Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Nineteen

The Cage of the Wild Birds

‘Why, Mr Ivery, come right in,’ said the voice at the table. There was a screen before me, stretching from the fireplace to keep off the draught from the door by which I had entered. It stood higher than my head but there were cracks in it through which I could watch the room. I found a little table on which I could lean my back, for I was dropping with fatigue.

Blenkiron sat at the writing-table and in front of him were little rows of Patience cards. Wood ashes still smouldered in the stove, and a lamp stood at his right elbow which lit up the two figures. The bookshelves and the cabinets were in twilight.

‘I’ve been hoping to see you for quite a time.’ Blenkiron was busy arranging the little heaps of cards, and his face was wreathed in hospitable smiles. I remember wondering why he should play the host to the true master of the house.

Ivery stood erect before him. He was rather a splendid figure now that he had sloughed all disguises and was on the threshold of his triumph. Even through the fog in which my brain worked it was forced upon me that here was a man born to play a big part. He had a jowl like a Roman king on a coin, and scornful eyes that were used to mastery. He was younger than me, confound him, and now he looked it.

He kept his eyes on the speaker, while a smile played round his mouth, a very ugly smile.

‘So,’ he said. ‘We have caught the old crow too. I had scarcely hoped for such good fortune, and, to speak the truth, I had not concerned myself much about you. But now we shall add you to the bag. And what a bag of vermin to lay out on the lawn!’ He flung back his head and laughed.

‘Mr Ivery —’ Blenkiron began, but was cut short.

‘Drop that name. All that is past, thank God! I am the Graf von Schwabing, an officer of the Imperial Guard. I am not the least of the weapons that Germany has used to break her enemies.’

‘You don’t say,’ drawled Blenkiron, still fiddling with his Patience cards.

The man’s moment had come, and he was minded not to miss a jot of his triumph. His figure seemed to expand, his eye kindled, his voice rang with pride. It was melodrama of the best kind and he fairly rolled it round his tongue. I don’t think I grudged it him, for I was fingering something in my pocket. He had won all right, but he wouldn’t enjoy his victory long, for soon I would shoot him. I had my eye on the very spot above his right ear where I meant to put my bullet . . . For I was very clear that to kill him was the only way to protect Mary. I feared the whole seventy millions of Germany less than this man. That was the single idea that remained firm against the immense fatigue that pressed down on me.

‘I have little time to waste on you,’ said he who had been called Ivery. ‘But I will spare a moment to tell you a few truths. Your childish game never had a chance. I played with you in England and I have played with you ever since. You have never made a move but I have quietly countered it. Why, man, you gave me your confidence. The American Mr Donne . . . ’

‘What about Clarence?’ asked Blenkiron. His face seemed a study in pure bewilderment.

‘I was that interesting journalist.’

‘Now to think of that!’ said Blenkiron in a sad, gentle voice. ‘I thought I was safe with Clarence. Why, he brought me a letter from old Joe Hooper and he knew all the boys down Emporia way.’

Ivery laughed. ‘You have never done me justice, I fear; but I think you will do it now. Your gang is helpless in my hands. General Hannay . . . ’ And I wish I could give you a notion of the scorn with which he pronounced the word ‘General’.

‘Yes — Dick?’ said Blenkiron intently.

‘He has been my prisoner for twenty-four hours. And the pretty Miss Mary, too. You are all going with me in a little to my own country. You will not guess how. We call it the Underground Railway, and you will have the privilege of studying its working. . . . I had not troubled much about you, for I had no special dislike of you. You are only a blundering fool, what you call in your country easy fruit.’

‘I thank you, Graf,’ Blenkiron said solemnly.

‘But since you are here you will join the others . . . One last word. To beat inepts such as you is nothing. There is a far greater thing. My country has conquered. You and your friends will be dragged at the chariot wheels of a triumph such as Rome never saw. Does that penetrate your thick skull? Germany has won, and in two days the whole round earth will be stricken dumb by her greatness.’

