Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Fifteen

St Anton

Ten days later the porter Joseph Zimmer of Arosa, clad in the tough and shapeless trousers of his class, but sporting an old velveteen shooting-coat bequeathed to him by a former German master — speaking the guttural tongue of the Grisons, and with all his belongings in one massive rucksack, came out of the little station of St Anton and blinked in the frosty sunshine. He looked down upon the little old village beside its icebound lake, but his business was with the new village of hotels and villas which had sprung up in the last ten years south of the station. He made some halting inquiries of the station people, and a cab-driver outside finally directed him to the place he sought — the cottage of the Widow Summermatter, where resided an English intern, one Peter Pienaar.

The porter Joseph Zimmer had had a long and roundabout journey. A fortnight before he had worn the uniform of a British major-general. As such he had been the inmate of an expensive Paris hotel, till one morning, in grey tweed clothes and with a limp, he had taken the Paris–Mediterranean Express with a ticket for an officers’ convalescent home at Cannes. Thereafter he had declined in the social scale. At Dijon he had been still an Englishman, but at Pontarlier he had become an American bagman of Swiss parentage, returning to wind up his father’s estate. At Berne he limped excessively, and at Zurich, at a little back-street hotel, he became frankly the peasant. For he met a friend there from whom he acquired clothes with that odd rank smell, far stronger than Harris tweed, which marks the raiment of most Swiss guides and all Swiss porters. He also acquired a new name and an old aunt, who a little later received him with open arms and explained to her friends that he was her brother’s son from Arosa who three winters ago had hurt his leg wood-cutting and had been discharged from the levy.

A kindly Swiss gentleman, as it chanced, had heard of the deserving Joseph and interested himself to find him employment. The said philanthropist made a hobby of the French and British prisoners returned from Germany, and had in mind an officer, a crabbed South African with a bad leg, who needed a servant. He was, it seemed, an ill-tempered old fellow who had to be billeted alone, and since he could speak German, he would be happier with a Swiss native. Joseph haggled somewhat over the wages, but on his aunt’s advice he accepted the job, and, with a very complete set of papers and a store of ready-made reminiscences (it took him some time to swot up the names of the peaks and passes he had traversed) set out for St Anton, having dispatched beforehand a monstrously ill-spelt letter announcing his coming. He could barely read and write, but he was good at maps, which he had studied carefully, and he noticed with satisfaction that the valley of St Anton gave easy access to Italy.

As he journeyed south the reflections of that porter would have surprised his fellow travellers in the stuffy third-class carriage. He was thinking of a conversation he had had some days before in a cafe at Dijon with a young Englishman bound for Modane . . .

We had bumped up against each other by chance in that strange flitting when all went to different places at different times, asking nothing of each other’s business. Wake had greeted me rather shamefacedly and had proposed dinner together.

I am not good at receiving apologies, and Wake’s embarrassed me more than they embarrassed him. ‘I’m a bit of a cad sometimes,’ he said. ‘You know I’m a better fellow than I sounded that night, Hannay.’

I mumbled something about not talking rot — the conventional phrase. What worried me was that the man was suffering. You could see it in his eyes. But that evening I got nearer Wake than ever before, and he and I became true friends, for he laid bare his soul before me. That was his trouble, that he could lay bare his soul, for ordinary healthy folk don’t analyse their feelings. Wake did, and I think it brought him relief.

‘Don’t think I was ever your rival. I would no more have proposed to Mary than I would have married one of her aunts. She was so sure of herself, so happy in her single-heartedness that she terrified me. My type of man is not meant for marriage, for women must be in the centre of life, and we must always be standing aside and looking on. It is a damnable thing to be left-handed.’

‘The trouble about you, my dear chap,’ I said, ‘is that you’re too hard to please.’

‘That’s one way of putting it. I should put it more harshly. I hate more than I love. All we humanitarians and pacifists have hatred as our mainspring. Odd, isn’t it, for people who preach brotherly love? But it’s the truth. We’re full of hate towards everything that doesn’t square in with our ideas, everything that jars on our lady-like nerves. Fellows like you are so in love with their cause that they’ve no time or inclination to detest what thwarts them. We’ve no cause — only negatives, and that means hatred, and self-torture, and a beastly jaundice of soul.’

Then I knew that Wake’s fault was not spiritual pride, as I had diagnosed it at Biggleswick. The man was abased with humility.

