The immense beauty of the starry night seemed lost upon the man at the window. His attention was concentrated on the gap in the black hills far below him and far away, where a quivering blood-red glow marked the burning suburbs and gardens of the beleaguered city. The smoke flickered still with gun-flashes, and the crepitation of the rifle-fire rose and fell and never ceased altogether. Every now and then a momentary incandescence intimated a fresh extension of the conflagration. But the big guns had desisted. Gammet’s attack had been held. Gammet was done for.
“High time too,” thought the man at the window. “And when Gammet has been cleaned up, then I will take the city.”
Richard Bolaris got up and began pacing the dim room. It was a large, fairly proportioned room and it was lit only by a couple of candles in silver candlesticks on the gigantic writing desk. Otherwise the whole place was in darkness because of the possibility of an air-raid from the Reds. The huge vulgar furnishings of Orpedimento, the great wine merchant, the nominal owner of this chateau which Bolaris had requisitioned, achieved a sombre dignity in the obscurity.
Bolaris was the latest and newest of strong men, he and the Reds under Ratzel had torn their vague-minded countrymen into two warring swarms, and slowly he was winning his way to an unqualified dictatorship. He had been waiting impatiently for this final opportunity. Gammet had been the chief piece in the King’s defence and the piece was now practically lost. Bolaris knew exactly how to behave and what to do next day. The trusty Handon should see to all the details. Gammet had asked for this offensive, staked everything upon it. Bolaris had acted doubt, argued cunningly, and bowed at last as if in submission to Gammet and the King. Now he would strike. He would face nothing but a clutch of disgruntled men.
“You have thrown away the fourth army,” he would say. “Incapacity in itself is a crime, but this is more than incapacity; it is sabotage, as I shall prove — treason unashamed.”
Handon would have seen to it that the guards were all right, and the morning after, when that poor disingenuous royal fool asked after Gammet, he would find that Gammet was shot already, and that there was nothing under his feet or above his head or to the right of him or to the left of him or before him or behind him in the whole world but the power of Richard Bolaris. And, after his quality, he would pretend to be grateful for the vigilance of Bolaris. And he would bide his time. He was a great man for biding his time, was the King.
Physically Bolaris was not a tall man, but he was broad-shouldered and his head was a fine one, a wide forehead above clear hazel eyes and a slightly impish clean-shaven face. His nose was short but well modelled; his mouth and chin finely made and free of any suggestion of the strong man’s jowl. He wore an open-necked shirt and a belt about his civilian trousers, but he kept the men about him up to the mark in their uniforms.
He rehearsed the projected scene and tried a variation or so. Then he dismissed the matter from his mind, touched a stud on the desk, and returned slowly to his seat at the open window. He could rest for a time until the reports from the front came in.
A door far up the room opened and the secretary on duty appeared on the threshold between two sentinels. “I’ll take anything that is not extremely urgent in the map room in about an hour,” said Bolaris, and the bright vertical oblong of the door thinned out and vanished.
“Ah!” said the dictator in the tone of a man who feels his task accomplished. He shook his finger towards the long slopes that hid the city. “I give you a fortnight more, Ratzel. And after that we will have the Corporate State here too and here, mind you, that will be — whatever I want it to be.”
Power and more Power. The King unfortunately would have to remain. That went without saying. But side by side with the crown there must be a new title. Why not take a leaf from history and try the Lord Protector? Or something new? The Master Citizen?
And Catherine Faress? She had always been loyal — and sometimes very wise. Bolaris was no egotist. He could admit good advice when he got it. Was she always to remain in the background? Was the Master Citizen always to hide his woman in this shamefaced manner from the world?
Patience. That too he would manage.
The gentle trill of a telephone roused him from his reverie.
He knew Catherine’s inimitable voice even before she said: “It’s your Black Cat speaking. With nothing very important to say.”
“What is it?”
“Just something silly. Just something I can’t say in common words. Something very sentimental. Have you forgotten Lampobo?”
Lampobo was a little language they had invented six years ago when they were lovers in exile in Lugano, to hide their nationality and puzzle observant people in their hotel.
“If any one listens in to our love talks,” he replied, “they have the best chance in the world of standing against a wall.” And then rather haltingly in that half-forgotten lingo, he added: “Yes. You see I remember — I don’t forget things about you.”
“Don’t flirt,” said she. “It isn’t that. Something very important —”
“What is it?”
“Ratzel has been taken prisoner.”
Bolaris whistled softly. That was a queer turn of events. “How?” he asked.
“No particulars. Number Four wants you to know. Number Four knows but other people don’t. Knows who it is, I mean. The men who took him don’t know. Listen hard. Don’t ask me questions. Number Four came to me and asked me to tell you. Afraid direct to you would be tapped. Said you ought to know before any one else.”
“Good old Handon,” whispered Bolaris to himself.
