It was a strange ending to a voyage that had commenced in a most auspicious manner. The first introduction was altogether most agreeable, and I already began to imagine I might not be so badly off after all. I shall try and arrange some means for our meeting unobserved tomorrow.
For a spy must hunt while he is hunted, and the crowd is his estate. Spying, as well as other intelligence assessment, has existed since ancient times. The trouble is that a man can hold almost any theory he cares to about the secret world, and defend it against large quantities of hostile evidence by the simple expedient of retreating behind further and further screens of postulated inward mystery.
He could collect their gestures, record the interplay of glance and movement, as a huntsman can record the twisted bracken and broken twig, or as a fox detects the signs of danger. My fortunes have been, from the beginning, an exemplification of the power that mutability may possess over the varied tenor of man’s life.
Thus passed several successive nights, until the full of the moon. The country was fairly open, with the road climbing low hills and dropping down into valleys. The moon painted everything in a broad effect of black and greys, and showed the road as a white thread before them.
I have chosen my boat, and laid in my scant stores. I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer, Jung, and Shakespeare. But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me and in any port I can renew my stock. I form no expectation of alteration for the better; but the monotonous present is intolerable to me.
“You are not going to cheat me, are you?”
“I don’t think I believe it. Don’t ask me to say more.”
“Oh, you dear little coaxer, you are enough to seduce an angel.”
He gave her a full, frank look.
“Then why on earth don’t you do something?”
Seeking shelter, she comes upon a mysterious palace.
The place was a smother of leaves, for the underwood had not been cut for five years or more, and the hazel tops were up among the lower boughs of the oaks. A broad ride ran through the wood from north to south like a gallery tunnelling through the green gloom. The first cold weather of an English October, made us hasten our preparations.
The temporary electric lights have now been strung all along the railroad tracks and through the central part of the ruins, so that the place after dark is really quite brilliant seen from a distance, especially when to the electric display is added the red glow in the mist and smoke of huge bonfires.
My thoughts were sad and solemn, yet not of unmingled pain. Why, I know not, but I was instinctively prompted to feign sleep. I did so successfully, notwithstanding the passing of the candle before my eyes. So she at once commenced undressing.
Obscurity was this nature, as well as this profession. In such circumstances the human affinity for myth and legend easily gets out of control. I was afraid to make her suspicious of a former use of it. She stressed the need to understand yourself and your enemy for military intelligence.
Two months had gone by, and the case had to some extent passed from our minds. Then one morning there came an enigmatic note slipped into our letter box.
“You have said that your father is his friend.”
“I will not use the word ‘spy’ when speaking of your father.” He served Crown and country as a double agent, transmitting false intelligence to Imperial Germany on the eve of the Great War.
We all sat in silence for some minutes while those fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil. I heard someone approaching, and knowing that I had no business there, I hid myself under the bed. Otherwise, the Beast will destroy this entire family.
Two new methods for intelligence collection were developed over the course of the war — aerial reconnaissance and photography and the interception and decryption of radio signals, inspired by rivalries and intrigues between the major powers, and the establishment of modern intelligence agencies. With more abandon we both sank in the death-like ecstasies of the delicious melting away in all the luxury of contented and voluptuous discharges, a life which ended with the strange happenings of which we have heard.
The details were reported by the world press: an Imperial German penetration agent betraying to Germany the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army; the French counter-intelligence riposte of sending a charwoman to rifle the trash in the German Embassy in Paris, the Dreyfus Affair (1894–99) contributed much to public interest in espionage. I very nearly betrayed myself at the sight, but, fortunately, was able to keep up the character of apparent ignorance I had hitherto shown.
“How dare you come to me with this tale?”
“I have seen and heard things.”
“Well, then, you, too, are something of a spy.”
I could not help seeing and hearing what I did.
“I eat to live, but I do not live to lie.”
“Oh, what pleasure! I shall die!”
My labors have cheered long hours of solitude, and taken me out of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing with imagination and power. Meanwhile, her spirit was completely cowed, or rather, crushed. Indeed, we were all fully frightened, and now knew what we had to expect, if we did not behave ourselves. Efforts to use espionage for military advantage are well documented throughout history.
“Messages in cipher. One has to find out the code. But you see what all this means.”
She did see it, and her face was white and serious in the moonlight.
He replaced the case in his pocket.
“Give it me and I will guide it into the proper place.”
Aztecs used Pochtecas, people in charge of commerce, as spies and diplomats, and had diplomatic immunity. Along with the pochteca, before a battle or war, secret agents, quimitchin, were sent to spy amongst enemies usually wearing the local costume and speaking the local language, techniques similar to modern secret agents. Mother of the world! Servant of the Omnipotent! Eternal, changeless Necessity! Who with busy fingers sittest ever weaving the indissoluble chain of events?
