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.”

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