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.
For the purposes of my journey in France, I remained in British kit - secreted in a large valise were the clothing and unimpeachable papers of Henry Franklin Kormann, of St. Paul, Minnesota, but my outward appearance was that of the harmless Major de Roeck of the Royal Engineers, on his way to consult with his counterparts of the corps de Génie up around Belfort.
Calloway had argued, and I agreed with him, that a man of my age and accent in the uniform of a Highland colonel was likely to remain in the memory - but one more Imperial officer on a routine liaison errand, especially a colonial, would pass beneath the notice of even the most alert German sympathiser. So Colonel Hannay of the Lennox Highlanders was still on his walking holiday in Dorset, incommunicado, and de Roeck the Rand miner turned sapper major was on the slow train through the Moselle country.
Calloway was with me - travelling as Captain Evans, RE (it being universally accepted throughout the army, he explained, that a sapper officer must be either Methodist, married or mad, he thought a Welsh strand of Wesleyanism the easiest of the three options to adopt at short notice) and would remain at my side to oversee the Maskelyne-and-Devant business whereby Major de Roeck would vanish and Henry Kormann take his place. After which Calloway-Evans would tidy away any odds and ends of the short-lived South African sapper, and slip away quietly to report to the old man that the ploy was under way.
Belfort was the anchor point of the whole Western Front. In 1914 the Germans had come smashing into the avenue of river land, between where the Vosges tail off to the north and the Swiss mountains rise to the south, and had come against the fortifications of Belfort like a breaking wave. North, all along the granite ridge lines of the Vosges, the French alpine troops and the Germans’ Seventh Army had blasted and hacked their trench lines into the solid rock itself as the Front hardened into its two-year stasis. As we sat patiently on the train at a little siding station that didn’t even merit a signboard, we could sense the fortress nearby - the mutter of guns as the Germans tried again to crack the stronghold that had resisted them in 1914 as firmly as in 1871.
Calloway, I think, rather enjoyed the whole quick-change act. I had an uncle back in Africa when I was a small boy, a dusty-looking sort of old stick as I thought then, who rode from farm to mine and kraal to railhead doctoring the natives with jallap and splinting the broken bones of unfortunate horsemen. He must have ridden a thousand miles every month and the dust had worked its way into his skin and the creases around his mouth (probably he was only forty or so, but the other station children and I thought him as ancient as a Pharaoh). But when he visited the years seemed to drop off him - and he got as much delight as we did or more from the conjuring tricks that he would produce without warning, just as his incomprehensible conversation with our parents had finally bored us to distraction. Calloway went through the same transformation as he explained the mechanics of it to me while we waited for the train down to Belfort, and I could see peeping through a little of the eager schoolboy he must have been in the years before the War, when I was blasting for gold in the Rand and giving a scant thought every week or so to the problems of the wider world.
How do you make a man disappear, and another appear, on a crowded train?
The answer is, of course, that you rely on what every conjuror knows - show people the outline of what they expect to see and their own mind will fill in the blank spots. Show someone a few random dark patches on a white circle and they’ll see the Man in the Moon. Show them a sapper major where they expect to see one, and will they really notice that he isn’t one man but two?
Kormann’s valise was to be tucked away behind the boarding in the little water-closet at the end of the carriage. I had practiced until I could go from de Roeck to Kormann in a little under two minutes - still leaving much of de Roeck’s clothing in place, to be sure, but Kormann to the outside world, and the rest I could make good at my leisure. Evans-Calloway and I were sitting in our crowded compartment among six other unhappily dozing Frenchmen, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths, coat collars turned up against the draught that cut in under the compartment door.
And, standing uncomfortably in the vestibule of the next carriage, was our borrowed major. My height, my build, my colouring - and with the same extravagantly noticeable bandage across the side of his jaw and neck. Anyone walking the length of the train would certainly have noticed that there were two near-identical men aboard - but no idle or restless stroller in their right mind would step out of the door into a winter night and balance across from one footplate to another to cross between carriages as the rails whipped past beneath them.