This conversation attracted the attention of the large number of bustling passengers. I hardly know whether this apology is necessary. All her efforts were now directed to the dissembling her internal conflict. It was nearly ten minutes before she recovered her senses. Secret services have in common with Freemasons and mafiosi that they inhabit an intellectual twilight-a kind of ambiguous gloom in which it is hard to distinguish with certainty between the menacing and the merely ludicrous.
The boarding house was near the edge of the town, and soon they were at the crossroads which is beyond its boundary. She had to play the part of a courteous hostess; to attend to all; to shine the focus of enjoyment and grace. She had to do this, while in deep woe she sighed for loneliness, and would gladly have exchanged her crowded rooms for dark forest depths, or a drear, night-enshadowed heath.
“Because he is a spy? Or has he offended you?”
“Then you are not-not disinterested?”
She smiled grimly. “We must be quick, dear,” she murmured.
Her eyes met his with a new meaning. She was putting her trust in him, waiting to be guided by what he would say and do. Night closed in, and it began to rain. We were about to return homewards, when a voice, a human voice, strange now to hear, attracted our attention.
“Sit down, man. What has happened? Why didn’t you come to the quarry?”
“I came there right enough.”
“Yes, to be knocked on the head and have the cipher stolen.”
“How came you here, sir, tell me?”
“You have lost the dispatches?”
“I say they were taken from me.”
“God-you great fool-how did it happen?”
“Keep your big words to yourself. He and a man of his were in hiding. They knocked me on the head and had me on my back before I could take aim with a pistol. Then I was marched down to the sea by a lanky devil of a peasant, and left there to find the boat.”
“That will be my business.”
“But it may be dangerous for you.”
There was a dead silence in the room.
“Lie back for a moment on the bed.”
“I promised you once that I would go some day. I think the time is coming. I had news tonight, bad news, and I see trouble coming.”
“You once get the door shut behind him, you can leave the rest with us.”
Victims have to be deliberately, not randomly, targeted because of their real or perceived membership of one of the groups outlined in the above definition. At any season, such remains may be discovered by looking down into the transparent lake, and at such distances as would argue the existence of many settlements in the space now usurped by the ‘Asphaltites.’
The matter is now in the hands of the police; but it can hardly be hoped that their exertions will be attended by any better results than in the past. I had a conscience and a religion; but they made me a criminal among them. I was chosen for a job. If I backed down I knew well what would come to me. Maybe I’m a coward.
I had left her this evening, reposing after the fatigues of her preparations.
“Put down your slate, Charles, and come to me.”
I obeyed, and stood before my beautiful governess, with a strange commixture of fear and desire.
“It makes you grim, quick as lightning, cool as cold steel. That’s how it works with me.”
But the end was not yet. Far from it. The amateur and professional photographers who have overrun the town for the last few days came to grief on Friday. Children also are rarely seen about the town, and for a similar reason.
Meanwhile the sun, disencumbered from his strange satellites, paced with its accustomed majesty towards its western home. It was strange that life could exist in what was wasted and worn into a very type of death.
“I have an idea. I will tell it to you in a day or two.”
“I may as well tell you some news. You will not gossip and spread it abroad.”
The preposterous simplicity of the idea made him laugh, the sly noiseless laughter of a bon viveur enjoying a suggestive story.
“Bravo for the villain! What a queer mix-up of characters we mortals be! The philosopher crushing the wasp that has stung him. It is the nature of wasps to sting, therefore a philosopher should not be angry. But there is a joy in the crushing. And to see the sick black mug of that little fencing-master! It would be worth it even for that.”
With that, and expelling a heavy breath, he wrestled around to confront the hunter. At first, the pain was excruciating, and he roared out as loud as he could, but gradually the pain ceased to be so acute, and was succeeded by the most delicious tickling sensation. But of this it is probable my readers will learn more hereafter.
“And what do you think about it now?” she asked.
“It is for you to help, not to hinder us in our duty.”
“Well, in my opinion, we are wasting our time.”
And, as a matter of fact, the investigation had produced no result.
“Were I subject to visionary moods,” said the venerable lady, as she continued her narrative, “I might doubt my eyes, and condemn my credulity; but reality is the world I live in, and what I saw I doubt not had existence beyond myself.”
I had long prepared myself for such a question, and at once replied that after the description. Our journey was impeded by a thousand obstacles.
“Then he will remain in the vicinity, where his capture will be even more certain.”
