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.

From Innes’ account, he had been near raving to get back to his post as they carried him away from the Front; but I think that the time in the old turreted house had given him leisure to think in peace. I was not sure whether or not this had been a good thing; I had seen too many other men, friends of mine, in similar state. It takes everyone differently. Some it hammers into cowering masses of exposed nerves, jumping at every noise. Some it numbs, so that nothing - no fear, nor any other emotion - finds purchase on the surface of their brains. Some it drives into a constant chewing neurosis. No one who has been in the trenches long is ignorant of the different forms it takes - whether you call it shell shock or front fever or trench ennui, whether you regard it as neurosis or as the side-effect of the physical blast of explosives, the imprint left on the human soul by the passage of shock wave after shock wave through flesh and nerve and bone and brain. And no officer - no good officer - can see it unmoved. We make so much of the killer instinct, the bayonet drills and weighted clubs and trench knives - but it’s compassion a soldier needs as much as those, and an officer more, perhaps, if he’s to have his men follow him and trust him. Every one of my men who had gone the way of   Turpin had left me with a sorrowing wound, and Turpin himself had caught it badly.

We’d dined modestly, at a little place by the river run by a retired cavalry adjudant from one of the little towns perched up on the limestone crags around the Vaucluse - Turpin’s part of the world. Turpin and I had exchanged stories over the game and claret, and I’d learned, to my shock, that the cultured worn-looking gentleman across the table from me had not, as I thought, spent three months at the Front; he had spent three months, without pause, in the Line itself.

My own battalion of the Lennox Highlanders I would match for toughness against any Australians, and for smartness against any Guards. There was never any suggestion with them - unlike other units, it was rumoured - of a ‘live and let live’ attitude, in which fire and shell served merely ceremonial purposes. Every time we went into the front line, the Boche pulled his head under the parapet and waited until we left again; all the Scotch units were well-known on both sides, but we knew, with some pride, that the enemy had learned to respect in particular, whether in defence, raid or assault, the dames d’enfer with the yellow hackles. But never, not even at the worst of that summer’s fighting, had we been in the Line for more than six days. Relief was never far off - and I knew that the men were all the better for being able to look ahead to moving back to support trenches, and then back into reserve. No British unit was ever left in the line for longer than ten days or a fortnight - the men might stand it, individually, but the invisible fabric between them starts to fray and break. A battalion that’s been too long in the line might still have five or six hundred men on its strength, if it had had a quiet time and the replacements had been sent up regularly, but it would no longer be a unit - just a crowd of sleepwalkers. At first, at Verdun, the little marshal Pétain had held his divisions to the same welcome rule - le benit reglement Noria, which rotated units into and out of the Line, with plenty of time in the rear to refit and recover. But Pétain, who had loved his troops too much, was gone, and in his place was the smiling waxwork Nivelle, and Nivelle, convinced in true 1914 style of the indomitable offensive spirit of the French soldier, had abolished the Noria system almost as his first action.

I could not imagine what three months in the Line in a post like Verdun would do. I said as much to Turpin. “You plunge in, you immerse yourselves, and then you climb out again,” was his reply. “You can brace yourself for any shock if  you know it will pass soon. But we - we are submerged. The Chasseurs, my Chasseurs that I left, are still in the Line even now, what remains of them. The maréchal feeds us new heads up the Sacred Way and they barely have time to find their way before they are being replaced in their turn. Your Highlanders may be tempered by their immersion - my Chasseurs have been drowned. Four hundred drowned men still moving about.”

His words were still with me as I turned back on to Piccadilly and put myself on the path to my lodgings, and I found myself thinking that the British way, too, had its disadvantages. Yes, it’s true that a man lasts better in the Line if he can look forward to the rest period in a few days - but no one can be fully at ease, however pleasant the rest area, when he knows that the next week will take him back to the Line again. Even back in England, the contrast between the unfamiliar avenues of London and the little ruined streets I knew well around Poperinghe gave the West End a nightmarish quality, like some enormous stage set or camouflage screen - I could not for long escape the feeling that at any minute a shell might come plunging and smashing through the frontage of the Criterion, or a little khaki group of soldiers on a night patrol would step incautiously out of the Trocadero and be tossed about and torn apart by machine gun fire. I found myself keeping close to walls, and my breath caught every time I rounded a corner or crossed the mouth of a side street.
My own rooms were near the Embankment - I had come in by the boat train to Waterloo and would leave from the same station to the West Country the next day, and, since I could not face staying at the Club myself, had found rooms elsewhere - and as I swung into the quiet little street I was surprised to see a square-bodied, dark-coloured car with its motor running outside the front door, and a similarly square-bodied, dark-clad man standing by the running board, raising his voice to call me over.
“Excuse me, sir?”

