Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Thirteen

The Adventure of the Picardy Chateau

I looked up Eaucourt Sainte–Anne on the map, and the more I studied its position the less I liked it. It was the knot from which sprang all the main routes to our Picardy front. If the Boche ever broke us, it was the place for which old Hindenburg would make. At all hours troops and transport trains were moving through that insignificant hamlet. Eminent generals and their staffs passed daily within sight of the Chateau. It was a convenient halting-place for battalions coming back to rest. Supposing, I argued, our enemies wanted a key-spot for some assault upon the morale or the discipline or health of the British Army, they couldn’t find a better than Eaucourt Sainte–Anne. It was the ideal centre of espionage. But when I guardedly sounded my friends of the Intelligence they didn’t seem to be worrying about it.

From them I got a chit to the local French authorities, and, as soon as we came out of the line, towards the end of December, I made straight for the country town of Douvecourt. By a bit of luck our divisional quarters were almost next door. I interviewed a tremendous swell in a black uniform and black kid gloves, who received me affably and put his archives and registers at my disposal. By this time I talked French fairly well, having a natural turn for languages, but half the rapid speech of the sous-prifet was lost on me. By and by he left me with the papers and a clerk, and I proceeded to grub up the history of the Chateau.

It had belonged since long before Agincourt to the noble house of the D’Eaucourts, now represented by an ancient Marquise who dwelt at Biarritz. She had never lived in the place, which a dozen years before had been falling to ruins, when a rich American leased it and partially restored it. He had soon got sick of it — his daughter had married a blackguard French cavalry officer with whom he quarrelled, said the clerk — and since then there had been several tenants. I wondered why a house so unattractive should have let so readily, but the clerk explained that the cause was the partridge-shooting. It was about the best in France, and in 1912 had shown the record bag.

The list of the tenants was before me. There was a second American, an Englishman called Halford, a Paris Jew-banker, and an Egyptian prince. But the space for 1913 was blank, and I asked the clerk about it. He told me that it had been taken by a woollen manufacturer from Lille, but he had never shot the partridges, though he had spent occasional nights in the house. He had a five years’ lease, and was still paying rent to the Marquise. I asked the name, but the clerk had forgotten. ‘It will be written there,’ he said.

‘But, no,’ I said. ‘Somebody must have been asleep over this register. There’s nothing after 1912.’

He examined the page and blinked his eyes. ‘Someone indeed must have slept. No doubt it was young Louis who is now with the guns in Champagne. But the name will be on the Commissary’s list. It is, as I remember, a sort of Flemish.’

He hobbled off and returned in five minutes.

‘Bommaerts,’ he said, ‘Jacques Bommaerts. A young man with no wife but with money — Dieu de Dieu, what oceans of it!’

That clerk got twenty-five francs, and he was cheap at the price. I went back to my division with a sense of awe on me. It was a marvellous fate that had brought me by odd routes to this out-of-the-way corner. First, the accident of Hamilton’s seeing Gresson; then the night in the Clearing Station; last the mishap of Archie’s plane getting lost in the fog. I had three grounds of suspicion — Gresson’s sudden illness, the Canadian’s ghost, and that horrid old woman in the dusk. And now I had one tremendous fact. The place was leased by a man called Bommaerts, and that was one of the two names I had heard whispered in that far-away cleft in the Coolin by the stranger from the sea.

A sensible man would have gone off to the contre-espionage people and told them his story. I couldn’t do this; I felt that it was my own private find and I was going to do the prospecting myself. Every moment of leisure I had I was puzzling over the thing. I rode round by the Chateau one frosty morning and examined all the entrances. The main one was the grand avenue with the locked gates. That led straight to the front of the house where the terrace was — or you might call it the back, for the main door was on the other side. Anyhow the drive came up to the edge of the terrace and then split into two, one branch going to the stables by way of the outbuildings where I had seen the old woman, the other circling round the house, skirting the moat, and joining the back road just before the bridge. If I had gone to the right instead of the left that first evening with Archie, I should have circumnavigated the place without any trouble.