‘I see more than other people see,’ he went on, ‘and I feel more. That’s the curse on me. You’re a happy man and you get things done, because you only see one side of a case, one thing at a time. How would you like it if a thousand strings were always tugging at you, if you saw that every course meant the sacrifice of lovely and desirable things, or even the shattering of what you know to be unreplaceable? I’m the kind of stuff poets are made of, but I haven’t the poet’s gift, so I stagger about the world left-handed and game-legged . . . Take the war. For me to fight would be worse than for another man to run away. From the bottom of my heart I believe that it needn’t have happened, and that all war is a blistering iniquity. And yet belief has got very little to do with virtue. I’m not as good a man as you, Hannay, who have never thought out anything in your life. My time in the Labour battalion taught me something. I knew that with all my fine aspirations I wasn’t as true a man as fellows whose talk was silly oaths and who didn’t care a tinker’s curse about their soul.’

I remember that I looked at him with a sudden understanding. ‘I think I know you. You’re the sort of chap who won’t fight for his country because he can’t be sure that she’s altogether in the right. But he’d cheerfully die for her, right or wrong.’

His face relaxed in a slow smile. ‘Queer that you should say that. I think it’s pretty near the truth. Men like me aren’t afraid to die, but they haven’t quite the courage to live. Every man should be happy in a service like you, when he obeys orders. I couldn’t get on in any service. I lack the bump of veneration. I can’t swallow things merely because I’m told to. My sort are always talking about “service”, but we haven’t the temperament to serve. I’d give all I have to be an ordinary cog in the wheel, instead of a confounded outsider who finds fault with the machinery . . . Take a great violent high-handed fellow like you. You can sink yourself till you become only a name and a number. I couldn’t if I tried. I’m not sure if I want to either. I cling to the odds and ends that are my own.’

‘I wish I had had you in my battalion a year ago,’ I said.

‘No, you don’t. I’d only have been a nuisance. I’ve been a Fabian since Oxford, but you’re a better socialist than me. I’m a rancid individualist.’

‘But you must be feeling better about the war?’ I asked.

‘Not a bit of it. I’m still lusting for the heads of the politicians that made it and continue it. But I want to help my country. Honestly, Hannay, I love the old place. More, I think, than I love myself, and that’s saying a devilish lot. Short of fighting — which would be the sin against the Holy Spirit for me — I’ll do my damnedest. But you’ll remember I’m not used to team work. If I’m a jealous player, beat me over the head.’

His voice was almost wistful, and I liked him enormously.

‘Blenkiron will see to that,’ I said. ‘We’re going to break you to harness, Wake, and then you’ll be a happy man. You keep your mind on the game and forget about yourself. That’s the cure for jibbers.’

As I journeyed to St Anton I thought a lot about that talk. He was quite right about Mary, who would never have married him. A man with such an angular soul couldn’t fit into another’s. And then I thought that the chief thing about Mary was just her serene certainty. Her eyes had that settled happy look that I remembered to have seen only in one other human face, and that was Peter’s . . . But I wondered if Peter’s eyes were still the same.

I found the cottage, a little wooden thing which had been left perched on its knoll when the big hotels grew around it. It had a fence in front, but behind it was open to the hillside. At the gate stood a bent old woman with a face like a pippin. My make-up must have been good, for she accepted me before I introduced myself.

‘God be thanked you are come,’ she cried. ‘The poor lieutenant needed a man to keep him company. He sleeps now, as he does always in the afternoon, for his leg wearies him in the night . . . But he is brave, like a soldier . . . Come, I will show you the house, for you two will be alone now.’

Stepping softly she led me indoors, pointing with a warning finger to the little bedroom where Peter slept. I found a kitchen with a big stove and a rough floor of planking, on which lay some badly cured skins. Off it was a sort of pantry with a bed for me. She showed me the pots and pans for cooking and the stores she had laid in, and where to find water and fuel. ‘I will do the marketing daily,’ she said, ‘and if you need me, my dwelling is half a mile up the road beyond the new church. God be with you, young man, and be kind to that wounded one.’

