Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Twenty

The Storm Breaks in the West

The following evening — it was the 20th day of March — I started for France after the dark fell. I drove Ivery’s big closed car, and within sat its owner, bound and gagged, as others had sat before him on the same errand. Geordie Hamilton and Amos were his companions. From what Blenkiron had himself discovered and from the papers seized in the Pink Chalet I had full details of the road and its mysterious stages. It was like the journey of a mad dream. In a back street of a little town I would exchange passwords with a nameless figure and be given instructions. At a wayside inn at an appointed hour a voice speaking a thick German would advise that this bridge or that railway crossing had been cleared. At a hamlet among pine woods an unknown man would clamber up beside me and take me past a sentry-post. Smooth as clockwork was the machine, till in the dawn of a spring morning I found myself dropping into a broad valley through little orchards just beginning to blossom, and I knew that I was in France. After that, Blenkiron’s own arrangements began, and soon I was drinking coffee with a young lieutenant of Chasseurs, and had taken the gag from Ivery’s mouth. The bluecoats looked curiously at the man in the green ulster whose face was the colour of clay and who lit cigarette from cigarette with a shaky hand.

The lieutenant rang up a General of Division who knew all about us. At his headquarters I explained my purpose, and he telegraphed to an Army Headquarters for a permission which was granted. It was not for nothing that in January I had seen certain great personages in Paris, and that Blenkiron had wired ahead of me to prepare the way. Here I handed over Ivery and his guard, for I wanted them to proceed to Amiens under French supervision, well knowing that the men of that great army are not used to let slip what they once hold.

It was a morning of clear spring sunlight when we breakfasted in that little red-roofed town among vineyards with a shining river looping at our feet. The General of Division was an Algerian veteran with a brush of grizzled hair, whose eye kept wandering to a map on the wall where pins and stretched thread made a spider’s web.

‘Any news from the north?’ I asked.

‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘But the attack comes soon. It will be against our army in Champagne.’ With a lean finger he pointed out the enemy dispositions.

‘Why not against the British?’ I asked. With a knife and fork I made a right angle and put a salt dish in the centre. ‘That is the German concentration. They can so mass that we do not know which side of the angle they will strike till the blow falls.’

‘It is true,’ he replied. ‘But consider. For the enemy to attack towards the Somme would be to fight over many miles of an old battle-ground where all is still desert and every yard of which you British know. In Champagne at a bound he might enter unbroken country. It is a long and difficult road to Amiens, but not so long to Chilons. Such is the view of Petain. Does it convince you?’

‘The reasoning is good. Nevertheless he will strike at Amiens, and I think he will begin today.’

He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Nous verrons. You are obstinate, my general, like all your excellent countrymen.’

But as I left his headquarters an aide-de-camp handed him a message on a pink slip. He read it, and turned to me with a grave face.

‘You have a flair, my friend. I am glad we did not wager. This morning at dawn there is great fighting around St Quentin. Be comforted, for they will not pass. Your Marechal will hold them.’

That was the first news I had of the battle.

At Dijon according to plan I met the others. I only just caught the Paris train, and Blenkiron’s great wrists lugged me into the carriage when it was well in motion. There sat Peter, a docile figure in a carefully patched old R.F.C. uniform. Wake was reading a pile of French papers, and in a corner Mary, with her feet up on the seat, was sound asleep.

We did not talk much, for the life of the past days had been so hectic that we had no wish to recall it. Blenkiron’s face wore an air of satisfaction, and as he looked out at the sunny spring landscape he hummed his only tune. Even Wake had lost his restlessness. He had on a pair of big tortoiseshell reading glasses, and when he looked up from his newspaper and caught my eye he smiled. Mary slept like a child, delicately flushed, her breath scarcely stirring the collar of the greatcoat which was folded across her throat. I remember looking with a kind of awe at the curve of her young face and the long lashes that lay so softly on her cheek, and wondering how I had borne the anxiety of the last months. Wake raised his head from his reading, glanced at Mary and then at me, and his eyes were kind, almost affectionate. He seemed to have won peace of mind among the hills.