As I watched Blenkiron a grey shadow of hopelessness seemed to settle on his face. His big body drooped in his chair, his eyes fell, and his left hand shuffled limply among his Patience cards. I could not get my mind to work, but I puzzled miserably over his amazing blunders. He had walked blindly into the pit his enemies had dug for him. Peter must have failed to get my message to him, and he knew nothing of last night’s work or my mad journey to Italy. We had all bungled, the whole wretched bunch of us, Peter and Blenkiron and myself . . . I had a feeling at the back of my head that there was something in it all that I couldn’t understand, that the catastrophe could not be quite as simple as it seemed. But I had no power to think, with the insolent figure of Ivery dominating the room . . . Thank God I had a bullet waiting for him. That was the one fixed point in the chaos of my mind. For the first time in my life I was resolute on killing one particular man, and the purpose gave me a horrid comfort.

Suddenly Ivery’s voice rang out sharp. ‘Take your hand out of your pocket. You fool, you are covered from three points in the walls. A movement and my men will make a sieve of you. Others before you have sat in that chair, and I am used to take precautions. Quick. Both hands on the table.’

There was no mistake about Blenkiron’s defeat. He was done and out, and I was left with the only card. He leaned wearily on his arms with the palms of his hands spread out.

‘I reckon you’ve gotten a strong hand, Graf,’ he said, and his voice was flat with despair.

‘I hold a royal flush,’ was the answer.

And then suddenly came a change. Blenkiron raised his head, and his sleepy, ruminating eyes looked straight at Ivery.

‘I call you,’ he said.

I didn’t believe my ears. Nor did Ivery.

‘The hour for bluff is past,’ he said.

‘Nevertheless I call you.’

At that moment I felt someone squeeze through the door behind me and take his place at my side. The light was so dim that I saw only a short, square figure, but a familiar voice whispered in my ear. ‘It’s me — Andra Amos. Man, this is a great ploy. I’m here to see the end o’t.’

No prisoner waiting on the finding of the jury, no commander expecting news of a great battle, ever hung in more desperate suspense than I did during the next seconds. I had forgotten my fatigue; my back no longer needed support. I kept my eyes glued to the crack in the screen and my ears drank in greedily every syllable.

Blenkiron was now sitting bolt upright with his chin in his hands. There was no shadow of melancholy in his lean face.

‘I say I call you, Herr Graf von Schwabing. I’m going to put you wise about some little things. You don’t carry arms, so I needn’t warn you against monkeying with a gun. You’re right in saying that there are three places in these walls from which you can shoot. Well, for your information I may tell you that there’s guns in all three, but they’re covering you at this moment. So you’d better be good.’

Ivery sprang to attention like a ramrod. ‘Karl,’ he cried. ‘Gustav!’

As if by magic figures stood on either side of him, like warders by a criminal. They were not the sleek German footmen whom I had seen at the Chalet. One I did not recognize. The other was my servant, Geordie Hamilton.

He gave them one glance, looked round like a hunted animal, and then steadied himself. The man had his own kind of courage.

‘I’ve gotten something to say to you,’ Blenkiron drawled. ‘It’s been a tough fight, but I reckon the hot end of the poker is with you. I compliment you on Clarence Donne. You fooled me fine over that business, and it was only by the mercy of God you didn’t win out. You see, there was just the one of us who was liable to recognize you whatever way you twisted your face, and that was Dick Hannay. I give you good marks for Clarence . . . For the rest, I had you beaten flat.’

He looked steadily at him. ‘You don’t believe it. Well, I’ll give you proof. I’ve been watching your Underground Railway for quite a time. I’ve had my men on the job, and I reckon most of the lines are now closed for repairs. All but the trunk line into France. That I’m keeping open, for soon there’s going to be some traffic on it.’

At that I saw Ivery’s eyelids quiver. For all his self-command he was breaking.

