Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Ten

The Advantages of an Air Raid

The train was abominably late. It was due at eight-twenty-seven, but it was nearly ten when we reached St Pancras. I had resolved to go straight to my rooms in Westminster, buying on the way a cap and waterproof to conceal my uniform should anyone be near my door on my arrival. Then I would ring up Blenkiron and tell him all my adventures. I breakfasted at a coffee-stall, left my pack and rifle in the cloak-room, and walked out into the clear sunny morning.

I was feeling very pleased with myself. Looking back on my madcap journey, I seemed to have had an amazing run of luck and to be entitled to a little credit too. I told myself that persistence always pays and that nobody is beaten till he is dead. All Blenkiron’s instructions had been faithfully carried out. I had found Ivery’s post office. I had laid the lines of our own special communications with the enemy, and so far as I could see I had left no clue behind me. Ivery and Gresson took me for a well-meaning nincompoop. It was true that I had aroused profound suspicion in the breasts of the Scottish police. But that mattered nothing, for Cornelius Brand, the suspect, would presently disappear, and there was nothing against that rising soldier, Brigadier–General Richard Hannay, who would soon be on his way to France. After all this piece of service had not been so very unpleasant. I laughed when I remembered my grim forebodings in Gloucestershire. Bullivant had said it would be damnably risky in the long run, but here was the end and I had never been in danger of anything worse than making a fool of myself.

I remember that, as I made my way through Bloomsbury, I was not thinking so much of my triumphant report to Blenkiron as of my speedy return to the Front. Soon I would be with my beloved brigade again. I had missed Messines and the first part of Third Ypres, but the battle was still going on, and I had yet a chance. I might get a division, for there had been talk of that before I left. I knew the Army Commander thought a lot of me. But on the whole I hoped I would be left with the brigade. After all I was an amateur soldier, and I wasn’t certain of my powers with a bigger command.

In Charing Cross Road I thought of Mary, and the brigade seemed suddenly less attractive. I hoped the war wouldn’t last much longer, though with Russia heading straight for the devil I didn’t know how it was going to stop very soon. I was determined to see Mary before I left, and I had a good excuse, for I had taken my orders from her. The prospect entranced me, and I was mooning along in a happy dream, when I collided violently with in agitated citizen.

Then I realized that something very odd was happening.

There was a dull sound like the popping of the corks of flat soda-water bottles. There was a humming, too, from very far up in the skies. People in the street were either staring at the heavens or running wildly for shelter. A motor-bus in front of me emptied its contents in a twinkling; a taxi pulled up with a jar and the driver and fare dived into a second-hand bookshop. It took me a moment or two to realize the meaning of it all, and I had scarcely done this when I got a very practical proof. A hundred yards away a bomb fell on a street island, shivering every window-pane in a wide radius, and sending splinters of stone flying about my head. I did what I had done a hundred times before at the Front, and dropped flat on my face.

The man who says he doesn’t mind being bombed or shelled is either a liar or a maniac. This London air raid seemed to me a singularly unpleasant business. I think it was the sight of the decent civilized life around one and the orderly streets, for what was perfectly natural in a rubble-heap like Ypres or Arras seemed an outrage here. I remember once being in billets in a Flanders village where I had the Maire’s house and sat in a room upholstered in cut velvet, with wax flowers on the mantelpiece and oil paintings of three generations on the walls. The Boche took it into his head to shell the place with a long-range naval gun, and I simply loathed it. It was horrible to have dust and splinters blown into that snug, homely room, whereas if I had been in a ruined barn I wouldn’t have given the thing two thoughts. In the same way bombs dropping in central London seemed a grotesque indecency. I hated to see plump citizens with wild eyes, and nursemaids with scared children, and miserable women scuttling like rabbits in a warren.

The drone grew louder, and, looking up, I could see the enemy planes flying in a beautiful formation, very leisurely as it seemed, with all London at their mercy. Another bomb fell to the right, and presently bits of our own shrapnel were clattering viciously around me. I thought it about time to take cover, and ran shamelessly for the best place I could see, which was a Tube station. Five minutes before the street had been crowded; now I left behind me a desert dotted with one bus and three empty taxicabs.

I found the Tube entrance filled with excited humanity. One stout lady had fainted, and a nurse had become hysterical, but on the whole people were behaving well. Oddly enough they did not seem inclined to go down the stairs to the complete security of underground; but preferred rather to collect where they could still get a glimpse of the upper world, as if they were torn between fear of their lives and interest in the spectacle. That crowd gave me a good deal of respect for my countrymen. But several were badly rattled, and one man a little way off, whose back was turned, kept twitching his shoulders as if he had the colic.