At a certain point, not too far from Belfort, I would move to the water closet, discard de Roeck and become Kormann. As close to simultaneously as possible, the borrowed major would cross that thundering gap, pass by me, move down the corridor and sit himself down in my seat. Anyone in our carriage would have seen a bandaged sapper officer head to the W.C. and then, a couple of minutes later, return. Anyone in the next carriage would have noticed the bandaged sapper, seen him cross to another carriage and then, on the platform, see him descend, talking to his friend. Kormann would step directly from the W.C. on to the platform - no one would wonder where he had come from; they would simply assume that he had been in another compartment on the dark, crowded train.
The train rattled past a ruined farmhouse, hard up against the side of the tracks, with firelight in its unglazed windows. Time. Belfort station was a few minutes away.
I stood up and stretched out my back and slid the door open into the corridor, pushing my way past the unlucky souls who had not managed to obtain themselves a seat. They were crowded into the corridor, but the vestibule at the end of the carriage was draughty and cold - and the French water closet added its own contribution to the atmosphere - and so we could rely on its remaining clear of straphangers.
Major de Roeck and his bandaged jaw made his way to the vestibule at the end of the corridor, leaving a comet tail of apologies in bad French behind him. A door on each side of the carriage with the windows pulled tight; a wooden door ahead led on to the footplate and so into the next carriage; and a narrow slatted door led to the lavatory. Into the little compartment, swing the door to behind me, then cap off, coat off, Sam Browne loosened, tunic off, balancing as best I could in the cramped and stinking little closet.
I pushed back the panel in the wall and reached in for the Kormann valise containing my new clothes - and it wasn’t there. I felt a lurch in my stomach that had nothing to do with the French railways. My double was supposed to have brought the valise on board himself, concealed inside a military canvas travelling case, and transferred it to the hiding place long since. I would have preferred to have brought it myself, but I needed to be travelling with my Major de Roeck baggage. If anything went wrong, or if some light-fingered railway employee - or, worse, one in the pay of the Germans - went through my bags, it was vital that I should be above suspicion. Right up to the switch, I had to be de Roeck in every respect in order to avoid compromise. My double, being a mere stage extra, need not be so concerned. If someone were to grow suspicious of him on account of his luggage, good luck to them - he was, as he seemed, a perfectly innocent officer with no secret connections whatsoever.
I had not, of course, seen my double at all - we could not risk being seen together or the whole trick would fail. I had only faith to go on that he had boarded the train at all. Any slip-up in Calloway’s organisation, any mishap could have prevented him boarding the train at all, and left me tethered to the de Roeck identity - in which it would be impossible for me to cross into Switzerland.
I could certainly not go back to our compartment and engage in a heated discussion of the state of play with Calloway - that would be sure to arouse gossip, and in this third year of the alliance half our fellow passengers might speak a little English. I had only a few minutes until Belfort, after which the plan would have definitely failed. Crouched in that filthy little cubbyhole, I thought fast.
The overcoat could stay - I turned it inside out, and the appearance of the rough inner surface was strange but at least less British military. The tunic went - I stuffed it behind the panel with the Sam Browne. My shirt was a civilian one, ready for my turn as Kormann, and not incongruous with the de Roeck identity, since most of our officers turned to their own tailors in any case to remedy the shortfalls of the Army issue. The visible, eye-catching bandage came off, of course, and the tie. The officer’s high boots would be a problem - I whipped out my folding knife and ruined the tunic, slicing the sleeves into two long strips which I wrapped puttee-like around my shanks. The result, in the daylight, would have been horrendous - a figure from an R.S.M.’s fevered nightmare. In the dim electric light of the carriage it would still have raised eyebrows. But the fuse panel sat just above the door at the end of the carriage - I opened the W.C. door, jabbed up at it with the brass-shod end of my stick and in a flourish of sparks the train was darkened from end to end.