‘I admit we cut it mighty fine, along of your fooling me about Clarence. But you struck a bad snag in General Hannay, Graf. Your heart-to-heart talk with him was poor business. You reckoned you had him safe, but that was too big a risk to take with a man like Dick, unless you saw him cold before you left him . . . He got away from this place, and early this morning I knew all he knew. After that it was easy. I got the telegram you had sent this morning in the name of Clarence Donne and it made me laugh. Before midday I had this whole outfit under my hand. Your servants have gone by the Underground Railway — to France. Ehrlich — well, I’m sorry about Ehrlich.’

I knew now the name of the Portuguese Jew.

‘He wasn’t a bad sort of man,’ Blenkiron said regretfully, ‘and he was plumb honest. I couldn’t get him to listen to reason, and he would play with firearms. So I had to shoot.’

‘Dead?’ asked Ivery sharply.

‘Ye-es. I don’t miss, and it was him or me. He’s under the ice now — where you wanted to send Dick Hannay. He wasn’t your kind, Graf, and I guess he has some chance of getting into Heaven. If I weren’t a hard-shell Presbyterian I’d say a prayer for his soul.’

I looked only at Ivery. His face had gone very pale, and his eyes were wandering. I am certain his brain was working at lightning speed, but he was a rat in a steel trap and the springs held him. If ever I saw a man going through hell it was now. His pasteboard castle had crumbled about his ears and he was giddy with the fall of it. The man was made of pride, and every proud nerve of him was caught on the raw.

‘So much for ordinary business,’ said Blenkiron. ‘There’s the matter of a certain lady. You haven’t behaved over-nice about her, Graf, but I’m not going to blame you. You maybe heard a whistle blow when you were coming in here? No! Why, it sounded like Gabriel’s trump. Peter must have put some lung power into it. Well, that was the signal that Miss Mary was safe in your car . . . but in our charge. D’you comprehend?’

He did. The ghost of a flush appeared in his cheeks.

‘You ask about General Hannay? I’m not just exactly sure where Dick is at the moment, but I opine he’s in Italy.’

I kicked aside the screen, thereby causing Amos almost to fall on his face.

‘I’m back,’ I said, and pulled up an arm-chair, and dropped into it.

I think the sight of me was the last straw for Ivery. I was a wild enough figure, grey with weariness, soaked, dirty, with the clothes of the porter Joseph Zimmer in rags from the sharp rocks of the Schwarzsteinthor. As his eyes caught mine they wavered, and I saw terror in them. He knew he was in the presence of a mortal enemy.

‘Why, Dick,’ said Blenkiron with a beaming face, ‘this is mighty opportune. How in creation did you get here?’

‘I walked,’ I said. I did not want to have to speak, for I was too tired. I wanted to watch Ivery’s face.

Blenkiron gathered up his Patience cards, slipped them into a little leather case and put it in his pocket.

‘I’ve one thing more to tell you. The Wild Birds have been summoned home, but they won’t ever make it. We’ve gathered them in — Pavia, and Hofgaard, and Conradi. Ehrlich is dead. And you are going to join the rest in our cage.’

As I looked at my friend, his figure seemed to gain in presence. He sat square in his chair with a face like a hanging judge, and his eyes, sleepy no more, held Ivery as in a vice. He had dropped, too, his drawl and the idioms of his ordinary speech, and his voice came out hard and massive like the clash of granite blocks.

‘You’re at the bar now, Graf von Schwabing. For years you’ve done your best against the decencies of life. You have deserved well of your country, I don’t doubt it. But what has your country deserved of the world? One day soon Germany has to do some heavy paying, and you are the first instalment.’

‘I appeal to the Swiss law. I stand on Swiss soil, and I demand that I be surrendered to the Swiss authorities.’ Ivery spoke with dry lips and the sweat was on his brow.

