Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan

Chapter Three

The Reflections of a Cured Dyspeptic

Thirty-five hours later I found myself in my rooms in Westminster. I thought there might be a message for me there, for I didn’t propose to go and call openly on Blenkiron at Claridge’s till I had his instructions. But there was no message — only a line from Peter, saying he had hopes of being sent to Switzerland. That made me realize that he must be pretty badly broken up.

Presently the telephone bell rang. It was Blenkiron who spoke. ‘Go down and have a talk with your brokers about the War Loan. Arrive there about twelve o’clock and don’t go upstairs till you have met a friend. You’d better have a quick luncheon at your club, and then come to Traill’s bookshop in the Haymarket at two. You can get back to Biggleswick by the 5.16.’

I did as I was bid, and twenty minutes later, having travelled by Underground, for I couldn’t raise a taxi, I approached the block of chambers in Leadenhall Street where dwelt the respected firm who managed my investments. It was still a few minutes before noon, and as I slowed down a familiar figure came out of the bank next door.

Ivery beamed recognition. ‘Up for the day, Mr Brand?’ he asked. ‘I have to see my brokers,’ I said, ‘read the South African papers in my club, and get back by the 5.16. Any chance of your company?’

‘Why, yes — that’s my train. Au revoir. We meet at the station.’ He bustled off, looking very smart with his neat clothes and a rose in his button-hole.

I lunched impatiently, and at two was turning over some new books in Traill’s shop with an eye on the street-door behind me. It seemed a public place for an assignation. I had begun to dip into a big illustrated book on flower-gardens when an assistant came up. ‘The manager’s compliments, sir, and he thinks there are some old works of travel upstairs that might interest you.’ I followed him obediently to an upper floor lined with every kind of volume and with tables littered with maps and engravings. ‘This way, sir,’ he said, and opened a door in the wall concealed by bogus book-backs. I found myself in a little study, and Blenkiron sitting in an armchair smoking.

He got up and seized both my hands. ‘Why, Dick, this is better than good noos. I’ve heard all about your exploits since we parted a year ago on the wharf at Liverpool. We’ve both been busy on our own jobs, and there was no way of keeping you wise about my doings, for after I thought I was cured I got worse than hell inside, and, as I told you, had to get the doctor-men to dig into me. After that I was playing a pretty dark game, and had to get down and out of decent society. But, holy Mike! I’m a new man. I used to do my work with a sick heart and a taste in my mouth like a graveyard, and now I can eat and drink what I like and frolic round like a colt. I wake up every morning whistling and thank the good God that I’m alive, It was a bad day for Kaiser when I got on the cars for White Springs.’

‘This is a rum place to meet,’ I said, ‘and you brought me by a roundabout road.’

He grinned and offered me a cigar.

‘There were reasons. It don’t do for you and me to advertise our acquaintance in the street. As for the shop, I’ve owned it for five years. I’ve a taste for good reading, though you wouldn’t think it, and it tickles me to hand it out across the counter . . . First, I want to hear about Biggleswick.’

‘There isn’t a great deal to it. A lot of ignorance, a large slice of vanity, and a pinch or two of wrong-headed honesty — these are the ingredients of the pie. Not much real harm in it. There’s one or two dirty literary gents who should be in a navvies’ battalion, but they’re about as dangerous as yellow Kaffir dogs. I’ve learned a lot and got all the arguments by heart, but you might plant a Biggleswick in every shire and it wouldn’t help the Boche. I can see where the danger lies all the same. These fellows talked academic anarchism, but the genuine article is somewhere about and to find it you’ve got to look in the big industrial districts. We had faint echoes of it in Biggleswick. I mean that the really dangerous fellows are those who want to close up the war at once and so get on with their blessed class war, which cuts across nationalities. As for being spies and that sort of thing, the Biggleswick lads are too callow.’

‘Yes,’ said Blenkiron reflectively. ‘They haven’t got as much sense as God gave to geese. You’re sure you didn’t hit against any heavier metal?’

‘Yes. There’s a man called Launcelot Wake, who came down to speak once. I had met him before. He has the makings of a fanatic, and he’s the more dangerous because you can see his conscience is uneasy. I can fancy him bombing a Prime Minister merely to quiet his own doubts.’

‘So,’ he said. ‘Nobody else?’