Seen in the fresh morning light the house looked commonplace enough. Part of it was as old as Noah, but most was newish and jerry-built, the kind of flat-chested, thin French Chateau, all front and no depth, and full of draughts and smoky chimneys. I might have gone in and ransacked the place, but I knew I should find nothing. It was borne in on me that it was only when evening fell that that house was interesting and that I must come, like Nicodemus, by night. Besides I had a private account to settle with my conscience. I had funked the place in the foggy twilight, and it does not do to let a matter like that slide. A man’s courage is like a horse that refuses a fence; you have got to take him by the head and cram him at it again. If you don’t, he will funk worse next time. I hadn’t enough courage to be able to take chances with it, though I was afraid of many things, the thing I feared most mortally was being afraid.

I did not get a chance till Christmas Eve. The day before there had been a fall of snow, but the frost set in and the afternoon ended in a green sunset with the earth crisp and crackling like a shark’s skin. I dined early, and took with me Geordie Hamilton, who added to his many accomplishments that of driving a car. He was the only man in the B.E.F. who guessed anything of the game I was after, and I knew that he was as discreet as a tombstone. I put on my oldest trench cap, slacks, and a pair of scaife-soled boots, that I used to change into in the evening. I had a useful little electric torch, which lived in my pocket, and from which a cord led to a small bulb of light that worked with a switch and could be hung on my belt. That left my arms free in case of emergencies. Likewise I strapped on my pistol.

There was little traffic in the hamlet of Eaucourt Sainte–Anne that night. Few cars were on the road, and the M.T. detachment, judging from the din, seemed to be busy on a private spree. It was about nine o’clock when we turned into the side road, and at the entrance to it I saw a solid figure in khaki mounting guard beside two bicycles. Something in the man’s gesture, as he saluted, struck me as familiar, but I had no time to hunt for casual memories. I left the car just short of the bridge, and took the road which would bring me to the terraced front of the house.

Once I turned the corner of the Chateau and saw the long ghostly facade white in the moonlight, I felt less confident. The eeriness of the place smote me. In that still, snowy world it loomed up immense and mysterious with its rows of shuttered windows, each with that air which empty houses have of concealing some wild story. I longed to have old Peter with me, for he was the man for this kind of escapade. I had heard that he had been removed to Switzerland and I pictured him now in some mountain village where the snow lay deep. I would have given anything to have had Peter with a whole leg by my side.

I stepped on the terrace and listened. There was not a sound in the world, not even the distant rumble of a cart. The pile towered above me like a mausoleum, and I reflected that it must take some nerve to burgle an empty house. It would be good enough fun to break into a bustling dwelling and pinch the plate when the folk were at dinner, but to burgle emptiness and silence meant a fight with the terrors in a man’s soul. It was worse in my case, for I wasn’t cheered with prospects of loot. I wanted to get inside chiefly to soothe my conscience.

I hadn’t much doubt I would find a way, for three years of war and the frequent presence of untidy headquarters’ staffs have loosened the joints of most Picardy houses. There’s generally a window that doesn’t latch or a door that doesn’t bar. But I tried window after window on the terrace without result. The heavy green sun-shutters were down over each, and when I broke the hinges of one there was a long bar within to hold it firm. I was beginning to think of shinning up a rain-pipe and trying the second floor, when a shutter I had laid hold on swung back in my hand. It had been left unfastened, and, kicking the snow from my boots, I entered a room.

A gleam of moonlight followed me and I saw I was in a big salon with a polished wood floor and dark lumps of furniture swathed in sheets. I clicked the bulb at my belt, and the little circle of light showed a place which had not been dwelt in for years. At the far end was another door, and as I tiptoed towards it something caught my eye on the parquet. It was a piece of fresh snow like that which clumps on the heel of a boot. I had not brought it there. Some other visitor had passed this way, and not long before me.