Then to the telephone and dropping the little language: “Where are you, darling?”
“In the little house beyond the hospital.”
“I’ve eaten nothing today practically. Could you give me a supper? Things have gone very badly today and I need consoling.” And dropping back into Lampobo: “Number Four and the prisoner too.”
“All your desires shall be satisfied,” said the lady with a coy laugh that sounded quite natural. “Darling.”
Bolaris replaced the telephone and went towards the door clapping his hands loudly. It opened and two sentinels stood at attention and then the young secretary appeared. “I’ll take the reports in the map room,” said Bolaris. “Is the intelligence officer there? Afterwards I’ll go to the fourth hospital for a surprise visit. Have the three cars ready, the pilot car, the armoured car, and the whippet with the gun. And then ——”
He seemed to consider. “I’ll ask Madame Farness to give me supper. She’s close by. Will you tell her? You know her telephone number. And telephone me there if I have gone on from the hospital.”
The secretary tried not to look too understanding. It would be quite unnecessary, he knew, to telephone to the hospital.
Bolaris entered the map room with an elation he did his best to control. “None too good, I’m afraid,” he said to the intelligence officer. “Tell me what you know. I was against it all from the beginning but the King overruled me. God grant there’s been no serious loss of men or material. I hope not. It seemed to me the attack petered out. Do you know what it is burning down there.”
The three cars, using no lights, travelled slowly down through the dark woods below the chateau, and more swiftly over the flank of the mountain, above the darkened encampments of the Black Legion and the old ninth regiment. In the open the road became more plainly visible as a faint streak on the grey starlit ground. Ever and again there was a challenge, a halt, and the scrutiny of an electric torch. They passed through a silent and deserted village and between a mile-long row of still, dark poplars, until the white walls of the old convent turned hospital were reached. There was no pretence of calling there. Bolaris, with his cars and escort, passed straight on through the gates of the little villa beyond and descended at the entrance.
Two sentinels appeared from the shadow of the portico and saluted. A tall dark woman in a white dress appeared in the doorway. It was in the spirit of the night that he should speak in an undertone.
“They are here?” he asked.
“Both,” she said. “The prisoner under guard downstairs.”
He followed her into a room lit by a single paraffin lamp. There were provisions on the table and plates and knives, and in the corner stood Handon, in a khaki uniform, a stout figure with an open ruddy face, who saluted his master as though it was a pleasure to do so.
“Tell me about it,” said Bolaris. Each of his interlocutors looked at the other to begin.
“You ought to see him,” said the woman.
“You certainly ought to see him,” echoed Handon. They seemed preoccupied with some idea beyond the facts he knew.
“How was he taken? When?”
“Early this morning. They blundered into the Black Legion.”
“He was with some officers. If you can call them officers. Commissars perhaps. They just rode into our scouts.”
“You saw it?”
“Yes. I suppose they were planning some scheme for swinging round on our left, through that gorge that runs towards the river. They didn’t know how far our front extended. Our fellows were coming down the gorge and these Reds came out on the bank, not twenty yards away. They wheeled about and he lost control of his horse. He seemed to be a damned poor rider.”
Handon stopped short, shocked at himself.
“Not the only one in this war,” said Bolaris, with a grin. “Don’t apologize.”
“He got on the edge of the bank and his horse slipped down it, rolled right down, horse and man, and our chaps were on him in a moment. We could see he was important at once from the way the others came back for him. No good. It was a hundred to one. They vanished over the bank and were a quarter of a mile off before any of our men could scramble up for a shot at them.”
“And it’s Ratzel?”
“It’s surely Ratzel. You know there’s always been a story he was like you. He’s extraordinarily like you.”
Bolaris turned to the woman.
“He’s extraordinarily like you,” she confirmed. “It’s fantastic. I ought to know. When they brought him here first, I thought it was some mystification of yours. I tried him with Lampobo. Yes. He’s as like as that.”
“If I don’t eat I shall drop,” said Bolaris and poured himself a glass of wine. All three sat down about the table and Catherine played hostess to the two men.
“He is as like as that,” Bolaris repeated with his mouth full of chicken. “It gives me a sort of fellow feeling for him. Maybe we’ll have to shoot him. He’s the backbone of this defence. It will knock the stuffing out of them. All the same if he’s hungry . . . “Let’s have him up. A man talks all the easier for a few glasses of wine. I’ve never believed in those third-degree methods of yours, Handon. Bring him up and stand him there at the end of the table with two of your men behind him. And two at the door. Window all right? Put a man outside there. Light some candles over there and there. It wouldn’t do for Catherine’s lamp to go out suddenly and leave us in the dark. They say he’s a resourceful devil. And if I think proper I’ll ask him to supper.” His quick eyes ran round the room. “That’s all right,” he confirmed.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15