There appeared to be several men talking together in undertones. Then came the crash of glass being broken, as though they were battering in one of the lower windows. His patience gave out at last. There is homage, passionate utterance, in every movement of the head and body. Moonlight came through and lay patterned upon the floor. The figure disappeared from the window, and from the moonlit room came the sounds of an active young man plunging furiously for his clothes.
“He will not remain in the vicinity.”
“Oh! oh! And where will he hide?”
“Either some one has been telling lies, or — “
He stood stiffly alert, like a sentinel who has heard a suspicious sound in the darkness. Some one was moving below the terrace. Footsteps shuffled on the rough stone steps.
“Come now, Charles, be candid with me; what is it you mean where you say all this has caused you to be in such a state, have you shown her this, and has she handled it?”
“Oh! dear no; never, never!”
A second figure had joined the first. It was pointing with outstretched arm toward the sea. For a few moments perfect silence prevailed. I looked at my watch, and said, “If they built a church in their city he would slay the dragon.”
Matters are becoming very well systematized, both in the military and the mining way. You see, I was keeping up my apparent ignorance. I examined the surroundings with the idea of proceeding alone in the arrest of the fugitive, in order to recover my papers, concerning which the authorities would doubtless ask many disagreeable questions. From my temporary chimera I awoke to find that dismal howling still in my ears, “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla.”
“Until I find him, and I will, he’s no real menace to anyone but himself.”
“I’ve always thought that we in the arts are all shoplifters,” she said. “Everybody, from Shakespeare onwards to Jung and downwards to Freud. But once you’ve acknowledged that, when you set out on a shoplifting expedition, you go always to Cartier’s, and never to Woolworth’s!”
After this we rose and stood for a few moments in breathless silence,-we were afraid that some one might have been about the cottage listening and watching our movements.
“Well, my dear boy, look at it if you wish.”
She looked cold and white and upon the defensive.
The silence irked them both. They took refuge in vague superficialities.
“Fine trees, these. They looked like a pile of snow in the distance.”
“Yes. I love the smell of may blossom.”
“Scents carry one back to all sorts of memories.”
“I know. I always like a bowl of wild flowers in my room.”
The figure in the doorway moved out into the moonlight.
“I am afraid that I have been playing the spy.”
“It was for good ends, and to help you and yours.”
She looked at him anxiously.
“Have you found out anything more?”
He dropped her hand gently, and pulled out the leather case that he had taken.
We felt as though we had come into deep waters and were about being overwhelmed, and that the slightest mistake would clip asunder the last brittle thread of hope by which we were suspended, and let us down for ever into the dark and horrible pit of misery and degradation from which we were straining every nerve to escape. Such a life becomes a sort of tragic existence, with its storms and its grandeurs, its monotony and its diversity; and that is why, perhaps, we embark upon that short voyage with mingled feelings of pleasure and fear.
But it soon occurred to me that the good God, who had been with us thus far, would not forsake us at the eleventh hour. I oft rode in the dark and rain through the labyrinthine streets of unpeopled London. Truly we were not born to enjoy, but to submit, and to hope. And yet, as I had guessed, the game was not over yet. There was another hand to be played, and yet another and another.
The wind was bleak, and frequent sleet or snow-storms, added to the melancholy appearance wintry nature assumed. He listened to a faint galloping rhythm coming like the noise of a stream running in the distance. The moonlight shone on the deep-set eyes under the square brows.
“I did not know I was doing anything wrong.”
“Bring a dagger and pistols. We will take our choice.”
“And now I do not fear death. I should be well pleased to close my eyes, never more to open them again. And yet I fear it; even as I fear all things; for in any state of being linked by the chain of memory with this, happiness would not return-even in Paradise, I must feel that your love was less enduring than the mortal beatings of my fragile heart, every pulse of which knells audibly.”
Evening closed in quickly, far more quickly than I was prepared to expect. At the going down of the sun it began to snow heavily.
“Sure no one can spy upon us now. It’s close upon the hour.”
“Maybe he won’t come. Maybe he’ll get a sniff of danger,” said she.
“Poor boy, I am afraid you have been suffering. How long has it been in this state?”
From an oak wood in the valley came the “burring” of a night-jar. The light of the dawn was just touching the windows when a man came up the brick path to the porch and hammered at the oak door.
“Who are you?” he asked as he advanced. “What are you loitering there for?”
“Well, it’s not so bad as you think. We are but poor men that are trying in our own way to get our rights.”
With a sudden crash the door flew open, and three frowning, intent faces glared in at them from under the peaks of police caps.
“Be quiet, you fool!” he whispered. “You’ll be the undoing of us yet!”
The tallest of the constabulary took command. “I want to speak to you.”