I swung open the door - Lord, were we already starting to slow for Belfort? - and stepped across into the next carriage. There was just a chance that my double was already on the train but had been prevented somehow from placing the valise with the Kormann clothes. Over the pierced iron catwalk between carriages and into the next one, shuffling quickly down the corridor and glancing into each compartment as I went - nothing, nothing, never pausing too long to avoid raising suspicion of this semi-military scarecrow - to the far end of the carriage where I almost collided with him. He muttered some polite exclamation and I would have brushed past him but caught sight of the badge and the white bandage above the collar as the train shifted into a turn and the moonlight glanced in through a window.
Calloway had picked his man very well. It was shocking to see, between the cap and the coat collar, a different face and different eyes than mine looking back - and for a little moment I felt as though the planks of the floor had been kicked away from under me. Yes, I had left behind my own name and station when I slipped before into the secret world - but here the abandonment was made literal. Our borrowed major would stay with the army, in the life I had chosen - the life that ought still to be mine - while I would go into the shadows under another name.
I grabbed my other self by the lapel and hissed “Where’s the valise? Where the hell have you left it?”
“It wouldn’t fit!” he replied, idiotically. “I didn’t know what to do!”
Heaven help this man’s troop when he got back to the trenches. The precious valise was resting behind his leg and I shoved him aside and grabbed it. Fortunately we were alone in the vestibule, save for a snoring caporal hunched in the least draughty corner.
“Ass!” I said. “Well, go on. Back down the carriage. Tell Evans what’s happened - quietly - tell him I’ll keep the valise and your case and dispose of them later. Move!”
Three minutes to Belfort, or less. It could all still go wrong - if my inept double blurted out his story to Evans in the compartment; if someone’s eye had been caught by my improvised disguise; if the caporal shook off the effects of fatigue and pinard and saw us talking...
All this went through my head in an instant and I swung the lavatory door shut behind me. The other major pulled his coat collar a little higher and started to push his way back to my compartment, and I stepped into the W.C. - every bit as foul as the last one - and tore off my overcoat and puttees to make the change into Kormann faster than I had ever rehearsed it.
Thank Providence for the French wartime railways; we shuddered and squealed to a halt just short of the platform, and I had fifteen unexpected minutes (with a growing hubbub of irritated passengers) to put the finishing touches to my Kormann outfit. I was first off, and walked quickly away down the platform to put as much distance as possible between myself and my old identity when he stepped out of the carriage door behind me. Calloway-Evans would be last off, bringing with him the valise with my butchered old uniform (to be handed to the forgetful “Major de Roeck”) and clearing out any other signs of the duplicate Major and the mysterious appearance of Mr Kormann.
Kormann and Evans crossed the border without further incident; and a few hours later we were tucked on to a Swiss train on our way to Zurich. I got more of an explanation on the way.
“Revolutionaries are birds of passage,” Calloway explained in our compartment – which we had all to ourselves this time – “and so they tend to flock together. Before the War it was
Vienna – the coffee-houses in ’13 were crowded with agitators - everything from Croat metalworkers and Georgian seminarians to Socialist intellectuals from half the universities in Europe, most of them doubling for one secret service or another, or several at once. Wonderful time, or so the older men in the service say (it was before my time); they called Vienna the Big Top, because there was a Barnum’s circus of intelligence work every day, with something to watch in all three rings at once and a dozen more sideshows as well. The War’s put a stop to that; most of our birds of passage have recovered their patriotism, some of them have been put away somewhere safe, and some of them have come here – to the last quiet place in a battling continent. And of those, most are in Zurich – where we’ll be in a few hours. I’d try to get some rest before then if I were you, Mr Kormann.”
He pulled his overcoat up around his ears, closed his eyes and leant his head back at an angle that suggested a recent hanging (you can get away with sleeping in that sort of position when you’re still a few years away from thirty). I sat back and gazed out of the window as the dark forests of Switzerland rolled past.