Very gently I opened the door and slipped in. In front of me was a pile of furniture which made a kind of screen, and behind that I halted and listened. There was somebody in the room. I heard the sound of human breathing and soft movements; the man, whoever he was, was at the far end from me, and though there was a dim glow of Moon through a broken shutter I could see nothing of what he was after. I was beginning to enjoy myself now. I knew of his presence and he did not know of mine, and that is the sport of stalking.

An unwary movement of my hand caused the screen to creak. Instantly the movements ceased and there was utter silence. I held my breath, and after a second or two the tiny sounds began again. I had a feeling, though my eyes could not assure me, that the man before me was at work, and was using a very small shaded torch. There was just the faintest moving shimmer on the wall beyond, though that might come from the crack of moonlight.

Apparently he was reassured, for his movements became more distinct. There was a jar as if a table had been pushed back. Once more there was silence, and I heard only the intake of breath. I have very quick ears, and to me it sounded as if the man was rattled. The breathing was quick and anxious.

Suddenly it changed and became the ghost of a whistle — the kind of sound one makes with the lips and teeth without ever letting the tune break out clear. We all do it when we are preoccupied with something — shaving, or writing letters, or reading the newspaper. But I did not think my man was preoccupied. He was whistling to quiet fluttering nerves.

Then I caught the air. It was ‘Cherry Ripe’.

In a moment, from being hugely at my ease, I became the nervous one. I had been playing peep-bo with the unseen, and the tables were turned. My heart beat against my ribs like a hammer. I shuffled my feet, and again there fell the tense silence.

‘Mary,’ I said — and the word seemed to explode like a bomb in the stillness —‘Mary! It’s me — Dick Hannay.’

There was no answer but a sob and the sound of a timid step.

I took four paces into the darkness and caught in my arms a trembling girl . . .

Often in the last months I had pictured the kind of scene which would be the culminating point of my life. When our work was over and war had been forgotten, somewhere — perhaps in a green Cotswold meadow or in a room of an old manor — I would talk with Mary. By that time we should know each other well and I would have lost my shyness. I would try to tell her that I loved her, but whenever I thought of what I should say my heart sank, for I knew I would make a fool of myself. You can’t live my kind of life for forty years wholly among men and be of any use at pretty speeches to women. I knew I should stutter and blunder, and I used despairingly to invent impossible situations where I might make my love plain to her without words by some piece of melodramatic sacrifice.

But the kind Fates had saved me the trouble. Without a syllable save Christian names stammered in that eerie darkness we had come to complete understanding. The fairies had been at work unseen, and the thoughts of each of us had been moving towards the other, till love had germinated like a seed in the dark. As I held her in my arms I stroked her hair and murmured things which seemed to spring out of some ancestral memory. Certainly my tongue had never used them before, nor my mind imagined them . . . By and by she slipped her arms round my neck and with a half sob strained towards me. She was still trembling.

‘Dick,’ she said, and to hear that name on her lips was the sweetest thing I had ever known. ‘Dick, is it really you? Tell me I’m not dreaming.’

‘It’s me, sure enough, Mary dear. And now I have found you I will never let you go again. But, my precious child, how on earth did you get here?’

She disengaged herself and let her little electric torch wander over my rough habiliments.

‘You look a tremendous warrior, Dick. I have never seen you like this before. I was in Doubting Castle and very much afraid of Giant Despair, till you came.’

‘I think I call it the Interpreter’s House,’ I said.

‘It’s the house of somebody we both know,’ she went on. ‘He calls himself Bommaerts here. That was one of the two names, you remember. I have seen him since in Paris. Oh, it is a long story and you shall hear it all soon. I knew he came here sometimes, so I came here too. I have been nursing for the last fortnight at the Douvecourt Hospital only four miles away.’

‘But what brought you alone at night?’