Only Peter was out of the picture. He was a strange, disconsolate figure, as he shifted about to ease his leg, or gazed incuriously from the window. He had shaved his beard again, but it did not make him younger, for his face was too lined and his eyes too old to change. When I spoke to him he looked towards Mary and held up a warning finger.

‘I go back to England,’ he whispered. ‘Your little mysie is going to take care of me till I am settled. We spoke of it yesterday at my cottage. I will find a lodging and be patient till the war is over. And you, Dick?’

‘Oh, I rejoin my division. Thank God, this job is over. I have an easy trund now and can turn my attention to straight-forward soldiering. I don’t mind telling you that I’ll be glad to think that you and Mary and Blenkiron are safe at home. What about you, Wake?’

‘I go back to my Labour battalion,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Like you, I have an easier mind.’

I shook my head. ‘We’ll see about that. I don’t like such sinful waste. We’ve had a bit of campaigning together and I know your quality.’

‘The battalion’s quite good enough for me,’ and he relapsed into a day-old Temps.

Mary had suddenly woke, and was sitting upright with her fists in her eyes like a small child. Her hand flew to her hair, and her eyes ran over us as if to see that we were all there. As she counted the four of us she seemed relieved.

‘I reckon you feel refreshed, Miss Mary,’ said Blenkiron. ‘It’s good to think that now we can sleep in peace, all of us. Pretty soon you’ll be in England and spring will be beginning, and please God it’ll be the start of a better world. Our work’s over, anyhow.’

‘I wonder,’ said the girl gravely. ‘I don’t think there’s any discharge in this war. Dick, have you news of the battle? This was the day.’

‘It’s begun,’ I said, and told them the little I had learned from the French General. ‘I’ve made a reputation as a prophet, for he thought the attack was coming in Champagne. It’s St Quentin right enough, but I don’t know what has happened. We’ll hear in Paris.’

Mary had woke with a startled air as if she remembered her old instinct that our work would not be finished without a sacrifice, and that sacrifice the best of us. The notion kept recurring to me with an uneasy insistence. But soon she appeared to forget her anxiety. That afternoon as we journeyed through the pleasant land of France she was in holiday mood, and she forced all our spirits up to her level. It was calm, bright weather, the long curves of ploughland were beginning to quicken into green, the catkins made a blue mist on the willows by the watercourses, and in the orchards by the red-roofed hamlets the blossom was breaking. In such a scene it was hard to keep the mind sober and grey, and the pall of war slid from us. Mary cosseted and fussed over Peter like an elder sister over a delicate little boy. She made him stretch his bad leg full length on the seat, and when she made tea for the party of us it was a protesting Peter who had the last sugar biscuit. Indeed, we were almost a merry company, for Blenkiron told stories of old hunting and engineering days in the West, and Peter and I were driven to cap them, and Mary asked provocative questions, and Wake listened with amused interest. It was well that we had the carriage to ourselves, for no queerer rigs were ever assembled. Mary, as always, was neat and workmanlike in her dress; Blenkiron was magnificent in a suit of russet tweed with a pale-blue shirt and collar, and well-polished brown shoes; but Peter and Wake were in uniforms which had seen far better days, and I wore still the boots and the shapeless and ragged clothes of Joseph Zimmer, the porter from Arosa.

We appeared to forget the war, but we didn’t, for it was in the background of all our minds. Somewhere in the north there was raging a desperate fight, and its issue was the true test of our success or failure. Mary showed it by bidding me ask for news at every stopping-place. I asked gendarmes and Permissionnaires, but I learned nothing. Nobody had ever heard of the battle. The upshot was that for the last hour we all fell silent, and when we reached Paris about seven o’clock my first errand was to the bookstall.

