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When Peter Moran picks up a man on the roadside while driving through a bitter rainy night, he embarks upon an adventure that will lead him into treasonous international plots, flying adventures and tests of both his bravery and loyalty.
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by Nevil Shute
Copyright 1928 Nevil Shute Norway.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
AS I HAVE SAID, this matter started in the night. I was agent to Lord Arner at that time; steward and agent, for most of the family affairs passed through my hands, and I ran the outdoor business of the house itself. I lived by myself in the Steward’s House at Under Hall, about a couple of miles from the little town of Under, in West Sussex. I live there still.
Very late, on the night of which I am writing, I was driving home over the South Downs, after a dinner in Winchester. I forget for the moment what that dinner was about; I do not think it can have been connected with my old school; because I was driving home in a very bad temper, and so I think it must have been the Corn Association. They tell me that I am reactionary. Very likely they are right, but they should give a man a better dinner than that before they tell him so.
In any case, all that is beside the point. I started home to drive the forty odd miles from Winchester to Under at about half-past eleven that night. It was March; a fine night with a pack of loose cloud in front of the moon that gradually turned to rain. I was in a dinner-jacket, but the hood of my old Morris is pretty watertight. I could take the rain phlegmatically, and so I set the wiper going, jammed my foot down a bit harder, and wished I was in bed with a fire in my bedroom instead of bucketing along at forty miles an hour over the black country roads.
Now, on that run from Winchester to Under, you pass over give-and-take sort of country for most of the way, but about ten miles from Under the road gets up on to the high ground by Leventer, and runs along the top for a couple of miles. That two miles runs with a fairly good surface straight over the unfenced down. You can let a car out there in the daytime, but at night you have to be careful, because of the cattle.
It was about half-past twelve when I came swinging up over that bit of down that night, doing about forty and keeping a sharp look-out for sheep. The night was as black as the pit. By that time the rain was coming down pretty hard. There was no traffic on the road at that time of night; I sat there sucking my dead pipe and thinking no evil, watched the rain beat against the windscreen, watching the wiper flick it off again, and thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t out in it.
About half-way along that stretch of down I passed a man on the road.
He was walking along in the direction of Under. I didn’t see very much of him as I passed, because the rain blurred the windscreen except just where the wiper caught it, and I was going at a fair pace. He seemed to be a tallish well-set-up fellow in a leather coat, but without a hat. The water was fairly streaming and glistening off him in my headlights. I drove past. Then it struck me that it was a pretty rotten trick to drive by and leave a man out on the road in a night like that. I jammed both feet hard down, and we stopped with a squeal about twenty yards beyond him.
I stuck my pipe in my pocket, switched on the dashboard light, leaned over, and opened the door.
“Want a lift into Under?” I called.
On a night like that I should have expected to hear his footsteps squelching along at the side of the road. When I didn’t, I turned and looked out of the little window at the back. He seemed to have stopped dead. I fancied that I could see him dimly in the rain, standing by the side of the road in the red light of my tail lamp.
The rain came beating steadily against the car, with little patterings. To put it frankly, I thought it was our local idiot. In a job like mine one gets to know the look of those chaps and the way they wander about the country in the worst weather, often with no hat on. We have a good few naturals about my part of the world, and they don’t come to much harm. Their people seem to like to have them about the place, and they’re good with animals.
In any case, it was a rotten night for an idiot to be out. It didn’t much matter to me what time I got to bed now, and I had a fancy to collect this chap and see him safely home. His people live at a farm about five miles off that road, more or less on the way to Under.
I thought that he was frightened at the sudden stopping of the car, and so I slid along the seat and stuck my head out of the door to reassure him.
“All right, Ben,” I said. They call him Ben. “I’m Mr. Moran from Under Hall. I’ll take you back home in the car if you’ll come with me. It’s a rotten wet night for walking. That’s right. Stay where you are, and I’ll bring the car back to you. Then you can come in out of the wet.”
I slipped the gear into reverse and ran the car back along the road to him. He was still standing motionless by the grass; I could see him in the gleam of the tail lamp through the little window. I stopped the car when he was opposite the door.
“Come on in,” I said. “It’s all wet out there. You know me—Mr. Moran.”
He moved at last, and stooped towards the door. “It’s very good of you,” he said. “It’s not much of a night for walking.”
I knew he wasn’t an idiot as soon as I heard his voice, of course. And while I was wondering why he had held back from accepting a lift upon a night like that, he stuck his head in under the hood and followed it with his body.
He settled himself into his seat and turned to face me. “I’m going as far as Under,” he said quietly. “If you could put me down at the station I’d be very grateful.”
He had a lean, tanned face, which he was wiping with a khaki handkerchief; his hair was straight and black, and fell down wetly over his forehead towards his eyes. In the road the rain dripped monotonously from the car in little liquid notes that mingled with the purring of the engine. I stared at him for a minute. He returned my stare unmoved.
“My name is Moran,” I said at last. “Aren’t you Maurice Lenden? We met in the Flying Corps. In Ninety-two Squadron, in 1917. About June or July. I remember you quite well now.” I paused, and eyed him curiously. “It’s funny how one runs across people.”
He avoided my eyes. “You must be mixing me up with someone else,” he said uncertainly. “My name is James.”