The door of the car swung back and a familiar figure levered itself out. “Come on, Dick,” said a voice I knew well. “I’m afraid you’ll have to put your walking tour off for the moment. We’ve got a different road to set you on.”

I had not seen David Calloway since 1914, though what he himself called ‘the rumour wire’ - the little spider’s-web of nods and hints that binds together those of us who have touched, however lightly, the secret side of things - had let me know something of his career. Like me, David had been scooped up by the Secret Service as the war was coming - but while I had been released again, the old man at the centre of the web had battened on to David, and away he went into the shadows. He was a peaceable young man with a facility of perception better than a Zeiss rangefinder, and I had heard, second-hand, stories of him stripping down a new breed of Hun floating mine, up to his chest in icy water on the mud of a Yorkshire estuary, with all the calm absorption of a man tying a salmon lure. Three years of war had worn him down like a river in flood washing away its banks. There was considerably less of Calloway now - not just physically, though he had certainly shed some weight, but also in terms of his manner; fewer tricks of speech, fewer unnecessary mannerisms and gestures. But what was surviving, I could see, was rock solid.

The car swung out and tucked itself back on to the Strand, but to my surprise I found we were heading the wrong way. The old man had rooted himself in the Admiralty at the outbreak of war, but the nose of the car was pointing east - Aldwych and Fleet Street and Farringdon flicking past us in the quiet of an early London morning.

“I’ll give you the picture on the train north,” Calloway said before I could voice the question. “The old man is already there. London’s not the place, Dick - something rather interesting has come ashore in Whitby.”

Calloway had been too optimistic - war-time trains left us without a compartment to ourselves, and he sat opposite me for the four hours north from London eating his heart out with impatience as we listened to the conversation of the bagmen and subalterns and lawyers who crowded into the compartment with us.

You don’t get far in the army, certainly not in wartime, if you have an insatiable desire to know what’s going on and what’s happening next. I summoned up the lessons of the last two years of my life and put my curiosity away at the back of my mind and watched England go past.

The fields of the southern counties, flat as marble and black and frosted with stubble that glowed in the first light of dawn, rolled past us and dragged themselves away behind the train, and the skewed tower of Peterborough Cathedral lifted itself over the horizon and slid towards us. Then the fens gave way to rolling fields, and the bones of the country started to show beneath its skin as the hills rose out of the flat land and we headed into the North.
York’s station, brick arches blacked by soot and thronged with servicemen and their girls - I glimpsed a Highland officer and felt as though I’d seen a long-lost cousin, but he wasn’t from my regiment, just a Seaforth - and then another train and over the southern fringe of the great moors, towards the coast with the hills and rocks rising on our left, down finally into Whitby.

Out to sea in the haze there was a little plume of smoke - a destroyer, cutting out for the first patrol of the day. Whitby’s little stone houses and shops had not been touched by the war since the terrible day two years ago when Scheer led his battlecruisers in to demonstrate the fishermen and shopkeepers the superiority of German civilisation in the form of eleven-inch shells. The craters had been filled in and the windows repaired, and the beautiful abbey now showed no scars, but Whitby remained a town on watch.

A policeman was waiting for us on the platform edge - out of uniform, but you would no more have mistaken him for a civilian than you would think a Zulu was a waiter at the Reform because he happened to be wearing a white tie. Calloway didn’t know him but he knew Calloway and led us out of the station to a little side street and up the stairs to a bare boarded landing, with an open door leading into the spartan attic bedroom where Bullivant, the old man himself, stood tall and straight and silent and a dead man lay on the iron framed bed.
I’d seen all manner of death since 1914 and before it - death by accident, death by malice, death noisy, quiet, brutal, bloody, gentle, terrible - and the man on the bed was far from the worst I had seen. Bullivant seemed to be giving him even less regard than I. He was turned half away from the door so that the dawn light shone over his shoulder on to a collection of papers in his hand, and he was leafing through them with the abstraction of an antiquarian going through papyrus. Calloway stepped back aside from the door like a footman ushering in a guest and I passed through with an absurd little automatic nod.