“It is known that you are a French spy.”
“I know it, as others know it. You may be grateful that those who know it are my friends.”
He showed her his chained wrists.
“You are talking nonsense.”
They stood eyeing each other, challenging each other, gauging each other’s strength and grimness.
“Who are you, and what do you want?”
“But what does this mean? Breaking into the house?”
“It means that I am shrewder than you think. I insist upon befriending you, on placing you somewhere where you will be safe.”
“But still-I do not understand. What right — ?”
“It is not necessary that you should understand.”
“Because, like you, I have been kidnapped.”
“Yes, and I know everything.”
“I’d like to say a word to you before we separate,” said the man who had trapped them.
“What are you about?” she exclaimed, “do you know who we are?”
“Beware,” cried the man, “God hears you, and will smite your stony heart in his wrath; his poisoned arrows fly, his dogs of death are unleashed! We will not perish unrevenged-and mighty will our avenger be, when he descends in visible majesty, and scatters destruction among you.”
The cross roads which we now entered upon, were even in a worse state than the long neglected high-ways. The officers then passed on and left me standing with my anxious heart apparently palpitating in the throat.
These are their reasons, they are natural, we felt them to be ominous, and dreaded the future event enchained to them. That the night owl should screech before the noon-day sun, that the hard-winged bat should wheel around the bed of beauty, that muttering thunder should in early spring startle the cloudless air, that sudden and exterminating blight should fall on the tree and shrub, were unaccustomed, but physical events, less horrible than the mental creations of almighty fear.
So I took my wife by the hand, stepped softly to the door, raised the latch, drew it open, and peeped out. These are wild dreams. Yet since, now a week ago, they came on me. It went through my heart like a knife.
“Sure, hard words break no bones.”
“You damned murderers!” he said. “We’ll fix you yet!”
Will not the reader tire, if I should minutely describe what is written upon these papers?
“Oh, lady! oh, dear lady! let me go; I am dying!”
“Well, there are no papers. But I filled him up about constitutions and books of rules and forms of membership. He expects to get right down to the end of everything before he leaves.”
“The devil! You are late, and at the wrong place.”
“You’ll thank me for being here at all.”
They greedily imbibed this belief; and their over-weening credulity even rendered them eager to make converts to the same faith.
This little summer house was at some distance from the house, and in a lonely corner of the orchard, raised on an artificial mount, so that its windows should command a lovely view beyond the walls of the grounds.
“Time to make a run for it. The game is up.”
He spoke in a smothered voice, then suddenly clasping his hands, he exclaimed, “Swiftly, most swiftly advances the last hour for us all; as the stars vanish before the sun, so will his near approach destroy us. I have done my best; with grasping hands and impotent strength, I have hung on the wheel of the chariot; but she drags me along with it, while, like Juggernaut, she proceeds crushing out the being of all who strew the high road of life. Would that it were over-would that her procession achieved, we had all entered the tomb together!”
“Oh, Charlie, if it is all like that, I shall be so pleased with it.”
“Oh, no; I am not so easily disturbed, besides he has been so well behaved all day, that I am sure, if I tell him to be quiet in the morning, he will not fail to do so.”
So it was settled, and my bed was at once removed to the little room.
“A spy, and the child of a spy!”
Then he remembered the little wicket gate that led into the passage opening into the stable- yard.
“Oh, no, my dear boy; I never heard you, or I should have got up to see what was the matter.”
So it passed off, and no further observation was made about it.
“Fetch it, and bring a thick stick with you.”
The furzelands were vague, black, and desolate under the moon, strange eerie wastes where anything might happen.
“I don’t like to think of what may happen.”
They looked straight into each other’s eyes. His frankness brought her eyes glimmering up amusedly to meet his, and it was then that she noticed that they had come within a hundred yards of the big oak wood that bounded the common on the south-east. The domes of the trees gleamed in the moonlight.
“Look! Do you see where we are?”
It was close and oppressive in among the trees, and the summer foliage shut in the ride with massive walls of green. They came to the place where the furze thinned out toward the rough grassland below the terrace.
“It will not be for nothing.”
“No, no, one does not risk one’s neck for nothing.”
The clearing opened out before them with the horse tracks turning aside into it. Half the place was in sunlight, the rest smothered in umbrage, and very silent.
As they considered me but a child, I was no check to their mirth and sport. On the contrary, they gave me a long rope to pull down the swing when at its highest, and I sat down on the grass in front for greater convenience. Half of the clearing lay in shadow, the other half in sunlight. The boles of the oak-trees rose like grey-green pillars round it, curtained in between by the foliage of the hazels. He chose the high, ethical, magniloquent attitude, being sincere enough in his wild, foolish, visionary way.