I bought a batch of evening papers, which we tried to read in the taxis that carried us to our hotel. Sure enough there was the announcement in big headlines. The enemy had attacked in great strength from south of Arras to the Oise; but everywhere he had been repulsed and held in our battle-zone. The leading articles were confident, the notes by the various military critics were almost braggart. At last the German had been driven to an offensive, and the Allies would have the opportunity they had longed for of proving their superior fighting strength. It was, said one and all, the opening of the last phase of the war.

I confess that as I read my heart sank. If the civilians were so over-confident, might not the generals have fallen into the same trap? Blenkiron alone was unperturbed. Mary said nothing, but she sat with her chin in her hands, which with her was a sure sign of deep preoccupation.

Next morning the papers could tell us little more. The main attack had been on both sides of St Quentin, and though the British had given ground it was only the outposts line that had gone. The mist had favoured the enemy, and his bombardment had been terrific, especially the gas shells. Every journal added the old old comment — that he had paid heavily for his temerity, with losses far exceeding those of the defence.

Wake appeared at breakfast in his private’s uniform. He wanted to get his railway warrant and be off at once, but when I heard that Amiens was his destination I ordered him to stay and travel with me in the afternoon. I was in uniform myself now and had taken charge of the outfit. I arranged that Blenkiron, Mary, and Peter should go on to Boulogne and sleep the night there, while Wake and I would be dropped at Amiens to await instructions.

I spent a busy morning. Once again I visited with Blenkiron the little cabinet in the Boulevard St Germain, and told in every detail our work of the past two months. Once again I sat in the low building beside the Invalides and talked to staff officers. But some of the men I had seen on the first visit were not there. The chiefs of the French Army had gone north.

We arranged for the handling of the Wild Birds, now safely in France, and sanction was given to the course I had proposed to adopt with Ivery. He and his guard were on their way to Amiens, and I would meet them there on the morrow. The great men were very complimentary to us, so complimentary that my knowledge of grammatical French ebbed away and I could only stutter in reply. That telegram sent by Blenkiron on the night of the 18th, from the information given me in the Pink Chalet, had done wonders in clearing up the situation.

But when I asked them about the battle they could tell me little. It was a very serious attack in tremendous force, but the British line was strong and the reserves were believed to be sufficient. Petain and Foch had gone north to consult with Haig. The situation in Champagne was still obscure, but some French reserves were already moving thence to the Somme sector. One thing they did show me, the British dispositions. As I looked at the plan I saw that my old division was in the thick of the fighting.

‘Where do you go now?’ I was asked.

‘To Amiens, and then, please God, to the battle front,’ I said.

‘Good fortune to you. You do not give body or mind much rest, my general.’

After that I went to the Mission Anglaise, but they had nothing beyond Haig’s communique and a telephone message from G.H.Q. that the critical sector was likely to be that between St Quentin and the Oise. The northern pillar of our defence, south of Arras, which they had been nervous about, had stood like a rock. That pleased me, for my old battalion of the Lennox Highlanders was there.

Crossing the Place de la Concorde, we fell in with a British staff officer of my acquaintance, who was just starting to motor back to G.H.Q. from Paris leave. He had a longer face than the people at the Invalides.

‘I don’t like it, I tell you,’ he said. ‘It’s this mist that worries me. I went down the whole line from Arras to the Oise ten days ago. It was beautifully sited, the cleverest thing you ever saw. The outpost line was mostly a chain of blobs — redoubts, you know, with machine-guns — so arranged as to bring flanking fire to bear on the advancing enemy. But mist would play the devil with that scheme, for the enemy would be past the place for flanking fire before we knew it . . . Oh, I know we had good warning, and had the battle-zone manned in time, but the outpost line was meant to hold out long enough to get everything behind in apple-pie order, and I can’t see but how big chunks of it must have gone in the first rush. . . . Mind you, we’ve banked everything on that battle-zone. It’s damned good, but if it’s gone —‘He flung up his hands.

‘Have we good reserves?’ I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.

‘Have we positions prepared behind the battle-zone?’

‘I didn’t notice any,’ he said dryly, and was off before I could get more out of him.

‘You look rattled, Dick,’ said Blenkiron as we walked to the hotel.