I reflected. ‘There’s Mr Ivery, but you know him better than I. I shouldn’t put much on him, but I’m not precisely certain, for I never had a chance of getting to know him.’

‘Ivery,’ said Blenkiron in surprise. ‘He has a hobby for half-baked youth, just as another rich man might fancy orchids or fast trotters. You sure can place him right enough.’

‘I dare say. Only I don’t know enough to be positive.’

He sucked at his cigar for a minute or so. ‘I guess, Dick, if I told you all I’ve been doing since I reached these shores you would call me a romancer. I’ve been way down among the toilers. I did a spell as unskilled dilooted labour in the Barrow shipyards. I was barman in a hotel on the Portsmouth Road, and I put in a black month driving a taxicab in the city of London. For a while I was the accredited correspondent of the Noo York Sentinel and used to go with the rest of the bunch to the pow-wows of under-secretaries of State and War Office generals. They censored my stuff so cruel that the paper fired me. Then I went on a walking-tour round England and sat for a fortnight in a little farm in Suffolk. By and by I came back to Claridge’s and this bookshop, for I had learned most of what I wanted.

‘I had learned,’ he went on, turning his curious, full, ruminating eyes on me, ‘that the British working-man is about the soundest piece of humanity on God’s earth. He grumbles a bit and jibs a bit when he thinks the Government are giving him a crooked deal, but he’s gotten the patience of Job and the sand of a gamecock. And he’s gotten humour too, that tickles me to death. There’s not much trouble in that quarter for it’s he and his kind that’s beating the Hun . . . But I picked up a thing or two besides that.’

He leaned forward and tapped me on the knee. ‘I reverence the British Intelligence Service. Flies don’t settle on it to any considerable extent. It’s got a mighty fine mesh, but there’s one hole in that mesh, and it’s our job to mend it. There’s a high-powered brain in the game against us. I struck it a couple of years ago when I was hunting Dumba and Albert, and I thought it was in Noo York, but it wasn’t. I struck its working again at home last year and located its head office in Europe. So I tried Switzerland and Holland, but only bits of it were there. The centre of the web where the old spider sits is right here in England, and for six months I’ve been shadowing that spider. There’s a gang to help, a big gang, and a clever gang, and partly an innocent gang. But there’s only one brain, and it’s to match that that the Robson Brothers settled my duodenum.’

I was listening with a quickened pulse, for now at last I was getting to business.

‘What is he — international socialist, or anarchist, or what?’ I asked.

‘Pure-blooded Boche agent, but the biggest-sized brand in the catalogue — bigger than Steinmeier or old Bismarck’s Staubier. Thank God I’ve got him located . . . I must put you wise about some things.’

He lay back in his rubbed leather armchair and yarned for twenty minutes. He told me how at the beginning of the war Scotland Yard had had a pretty complete register of enemy spies, and without making any fuss had just tidied them away. After that, the covey having been broken up, it was a question of picking off stray birds. That had taken some doing. There had been all kinds of inflammatory stuff around, Red Masons and international anarchists, and, worst of all, international finance-touts, but they had mostly been ordinary cranks and rogues, the tools of the Boche agents rather than agents themselves. However, by the middle of 1915 most of the stragglers had been gathered in. But there remained loose ends, and towards the close of last year somebody was very busy combining these ends into a net. Funny cases cropped up of the leakage of vital information. They began to be bad about October 1916, when the Hun submarines started on a special racket. The enemy suddenly appeared possessed of a knowledge which we thought to be shared only by half a dozen officers. Blenkiron said he was not surprised at the leakage, for there’s always a lot of people who hear things they oughtn’t to. What surprised him was that it got so quickly to the enemy.