I watched him curiously, and a movement of the crowd brought his face into profile. Then I gasped with amazement, for I saw that it was Ivery.

And yet it was not Ivery. There were the familiar nondescript features, the blandness, the plumpness, but all, so to speak, in ruins. The man was in a blind funk. His features seemed to be dislimning before my eyes. He was growing sharper, finer, in a way younger, a man without grip on himself, a shapeless creature in process of transformation. He was being reduced to his rudiments. Under the spell of panic he was becoming a new man.

And the crazy thing was that I knew the new man better than the old.

My hands were jammed close to my sides by the crowd; I could scarcely turn my head, and it was not the occasion for one’s neighbours to observe one’s expression. If it had been, mine must have been a study. My mind was far away from air raids, back in the hot summer weather of 1914. I saw a row of villas perched on a headland above the sea. In the garden of one of them two men were playing tennis, while I was crouching behind an adjacent bush. One of these was a plump young man who wore a coloured scarf round his waist and babbled of golf handicaps . . . I saw him again in the villa dining-room, wearing a dinner-jacket, and lisping a little. . . . I sat opposite him at bridge, I beheld him collared by two of Macgillivray’s men, when his comrade had rushed for the thirty-nine steps that led to the sea . . . I saw, too, the sitting-room of my old flat in Portland Place and heard little Scudder’s quick, anxious voice talking about the three men he feared most on earth, one of whom lisped in his speech. I had thought that all three had long ago been laid under the turf . . .

He was not looking my way, and I could devour his face in safety. There was no shadow of doubt. I had always put him down as the most amazing actor on earth, for had he not played the part of the First Sea Lord and deluded that officer’s daily colleagues? But he could do far more than any human actor, for he could take on a new personality and with it a new appearance, and live steadily in the character as if he had been born in it . . . My mind was a blank, and I could only make blind gropings at conclusions . . . How had he escaped the death of a spy and a murderer, for I had last seen him in the hands of justice? . . . Of course he had known me from the first day in Biggleswick . . . I had thought to play with him, and he had played most cunningly and damnably with me. In that sweating sardine-tin of refugees I shivered in the bitterness of my chagrin.

And then I found his face turned to mine, and I knew that he recognized me. More, I knew that he knew that I had recognized him — not as Ivery, but as that other man. There came into his eyes a curious look of comprehension, which for a moment overcame his funk.

I had sense enough to see that that put the final lid on it. There was still something doing if he believed that I was blind, but if he once thought that I knew the truth he would be through our meshes and disappear like a fog.

My first thought was to get at him and collar him and summon everybody to help me by denouncing him for what he was. Then I saw that that was impossible. I was a private soldier in a borrowed uniform, and he could easily turn the story against me. I must use surer weapons. I must get to Bullivant and Macgillivray and set their big machine to work. Above all I must get to Blenkiron.

I started to squeeze out of that push, for air raids now seemed far too trivial to give a thought to. Moreover the guns had stopped, but so sheeplike is human nature that the crowd still hung together, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to edge my way to the open air. I found that the trouble was over, and the street had resumed its usual appearance. Buses and taxis were running, and voluble knots of people were recounting their experiences. I started off for Blenkiron’s bookshop, as the nearest harbour of refuge.

But in Piccadilly Circus I was stopped by a military policeman. He asked my name and battalion, and I gave him them, while his suspicious eye ran over my figure. I had no pack or rifle, and the crush in the Tube station had not improved my appearance. I explained that I was going back to France that evening, and he asked for my warrant. I fancy my preoccupation made me nervous and I lied badly. I said I had left it with my kit in the house of my married sister, but I fumbled in giving the address. I could see that the fellow did not believe a word of it.

Just then up came an A.P.M. He was a pompous dug-out, very splendid in his red tabs and probably bucked up at having just been under fire. Anyhow he was out to walk in the strict path of duty.

‘Tomkins!’ he said. ‘Tomkins! We’ve got some fellow of that name on our records. Bring him along, Wilson.’

‘But, sir,’ I said, ‘I must — I simply must meet my friend. It’s urgent business, and I assure you I’m all right. If you don’t believe me, I’ll take a taxi and we’ll go down to Scotland Yard and I’ll stand by what they say.’