‘Oh, no, no,’ said Blenkiron soothingly. ‘The Swiss are a nice people, and I would hate to add to the worries of a poor little neutral state . . . All along both sides have been outside the law in this game, and that’s going to continue. We’ve abode by the rules and so must you . . . For years you’ve murdered and kidnapped and seduced the weak and ignorant, but we’re not going to judge your morals. We leave that to the Almighty when you get across Jordan. We’re going to wash our hands of you as soon as we can. You’ll travel to France by the Underground Railway and there be handed over to the French Government. From what I know they’ve enough against you to shoot you every hour of the day for a twelvemonth.’

I think he had expected to be condemned by us there and then and sent to join Ehrlich beneath the ice. Anyhow, there came a flicker of hope into his eyes. I daresay he saw some way to dodge the French authorities if he once got a chance to use his miraculous wits. Anyhow, he bowed with something very like self-possession, and asked permission to smoke. As I have said, the man had his own courage.

‘Blenkiron,’ I cried, ‘we’re going to do nothing of the kind.’

He inclined his head gravely towards me. ‘What’s your notion, Dick?’

‘We’ve got to make the punishment fit the crime,’ I said. I was so tired that I had to form my sentences laboriously, as if I were speaking a half-understood foreign tongue.

‘Meaning?’

‘I mean that if you hand him over to the French he’ll either twist out of their hands somehow or get decently shot, which is far too good for him. This man and his kind have sent millions of honest folk to their graves. He has sat spinning his web like a great spider and for every thread there has been an ocean of blood spilled. It’s his sort that made the war, not the brave, stupid, fighting Boche. It’s his sort that’s responsible for all the clotted beastliness . . . And he’s never been in sight of a shell. I’m for putting him in the front line. No, I don’t mean any Uriah the Hittite business. I want him to have a sporting chance, just what other men have. But, by God, he’s going to learn what is the upshot of the strings he’s been pulling so merrily . . . He told me in two days’ time Germany would smash our armies to hell. He boasted that he would be mostly responsible for it. Well, let him be there to see the smashing.’

‘I reckon that’s just,’ said Blenkiron.

Ivery’s eyes were on me now, fascinated and terrified like those of a bird before a rattlesnake. I saw again the shapeless features of the man in the Tube station, the residuum of shrinking mortality behind his disguises. He seemed to be slipping something from his pocket towards his mouth, but Geordie Hamilton caught his wrist.

‘Wad ye offer?’ said the scandalized voice of my servant. ‘Sirr, the prisoner would appear to be trying to puishon hisself. Wull I search him?’

After that he stood with each arm in the grip of a warder.

‘Mr Ivery,’ I said, ‘last night, when I was in your power, you indulged your vanity by gloating over me. I expected it, for your class does not breed gentlemen. We treat our prisoners differently, but it is fair that you should know your fate. You are going into France, and I will see that you are taken to the British front. There with my old division you will learn something of the meaning of war. Understand that by no conceivable chance can you escape. Men will be detailed to watch you day and night and to see that you undergo the full rigour of the battlefield. You will have the same experience as other people, no more, no less. I believe in a righteous God and I know that sooner or later you will find death — death at the hands of your own people — an honourable death which is far beyond your deserts. But before it comes you will have understood the hell to which you have condemned honest men.’

In moments of great fatigue, as in moments of great crisis, the mind takes charge and may run on a track independent of the will. It was not myself that spoke, but an impersonal voice which I did not know, a voice in whose tones rang a strange authority. Ivery recognized the icy finality of it, and his body seemed to wilt, and droop. Only the hold of the warders kept him from falling.

I, too, was about at the end of my endurance. I felt dimly that the room had emptied except for Blenkiron and Amos, and that the former was trying to make me drink brandy from the cup of a flask. I struggled to my feet with the intention of going to Mary, but my legs would not carry me . . . I heard as in a dream Amos giving thanks to an Omnipotence in whom he officially disbelieved. ‘What’s that the auld man in the Bible said? Now let thou thy servant depart in peace. That’s the way I’m feelin’ mysel’.’ And then slumber came on me like an armed man, and in the chair by the dying wood-ash I slept off the ache of my limbs, the tension of my nerves, and the confusion of my brain.

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