‘I seem to have got the needle. It’s silly, but I feel worse about this show than I’ve ever felt since the war started. Look at this city here. The papers take it easily, and the people are walking about as if nothing was happening. Even the soldiers aren’t worried. You may call me a fool to take it so hard, but I’ve a sense in my bones that we’re in for the bloodiest and darkest fight of our lives, and that soon Paris will be hearing the Boche guns as she did in 1914.’

‘You’re a cheerful old Jeremiah. Well, I’m glad Miss Mary’s going to be in England soon. Seems to me she’s right and that this game of ours isn’t quite played out yet. I’m envying you some, for there’s a place waiting for you in the fighting line.’

‘You’ve got to get home and keep people’s heads straight there. That’s the weak link in our chain and there’s a mighty lot of work before you.’

‘Maybe,’ he said abstractedly, with his eye on the top of the Vendome column.

The train that afternoon was packed with officers recalled from leave, and it took all the combined purchase of Blenkiron and myself to get a carriage reserved for our little party. At the last moment I opened the door to admit a warm and agitated captain of the R.F.C. in whom I recognized my friend and benefactor, Archie Roylance.

‘Just when I was gettin’ nice and clean and comfy a wire comes tellin’ me to bundle back, all along of a new battle. It’s a cruel war, Sir.’ The afflicted young man mopped his forehead, grinned cheerfully at Blenkiron, glanced critically at Peter, then caught sight of Mary and grew at once acutely conscious of his appearance. He smoothed his hair, adjusted his tie and became desperately sedate.

I introduced him to Peter and he promptly forgot Mary’s existence. If Peter had had any vanity in him it would have been flattered by the frank interest and admiration in the boy’s eyes. ‘I’m tremendously glad to see you safe back, sir. I’ve always hoped I might have a chance of meeting you. We want you badly now on the front. Lensch is gettin’ a bit uppish.’

Then his eye fell on Peter’s withered leg and he saw that he had blundered. He blushed scarlet and looked his apologies. But they weren’t needed, for it cheered Peter to meet someone who talked of the possibility of his fighting again. Soon the two were deep in technicalities, the appalling technicalities of the airman. It was no good listening to their talk, for you could make nothing of it, but it was bracing up Peter like wine. Archie gave him a minute description of Lensch’s latest doings and his new methods. He, too, had heard the rumour that Peter had mentioned to me at St Anton, of a new Boche plane, with mighty engines and stumpy wings cunningly cambered, which was a devil to climb; but no specimens had yet appeared over the line. They talked of Bali, and Rhys Davids, and Bishop, and McCudden, and all the heroes who had won their spurs since the Somme, and of the new British makes, most of which Peter had never seen and had to have explained to him.

Outside a haze had drawn over the meadows with the twilight. I pointed it out to Blenkiron.

‘There’s the fog that’s doing us. This March weather is just like October, mist morning and evening. I wish to Heaven we could have some good old drenching spring rain.’

Archie was discoursing of the Shark–Gladas machine.

‘I’ve always stuck to it, for it’s a marvel in its way, but it has my heart fairly broke. The General here knows its little tricks. Don’t you, sir? Whenever things get really excitin’, the engine’s apt to quit work and take a rest.’

‘The whole make should be publicly burned,’ I said, with gloomy recollections.

‘I wouldn’t go so far, sir. The old Gladas has surprisin’ merits. On her day there’s nothing like her for pace and climbing-power, and she steers as sweet as a racin’ cutter. The trouble about her is she’s too complicated. She’s like some breeds of car — you want to be a mechanical genius to understand her . . . If they’d only get her a little simpler and safer, there wouldn’t be her match in the field. I’m about the only man that has patience with her and knows her merits, but she’s often been nearly the death of me. All the same, if I were in for a big fight against some fellow like Lensch, where it was neck or nothing, I’m hanged if I wouldn’t pick the Gladas.’