‘Madness, I think. Vanity, too. You see I had found out a good deal, and I wanted to find out the one vital thing which had puzzled Mr Blenkiron. I told myself it was foolish, but I couldn’t keep away. And then my courage broke down, and before you came I would have screamed at the sound of a mouse. If I hadn’t whistled I would have cried.’

‘But why alone and at this hour?’

‘I couldn’t get off in the day. And it was safest to come alone. You see he is in love with me, and when he heard I was coming to Douvecourt forgot his caution and proposed to meet me here. He said he was going on a long journey and wanted to say goodbye. If he had found me alone — well, he would have said goodbye. If there had been anyone with me, he would have suspected, and he mustn’t suspect me. Mr Blenkiron says that would be fatal to his great plan. He believes I am like my aunts, and that I think him an apostle of peace working by his own methods against the stupidity and wickedness of all the Governments. He talks more bitterly about Germany than about England. He had told me how he had to disguise himself and play many parts on his mission, and of course I have applauded him. Oh, I have had a difficult autumn.’

‘Mary,’ I cried, ‘tell me you hate him.’

‘No,’ she said quietly. ‘I do not hate him. I am keeping that for later. I fear him desperately. Some day when we have broken him utterly I will hate him, and drive all likeness of him out of my memory like an unclean thing. But till then I won’t waste energy on hate. We want to hoard every atom of our strength for the work of beating him.’

She had won back her composure, and I turned on my light to look at her. She was in nurses’ outdoor uniform, and I thought her eyes seemed tired. The priceless gift that had suddenly come to me had driven out all recollection of my own errand. I thought of Ivery only as a would-be lover of Mary, and forgot the manufacturer from Lille who had rented his house for the partridge-shooting. ‘And you, Dick,’ she asked; ‘is it part of a general’s duties to pay visits at night to empty houses?’

‘I came to look for traces of M. Bommaerts. I, too, got on his track from another angle, but that story must wait.’

‘You observe that he has been here today?’

She pointed to some cigarette ash spilled on the table edge, and a space on its surface cleared from dust. ‘In a place like this the dust would settle again in a few hours, and that is quite clean. I should say he has been here just after luncheon.’

‘Great Scott!’ I cried, ‘what a close shave! I’m in the mood at this moment to shoot him at sight. You say you saw him in Paris and knew his lair. Surely you had a good enough case to have him collared.’

She shook her head. ‘Mr Blenkiron — he’s in Paris too — wouldn’t hear of it. He hasn’t just figured the thing out yet, he says. We’ve identified one of your names, but we’re still in doubt about Chelius.’

‘Ah, Chelius! Yes, I see. We must get the whole business complete before we strike. Has old Blenkiron had any luck?’

‘Your guess about the “Deep-breathing” advertisement was very clever, Dick. It was true, and it may give us Chelius. I must leave Mr Blenkiron to tell you how. But the trouble is this. We know something of the doings of someone who may be Chelius, but we can’t link them with Ivery. We know that Ivery is Bommaerts, and our hope is to link Bommaerts with Chelius. That’s why I came here. I was trying to burgle this escritoire in an amateur way. It’s a bad piece of fake Empire and deserves smashing.’

I could see that Mary was eager to get my mind back to business, and with some difficulty I clambered down from the exultant heights. The intoxication of the thing was on me — the winter night, the circle of light in that dreary room, the sudden coming together of two souls from the ends of the earth, the realization of my wildest hopes, the gilding and glorifying of all the future. But she had always twice as much wisdom as me, and we were in the midst of a campaign which had no use for day-dreaming. I turned my attention to the desk.

It was a flat table with drawers, and at the back a half-circle of more drawers with a central cupboard. I tilted it up and most of the drawers slid out, empty of anything but dust. I forced two open with my knife and they held empty cigar boxes. Only the cupboard remained, and that appeared to be locked. I wedged a key from my pocket into its keyhole, but the thing would not budge.

