light of Sar had lied out of general principle. O’Hara had rated him as cunning and clever; it was odd, when you thought about it, for such a man, engaged on a secret errand, to spill his story to a recent acquaintance on the road. Very odd.

Or perhaps the Light of Sar had simply been misinformed. Go to Constantinople and meet the Russian there. Perhaps the German plan had been to let the Light of Sar make his entire journey under a false apprehension, and be told in Constantinople we apologise for misinforming you, we have no need for you to take this man into Russia; actually, what we require of you is this…

That made sense as well. Why tell a garrulous foreign monk your secrets if you didn’t have to? What he didn’t know he couldn’t betray.

But, then, what was the real reason? What would the German secret service do with an exiled Russian revolutionary except smuggle him into Russia? 

Well, Russia was large, after all. Maybe the target was Russia, but not Moscow. Volkoff had spent his time in Siberia like any good revolutionary - for a previous alias, he’d even named himself after one of the great rivers of Siberia. Maybe the plan was to raise not an urban revolt in Moscow or Kiev or Petrograd, but a true rebellion in the backwoods of Siberia. There was space enough, and towns full of exiles - and camps full of Austrian-Hungarian and German prisoners of war who could be armed and led to support them. For that matter, the Tsar himself had had some success raising regiments from the Czechs and Slovaks among the thousands of Austrian army prisoners he held. Was this the plan - to set a fire in the heart of the Tsar’s Asian empire, and raise an army to storm west and tear into the cities and farms of European Russia? Did our asiatische revolutionary see himself not as a new Danton or Robespierre, but a new Genghis or Timur, with the Light of Sar lending him a cloak of holiness for the benefit of the horsemen of the Mongol steppes of Transbaikal?

That would explain their choice of route - perhaps from Constantinople he would have headed across the Caucasus to the Caspian, and from there into the deserts of central Asia. The devil of a journey, but with the Light of Sar as his escort, not impossible… it made sense. We had been guilty of a European focus - the wealth and industry of Russia, its cities and arsenals and factories, were all in European Russia, but at the back of every Russian mind was the indelible race memory of the centuries under the Mongol yoke. Let the word go out that a German-Austrian army had risen up like soldiers from sown dragon’s teeth in the middle of Siberia, and that its outriders were the terrible horsemen of the Khan of the Blue Sky… that would shake Russia from end to end.

I flew into Cache Valley with the third lift. Packed into the fuselage, as far forward as possible, were tin containers of petrol, roped into place and cushioned with kapok pads. Denser cargo - ammunition for the Lewis guns, tentage, and fitters’ tools - were wedged in around the pilot’s seat to keep the centre of gravity forward and stop the tail dragging. I packed myself in with my back against the petrol tins. No way to see out - over the mound of equipment, if I craned my neck round, I could peer up through the cockpit opening past the pilot and glimpse grey sky and moments of sunshine, but nothing of the mountains.
Little enough of the grace of flying of which Peter Pienaar and his friends had spoken. Every piece of mountain gear I could scrounge, I was wearing, and the extra bulk had wedged me into the fuselage as though it had been built around me. The air inside was freezing and stank of petrol, grease and the resinaceous varnish Khan had been so proud of. The takeoff run was long, and as the bomber unstuck and swayed into the air it creaked and groaned like a tall ship - and then staggered round in one circle after another, the light shifting around the inside of the ‘plane as we spiralled up to gain height enough to pass over the first ridge. The linen skin of the fuselage was dimpled  by the airstream over it, and rippled and thumped alarmingly as the airflow detached when we ran into turbulence or a downdraught.
The swaying of the aircraft, and its occasional lurches and drops when it flew into turbulence, was nauseating combined with the machine stink of its inside. I peered up as much as I could at the sky outside and tried to calm my roiling stomach, but with little avail. Fortunately the flight wasn’t long - after our long spiral upwards to gain height over the pass, we had just a short climb, engines screaming to gain the last few feet of height in the thin freezing air as we skimmed over the rim of the valley, the slices of clouded sky replaced for a few heart-stopping instants by rock and ice, far too close - then I could almost feel the pilot exhale with relief as he closed the throttle and set us into the long shallow descent towards landing. 

It was my first ascent in an aeroplane, and I left it pale and ridden with sickness and fatigue, on the great expanse of hard-packed, wind-smoothed snow that spanned the whole width of Cache Valley. Two other bombers were already perched at the downwind end, among a clutter of bundled supplies; the wind was not fierce, by mountain standards, but it was tearing a constant sandstorm of ice crystals from the surface of the snowfield and sending them rushing past us, so that we seemed to be knee-deep in fast-flowing milky water, its streams dividing and flowing around our legs as we stood there. The sky was overcast but almost too bright to look at - for all the cold, we seemed here to be closer to the sun. A line of swaddled figures, bent against the wind, dragged out petrol and oil to tend our engines. The fourth and last of our ‘planes darted into view over the crest of the ridge, its slipstream tearing up a great turmoil of snow and ice behind it, bright in a sudden burst of sunlight.