Archie laughed apologetically. ‘The subject is banned for me in our mess. I’m the old thing’s only champion, and she’s like a mare I used to hunt that loved me so much she was always tryin’ to chew the arm off me. But I wish I could get her a fair trial from one of the big pilots. I’m only in the second class myself after all.’

We were running north of St just when above the rattle of the train rose a curious dull sound. It came from the east, and was like the low growl of a veld thunderstorm, or a steady roll of muffled drums.

‘Hark to the guns!’ cried Archie. ‘My aunt, there’s a tidy bombardment goin’ on somewhere.’

I had been listening on and off to guns for three years. I had been present at the big preparations before Loos and the Somme and Arras, and I had come to accept the racket of artillery as something natural and inevitable like rain or sunshine. But this sound chilled me with its eeriness, I don’t know why. Perhaps it was its unexpectedness, for I was sure that the guns had not been heard in this area since before the Marne. The noise must be travelling down the Oise valley, and I judged there was big fighting somewhere about Chauny or La Fere. That meant that the enemy was pressing hard on a huge front, for here was clearly a great effort on his extreme left wing. Unless it was our counter-attack. But somehow I didn’t think so.

I let down the window and stuck my head into the night. The fog had crept to the edge of the track, a gossamer mist through which houses and trees and cattle could be seen dim in the moonlight. The noise continued — not a mutter, but a steady rumbling flow as solid as the blare of a trumpet. Presently, as we drew nearer Amiens, we left it behind us, for in all the Somme valley there is some curious configuration which blankets sound. The countryfolk call it the ‘Silent Land’, and during the first phase of the Somme battle a man in Amiens could not hear the guns twenty miles off at Albert.

As I sat down again I found that the company had fallen silent, even the garrulous Archie. Mary’s eyes met mine, and in the indifferent light of the French railway-carriage I could see excitement in them — I knew it was excitement, not fear. She had never heard the noise of a great barrage before. Blenkiron was restless, and Peter was sunk in his own thoughts. I was growing very depressed, for in a little I would have to part from my best friends and the girl I loved. But with the depression was mixed an odd expectation, which was almost pleasant. The guns had brought back my profession to me, I was moving towards their thunder, and God only knew the end of it. The happy dream I had dreamed of the Cotswolds and a home with Mary beside me seemed suddenly to have fallen away to an infinite distance. I felt once again that I was on the razor-edge of life.

The last part of the journey I was casting back to rake up my knowledge of the countryside. I saw again the stricken belt from Serre to Combles where we had fought in the summer of ‘17. I had not been present in the advance of the following spring, but I had been at Cambrai and I knew all the down country from Lagnicourt to St Quentin. I shut my eyes and tried to picture it, and to see the roads running up to the line, and wondered just at what points the big pressure had come. They had told me in Paris that the British were as far south as the Oise, so the bombardment we had heard must be directed to our address. With Passchendaele and Cambrai in my mind, and some notion of the difficulties we had always had in getting drafts, I was puzzled to think where we could have found the troops to man the new front. We must be unholily thin on that long line. And against that awesome bombardment! And the masses and the new tactics that Ivery had bragged of!

When we ran into the dingy cavern which is Amiens station I seemed to note a new excitement. I felt it in the air rather than deduced it from any special incident, except that the platform was very crowded with civilians, most of them with an extra amount of baggage. I wondered if the place had been bombed the night before.

‘We won’t say goodbye yet,’ I told the others. ‘The train doesn’t leave for half an hour. I’m off to try and get news.’

Accompanied by Archie, I hunted out an R.T.O. of my acquaintance. To my questions he responded cheerfully.

‘Oh, we’re doing famously, sir. I heard this afternoon from a man in Operations that G.H.Q. was perfectly satisfied. We’ve killed a lot of Huns and only lost a few kilometres of ground . . . You’re going to your division? Well, it’s up Peronne way, or was last night. Cheyne and Dunthorpe came back from leave and tried to steal a car to get up to it . . . Oh, I’m having the deuce of a time. These blighted civilians have got the wind up, and a lot are trying to clear out. The idiots say the Huns will be in Amiens in a week. What’s the phrase? “Pourvu que les civils tiennent.” ‘Fraid I must push on, Sir.’