Then after last February, when the Hun submarines went in for frightfulness on a big scale, the thing grew desperate. Leakages occurred every week, and the business was managed by people who knew their way about, for they avoided all the traps set for them, and when bogus news was released on purpose, they never sent it. A convoy which had been kept a deadly secret would be attacked at the one place where it was helpless. A carefully prepared defensive plan would be checkmated before it could be tried. Blenkiron said that there was no evidence that a single brain was behind it all, for there was no similarity in the cases, but he had a strong impression all the time that it was the work of one man. We managed to close some of the bolt-holes, but we couldn’t put our hands near the big ones. ‘By this time,’ said he, ‘I reckoned I was about ready to change my methods. I had been working by what the highbrows call induction, trying to argue up from the deeds to the doer. Now I tried a new lay, which was to calculate down from the doer to the deeds. They call it deduction. I opined that somewhere in this island was a gentleman whom we will call Mr X, and that, pursuing the line of business he did, he must have certain characteristics. I considered very carefully just what sort of personage he must be. I had noticed that his device was apparently the Double Bluff. That is to say, when he had two courses open to him, A and B, he pretended he was going to take B, and so got us guessing that he would try A. Then he took B after all. So I reckoned that his camouflage must correspond to this little idiosyncrasy. Being a Boche agent, he wouldn’t pretend to be a hearty patriot, an honest old blood-and-bones Tory. That would be only the Single Bluff. I considered that he would be a pacifist, cunning enough just to keep inside the law, but with the eyes of the police on him. He would write books which would not be allowed to be exported. He would get himself disliked in the popular papers, but all the mugwumps would admire his moral courage. I drew a mighty fine picture to myself of just the man I expected to find. Then I started out to look for him.’

Blenkiron’s face took on the air of a disappointed child. ‘It was no good. I kept barking up the wrong tree and wore myself out playing the sleuth on white-souled innocents.’

‘But you’ve found him all right,’ I cried, a sudden suspicion leaping into my brain.

‘He’s found,’ he said sadly, ‘but the credit does not belong to John S. Blenkiron. That child merely muddied the pond. The big fish was left for a young lady to hook.’

‘I know,’ I cried excitedly. ‘Her name is Miss Mary Lamington.’

He shook a disapproving head. ‘You’ve guessed right, my son, but you’ve forgotten your manners. This is a rough business and we won’t bring in the name of a gently reared and pure-minded young girl. If we speak to her at all we call her by a pet name out of the Pilgrim’s Progress . . . Anyhow she hooked the fish, though he isn’t landed. D’you see any light?’

‘Ivery,’ I gasped.

‘Yes. Ivery. Nothing much to look at, you say. A common, middle-aged, pie-faced, golf-playing high-brow, that you wouldn’t keep out of a Sunday school. A touch of the drummer, too, to show he has no dealings with your effete aristocracy. A languishing silver-tongue that adores the sound of his own voice. As mild, you’d say, as curds and cream.’

Blenkiron got out of his chair and stood above me. ‘I tell you, Dick, that man makes my spine cold. He hasn’t a drop of good red blood in him. The dirtiest apache is a Christian gentleman compared to Moxon Ivery. He’s as cruel as a snake and as deep as hell. But, by God, he’s got a brain below his hat. He’s hooked and we’re playing him, but Lord knows if he’ll ever be landed!’

‘Why on earth don’t you put him away?’ I asked.

‘We haven’t the proof — legal proof, I mean; though there’s buckets of the other kind. I could put up a morally certain case, but he’d beat me in a court of law. And half a hundred sheep would get up in Parliament and bleat about persecution. He has a graft with every collection of cranks in England, and with all the geese that cackle about the liberty of the individual when the Boche is ranging about to enslave the world. No, sir, that’s too dangerous a game! Besides, I’ve a better in hand, Moxon Ivery is the best-accredited member of this State. His dossier is the completest thing outside the Recording Angel’s little note-book. We’ve taken up his references in every corner of the globe and they’re all as right as Morgan’s balance sheet. From these it appears he’s been a high-toned citizen ever since he was in short-clothes. He was raised in Norfolk, and there are people living who remember his father. He was educated at Melton School and his name’s in the register. He was in business in Valparaiso, and there’s enough evidence to write three volumes of his innocent life there. Then he came home with a modest competence two years before the war, and has been in the public eye ever since. He was Liberal candidate for a London constitooency and he has decorated the board of every institootion formed for the amelioration of mankind. He’s got enough alibis to choke a boa constrictor, and they’re water-tight and copper-bottomed, and they’re mostly damned lies . . . But you can’t beat him at that stunt. The man’s the superbest actor that ever walked the earth. You can see it in his face. It isn’t a face, it’s a mask. He could make himself look like Shakespeare or Julius Caesar or Billy Sunday or Brigadier–General Richard Hannay if he wanted to. He hasn’t got any personality either — he’s got fifty, and there’s no one he could call his own. I reckon when the devil gets the handling of him at last he’ll have to put sand on his claws to keep him from slipping through.’

