I spent one-third of my journey looking out of the window of a
first-class carriage, the next in a local motor-car following the
course of a trout stream in a shallow valley, and the last tramping
over a ridge of downland through great beech-woods to my quarters
for the night. In the first part I was in an infamous temper; in
the second I was worried and mystified; but the cool twilight of
the third stage calmed and heartened me, and I reached the gates of
Fosse Manor with a mighty appetite and a quiet mind.
As we slipped up the Thames valley on the smooth Great Western
line I had reflected ruefully on the thorns in the path of duty.
For more than a year I had never been out of khaki, except the
months I spent in hospital. They gave me my battalion before the
Somme, and I came out of that weary battle after the first big
September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I had
received a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my
Matabele and South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a
chest like the High Priest's breastplate. I rejoined in January,
and got a brigade on the eve of Arras. There we had a star turn,
and took about as many prisoners as we put infantry over the top.
After that we were hauled out for a month, and subsequently planted
in a bad bit on the Scarpe with a hint that we would soon be used
for a big push. Then suddenly I was ordered home to report to the
War Office, and passed on by them to Bullivant and his merry men.
So here I was sitting in a railway carriage in a grey tweed suit,
with a neat new suitcase on the rack labelled C.B. The initials
stood for Cornelius Brand, for that was my name now. And an old boy
in the corner was asking me questions and wondering audibly why I
wasn't fighting, while a young blood of a second lieutenant with a
wound stripe was eyeing me with scorn.
The old chap was one of the cross-examining type, and after he
had borrowed my matches he set to work to find out all about me. He
was a tremendous fire-eater, and a bit of a pessimist about our
slow progress in the west. I told him I came from South Africa and
was a mining engineer.
'Been fighting with Botha?' he asked.
'No,' I said. 'I'm not the fighting kind.'
The second lieutenant screwed up his nose.
'Is there no conscription in South Africa?'
'Thank God there isn't,' I said, and the old fellow begged
permission to tell me a lot of unpalatable things. I knew his kind
and didn't give much for it. He was the sort who, if he had been
under fifty, would have crawled on his belly to his tribunal to get
exempted, but being over age was able to pose as a patriot. But I
didn't like the second lieutenant's grin, for he seemed a good
class of lad. I looked steadily out of the window for the rest of
the way, and wasn't sorry when I got to my station.
I had had the queerest interview with Bullivant and
Macgillivray. They asked me first if I was willing to serve again
in the old game, and I said I was. I felt as bitter as sin, for I
had got fixed in the military groove, and had made good there. Here
was I—a brigadier and still under forty, and with another year of
the war there was no saying where I might end. I had started out
without any ambition, only a great wish to see the business
finished. But now I had acquired a professional interest in the
thing, I had a nailing good brigade, and I had got the hang of our
new kind of war as well as any fellow from Sandhurst and Camberley.
They were asking me to scrap all I had learned and start again in a
new job. I had to agree, for discipline's discipline, but I could
have knocked their heads together in my vexation.
What was worse they wouldn't, or couldn't, tell me anything
about what they wanted me for. It was the old game of running me in
blinkers. They asked me to take it on trust and put myself
unreservedly in their hands. I would get my instructions later,
I asked if it was important.
Bullivant narrowed his eyes. 'If it weren't, do you suppose we
could have wrung an active brigadier out of the War Office? As it
was, it was like drawing teeth.'
'Is it risky?' was my next question.
'In the long run—damnably,' was the answer.
'And you can't tell me anything more?'
'Nothing as yet. You'll get your instructions soon enough. You
know both of us, Hannay, and you know we wouldn't waste the time of
a good man on folly. We are going to ask you for something which
will make a big call on your patriotism. It will be a difficult and
arduous task, and it may be a very grim one before you get to the
end of it, but we believe you can do it, and that no one else
can … You know us pretty well. Will you let us judge for
I looked at Bullivant's shrewd, kind old face and Macgillivray's
steady eyes. These men were my friends and wouldn't play with
'All right,' I said. 'I'm willing. What's the first step?'