When the Widow Summermatter had departed I sat down in Peter’s arm-chair and took stock of the place. It was quiet and simple and homely, and through the window came the gleam of snow on the diamond hills. On the table beside the stove were Peter’s cherished belongings — his buck-skin pouch and the pipe which Jannie Grobelaar had carved for him in St Helena, an aluminium field match-box I had given him, a cheap large-print Bible such as padres present to well-disposed privates, and an old battered Pilgrim’s Progress with gaudy pictures. The illustration at which I opened showed Faithful going up to Heaven from the fire of Vanity Fair like a woodcock that has just been flushed. Everything in the room was exquisitely neat, and I knew that that was Peter and not the Widow Summermatter. On a peg behind the door hung his much-mended coat, and sticking out of a pocket I recognized a sheaf of my own letters. In one corner stood something which I had forgotten about — an invalid chair.

The sight of Peter’s plain little oddments made me feel solemn. I wondered if his eyes would be like Mary’s now, for I could not conceive what life would be for him as a cripple. Very silently I opened the bedroom door and slipped inside.

He was lying on a camp bedstead with one of those striped Swiss blankets pulled up round his ears, and he was asleep. It was the old Peter beyond doubt. He had the hunter’s gift of breathing evenly through his nose, and the white scar on the deep brown of his forehead was what I had always remembered. The only change since I last saw him was that he had let his beard grow again, and it was grey.

As I looked at him the remembrance of all we had been through together flooded back upon me, and I could have cried with joy at being beside him. Women, bless their hearts! can never know what long comradeship means to men; it is something not in their lives — something that belongs only to that wild, undomesticated world which we forswear when we find our mates. Even Mary understood only a bit of it. I had just won her love, which was the greatest thing that ever came my way, but if she had entered at that moment I would scarcely have turned my head. I was back again in the old life and was not thinking of the new.

Suddenly I saw that Peter was awake and was looking at me.

‘Dick,’ he said in a whisper, ‘Dick, my old friend.’

The blanket was tossed off, and his long, lean arms were stretched out to me. I gripped his hands, and for a little we did not speak. Then I saw how woefully he had changed. His left leg had shrunk, and from the knee down was like a pipe stem. His face, when awake, showed the lines of hard suffering and he seemed shorter by half a foot. But his eyes were still like Mary’s. Indeed they seemed to be more patient and peaceful than in the days when he sat beside me on the buck-waggon and peered over the hunting-veld.

I picked him up — he was no heavier than Mary — and carried him to his chair beside the stove. Then I boiled water and made tea, as we had so often done together.

‘Peter, old man,’ I said, ‘we’re on trek again, and this is a very snug little rondavel. We’ve had many good yarns, but this is going to be the best. First of all, how about your health?’

‘Good, I’m a strong man again, but slow like a hippo cow. I have been lonely sometimes, but that is all by now. Tell me of the big battles.’

But I was hungry for news of him and kept him to his own case. He had no complaint of his treatment except that he did not like Germans. The doctors at the hospital had been clever, he said, and had done their best for him, but nerves and sinews and small bones had been so wrecked that they could not mend his leg, and Peter had all the Boer’s dislike of amputation. One doctor had been in Damaraland and talked to him of those baked sunny places and made him homesick. But he returned always to his dislike of Germans. He had seen them herding our soldiers like brute beasts, and the commandant had a face like Stumm and a chin that stuck out and wanted hitting. He made an exception for the great airman Lensch, who had downed him.

‘He is a white man, that one,’ he said. ‘He came to see me in hospital and told me a lot of things. I think he made them treat me well. He is a big man, Dick, who would make two of me, and he has a round, merry face and pale eyes like Frickie Celliers who could put a bullet through a pauw’s head at two hundred yards. He said he was sorry I was lame, for he hoped to have more fights with me. Some woman that tells fortunes had said that I would be the end of him, but he reckoned she had got the thing the wrong way on. I hope he will come through this war, for he is a good man, though a German . . . But the others! They are like the fool in the Bible, fat and ugly in good fortune and proud and vicious when their luck goes. They are not a people to be happy with.’

Then he told me that to keep up his spirits he had amused himself with playing a game. He had prided himself on being a Boer, and spoken coldly of the British. He had also, I gathered, imparted many things calculated to deceive. So he left Germany with good marks, and in Switzerland had held himself aloof from the other British wounded, on the advice of Blenkiron, who had met him as soon as he crossed the frontier. I gathered it was Blenkiron who had had him sent to St Anton, and in his time there, as a disgruntled Boer, he had mixed a good deal with Germans. They had pumped him about our air service, and Peter had told them many ingenious lies and heard curious things in return.