‘It’s no good,’ I said. ‘He wouldn’t leave anything he valued in a place like this. That sort of fellow doesn’t take risks. If he wanted to hide something there are a hundred holes in this Chateau which would puzzle the best detective.’

‘Can’t you open it?’ she asked. ‘I’ve a fancy about that table. He was sitting here this afternoon and he may be coming back.’

I solved the problem by turning up the escritoire and putting my knee through the cupboard door. Out of it tumbled a little dark-green attache case.

‘This is getting solemn,’ said Mary. ‘Is it locked?’

It was, but I took my knife and cut the lock out and spilled the contents on the table. There were some papers, a newspaper or two, and a small bag tied with black cord. The last I opened, while Mary looked over my shoulder. It contained a fine yellowish powder.

‘Stand back,’ I said harshly. ‘For God’s sake, stand back and don’t breathe.’

With trembling hands I tied up the bag again, rolled it in a newspaper, and stuffed it into my pocket. For I remembered a day near Peronne when a Boche plane had come over in the night and had dropped little bags like this. Happily they were all collected, and the men who found them were wise and took them off to the nearest laboratory. They proved to be full of anthrax germs . . .

I remembered how Eaucourt Sainte–Anne stood at the junction of a dozen roads where all day long troops passed to and from the lines. From such a vantage ground an enemy could wreck the health of an army . . .

I remembered the woman I had seen in the courtyard of this house in the foggy dusk, and I knew now why she had worn a gas-mask.

This discovery gave me a horrid shock. I was brought down with a crash from my high sentiment to something earthly and devilish. I was fairly well used to Boche filthiness, but this seemed too grim a piece of the utterly damnable. I wanted to have Ivery by the throat and force the stuff into his body, and watch him decay slowly into the horror he had contrived for honest men.

‘Let’s get out of this infernal place,’ I said.

But Mary was not listening. She had picked up one of the newspapers and was gloating over it. I looked and saw that it was open at an advertisement of Weissmann’s ‘Deep-breathing’ system.

‘Oh, look, Dick,’ she cried breathlessly.

The column of type had little dots made by a red pencil below certain words.

‘It’s it,’ she whispered, ‘it’s the cipher — I’m almost sure it’s the cipher!’

‘Well, he’d be likely to know it if anyone did.’

‘But don’t you see it’s the cipher which Chelius uses — the man in Switzerland? Oh, I can’t explain now, for it’s very long, but I think — I think — I have found out what we have all been wanting. Chelius . . . ’

‘Whisht!’ I said. ‘What’s that?’

There was a queer sound from the out-of-doors as if a sudden wind had risen in the still night.

‘It’s only a car on the main road,’ said Mary.

‘How did you get in?’ I asked.

‘By the broken window in the next room. I cycled out here one morning, and walked round the place and found the broken catch.’

‘Perhaps it is left open on purpose. That may be the way M. Bommaerts visits his country home . . . Let’s get off, Mary, for this place has a curse on it. It deserves fire from heaven.’

I slipped the contents of the attache case into my pockets. ‘I’m going to drive you back,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a car out there.’

‘Then you must take my bicycle and my servant too. He’s an old friend of yours — one Andrew Amos.’

‘Now how on earth did Andrew get over here?’

‘He’s one of us,’ said Mary, laughing at my surprise. ‘A most useful member of our party, at present disguised as an infirmier in Lady Manorwater’s Hospital at Douvecourt. He is learning French, and . . . ’

‘Hush!’ I whispered. ‘There’s someone in the next room.’

I swept her behind a stack of furniture, with my eyes glued on a crack of light below the door. The handle turned and the shadows raced before a big electric lamp of the kind they have in stables. I could not see the bearer, but I guessed it was the old woman.

There was a man behind her. A brisk step sounded on the parquet, and a figure brushed past her. It wore the horizon-blue of a French officer, very smart, with those French riding-boots that show the shape of the leg, and a handsome fur-lined pelisse. I would have called him a young man, not more than thirty-five. The face was brown and clean-shaven, the eyes bright and masterful . . . Yet he did not deceive me. I had not boasted idly to Sir Walter when I said that there was one man alive who could never again be mistaken by me.