'Get out of uniform and forget you ever were a soldier. Change
your name. Your old one, Cornelis Brandt, will do, but you'd better
spell it "Brand" this time. Remember that you are an engineer just
back from South Africa, and that you don't care a rush about the
war. You can't understand what all the fools are fighting about,
and you think we might have peace at once by a little friendly
business talk. You needn't be pro-German—if you like you can be
rather severe on the Hun. But you must be in deadly earnest about a
I expect the corners of my mouth fell, for Bullivant burst out
'Hang it all, man, it's not so difficult. I feel sometimes
inclined to argue that way myself, when my dinner doesn't agree
with me. It's not so hard as to wander round the Fatherland abusing
Britain, which was your last job.'
'I'm ready,' I said. 'But I want to do one errand on my own
first. I must see a fellow in my brigade who is in a shell-shock
hospital in the Cotswolds. Isham's the name of the place.'
The two men exchanged glances. 'This looks like fate,' said
Bullivant. 'By all means go to Isham. The place where your work
begins is only a couple of miles off. I want you to spend next
Thursday night as the guest of two maiden ladies called Wymondham
at Fosse Manor. You will go down there as a lone South African
visiting a sick friend. They are hospitable souls and entertain
many angels unawares.'
'And I get my orders there?'
'You get your orders, and you are under bond to obey them.' And
Bullivant and Macgillivray smiled at each other.
I was thinking hard about that odd conversation as the small
Ford car, which I had wired for to the inn, carried me away from
the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and
green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of
early June was on every tree. But I had no eyes for landscape and
the summer, being engaged in reprobating Bullivant and cursing my
fantastic fate. I detested my new part and looked forward to naked
shame. It was bad enough for anyone to have to pose as a pacifist,
but for me, strong as a bull and as sunburnt as a gipsy and not
looking my forty years, it was a black disgrace. To go into Germany
as an anti-British Afrikander was a stoutish adventure, but to
lounge about at home talking rot was a very different-sized job. My
stomach rose at the thought of it, and I had pretty well decided to
wire to Bullivant and cry off. There are some things that no one
has a right to ask of any white man.
When I got to Isham and found poor old Blaikie I didn't feel
happier. He had been a friend of mine in Rhodesia, and after the
German South-West affair was over had come home to a Fusilier
battalion, which was in my brigade at Arras. He had been buried by
a big crump just before we got our second objective, and was dug
out without a scratch on him, but as daft as a hatter. I had heard
he was mending, and had promised his family to look him up the
first chance I got. I found him sitting on a garden seat, staring
steadily before him like a lookout at sea. He knew me all right and
cheered up for a second, but very soon he was back at his staring,
and every word he uttered was like the careful speech of a drunken
man. A bird flew out of a bush, and I could see him holding himself
tight to keep from screaming. The best I could do was to put a hand
on his shoulder and stroke him as one strokes a frightened horse.
The sight of the price my old friend had paid didn't put me in love
We talked of brother officers and South Africa, for I wanted to
keep his thoughts off the war, but he kept edging round to it.
'How long will the damned thing last?' he asked.
'Oh, it's practically over,' I lied cheerfully. 'No more
fighting for you and precious little for me. The Boche is done in
all right … What you've got to do, my lad, is to sleep
fourteen hours in the twenty-four and spend half the rest catching
trout. We'll have a shot at the grouse-bird together this autumn
and we'll get some of the old gang to join us.'
Someone put a tea-tray on the table beside us, and I looked up
to see the very prettiest girl I ever set eyes on. She seemed
little more than a child, and before the war would probably have
still ranked as a flapper. She wore the neat blue dress and apron
of a V.A.D. and her white cap was set on hair like spun gold. She
smiled demurely as she arranged the tea-things, and I thought I had
never seen eyes at once so merry and so grave. I stared after her
as she walked across the lawn, and I remember noticing that she
moved with the free grace of an athletic boy.
'Who on earth's that?' I asked Blaikie.
'That? Oh, one of the sisters,' he said listlessly. 'There are
squads of them. I can't tell one from another.'