‘They are working hard, Dick,’ he said. ‘Never forget that. The German is a stout enemy, and when we beat him with a machine he sweats till he has invented a new one. They have great pilots, but never so many good ones as we, and I do not think in ordinary fighting they can ever beat us. But you must watch Lensch, for I fear him. He has a new machine, I hear, with great engines and a short wingspread, but the wings so cambered that he can climb fast. That will be a surprise to spring upon us. You will say that we’ll soon better it. So we shall, but if it was used at a time when we were pushing hard it might make the little difference that loses battles.’

‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that if we had a great attack ready and had driven all the Boche planes back from our front, Lensch and his circus might get over in spite of us and blow the gaff?’

‘Yes,’ he said solemnly. ‘Or if we were attacked, and had a weak spot, Lensch might show the Germans where to get through. I do not think we are going to attack for a long time; but I am pretty sure that Germany is going to fling every man against us. That is the talk of my friends, and it is not bluff.’

That night I cooked our modest dinner, and we smoked our pipes with the stove door open and the good smell of woodsmoke in our nostrils. I told him of all my doings and of the Wild Birds and Ivery and the job we were engaged on. Blenkiron’s instructions were that we two should live humbly and keep our eyes and ears open, for we were outside suspicion — the cantankerous lame Boer and his loutish servant from Arosa. Somewhere in the place was a rendezvous of our enemies, and thither came Chelius on his dark errands.

Peter nodded his head sagely, ‘I think I have guessed the place. The daughter of the old woman used to pull my chair sometimes down to the village, and I have sat in cheap inns and talked to servants. There is a fresh-water pan there, it is all covered with snow now, and beside it there is a big house that they call the Pink Chalet. I do not know much about it, except that rich folk live in it, for I know the other houses and they are harmless. Also the big hotels, which are too cold and public for strangers to meet in.’

I put Peter to bed, and it was a joy to me to look after him, to give him his tonic and prepare the hot water bottle that comforted his neuralgia. His behaviour was like a docile child’s, and he never lapsed from his sunny temper, though I could see how his leg gave him hell. They had tried massage for it and given it up, and there was nothing for him but to endure till nature and his tough constitution deadened the tortured nerves again. I shifted my bed out of the pantry and slept in the room with him, and when I woke in the night, as one does the first time in a strange place, I could tell by his breathing that he was wakeful and suffering.

Next day a bath chair containing a grizzled cripple and pushed by a limping peasant might have been seen descending the long hill to the village. It was clear frosty weather which makes the cheeks tingle, and I felt so full of beans that it was hard to remember my game leg. The valley was shut in on the east by a great mass of rocks and glaciers, belonging to a mountain whose top could not be seen. But on the south, above the snowy fir-woods, there was a most delicate lace-like peak with a point like a needle. I looked at it with interest, for beyond it lay the valley which led to the Staub pass, and beyond that was Italy — and Mary.

The old village of St Anton had one long, narrow street which bent at right angles to a bridge which spanned the river flowing from the lake. Thence the road climbed steeply, but at the other end of the street it ran on the level by the water’s edge, lined with gimcrack boarding-houses, now shuttered to the world, and a few villas in patches of garden. At the far end, just before it plunged into a pine-wood, a promontory jutted into the lake, leaving a broad space between the road and the water. Here were the grounds of a more considerable dwelling — snow-covered laurels and rhododendrons with one or two bigger trees — and just on the water-edge stood the house itself, called the Pink Chalet.

I wheeled Peter past the entrance on the crackling snow of the highway. Seen through the gaps of the trees the front looked new, but the back part seemed to be of some age, for I could see high walls, broken by few windows, hanging over the water. The place was no more a chalet than a donjon, but I suppose the name was given in honour of a wooden gallery above the front door. The whole thing was washed in an ugly pink. There were outhouses — garage or stables among the trees — and at the entrance there were fairly recent tracks of an automobile.