Blenkiron was settled in his chair again, with one leg hoisted over the side.

‘We’ve closed a fair number of his channels in the last few months. No, he don’t suspect me. The world knows nothing of its greatest men, and to him I’m only a Yankee peace-crank, who gives big subscriptions to loony societies and will travel a hundred miles to let off steam before any kind of audience. He’s been to see me at Claridge’s and I’ve arranged that he shall know all my record. A darned bad record it is too, for two years ago I was violent pro-British before I found salvation and was requested to leave England. When I was home last I was officially anti-war, when I wasn’t stretched upon a bed of pain. Mr Moxon Ivery don’t take any stock in John S. Blenkiron as a serious proposition. And while I’ve been here I’ve been so low down in the social scale and working in so many devious ways that he can’t connect me up . . . As I was saying, we’ve cut most of his wires, but the biggest we haven’t got at. He’s still sending stuff out, and mighty compromising stuff it is. Now listen close, Dick, for we’re coming near your own business.’

It appeared that Blenkiron had reason to suspect that the channel still open had something to do with the North. He couldn’t get closer than that, till he heard from his people that a certain Abel Gresson had turned up in Glasgow from the States. This Gresson he discovered was the same as one Wrankester, who as a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World had been mixed up in some ugly cases of sabotage in Colorado. He kept his news to himself, for he didn’t want the police to interfere, but he had his own lot get into touch with Gresson and shadow him closely. The man was very discreet but very mysterious, and he would disappear for a week at a time, leaving no trace. For some unknown reason — he couldn’t explain why — Blenkiron had arrived at the conclusion that Gresson was in touch with Ivery, so he made experiments to prove it.

‘I wanted various cross-bearings to make certain, and I got them the night before last. My visit to Biggleswick was good business.’

‘I don’t know what they meant,’ I said, ‘but I know where they came in. One was in your speech when you spoke of the Austrian socialists, and Ivery took you up about them. The other was after supper when he quoted the Wieser Zeitung.’

‘You’re no fool, Dick,’ he said, with his slow smile. ‘You’ve hit the mark first shot. You know me and you could follow my process of thought in those remarks. Ivery, not knowing me so well, and having his head full of just that sort of argument, saw nothing unusual. Those bits of noos were pumped into Gresson that he might pass them on. And he did pass them on — to Ivery. They completed my chain.’

‘But they were commonplace enough things which he might have guessed for himself.’

‘No, they weren’t. They were the nicest tit-bits of political noos which all the cranks have been reaching after.’

‘Anyhow, they were quotations from German papers. He might have had the papers themselves earlier than you thought.’

‘Wrong again. The paragraph never appeared in the Wieser Zeitung. But we faked up a torn bit of that noospaper, and a very pretty bit of forgery it was, and Gresson, who’s a kind of a scholar, was allowed to have it. He passed it on. Ivery showed it me two nights ago. Nothing like it ever sullied the columns of Boche journalism. No, it was a perfectly final proof . . . Now, Dick, it’s up to you to get after Gresson.’

‘Right,’ I said. ‘I’m jolly glad I’m to start work again. I’m getting fat from lack of exercise. I suppose you want me to catch Gresson out in some piece of blackguardism and have him and Ivery snugly put away.’

‘I don’t want anything of the kind,’ he said very slowly and distinctly. ‘You’ve got to attend very close to your instructions, I cherish these two beauties as if they were my own white-headed boys. I wouldn’t for the world interfere with their comfort and liberty. I want them to go on corresponding with their friends. I want to give them every facility.’

He burst out laughing at my mystified face.

‘See here, Dick. How do we want to treat the Boche? Why, to fill him up with all the cunningest lies and get him to act on them. Now here is Moxon Ivery, who has always given them good information. They trust him absolutely, and we would be fools to spoil their confidence. Only, if we can find out Moxon’s methods, we can arrange to use them ourselves and send noos in his name which isn’t quite so genooine. Every word he dispatches goes straight to the Grand High Secret General Staff, and old Hindenburg and Ludendorff put towels round their heads and cipher it out. We want to encourage them to go on doing it. We’ll arrange to send true stuff that don’t matter, so as they’ll continue to trust him, and a few selected falsehoods that’ll matter like hell. It’s a game you can’t play for ever, but with luck I propose to play it long enough to confuse Fritz’s little plans.’

His face became serious and wore the air that our corps commander used to have at the big pow-wow before a push.