Nothing gave me such an impression of my friend's sickness as
the fact that he should have no interest in something so fresh and
jolly as that girl. Presently my time was up and I had to go, and
as I looked back I saw him sunk in his chair again, his eyes fixed
on vacancy, and his hands gripping his knees.
The thought of him depressed me horribly. Here was I condemned
to some rotten buffoonery in inglorious safety, while the salt of
the earth like Blaikie was paying the ghastliest price. From him my
thoughts flew to old Peter Pienaar, and I sat down on a roadside
wall and read his last letter. It nearly made me howl. Peter, you
must know, had shaved his beard and joined the Royal Flying Corps
the summer before when we got back from the Greenmantle affair.
That was the only kind of reward he wanted, and, though he was
absurdly over age, the authorities allowed it. They were wise not
to stickle about rules, for Peter's eyesight and nerve were as good
as those of any boy of twenty. I knew he would do well, but I was
not prepared for his immediately blazing success. He got his
pilot's certificate in record time and went out to France; and
presently even we foot-sloggers, busy shifting ground before the
Somme, began to hear rumours of his doings. He developed a perfect
genius for air-fighting. There were plenty better trick-flyers, and
plenty who knew more about the science of the game, but there was
no one with quite Peter's genius for an actual scrap. He was as
full of dodges a couple of miles up in the sky as he had been among
the rocks of the Berg. He apparently knew how to hide in the empty
air as cleverly as in the long grass of the Lebombo Flats. Amazing
yarns began to circulate among the infantry about this new airman,
who could take cover below one plane of an enemy squadron while all
the rest were looking for him. I remember talking about him with
the South Africans when we were out resting next door to them after
the bloody Delville Wood business. The day before we had seen a
good battle in the clouds when the Boche plane had crashed, and a
Transvaal machine-gun officer brought the report that the British
airman had been Pienaar. 'Well done, the old takhaar!' he cried,
and started to yarn about Peter's methods. It appeared that Peter
had a theory that every man has a blind spot, and that he knew just
how to find that blind spot in the world of air. The best cover, he
maintained, was not in cloud or a wisp of fog, but in the unseeing
patch in the eye of your enemy. I recognized that talk for the real
thing. It was on a par with Peter's doctrine of 'atmosphere' and
'the double bluff' and all the other principles that his queer old
mind had cogitated out of his rackety life.
By the end of August that year Peter's was about the best-known
figure in the Flying Corps. If the reports had mentioned names he
would have been a national hero, but he was only 'Lieutenant
Blank', and the newspapers, which expatiated on his deeds, had to
praise the Service and not the man. That was right enough, for half
the magic of our Flying Corps was its freedom from advertisement.
But the British Army knew all about him, and the men in the
trenches used to discuss him as if he were a crack football-player.
There was a very big German airman called Lensch, one of the
Albatross heroes, who about the end of August claimed to have
destroyed thirty-two Allied machines. Peter had then only seventeen
planes to his credit, but he was rapidly increasing his score.
Lensch was a mighty man of valour and a good sportsman after his
fashion. He was amazingly quick at manoeuvring his machine in the
actual fight, but Peter was supposed to be better at forcing the
kind of fight he wanted. Lensch, if you like, was the tactician and
Peter the strategist. Anyhow the two were out to get each other.
There were plenty of fellows who saw the campaign as a struggle not
between Hun and Briton, but between Lensch and Pienaar.
The 15th September came, and I got knocked out and went to
hospital. When I was fit to read the papers again and receive
letters, I found to my consternation that Peter had been downed. It
happened at the end of October when the southwest gales badly
handicapped our airwork. When our bombing or reconnaissance jobs
behind the enemy lines were completed, instead of being able to
glide back into safety, we had to fight our way home slowly against
a head-wind exposed to Archies and Hun planes. Somewhere east of
Bapaume on a return journey Peter fell in with Lensch—at least the
German Press gave Lensch the credit. His petrol tank was shot to
bits and he was forced to descend in a wood near Morchies. 'The
celebrated British airman, Pinner,' in the words of the German
communique, was made prisoner.