The shallow-angled morning light that streamed past Bullivant like clear water shone full on to the face of the man on the bed. He was dark - possibly Celtic-dark, but the nose and mouth had too much of the East about them, and I thought he was more likely a half-caste or even full Indian. His eyes were closed and a little frown above them had brought the black brows down and together, as if death had come upon him not as a terror but as a puzzle. His hair, which was cropped very short,  had started to grey around the temples and forehead, and he looked to be about ten years my senior. He was fully-dressed - cheap but decent clothes, hard-wearing serge and corduroy, boots at the foot of the bed - and an old faded blue canvas grip lay on the floor by where his arm drooped limply towards it like the hanging boom of a derrick, the lingering tension of the dead muscles and tendons holding it so that the slack fingers just grazed the floor.

Calloway stepped in through the door behind me and closed it with that same footman’s grace.

“Back into the game again, I am afraid,” were the old man’s first words to me. He set the documents down on  the little deal table beside the head of the bed and something about the gesture transported me three years back - to when I was newly in England, and another corpse in another room had whisked me out of the sunlight and into the secret world for the first time, to face the devilry of the Black Stone and the gang of Germans who were labouring to bring the whole bright world down into war. They had been busy years - sickness and health, learning my new trades as a soldier and a commander (two very different things) and putting on my boer accent in my identity as Brandt to go twice into the enemy’s heartland to fight Bullivant’s secret war.

I stood still with the morning sun in my eyes and waited for Bullivant to go on.

“You can’t go as Cornelis Brandt this time - it’s all of Kimberley to a coloured-glass bead that the Boche has that name and description in every police file in the Reich,” he said thoughtfully. “I think that this time you had better be an American. A German American, perhaps a brewer from one of the Midwest states. Something that suits their prejudice. Later on you can be a farmer, but not to the Germans - in the American Midwest that would be the next thing to a Radical, and we can't afford to scare our birds when they've already roused once.  What d’you make of these?”

He thrust the sheaf of notes at me and looked around at the room as though seeing its silent occupant for the first time. “Finish the search, sergeant. Then get the undertaker’s man in. Tell him whatever you think he wants to hear - sailor come ashore sick, died in the night, that should pass muster. See that our man is properly looked after. Come on, Colonel Hannay.”

And he whipped round on his heel and drove himself at the door like a footballer breaking through the scrum, with his face set and eyes glittering.

Bullivant seemed to have taken over most of the rooming house - in another little bedroom on the floor below he sat himself down on an armchair whose stuffing had already mostly fled away and whose springs seemed to be struggling free of the cover in an effort to follow. There wasn’t another chair; I perched myself on the end of the bed.

Most of the mass of paper in my hands seemed to be personal documents. Two sets, to be exact - the body on the bed seemed to have possessed at least two separate identities. One set, the first, represented him as a Lett - a sailor called Janis Plakans, with a old vaccination certificate, loose coins and letters, able seaman’s ticket and all complete. The second, larger, introduced me to a very different person: the Most Honourable and Reverend Master Rao, who, judging by the pages of barbed-wire Gothic script, had impressed himself very favourably on various increasingly highly placed Germans, and was considered “an ally of the most important nature to the purposes of the All-Highest”.

Master Rao, clearly, had fallen on hard times.

I looked up questioningly at Bullivant. “His name’s O’Hara,” he grunted. “One of our second-storey men from India. This is the first time any Englishman has clapped eyes on him since 1915.” He stood up from the collapsed armchair. “He was one of the men in India who stumbled on a German spy ring there just before the war, in much the same way that you came upon the Black Stone in England - and at about the same time. Well, we scooped them up just after the War broke out - the Shield Order, they called themselves - and thought we had put them all away somewhere nice and safe, but O’Hara kept on looking and he found there was one root we hadn’t managed to dig out of the ground. He followed that root and it led him up into the north of the country, into the mountains - and that’s where he disappeared into the mists.”