I sent Archie back with these scraps of news and was about to make a rush for the house of one of the Press officers, who would, I thought, be in the way of knowing things, when at the station entrance I ran across Laidlaw. He had been B.G.G.S. in the corps to which my old brigade belonged, and was now on the staff of some army. He was striding towards a car when I grabbed his arm, and he turned on me a very sick face.

‘Good Lord, Hannay! Where did you spring from? The news, you say?’ He sank his voice, and drew me into a quiet corner. ‘The news is hellish.’

‘They told me we were holding,’ I observed.

‘Holding be damned! The Boche is clean through on a broad front. He broke us today at Maissemy and Essigny. Yes, the battle-zone. He’s flinging in division after division like the blows of a hammer. What else could you expect?’ And he clutched my arm fiercely. ‘How in God’s name could eleven divisions hold a front of forty miles? And against four to one in numbers? It isn’t war, it’s naked lunacy.’

I knew the worst now, and it didn’t shock me, for I had known it was coming. Laidlaw’s nerves were pretty bad, for his face was pale and his eyes bright like a man with a fever.

‘Reserves!’ and he laughed bitterly. ‘We have three infantry divisions and two cavalry. They’re into the mill long ago. The French are coming up on our right, but they’ve the devil of a way to go. That’s what I’m down here about. And we’re getting help from Horne and Plumer. But all that takes days, and meantime we’re walking back like we did at Mons. And at this time of day, too . . . Oh, yes, the whole line’s retreating. Parts of it were pretty comfortable, but they had to get back or be put in the bag. I wish to Heaven I knew where our right divisions have got to. For all I know they’re at Compiegne by now. The Boche was over the canal this morning, and by this time most likely he’s across the Somme.’

At that I exclaimed. ‘D’you mean to tell me we’re going to lose Peronne?’

‘Peronne!’ he cried. ‘We’ll be lucky not to lose Amiens! . . . And on the top of it all I’ve got some kind of blasted fever. I’ll be raving in an hour.’

He was rushing off, but I held him.

‘What about my old lot?’ I asked.

‘Oh, damned good, but they’re shot all to bits. Every division did well. It’s a marvel they weren’t all scuppered, and it’ll be a flaming miracle if they find a line they can stand on. Westwater’s got a leg smashed. He was brought down this evening, and you’ll find him in the hospital. Fraser’s killed and Lefroy’s a prisoner — at least, that was my last news. I don’t know who’s got the brigades, but Masterton’s carrying on with the division . . . You’d better get up the line as fast as you can and take over from him. See the Army Commander. He’ll be in Amiens tomorrow morning for a pow-wow.’

Laidlaw lay wearily back in his car and disappeared into the night, while I hurried to the train.

The others had descended to the platform and were grouped round Archie, who was discoursing optimistic nonsense. I got them into the carriage and shut the door.

‘It’s pretty bad,’ I said. ‘The front’s pierced in several places and we’re back to the Upper Somme. I’m afraid it isn’t going to stop there. I’m off up the line as soon as I can get my orders. Wake, you’ll come with me, for every man will be wanted. Blenkiron, you’ll see Mary and Peter safe to England. We’re just in time, for tomorrow it mightn’t be easy to get out of Amiens.’

I can see yet the anxious faces in that ill-lit compartment. We said goodbye after the British style without much to-do. I remember that old Peter gripped my hand as if he would never release it, and that Mary’s face had grown very pale. If I delayed another second I should have howled, for Mary’s lips were trembling and Peter had eyes like a wounded stag. ‘God bless you,’ I said hoarsely, and as I went off I heard Peter’s voice, a little cracked, saying ‘God bless you, my old friend.’

I spent some weary hours looking for Westwater. He was not in the big clearing station, but I ran him to earth at last in the new hospital which had just been got going in the Ursuline convent. He was the most sterling little man, in ordinary life rather dry and dogmatic, with a trick of taking you up sharply which didn’t make him popular. Now he was lying very stiff and quiet in the hospital bed, and his blue eyes were solemn and pathetic like a sick dog’s.