I had no letter from him till the beginning of the New Year,
when I was preparing to return to France. It was a very contented
letter. He seemed to have been fairly well treated, though he had
always a low standard of what he expected from the world in the way
of comfort. I inferred that his captors had not identified in the
brilliant airman the Dutch miscreant who a year before had broken
out of a German jail. He had discovered the pleasures of reading
and had perfected himself in an art which he had once practised
indifferently. Somehow or other he had got a Pilgrim's Progress,
from which he seemed to extract enormous pleasure. And then at the
end, quite casually, he mentioned that he had been badly wounded
and that his left leg would never be much use again.
After that I got frequent letters, and I wrote to him every week
and sent him every kind of parcel I could think of. His letters
used to make me both ashamed and happy. I had always banked on old
Peter, and here he was behaving like an early Christian
martyr—never a word of complaint, and just as cheery as if it were
a winter morning on the high veld and we were off to ride down
springbok. I knew what the loss of a leg must mean to him, for
bodily fitness had always been his pride. The rest of life must
have unrolled itself before him very drab and dusty to the grave.
But he wrote as if he were on the top of his form and kept
commiserating me on the discomforts of my job. The picture of that
patient, gentle old fellow, hobbling about his compound and
puzzling over his Pilgrim's Progress, a cripple for life after five
months of blazing glory, would have stiffened the back of a
This last letter was horribly touching, for summer had come and
the smell of the woods behind his prison reminded Peter of a place
in the Woodbush, and one could read in every sentence the ache of
exile. I sat on that stone wall and considered how trifling were
the crumpled leaves in my bed of life compared with the thorns
Peter and Blaikie had to lie on. I thought of Sandy far off in
Mesopotamia, and old Blenkiron groaning with dyspepsia somewhere in
America, and I considered that they were the kind of fellows who
did their jobs without complaining. The result was that when I got
up to go on I had recovered a manlier temper. I wasn't going to
shame my friends or pick and choose my duty. I would trust myself
to Providence, for, as Blenkiron used to say, Providence was all
right if you gave him a chance.
It was not only Peter's letter that steadied and calmed me.
Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main
valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and
back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which
seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and
then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale.
All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone
and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to
be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an
arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds.
I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could
hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of
the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet
chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds
and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.
In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of
what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was
peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars,
peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into
ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold
of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought
of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some
scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home.
I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old
and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The
freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of
the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the
life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour
I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present
troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory
after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should
inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till
the end of my days.
Very humbly and quietly, like a man walking through a cathedral,
I went down the hill to the Manor lodge, and came to a door in an
old red-brick facade, smothered in magnolias which smelt like hot
lemons in the June dusk. The car from the inn had brought on my
baggage, and presently I was dressing in a room which looked out on
a water-garden. For the first time for more than a year I put on a
starched shirt and a dinner-jacket, and as I dressed I could have
sung from pure lightheartedness. I was in for some arduous job, and
sometime that evening in that place I should get my marching
orders. Someone would arrive—perhaps Bullivant—and read me the
riddle. But whatever it was, I was ready for it, for my whole being
had found a new purpose. Living in the trenches, you are apt to get
your horizon narrowed down to the front line of enemy barbed wire
on one side and the nearest rest billets on the other. But now I
seemed to see beyond the fog to a happy country.
High-pitched voices greeted my ears as I came down the broad
staircase, voices which scarcely accorded with the panelled walls
and the austere family portraits; and when I found my hostesses in
the hall I thought their looks still less in keeping with the
house. Both ladies were on the wrong side of forty, but their dress
was that of young girls. Miss Doria Wymondham was tall and thin
with a mass of nondescript pale hair confined by a black velvet
fillet. Miss Claire Wymondham was shorter and plumper and had done
her best by ill-applied cosmetics to make herself look like a
foreign demi-mondaine. They greeted me with the friendly casualness
which I had long ago discovered was the right English manner
towards your guests; as if they had just strolled in and billeted
themselves, and you were quite glad to see them but mustn't be
asked to trouble yourself further. The next second they were cooing
like pigeons round a picture which a young man was holding up in
He was a tallish, lean fellow of round about thirty years,
wearing grey flannels and shoes dusty from the country roads. His
thin face was sallow as if from living indoors, and he had rather
more hair on his head than most of us. In the glow of the lamp his
features were very clear, and I examined them with interest, for,
remember, I was expecting a stranger to give me orders. He had a
long, rather strong chin and an obstinate mouth with peevish lines
about its corners. But the remarkable feature was his eyes. I can
best describe them by saying that they looked hot—not fierce or
angry, but so restless that they seemed to ache physically and to
want sponging with cold water.