O’Hara’s search for the surviving members of the Shield Order [Bullivant continued] had drawn blank for months - they had lain low very successfully. But when they started to move, he followed their wake, and it carried him right up to the frontier, where India breaks on the mountains like a wave and dissolves into a froth of little kingdoms and emirates and hill-villages - places for which the plains country was a distant presence from which pedlars and pilgrims arrived once or twice in a year, and the great and terrible empires of mankind about as real and tangible in their lives as the Man in the Moon.

Naturally, in such places, any irruption from the outside world is a ninety-nine days’ wonder, and O’Hara had little trouble tracking the German party’s steps. He had originally assumed that they hoped to stir up disaffection among the Indian hill tribes, and in particular the martial tribes that produced so much of the infantry of the Indian Army - much along the same lines that the Kaiser had tried to set himself up as the Saviour of Islam further west, “Deutschland Uber Allah” as Punch put it, and inflame the Arabs and the Mohammedan Indians into a revolt as the mystical Senussi of North Africa had already risen. Well, a spoke had been well and truly put in his wheel by that point, in part by myself and others during the Greenmantle business, and the Arab Revolt had turned itself against the Turk rather than the British Empire. The Hun had tried the same trick again in the spring of 1916, backing the Irish rebellion - and failed again. It made perfect sense to me, as it had done to O’Hara, that their next attempt to cut away part of the forces facing them would be aimed at India.
O’Hara’s quarry had seemed to have little success in their efforts than their colleagues had had in Arabia and Ireland - they had been gently and then not so gently invited to leave town by indignant locals in a number of places along the frontier, and then had fallen in with a party of pilgrims northbound. He had almost lost their trail at this point - it seems that most of the German members of the party had died, as Europeans will in wild country, and the only survivor was blessed with a Lutheran Oriental missionary  father and a Chinese convert for a mother and had therefore been able to pass as a native. In the rags and cloak of a mendicant monk, O’Hara had followed him.

I could trace the progress of O'Hara's deception by the papers on which he had kept his journal. Inside the Raj, neat lined paper with regular rows of five-figure code groups in the careful writing of a man who had come late to literacy. Bullivant lifted the pages, set them aside, leafed through them as though he could read the cryptographs at sight.
Below that, the latter part of O'Hara's chronicle was in Indian numerals, not English, on yellowing rag paper, rolled tight and stained around the edges - kept in a hollow staff, socketed at the end for a surveyor's level and carried by the sort of pundit who is an abstracted holy man on the surface and a careful maker of maps underneath. I'd seen one before in a place of honour in Bullivant's office - a gift, he said, from a Bengali called Muckerjee, retired from the King's service to his books and journals and the founding presidency of the Learned Geographical and Ethnographical Society of Bengal, "never seen a braver coward in my life".

I pictured O'Hara, scalp shaven, trotting up the mountain paths with staff and bowl in hand, on the heels of his German quarry.

"He didn't have to go much further," Bullivant went on. "After a fortnight, he says, he tracked the German to a monastery in a place called the Tolong La, which is about the most out-of-the-way pass there is between the hill territories and China. It's a perfect shooting-gallery of falling rock in the summer, choked with snow in the winter, only open about one month of the year, and the Chinese haven't even bothered to put a guard or a customs house there for the last few centuries - probably it's been that long since a caravan went through. But O'Hara says that the monks there were expecting foreign visitors. And not just our errant German. O'Hara says that they were expecting Europeans - from the North."

The abbot of the monastery was an evil-minded old reprobate with a good deal less of the spirit of ascetic holiness than one might have expected. He was also crippled, as much by wicked living as by age, and the day-to-day affairs of his community had fallen more and more into the hands of a sturdy and ambitious man who had taken on himself the elevated title of the Light of Sar. How O'Hara had worked his way into the confidence of the monks, his journal did not say; but after a week of discussion, the German, the abbot and the Light of Sar had drawn up their plan. The German would stay at the monastery as a guest of the abbot, and to prepare (the details of the preparations had escaped even O'Hara's ear). The Light of Sar, carrying letters of instruction hedged about with seals and equivocations, and burdened with several pack-horses worth of baggage, would travel west to fetch their guests.