I had my hand on my pistol, as I motioned Mary farther back into the shadows. For a second I was about to shoot. I had a perfect mark and could have put a bullet through his brain with utter certitude. I think if I had been alone I might have fired. Perhaps not. Anyhow now I could not do it. It seemed like potting at a sitting rabbit. I was obliged, though he was my worst enemy, to give him a chance, while all the while my sober senses kept calling me a fool.

I stepped into the light.

‘Hullo, Mr Ivery,’ I said. ‘This is an odd place to meet again!’

In his amazement he fell back a step, while his hungry eyes took in my face. There was no mistake about the recognition. I saw something I had seen once before in him, and that was fear. Out went the light and he sprang for the door.

I fired in the dark, but the shot must have been too high. In the same instant I heard him slip on the smooth parquet and the tinkle of glass as the broken window swung open. Hastily I reflected that his car must be at the moat end of the terrace, and that therefore to reach it he must pass outside this very room. Seizing the damaged escritoire, I used it as a ram, and charged the window nearest me. The panes and shutters went with a crash, for I had driven the thing out of its rotten frame. The next second I was on the moonlit snow.

I got a shot at him as he went over the terrace, and again I went wide. I never was at my best with a pistol. Still I reckoned I had got him, for the car which was waiting below must come back by the moat to reach the highroad. But I had forgotten the great closed park gates. Somehow or other they must have been opened, for as soon as the car started it headed straight for the grand avenue. I tried a couple of long-range shots after it, and one must have damaged either Ivery or his chauffeur, for there came back a cry of pain.

I turned in deep chagrin to find Mary beside me. She was bubbling with laughter.

‘Were you ever a cinema actor, Dick? The last two minutes have been a really high-class performance. “Featuring Mary Lamington.” How does the jargon go?’

‘I could have got him when he first entered,’ I said ruefully.

‘I know,’ she said in a graver tone. ‘Only of course you couldn’t . . . Besides, Mr Blenkiron doesn’t want it — yet.’

She put her hand on my arm. ‘Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t written it should happen that way. It would have been too easy. We have a long road to travel yet before we clip the wings of the Wild Birds.’

‘Look,’ I cried. ‘The fire from heaven!’

Red tongues of flame were shooting up from the out-buildings at the farther end, the place where I had first seen the woman. Some agreed plan must have been acted on, and Ivery was destroying all traces of his infamous yellow powder. Even now the concierge with her odds and ends of belongings would be slipping out to some refuge in the village.

In the still dry night the flames rose, for the place must have been made ready for a rapid burning. As I hurried Mary round the moat I could see that part of the main building had caught fire. The hamlet was awakened, and before we reached the corner of the highroad sleepy British soldiers were hurrying towards the scene, and the Town Major was mustering the fire brigade. I knew that Ivery had laid his plans well, and that they hadn’t a chance — that long before dawn the Chateau of Eaucourt Sainte–Anne would be a heap of ashes and that in a day or two the lawyers of the aged Marquise at Biarritz would be wrangling with the insurance company.

At the corner stood Amos beside two bicycles, solid as a graven image. He recognized me with a gap-toothed grin.

‘It’s a cauld night, General, but the home fires keep burnin’. I havena seen such a cheery lowe since Dickson’s mill at Gawly.’

We packed, bicycles and all, into my car with Amos wedged in the narrow seat beside Hamilton. Recognizing a fellow countryman, he gave thanks for the lift in the broadest Doric. ‘For,’ said he, ‘I’m not what you would call a practised hand wi’ a velocipede, and my feet are dinnled wi’ standin’ in the snaw.’

As for me, the miles to Douvecourt passed as in a blissful moment of time. I wrapped Mary in a fur rug, and after that we did not speak a word. I had come suddenly into a great possession and was dazed with the joy of it.

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