They finished their talk about the picture—which was couched in
a jargon of which I did not understand one word—and Miss Doria
turned to me and the young man.
'My cousin Launcelot Wake—Mr Brand.'
We nodded stiffly and Mr Wake's hand went up to smooth his hair
in a self-conscious gesture.
'Has Barnard announced dinner? By the way, where is Mary?'
'She came in five minutes ago and I sent her to change,' said
Miss Claire. 'I won't have her spoiling the evening with that
horrid uniform. She may masquerade as she likes out-of-doors, but
this house is for civilized people.'
The butler appeared and mumbled something. 'Come along,' cried
Miss Doria, 'for I'm sure you are starving, Mr Brand. And Launcelot
has bicycled ten miles.'
The dining-room was very unlike the hall. The panelling had been
stripped off, and the walls and ceiling were covered with a dead-
black satiny paper on which hung the most monstrous pictures in
large dull-gold frames. I could only see them dimly, but they
seemed to be a mere riot of ugly colour. The young man nodded
towards them. 'I see you have got the Degousses hung at last,' he
'How exquisite they are!' cried Miss Claire. 'How subtle and
candid and brave! Doria and I warm our souls at their flame.'
Some aromatic wood had been burned in the room, and there was a
queer sickly scent about. Everything in that place was strained and
uneasy and abnormal—the candle shades on the table, the mass of
faked china fruit in the centre dish, the gaudy hangings and the
nightmarish walls. But the food was magnificent. It was the best
dinner I had eaten since 1914.
'Tell me, Mr Brand,' said Miss Doria, her long white face
propped on a much-beringed hand. 'You are one of us? You are in
revolt against this crazy war?'
'Why, yes,' I said, remembering my part. 'I think a little
common-sense would settle it right away.'
'With a little common-sense it would never have started,' said
'Launcelot's a C.O., you know,' said Miss Doria.
I did not know, for he did not look any kind of soldier … I
was just about to ask him what he commanded, when I remembered that
the letters stood also for 'Conscientious Objector,' and stopped in
At that moment someone slipped into the vacant seat on my right
hand. I turned and saw the V.A.D. girl who had brought tea to
Blaikie that afternoon at the hospital.
'He was exempted by his Department,' the lady went on, 'for he's
a Civil Servant, and so he never had a chance of testifying in
court, but no one has done better work for our cause. He is on the
committee of the L.D.A., and questions have been asked about him in
The man was not quite comfortable at this biography. He glanced
nervously at me and was going to begin some kind of explanation,
when Miss Doria cut him short. 'Remember our rule, Launcelot. No
turgid war controversy within these walls.'
I agreed with her. The war had seemed closely knit to the Summer
landscape for all its peace, and to the noble old chambers of the
Manor. But in that demented modish dining-room it was shriekingly
Then they spoke of other things. Mostly of pictures or common
friends, and a little of books. They paid no heed to me, which was
fortunate, for I know nothing about these matters and didn't
understand half the language. But once Miss Doria tried to bring me
in. They were talking about some Russian novel—a name like Leprous
Souls—and she asked me if I had read it. By a curious chance I had.
It had drifted somehow into our dug-out on the Scarpe, and after we
had all stuck in the second chapter it had disappeared in the mud
to which it naturally belonged. The lady praised its 'poignancy'
and 'grave beauty'. I assented and congratulated myself on my
second escape—for if the question had been put to me I should have
described it as God-forgotten twaddle.
I turned to the girl, who welcomed me with a smile. I had
thought her pretty in her V.A.D. dress, but now, in a filmy black
gown and with her hair no longer hidden by a cap, she was the most
ravishing thing you ever saw. And I observed something else. There
was more than good looks in her young face. Her broad, low brow and
her laughing eyes were amazingly intelligent. She had an uncanny
power of making her eyes go suddenly grave and deep, like a
glittering river narrowing into a pool.