His brow grew dark with wrath. ‘What infernal nonsense is this? Scotland Yard! What the devil has Scotland Yard to do with it? You’re an imposter. I can see it in your face. I’ll have your depot rung up, and you’ll be in jail in a couple of hours. I know a deserter when I see him. Bring him along, Wilson. You know what to do if he tries to bolt.’

I had a momentary thought of breaking away, but decided that the odds were too much against me. Fuming with impatience, I followed the A.P.M. to his office on the first floor in a side street. The precious minutes were slipping past; Ivery, now thoroughly warned, was making good his escape; and I, the sole repository of a deadly secret, was tramping in this absurd procession.

The A.P.M. issued his orders. He gave instructions that my depot should be rung up, and he bade Wilson remove me to what he called the guard-room. He sat down at his desk, and busied himself with a mass of buff dockets.

In desperation I renewed my appeal. ‘I implore you to telephone to Mr Macgillivray at Scotland Yard. It’s a matter of life and death, Sir. You’re taking a very big responsibility if you don’t.’

I had hopelessly offended his brittle dignity. ‘Any more of your insolence and I’ll have you put in irons. I’ll attend to you soon enough for your comfort. Get out of this till I send for you.’

As I looked at his foolish, irritable face I realized that I was fairly UP against it. Short of assault and battery on everybody I was bound to submit. I saluted respectfully and was marched away.

The hours I spent in that bare anteroom are like a nightmare in my recollection. A sergeant was busy at a desk with more buff dockets and an orderly waited on a stool by a telephone. I looked at my watch and observed that it was one o’clock. Soon the slamming of a door announced that the A.P.M. had gone to lunch. I tried conversation with the fat sergeant, but he very soon shut me up. So I sat hunched up on the wooden form and chewed the cud of my vexation.

I thought with bitterness of the satisfaction which had filled me in the morning. I had fancied myself the devil of a fine fellow, and I had been no more than a mountebank. The adventures of the past days seemed merely childish. I had been telling lies and cutting capers over half Britain, thinking I was playing a deep game, and I had only been behaving like a schoolboy. On such occasions a man is rarely just to himself, and the intensity of my self-abasement would have satisfied my worst enemy. It didn’t console me that the futility of it all was not my blame. I was looking for excuses. It was the facts that cried out against me, and on the facts I had been an idiotic failure.

For of course Ivery had played with me, played with me since the first day at Biggleswick. He had applauded my speeches and flattered me, and advised me to go to the Clyde, laughing at me all the time. Gresson, too, had known. Now I saw it all. He had tried to drown me between Colonsay and Mull. It was Gresson who had set the police on me in Morvern. The bagman Linklater had been one of Gresson’s creatures. The only meagre consolation was that the gang had thought me dangerous enough to attempt to murder me, and that they knew nothing about my doings in Skye. Of that I was positive. They had marked me down, but for several days I had slipped clean out of their ken.

As I went over all the incidents, I asked if everything was yet lost. I had failed to hoodwink Ivery, but I had found out his post office, and if he only believed I hadn’t recognized him for the miscreant of the Black Stone he would go on in his old ways and play into Blenkiron’s hands. Yes, but I had seen him in undress, so to speak, and he knew that I had so seen him. The only thing now was to collar him before he left the country, for there was ample evidence to hang him on. The law must stretch out its long arm and collect him and Gresson and the Portuguese Jew, try them by court martial, and put them decently underground.

But he had now had more than an hour’s warning, and I was entangled with red-tape in this damned A.P.M.‘s office. The thought drove me frantic, and I got up and paced the floor. I saw the orderly with rather a scared face making ready to press the bell, and I noticed that the fat sergeant had gone to lunch.

‘Say, mate,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel inclined to do a poor fellow a good turn? I know I’m for it all right, and I’ll take my medicine like a lamb. But I want badly to put a telephone call through.’

‘It ain’t allowed,’ was the answer. ‘I’d get ‘ell from the old man.’

‘But he’s gone out,’ I urged. ‘I don’t want you to do anything wrong, mate, I leave you to do the talkin’ if you’ll only send my message. I’m flush of money, and I don’t mind handin’ you a quid for the job.’

He was a pinched little man with a weak chin, and he obviously wavered.

”Oo d’ye want to talk to?’ he asked.

‘Scotland Yard,’ I said, ‘the home of the police. Lord bless you, there can’t be no harm in that. Ye’ve only got to ring up Scotland Yard — I’ll give you the number — and give the message to Mr Macgillivray. He’s the head bummer of all the bobbies.’