On our way back we had some very bad beer in a cafe and made friends with the woman who kept it. Peter had to tell her his story, and I trotted out my aunt in Zurich, and in the end we heard her grievances. She was a true Swiss, angry at all the belligerents who had spoiled her livelihood, hating Germany most but also fearing her most. Coffee, tea, fuel, bread, even milk and cheese were hard to get and cost a ransom. It would take the land years to recover, and there would be no more tourists, for there was little money left in the world. I dropped a question about the Pink Chalet, and was told that it belonged to one Schweigler, a professor of Berne, an old man who came sometimes for a few days in the summer. It was often let, but not now. Asked if it was occupied, she remarked that some friends of the Schweiglers — rich people from Basle — had been there for the winter. ‘They come and go in great cars,’ she said bitterly, ‘and they bring their food from the cities. They spend no money in this poor place.’

Presently Peter and I fell into a routine of life, as if we had always kept house together. In the morning he went abroad in his chair, in the afternoon I would hobble about on my own errands. We sank into the background and took its colour, and a less conspicuous pair never faced the eye of suspicion. Once a week a young Swiss officer, whose business it was to look after British wounded, paid us a hurried visit. I used to get letters from my aunt in Zurich, Sometimes with the postmark of Arosa, and now and then these letters would contain curiously worded advice or instructions from him whom my aunt called ‘the kind patron’. Generally I was told to be patient. Sometimes I had word about the health of ‘my little cousin across the mountains’. Once I was bidden expect a friend of the patron’s, the wise doctor of whom he had often spoken, but though after that I shadowed the Pink Chalet for two days no doctor appeared.

My investigations were a barren business. I used to go down to the village in the afternoon and sit in an out-of-the-way cafe, talking slow German with peasants and hotel porters, but there was little to learn. I knew all there was to hear about the Pink Chalet, and that was nothing. A young man who ski-ed stayed for three nights and spent his days on the alps above the fir-woods. A party of four, including two women, was reported to have been there for a night — all ramifications of the rich family of Basle. I studied the house from the lake, which should have been nicely swept into ice-rinks, but from lack of visitors was a heap of blown snow. The high old walls of the back part were built straight from the water’s edge. I remember I tried a short cut through the grounds to the high-road and was given ‘Good afternoon’ by a smiling German manservant. One way and another I gathered there were a good many serving-men about the place — too many for the infrequent guests. But beyond this I discovered nothing.

Not that I was bored, for I had always Peter to turn to. He was thinking a lot about South Africa, and the thing he liked best was to go over with me every detail of our old expeditions. They belonged to a life which he could think about without pain, whereas the war was too near and bitter for him. He liked to hobble out-of-doors after the darkness came and look at his old friends, the stars. He called them by the words they use on the veld, and the first star of morning he called the voorlooper— the little boy who inspans the oxen — a name I had not heard for twenty years. Many a great yarn we spun in the long evenings, but I always went to bed with a sore heart. The longing in his eyes was too urgent, longing not for old days or far countries, but for the health and strength which had once been his pride.

One night I told him about Mary.

‘She will be a happy mysie,’ he said, ‘but you will need to be very clever with her, for women are queer cattle and you and I don’t know their ways. They tell me English women do not cook and make clothes like our vrouws, so what will she find to do? I doubt an idle woman will be like a mealie-fed horse.’

It was no good explaining to him the kind of girl Mary was, for that was a world entirely beyond his ken. But I could see that he felt lonelier than ever at my news. So I told him of the house I meant to have in England when the war was over — an old house in a green hilly country, with fields that would carry four head of cattle to the Morgan and furrows of clear water, and orchards of plums and apples. ‘And you will stay with us all the time,’ I said. ‘You will have your own rooms and your own boy to look after you, and you will help me to farm, and we will catch fish together, and shoot the wild ducks when they come up from the pans in the evening. I have found a better countryside than the Houtbosch, where you and I planned to have a farm. It is a blessed and happy place, England.’

He shook his head. ‘You are a kind man, Dick, but your pretty mysie won’t want an ugly old fellow like me hobbling about her house . . . I do not think I will go back to Africa, for I should be sad there in the sun. I will find a little place in England, and some day I will visit you, old friend.’

That night his stoicism seemed for the first time to fail him. He was silent for a long time and went early to bed, where I can vouch for it he did not sleep. But he must have thought a lot in the night time, for in the morning he had got himself in hand and was as cheerful as a sandboy.