'We shall never be introduced,' she said, 'so let me reveal
myself. I'm Mary Lamington and these are my aunts … Did you
really like Leprous Souls?'
It was easy enough to talk to her. And oddly enough her mere
presence took away the oppression I had felt in that room. For she
belonged to the out-of-doors and to the old house and to the world
at large. She belonged to the war, and to that happier world beyond
it—a world which must be won by going through the struggle and not
by shirking it, like those two silly ladies.
I could see Wake's eyes often on the girl, while he boomed and
oraculated and the Misses Wymondham prattled. Presently the
conversation seemed to leave the flowery paths of art and to verge
perilously near forbidden topics. He began to abuse our generals in
the field. I could not choose but listen. Miss Lamington's brows
were slightly bent, as if in disapproval, and my own temper began
He had every kind of idiotic criticism—incompetence, faint-
heartedness, corruption. Where he got the stuff I can't imagine,
for the most grousing Tommy, with his leave stopped, never put
together such balderdash. Worst of all he asked me to agree with
It took all my sense of discipline. 'I don't know much about the
subject,' I said, 'but out in South Africa I did hear that the
British leading was the weak point. I expect there's a good deal in
what you say.'
It may have been fancy, but the girl at my side seemed to
whisper 'Well done!'
Wake and I did not remain long behind before joining the ladies;
I purposely cut it short, for I was in mortal fear lest I should
lose my temper and spoil everything. I stood up with my back
against the mantelpiece for as long as a man may smoke a cigarette,
and I let him yarn to me, while I looked steadily at his face. By
this time I was very clear that Wake was not the fellow to give me
my instructions. He wasn't playing a game. He was a perfectly
honest crank, but not a fanatic, for he wasn't sure of himself. He
had somehow lost his self-respect and was trying to argue himself
back into it. He had considerable brains, for the reasons he gave
for differing from most of his countrymen were good so far as they
went. I shouldn't have cared to take him on in public argument. If
you had told me about such a fellow a week before I should have
been sick at the thought of him. But now I didn't dislike him. I
was bored by him and I was also tremendously sorry for him. You
could see he was as restless as a hen.
When we went back to the hall he announced that he must get on
the road, and commandeered Miss Lamington to help him find his
bicycle. It appeared he was staying at an inn a dozen miles off for
a couple of days' fishing, and the news somehow made me like him
better. Presently the ladies of the house departed to bed for their
beauty sleep and I was left to my own devices.
For some time I sat smoking in the hall wondering when the
messenger would arrive. It was getting late and there seemed to be
no preparation in the house to receive anybody. The butler came in
with a tray of drinks and I asked him if he expected another guest
'I 'adn't 'eard of it, sir,' was his answer. 'There 'asn't been
a telegram that I know of, and I 'ave received no
I lit my pipe and sat for twenty minutes reading a weekly paper.
Then I got up and looked at the family portraits. The moon coming
through the lattice invited me out-of-doors as a cure for my
anxiety. It was after eleven o'clock, and I was still without any
knowledge of my next step. It is a maddening business to be screwed
up for an unpleasant job and to have the wheels of the confounded
Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away,
white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had
expanded into a miniature lake. By the water's edge was a little
formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky
marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were
scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade
of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.
It was singing the old song 'Cherry Ripe', a common enough thing
which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the
scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an
elder England and of this hallowed countryside. I stepped inside
the garden bounds and saw the head of the girl Mary.
She was conscious of my presence, for she turned towards me.
'I was coming to look for you,' she said, 'now that the house is
quiet. I have something to say to you, General Hannay.'
She knew my name and must be somehow in the business. The
thought entranced me.
'Thank God I can speak to you freely,' I cried. 'Who and what
are you—living in that house in that kind of company?'
'My good aunts!' She laughed softly. 'They talk a great deal
about their souls, but they really mean their nerves. Why, they are
what you call my camouflage, and a very good one too.'