‘That sounds a bit of all right,’ he said. ‘The old man ‘e won’t be back for ‘alf an hour, nor the sergeant neither. Let’s see your quid though.’

I laid a pound note on the form beside me. ‘It’s yours, mate, if you get through to Scotland Yard and speak the piece I’m goin’ to give you.’

He went over to the instrument. ‘What d’you want to say to the bloke with the long name?’

‘Say that Richard Hannay is detained at the A.P.M.‘s office in Claxton Street. Say he’s got important news — say urgent and secret news — and ask Mr Macgillivray to do something about it at once.’

‘But ‘Annay ain’t the name you gave.’

‘Lord bless you, no. Did you never hear of a man borrowin’ another name? Anyhow that’s the one I want you to give.’

‘But if this Mac man comes round ’ere, they’ll know ‘e’s bin rung up, and I’ll ‘ave the old man down on me.’

It took ten minutes and a second pound note to get him past this hurdle. By and by he screwed up courage and rang up the number. I listened with some nervousness while he gave my message — he had to repeat it twice — and waited eagerly on the next words.

‘No, sir,’ I heard him say, ”e don’t want you to come round ’ere. ‘E thinks as ‘ow — I mean to say, ‘e wants —’

I took a long stride and twitched the receiver from him.

‘Macgillivray,’ I said, ‘is that you? Richard Hannay! For the love of God come round here this instant and deliver me from the clutches of a tomfool A.P.M. I’ve got the most deadly news. There’s not a second to waste. For God’s sake come quick!’ Then I added: ‘Just tell your fellows to gather Ivery in at once. You know his lairs.’

I hung up the receiver and faced a pale and indignant orderly. ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘I promise you that you won’t get into any trouble on my account. And there’s your two quid.’

The door in the next room opened and shut. The A.P.M. had returned from lunch . . .

Ten minutes later the door opened again. I heard Macgillivray’s voice, and it was not pitched in dulcet tones. He had run up against minor officialdom and was making hay with it.

I was my own master once more, so I forsook the company of the orderly. I found a most rattled officer trying to save a few rags of his dignity and the formidable figure of Macgillivray instructing him in manners.

‘Glad to see you, Dick,’ he said. ‘This is General Hannay, sir. It may comfort you to know that your folly may have made just the difference between your country’s victory and defeat. I shall have a word to say to your superiors.’

It was hardly fair. I had to put in a word for the old fellow, whose red tabs seemed suddenly to have grown dingy.

‘It was my blame wearing this kit. We’ll call it a misunderstanding and forget it. But I would suggest that civility is not wasted even on a poor devil of a defaulting private soldier.’

Once in Macgillivray’s car, I poured out my tale. ‘Tell me it’s a nightmare,’ I cried. ‘Tell me that the three men we collected on the Ruff were shot long ago.’

‘Two,’ he replied, ‘but one escaped. Heaven knows how he managed it, but he disappeared clean out of the world.’

‘The plump one who lisped in his speech?’

Macgillivray nodded.

‘Well, we’re in for it this time. Have you issued instructions?’

‘Yes. With luck we shall have our hands on him within an hour. We’ve our net round all his haunts.’

‘But two hours’ start! It’s a big handicap, for you’re dealing with a genius.’

‘Yet I think we can manage it. Where are you bound for?’

I told him my rooms in Westminster and then to my old flat in Park Lane. ‘The day of disguises is past. In half an hour I’ll be Richard Hannay. It’ll be a comfort to get into uniform again. Then I’ll look up Blenkiron.’

He grinned. ‘I gather you’ve had a riotous time. We’ve had a good many anxious messages from the north about a certain Mr Brand. I couldn’t discourage our men, for I fancied it might have spoiled your game. I heard that last night they had lost touch with you in Bradfield, so I rather expected to see you here today. Efficient body of men the Scottish police.’

‘Especially when they have various enthusiastic amateur helpers.’

‘So?’ he said. ‘Yes, of course. They would have. But I hope presently to congratulate you on the success of your mission.’

‘I’ll bet you a pony you don’t,’ I said.

‘I never bet on a professional subject. Why this pessimism?’

‘Only that I know our gentleman better than you. I’ve been twice up against him. He’s the kind of wicked that don’t cease from troubling till they’re stone-dead. And even then I’d want to see the body cremated and take the ashes into mid-ocean and scatter them. I’ve got a feeling that he’s the biggest thing you or I will ever tackle.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/mr_standfast/chapter10.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32