O'Hara had learned of the state of affairs almost too late - with another agent in company he could have covered both earths, but as it was he had a matter of hours to pick which fox to pursue. He went after the Light of Sar, reasoning that en route he would have plenty of chances to report back and set another pack of hounds off after the monastery crew.
Tracking the Light of Sar had proved much more difficult than tracking the German, and O'Hara had come close to losing him. In desperation he had joined the man's party as they went west, and for months he had lived under the constant scrutiny of the enemy. Little by little, O'Hara had let slip fragments of his fabricated past - he was simply a pilgrim mendicant; well, he had once been a man of some little importance; he had been a priest himself; in fact, a priest of significant rank and status; but others had conspired against him: his true name was not Parun, it was Rao; had he his rights again, he would be an Honourable Master in a great city in India, but his name had been blackened by his enemies, he had been slandered by little men, envious men, who had brought suit against him in the courts of the English... and in return for this nonsense, the Light of Sar had let out trickles and streams of his own secrets in the hearing of the unjustly-disgraced Honourable Master Rao.

O'Hara's notes became sparse and hurried after this. The Light of Sar, it seemed, was bound for Constantinople - that he had crossed Asia and Persia in secret was barely believable, but he had done so, O'Hara in his train, and shown himself no novice at deception. And as they travelled the last leg of their journey, by ship along the Turkish Black Sea coast, the Light of Sar had finally taken "Master Rao" into his confidence; in Constantinople, he was to meet a man - a European, in fact a Russian, an exile living in Switzerland - escort him back to the Tolong La and from there assist him to enter Russia, on the business of the Kaiser. The Light of Sar, he boasted, was no ordinary man; guards and walls and trenches and wire could not stop him, he would take the Russian to Moscow itself if he wished.

"That was a gambit we hadn't expected, you see," Bullivant said. "We knew the game, sure enough, but we'd mistaken the target. They weren't aiming at India at all, but at Russia. For all the army's had some victories this year, their peasantry is suffering, and there have been bread riots in every town of any size in the last few months. Two winters of war have worn them down and there's a third under way. The country is held together by a few threads - one man, a man with determination, could tear it down, bring them to revolt and knock their army out of the War. We're trying the same trick ourselves with the Arabs in the Hejaz, as you know - but Russia is far more ripe for a revolt than the Arab tribes, if they only had a leader, and it seems the Germans found their man, or thought they had. They would smuggle him into the country like a plague bacillus, and in six months, well, half the Germans' war would be won for them."

O'Hara had slipped up badly at this point. He never knew how, but somehow he had aroused the suspicions of the entourage of the Light of Sar.

"O'Hara, you see, was always a great believer in the importance of the initiative. Always do something, whatever it may be, he would say; that way, if nothing else, you'll have the other man reacting to you for a change. Do something unexpected and you'll put them on the back foot. Fortune smiles on the man who acts first."

Bullivant was silent for a minute. "The last part of the journal is the most unclear. But O'Hara never met this Russian exile, whoever he may have been. They were coming for him and he had a few minutes to act. He killed the Light of Sar. He fired the house in which his party was living, or at any rate destroyed it somehow; our other men in Constantinople say that there's nothing left of it but the garden walls. And he ran. Heaven knows how, but he made it clear across Europe; he had no way of contacting any of our agents in the Balkans or Austria or Germany, but he made it all the same, though he must have been sickening even then with whatever killed him. He had those documents, as you've seen, which he must have been given by the German Resident in Constantinople; no doubt the good word of the Light of Sar had a role to play there. Somehow he changed his dress and name and nation, somewhere between Thrace and the Baltic, and got himself from Norway and over the North Sea - to here. We’ve no idea how - ships don’t call from Norway here very often and we’ve been unable to trace the one that brought him here. And he died, just after he came ashore, and left us with the devil of a tangle and very little time to unpick it."

Bullivant restacked O'Hara's papers and tapped them against the arm of the chair to neaten them up.

"There are two ways we could go at this. I'm not sending you to India; rest assured that we have others following up O'Hara's lead to the Tolong La even now. No, you're going to dig up the other end of the wire; your German-American brewer is going to take his ill-hidden Radical sympathies to Switzerland, and find the man that the Germans believe can bring down an Empire."

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