'And that cadaverous young prig?'
'Poor Launcelot! Yes—camouflage too—perhaps something a little
more. You must not judge him too harshly.'
'But … but—' I did not know how to put it, and stammered in
my eagerness. 'How can I tell that you are the right person for me
to speak to? You see I am under orders, and I have got none about
'I will give You Proof,' she said. 'Three days ago Sir Walter
Bullivant and Mr Macgillivray told you to come here tonight and to
wait here for further instructions. You met them in the little
smoking-room at the back of the Rota Club. You were bidden take the
name of Cornelius Brand, and turn yourself from a successful
general into a pacifist South African engineer. Is that
'You have been restless all evening looking for the messenger to
give you these instructions. Set your mind at ease. No messenger is
coming. You will get your orders from me.'
'I could not take them from a more welcome source,' I said.
'Very prettily put. If you want further credentials I can tell
you much about your own doings in the past three years. I can
explain to you who don't need the explanation, every step in the
business of the Black Stone. I think I could draw a pretty accurate
map of your journey to Erzerum. You have a letter from Peter
Pienaar in your pocket—I can tell you its contents. Are you willing
to trust me?'
'With all my heart,' I said.
'Good. Then my first order will try you pretty hard. For I have
no orders to give you except to bid you go and steep yourself in a
particular kind of life. Your first duty is to get "atmosphere", as
your friend Peter used to say. Oh, I will tell you where to go and
how to behave. But I can't bid you do anything, only live idly with
open eyes and ears till you have got the "feel" of the
She stopped and laid a hand on my arm.
'It won't be easy. It would madden me, and it will be a far
heavier burden for a man like you. You have got to sink down deep
into the life of the half-baked, the people whom this war hasn't
touched or has touched in the wrong way, the people who split hairs
all day and are engrossed in what you and I would call selfish
little fads. Yes. People like my aunts and Launcelot, only for the
most part in a different social grade. You won't live in an old
manor like this, but among gimcrack little "arty" houses. You will
hear everything you regard as sacred laughed at and condemned, and
every kind of nauseous folly acclaimed, and you must hold your
tongue and pretend to agree. You will have nothing in the world to
do except to let the life soak into you, and, as I have said, keep
your eyes and ears open.'
'But you must give me some clue as to what I should be looking
'My orders are to give you none. Our chiefs—yours and mine—want
you to go where you are going without any kind of parti pris.
Remember we are still in the intelligence stage of the affair. The
time hasn't yet come for a plan of campaign, and still less for
'Tell me one thing,' I said. 'Is it a really big thing we're
'A—really—big—thing,' she said slowly and very gravely. 'You and
I and some hundred others are hunting the most dangerous man in all
the world. Till we succeed everything that Britain does is
crippled. If we fail or succeed too late the Allies may never win
the victory which is their right. I will tell you one thing to
cheer you. It is in some sort a race against time, so your
purgatory won't endure too long.'
I was bound to obey, and she knew it, for she took my
willingness for granted.
From a little gold satchel she selected a tiny box, and opening
it extracted a thing like a purple wafer with a white St Andrew's
Cross on it.
'What kind of watch have you? Ah, a hunter. Paste that inside
the lid. Some day you may be called on to show it … One other
thing. Buy tomorrow a copy of the Pilgrim's Progress and get it by
heart. You will receive letters and messages some day and the style
of our friends is apt to be reminiscent of John Bunyan … The
car will be at the door tomorrow to catch the ten-thirty, and I
will give you the address of the rooms that have been taken for
you … Beyond that I have nothing to say, except to beg you to
play the part well and keep your temper. You behaved very nicely at
I asked one last question as we said good night in the hall.
'Shall I see you again?'
'Soon, and often,' was the answer. 'Remember we are
I went upstairs feeling extraordinarily comforted. I had a
perfectly beastly time ahead of me, but now it was all glorified
and coloured with the thought of the girl who had sung 'Cherry
Ripe' in the garden. I commended the wisdom of that old serpent
Bullivant in the choice of his intermediary, for I'm hanged if I
would have taken such orders from anyone else.