‘I’m not going to give you instructions, for you’re man enough to make your own. But I can give you the general hang of the situation. You tell Ivery you’re going North to inquire into industrial disputes at first hand. That will seem to him natural and in line with your recent behaviour. He’ll tell his people that you’re a guileless colonial who feels disgruntled with Britain, and may come in useful. You’ll go to a man of mine in Glasgow, a red-hot agitator who chooses that way of doing his bit for his country. It’s a darned hard way and darned dangerous. Through him you’ll get in touch with Gresson, and you’ll keep alongside that bright citizen. Find out what he is doing, and get a chance of following him. He must never suspect you, and for that purpose you must be very near the edge of the law yourself. You go up there as an unabashed pacifist and you’ll live with folk that will turn your stomach. Maybe you’ll have to break some of these two-cent rules the British Government have invented to defend the realm, and it’s up to you not to get caught out . . . Remember, you’ll get no help from me. You’ve got to wise up about Gresson with the whole forces of the British State arrayed officially against you. I guess it’s a steep proposition, but you’re man enough to make good.’

As we shook hands, he added a last word. ‘You must take your own time, but it’s not a case for slouching. Every day that passes Ivery is sending out the worst kind of poison. The Boche is blowing up for a big campaign in the field, and a big effort to shake the nerve and confuse the judgement of our civilians. The whole earth’s war-weary, and we’ve about reached the danger-point. There’s pretty big stakes hang on you, Dick, for things are getting mighty delicate.’

I purchased a new novel in the shop and reached St Pancras in time to have a cup of tea at the buffet. Ivery was at the bookstall buying an evening paper. When we got into the carriage he seized my Punch and kept laughing and calling my attention to the pictures. As I looked at him, I thought that he made a perfect picture of the citizen turned countryman, going back of an evening to his innocent home. Everything was right — his neat tweeds, his light spats, his spotted neckcloth, and his Aquascutum.

Not that I dared look at him much. What I had learned made me eager to search his face, but I did not dare show any increased interest. I had always been a little off-hand with him, for I had never much liked him, so I had to keep on the same manner. He was as merry as a grig, full of chat and very friendly and amusing. I remember he picked up the book I had brought off that morning to read in the train — the second volume of Hazlitt’s Essays, the last of my English classics — and discoursed so wisely about books that I wished I had spent more time in his company at Biggleswick.

‘Hazlitt was the academic Radical of his day,’ he said. ‘He is always lashing himself into a state of theoretical fury over abuses he has never encountered in person. Men who are up against the real thing save their breath for action.’

That gave me my cue to tell him about my journey to the North. I said I had learned a lot in Biggleswick, but I wanted to see industrial life at close quarters. ‘Otherwise I might become like Hazlitt,’ I said.

He was very interested and encouraging. ‘That’s the right way to set about it,’ he said. ‘Where were you thinking of going?’

I told him that I had half thought of Barrow, but decided to try Glasgow, since the Clyde seemed to be a warm corner.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘I only wish I was coming with you. It’ll take you a little while to understand the language. You’ll find a good deal of senseless bellicosity among the workmen, for they’ve got parrot-cries about the war as they used to have parrot-cries about their labour politics. But there’s plenty of shrewd brains and sound hearts too. You must write and tell me your conclusions.’

It was a warm evening and he dozed the last part of the journey. I looked at him and wished I could see into the mind at the back of that mask-like face. I counted for nothing in his eyes, not even enough for him to want to make me a tool, and I was setting out to try to make a tool of him. It sounded a forlorn enterprise. And all the while I was puzzled with a persistent sense of recognition. I told myself it was idiocy, for a man with a face like that must have hints of resemblance to a thousand people. But the idea kept nagging at me till we reached our destination.

As we emerged from the station into the golden evening I saw Mary Lamington again. She was with one of the Weekes girls, and after the Biggleswick fashion was bareheaded, so that the sun glinted from her hair. Ivery swept his hat off and made her a pretty speech, while I faced her steady eyes with the expressionlessness of the stage conspirator.

‘A charming child,’ he observed as we passed on. ‘Not without a touch of seriousness, too, which may yet be touched to noble issues.’

I considered, as I made my way to my final supper with the Jimsons, that the said child was likely to prove a sufficiently serious business for Mr Moxon Ivery before the game was out.

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