“But how absurd, in these days! Then we shall soon have him out.”
“Spiders,” she muttered over and over again. “Spiders! Well, well…. The next time I must spin a web.” The thing must have jumped into his mind in a moment.
She put the candle down, opened the window, and looked out. Garden ground seemed to lie some fifteen feet below; it was all black, but she saw something that glimmered like water. She was still standing there when she heard the key turned in the lock of her door.
Footsteps died away down the passage. She realised that she was a prisoner. A feeling of helplessness possessed her. She rested her forehead on her crossed wrists and tried to think of something she could do. It took her some time to get a light, but she managed it and moved the candle to and fro three times across the window. Then she blew it out and sat down to wait. A quarter of an hour passed before she heard a faint splash in the water below. She leaned out of the window and stared down into the darkness, to see nothing but vague outlines and an uncertain glimmering of water. Then something moved, close to the wall. A whisper came up to her out of the darkness. His ironical air chilled her. She saw him resume his seat, take the tankard, look into it, sip a little of the drink, and then lean back in the chair and laugh.
“I’ll try. Would it kill him?”
“No, there’s not enough for that. If we could get him drugged, we could deal with the others. Try the trick tomorrow evening. We shall be on the watch in the wood. If you succeed, signal with your candle.”
Then, some time after midnight, she heard someone talking in the orchard beyond the stables. There was a sound as of men running, a scuffling of feet on the stones of the yard, a shattering of glass, and the splitting of wood. Then someone exclaimed angrily, and shadows shuffled away disappointedly into the darkness. Footsteps! On the gravel outside the house-and then the noise of a latchkey, the yawn and bang of a door, and the spitting of a match in the hall below.
The place was black under the moon, but at one gable end an attic window showed the red glow of fire. The casement frames were clearly outlined; from the open lattice came little swirls of smoke, and for a moment a black shape showed within like a man tossing his arms in despair.
“Do not excite yourself. You will be free in a few hours.”
“And the young man, are we to leave him chained up like an ox in a stall?”
The smell of the fire guided them, the pungent scent of burning wood. The stairs leading to the attic story were narrow and tortuous like the stairs in an old tower.
“There are too many of them, and they have hemmed me in. I can leave the country tonight if your friends yonder will come to terms.”
He spoke dejectedly as though utterly discouraged.
“You will do this for me, go out as my friend?”
“Come, then, let us waste no time.”
A man was standing in the trackway leading into the quarry, his face turned toward the sea. It was like a ghost voice coming, not from the burning room, but down the long gallery with its dormer windows and its sloping eaves. Some of the men on the stairs looked scared, and waited to see what the others would do. The night seemed still and empty of all sound, and there was no rattle of hoofs to tell of pursuit.
“Hum-we are a little early. Let us go down to the shore.”
The horses were tinned into a narrow, high-banked lane that descended steeply toward the flats between the high ground and the sea. Loose stones rolled and scattered under the horses’ hoofs.
“Adventure! I hate the word!”
“Your father may be scolding the moon. And Brick House is burning.”
He felt her body quiver. She was overstrung with suspense, incredulity, and fear.
“Why did we set the house alight? Well, you see, sweet one, it was an excellent trick for distracting the bull.”
Ruined the nest, alas! The swans of Albion had passed away for ever-an uninhabited rock in the wide Atlantic, which had remained since the creation uninhabited, unnamed, unmarked, would be of as much account in the world’s future history, as desert England.
Now again he paused to listen, fancying he heard the sound of galloping upon the hills.
“I beg your pardon?” said I. No clothes, no money. Nothing. My face was my fortune, as the saying is.
“That book,” he repeated, pointing a lean finger, “is about dreams.”
“Devil take the man! Why is he not here with the boat?”
It changed. It changed as a lit house changes when its lights are suddenly extinguished. His eyes were suddenly eyes that were fixed, his smile was frozen on his lips, and he stood there still. He stood there, very gently swaying.
“It seemed to have no more to do with us than a flight of night birds.”
“Nightmares,” he cried; “nightmares indeed! My God! Great birds that fought and tore.”
“If you call them dreams. Night after night. Vivid!-so vivid… this-” (he indicated the landscape that went streaming by the window) “seems unreal in comparison! I can scarcely remember who I am, what business I am on….”
“The dream is always the same-do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, dearest madam, I have been in heaven-surely no joy can be greater than you have given me.”
“Away yonder. I can see the sail.”
Submitted: July 18, 2021
© Copyright 2021 Robin James. All rights reserved.
Originally published at https://www.booksie.com.