I watched his philosophy with amazement. It was far beyond anything I could have compassed myself. He was so frail and so poor, for he had never had anything in the world but his bodily fitness, and he had lost that now. And remember, he had lost it after some months of glittering happiness, for in the air he had found the element for which he had been born. Sometimes he dropped a hint of those days when he lived in the clouds and invented a new kind of battle, and his voice always grew hoarse. I could see that he ached with longing for their return. And yet he never had a word of complaint. That was the ritual he had set himself, his point of honour, and he faced the future with the same kind of courage as that with which he had tackled a wild beast or Lensch himself. Only it needed a far bigger brand of fortitude.

Another thing was that he had found religion. I doubt if that is the right way to put it, for he had always had it. Men who live in the wilds know they are in the hands of God. But his old kind had been a tattered thing, more like heathen superstition, though it had always kept him humble. But now he had taken to reading the Bible and to thinking in his lonely nights, and he had got a creed of his own. I dare say it was crude enough, I am sure it was unorthodox; but if the proof of religion is that it gives a man a prop in bad days, then Peter’s was the real thing. He used to ferret about in the Bible and the Pilgrim’s Progress— they were both equally inspired in his eyes — and find texts which he interpreted in his own way to meet his case. He took everything quite literally. What happened three thousand years ago in Palestine might, for all he minded, have been going on next door. I used to chaff him and tell him that he was like the Kaiser, very good at fitting the Bible to his purpose, but his sincerity was so complete that he only smiled. I remember one night, when he had been thinking about his flying days, he found a passage in Thessalonians about the dead rising to meet their Lord in the air, and that cheered him a lot. Peter, I could see, had the notion that his time here wouldn’t be very long, and he liked to think that when he got his release he would find once more the old rapture.

Once, when I said something about his patience, he said he had got to try to live up to Mr Standfast. He had fixed on that character to follow, though he would have preferred Mr Valiant-for-Truth if he had thought himself good enough. He used to talk about Mr Standfast in his queer way as if he were a friend of us both, like Blenkiron . . . I tell you I was humbled out of all my pride by the sight of Peter, so uncomplaining and gentle and wise. The Almighty Himself couldn’t have made a prig out of him, and he never would have thought of preaching. Only once did he give me advice. I had always a liking for short cuts, and I was getting a bit restive under the long inaction. One day when I expressed my feelings on the matter, Peter upped and read from the Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘Some also have wished that the next way to their Father’s house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over, but the Way is the Way, and there is an end.’

All the same when we got into March and nothing happened I grew pretty anxious. Blenkiron had said we were fighting against time, and here were the weeks slipping away. His letters came occasionally, always in the shape of communications from my aunt. One told me that I would soon be out of a job, for Peter’s repatriation was just about through, and he might get his movement order any day. Another spoke of my little cousin over the hills, and said that she hoped soon to be going to a place called Santa Chiara in the Val Saluzzana. I got out the map in a hurry and measured the distance from there to St Anton and pored over the two roads thither — the short one by the Staub Pass and the long one by the Marjolana. These letters made me think that things were nearing a climax, but still no instructions came. I had nothing to report in my own messages, I had discovered nothing in the Pink Chalet but idle servants, I was not even sure if the Pink Chalet were not a harmless villa, and I hadn’t come within a thousand miles of finding Chelius. All my desire to imitate Peter’s stoicism didn’t prevent me from getting occasionally rattled and despondent.

The one thing I could do was to keep fit, for I had a notion I might soon want all my bodily strength. I had to keep up my pretence of lameness in the daytime, so I used to take my exercise at night. I would sleep in the afternoon, when Peter had his siesta, and then about ten in the evening, after putting him to bed, I would slip out-of-doors and go for a four or five hours’ tramp. Wonderful were those midnight wanderings. I pushed up through the snow-laden pines to the ridges where the snow lay in great wreaths and scallops, till I stood on a crest with a frozen world at my feet and above me a host of glittering stars. Once on a night of full moon I reached the glacier at the valley head, scrambled up the moraine to where the ice began, and peered fearfully into the spectral crevasses. At such hours I had the earth to myself, for there was not a sound except the slipping of a burden of snow from the trees or the crack and rustle which reminded me that a glacier was a moving river. The war seemed very far away, and I felt the littleness of our human struggles, till I thought of Peter turning from side to side to find ease in the cottage far below me. Then I realized that the spirit of man was the greatest thing in this spacious world . . . I would get back about three or four, have a bath in the water which had been warming in my absence, and creep into bed, almost ashamed of having two sound legs, when a better man a yard away had but one.