‘There’s nothing much wrong with me,’ he said, in reply to my question. ‘A shell dropped beside me and damaged my foot. They say they’ll have to cut it off . . . I’ve an easier mind now you’re here, Hannay. Of course you’ll take over from Masterton. He’s a good man but not quite up to his job. Poor Fraser — you’ve heard about Fraser. He was done in at the very start. Yes, a shell. And Lefroy. If he’s alive and not too badly smashed the Hun has got a troublesome prisoner.’

He was too sick to talk, but he wouldn’t let me go.

‘The division was all right. Don’t you believe anyone who says we didn’t fight like heroes. Our outpost line held up the Hun for six hours, and only about a dozen men came back. We could have stuck it out in the battle-zone if both flanks hadn’t been turned. They got through Crabbe’s left and came down the Verey ravine, and a big wave rushed Shropshire Wood . . . We fought it out yard by yard and didn’t budge till we saw the Plessis dump blazing in our rear. Then it was about time to go . . . We haven’t many battalion commanders left. Watson, Endicot, Crawshay . . . ’ He stammered out a list of gallant fellows who had gone.

‘Get back double quick, Hannay. They want you. I’m not happy about Masterton. He’s too young for the job.’ And then a nurse drove me out, and I left him speaking in the strange forced voice of great weakness.

At the foot of the staircase stood Mary.

‘I saw you go in,’ she said, ‘so I waited for you.’

‘Oh, my dear,’ I cried, ‘you should have been in Boulogne by now. What madness brought you here?’

‘They know me here and they’ve taken me on. You couldn’t expect me to stay behind. You said yourself everybody was wanted, and I’m in a Service like you. Please don’t be angry, Dick.’

I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t even extra anxious. The whole thing seemed to have been planned by fate since the creation of the world. The game we had been engaged in wasn’t finished and it was right that we should play it out together. With that feeling came a conviction, too, of ultimate victory. Somehow or sometime we should get to the end of our pilgrimage. But I remembered Mary’s forebodings about the sacrifice required. The best of us. That ruled me out, but what about her?

I caught her to my arms. ‘Goodbye, my very dearest. Don’t worry about me, for mine’s a soft job and I can look after my skin. But oh! take care of yourself, for you are all the world to me.’

She kissed me gravely like a wise child.

‘I am not afraid for you,’ she said. ‘You are going to stand in the breach, and I know — I know you will win. Remember that there is someone here whose heart is so full of pride of her man that it hasn’t room for fear.’

As I went out of the convent door I felt that once again I had been given my orders.

It did not surprise me that, when I sought out my room on an upper floor of the Hotel de France, I found Blenkiron in the corridor. He was in the best of spirits.

‘You can’t keep me out of the show, Dick,’ he said, ‘so you needn’t start arguing. Why, this is the one original chance of a lifetime for John S. Blenkiron. Our little fight at Erzerum was only a side-show, but this is a real high-class Armageddon. I guess I’ll find a way to make myself useful.’

I had no doubt he would, and I was glad he had stayed behind. But I felt it was hard on Peter to have the job of returning to England alone at such a time, like useless flotsam washed up by a flood.

‘You needn’t worry,’ said Blenkiron. ‘Peter’s not making England this trip. To the best of my knowledge he has beat it out of this township by the eastern postern. He had some talk with Sir Archibald Roylance, and presently other gentlemen of the Royal Flying Corps appeared, and the upshot was that Sir Archibald hitched on to Peter’s grip and departed without saying farewell. My notion is that he’s gone to have a few words with his old friends at some flying station. Or he might have the idea of going back to England by aeroplane, and so having one last flutter before he folds his wings. Anyhow, Peter looked a mighty happy man. The last I saw he was smoking his pipe with a batch of young lads in a Flying Corps waggon and heading straight for Germany.’

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