Oddly enough at these hours there seemed more life in the Pink Chalet than by day. Once, tramping across the lake long after midnight, I saw lights in the lake-front in windows which for ordinary were blank and shuttered. Several times I cut across the grounds, when the moon was dark. On one such occasion a great car with no lights swept up the drive, and I heard low voices at the door. Another time a man ran hastily past me, and entered the house by a little door on the eastern side, which I had not before noticed . . . Slowly the conviction began to grow on me that we were not wrong in marking down this place, that things went on within it which it deeply concerned us to discover. But I was puzzled to think of a way. I might butt inside, but for all I knew it would be upsetting Blenkiron’s plans, for he had given me no instructions about housebreaking. All this unsettled me worse than ever. I began to lie awake planning some means of entrance . . . I would be a peasant from the next valley who had twisted his ankle . . . I would go seeking an imaginary cousin among the servants . . . I would start a fire in the place and have the doors flung open to zealous neighbours . . .

And then suddenly I got instructions in a letter from Blenkiron.

It came inside a parcel of warm socks that arrived from my kind aunt. But the letter for me was not from her. It was in Blenkiron’s large sprawling hand and the style of it was all his own. He told me that he had about finished his job. He had got his line on Chelius, who was the bird he expected, and that bird would soon wing its way southward across the mountains for the reason I knew of.

‘We’ve got an almighty move on,’ he wrote, ‘and please God you’re going to hustle some in the next week. It’s going better than I ever hoped.’ But something was still to be done. He had struck a countryman, one Clarence Donne, a journalist of Kansas City, whom he had taken into the business. Him he described as a ‘crackerjack’ and commended to my esteem. He was coming to St Anton, for there was a game afoot at the Pink Chalet, which he would give me news of. I was to meet him next evening at nine-fifteen at the little door in the east end of the house. ‘For the love of Mike, Dick,’ he concluded, ‘be on time and do everything Clarence tells you as if he was me. It’s a mighty complex affair, but you and he have sand enough to pull through. Don’t worry about your little cousin. She’s safe and out of the job now.’

My first feeling was one of immense relief, especially at the last words. I read the letter a dozen times to make sure I had its meaning. A flash of suspicion crossed my mind that it might be a fake, principally because there was no mention of Peter, who had figured large in the other missives. But why should Peter be mentioned when he wasn’t on in this piece? The signature convinced me. Ordinarily Blenkiron signed himself in full with a fine commercial flourish. But when I was at the Front he had got into the habit of making a kind of hieroglyphic of his surname to me and sticking J.S. after it in a bracket. That was how this letter was signed, and it was sure proof it was all right.

I spent that day and the next in wild spirits. Peter spotted what was on, though I did not tell him for fear of making him envious. I had to be extra kind to him, for I could see that he ached to have a hand in the business. Indeed he asked shyly if I couldn’t fit him in, and I had to lie about it and say it was only another of my aimless circumnavigations of the Pink Chalet.

‘Try and find something where I can help,’ he pleaded. ‘I’m pretty strong still, though I’m lame, and I can shoot a bit.’

I declared that he would be used in time, that Blenkiron had promised he would be used, but for the life of me I couldn’t see how.

At nine o’clock on the evening appointed I was on the lake opposite the house, close in under the shore, making my way to the rendezvous. It was a coal-black night, for though the air was clear the stars were shining with little light, and the moon had not yet risen. With a premonition that I might be long away from food, I had brought some slabs of chocolate, and my pistol and torch were in my pocket. It was bitter cold, but I had ceased to mind weather, and I wore my one suit and no overcoat.

The house was like a tomb for silence. There was no crack of light anywhere, and none of those smells of smoke and food which proclaim habitation. It was an eerie job scrambling up the steep bank east of the place, to where the flat of the garden started, in a darkness so great that I had to grope my way like a blind man.

I found the little door by feeling along the edge of the building. Then I stepped into an adjacent clump of laurels to wait on my companion. He was there before me.

‘Say,’ I heard a rich Middle West voice whisper, ‘are you Joseph Zimmer? I’m not shouting any names, but I guess you are the guy I was told to meet here.’

‘Mr Donne?’ I whispered back.

‘The same,‘he replied. ‘Shake.’

I gripped a gloved and mittened hand which drew me towards the door.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/mr_standfast/chapter15.html

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