From the way he spoke I knew that he was lying. But apart from that, I never forget a face. If I wasn’t pretty good that way I shouldn’t have been agent to Lord Arner. I knew as certainly as I was sitting there that he was Lenden. I remembered that I had met him since the war at a reunion dinner—in 1922 or ’23. I remembered that somebody had told me that he was still flying, as a civilian aeroplane pilot. And there was something else that I had heard about him in gossip with some old Flying Corps men in Town, quite recently—divorce, or something of the sort. At the moment I couldn’t bring that to mind.
I wrinkled my brows and glanced at him again, and for the first time I noticed his clothes. It was probably the clothes which brought him to my mind so readily at first. Damn it, the man was dressed for flying. He had no hat, but he wore a long, heavy leather coat with pockets at the knee. There was a map sticking out of one of these, all sodden with the rain. He had altered very little; in those clothes he might have come walking into the Mess, in 1917, when I used to play that game myself. Below the coat he was wearing sheepskin thigh-boots reaching high above the knee, with the fur inside.
I was so positive that I smiled. “James or Lenden,” I said, “I’m damn glad to see you again. Been flying?”
I suppose I was a bit riled at his refusal to know me. I was watching him as I spoke, and I saw his lips tighten irritably. But all he said was:
“I should be very grateful for a lift into Under, if you’re going that way.”
The rain streamed down into the headlights, and the wiper flicked uneasily upon the windscreen. “You won’t get a train from Under tonight,” I said, “and you’ll have your work cut out to wake them at the pub. It’s a rotten hole. If you’re Lenden, you’d better come along back with me. There’s a spare room in my place that you can have. Dare say I can fix you up with a pair of pyjamas, too.”
He was about to say something, but hesitated. And then: “It’s very good of you,” he muttered. “But I’d rather go on.”
I sat there staring at him in perplexity. He was hugging a little square, black case in the crook of his arm, but at the moment it didn’t strike me what that was. I couldn’t understand why he had given me a false name. And then it struck me that he’d made a damn poor show of it if he wanted to get away unnoticed, and that I could have done it very much better myself. But that was in keeping with the man as I remembered him. He was a simple soul, and quite incapable of any sustained deception.
“Look here,” I said at last. “Purely as a matter of general interest—where have you come from? You’ve been flying, haven’t you? I see you’re in flying kit.”
He didn’t answer for a minute, but then: “I had a forced landing,” he said.
He jerked his head towards the down. “Just over there.”
I wrinkled my brows. “How long ago?”
“About an hour. Hour and a half perhaps. Just before the rain came.”
I leaned forward on the wheel and stared at him. I couldn’t make out for the moment whether to believe a word of what he said. There was something wrong about him, and I didn’t know what it was. He wasn’t drunk. I thought it might be drugs. He didn’t sound natural. His talk about a forced landing seemed to me to be all nonsense. I’ve been a pilot myself, and I know. When one is in sole charge of a machine worth several thousand pounds, and one has just put it down very suddenly and unexpectedly and hard—one doesn’t just go off and leave it. Especially on a night like that.
The rain drummed steadily upon the fabric of the hood.
“You are Lenden, aren’t you?” I inquired.
He laughed shortly, and a little self-consciously. “Yes, I’m Lenden,” he said. “Just my infernal luck, running up against a man like you. I’ve been a regular Jonah lately.” And he laughed again.
“Thanks,” I said dryly.
He stirred uneasily in his seat. “Let’s get on,” he muttered.
“Right you are,” I said, and slipped in the gear. I didn’t want to go ferreting about in his affairs if he wanted to keep them to himself. “You weren’t speaking the truth, by any chance, when you said you’d had a forced landing?”
That stung him up a bit.
“You’ll know in the morning, I suppose,” he replied. “They’ll find the machine.”
I slipped it out again. “Damn it,” I said. “Do you mean you’ve got an aeroplane out there?”
“Did you crash her?”
“No, she’s all right, but for the oil pressure. It was that that brought me down.”
I could make nothing of his way of treating the affair.
“What have you done with her?” I asked. “There’s a barn about half a mile down the hill over there. Did you get her under the lee of that?”
He looked embarrassed. “I just left her where she was.”
I gazed at him blankly, hardly able to believe my ears. It was the sort of thing a novice might have said—not a pilot of his experience. After all, one expects a man to do his best for the machine.
“Do you mean she isn’t pegged down, or anything?”
He shook his head. “I just left her.”
I leaned forward and switched off the engine of the car. “But damn it all,” I said, “she’ll blow away!”
He didn’t stir.
“Let her,” he said.
I knew then that it must be drugs.
“We can’t do that,” I said irritably. “She’ll be blowing about all over the country, on a night like this.” It riled me that I should have to get out of the car into the rain in my dinner-jacket to go and tie up this man’s aeroplane, but there seemed to be nothing for it. I reached out and took an electric torch from the dashboard pocket, and nudged him.
“Come on,” I said. “Get out. We’re going to peg her down. Get on with it.”
He didn’t move. I paused for a moment.
He seemed to make something of an effort. “Look here, Moran,” he said. “Let’s get going to Under. That machine’s all right where she is.”
“Leaving her loose?” I asked.
He nodded. “That’s right. Leave her loose. Look here, I don’t want to bother about her. Just take me along to Under and drop me at the station.”
Well, drugs are the devil.
“Can’t do that, old boy,” I said cheerfully. “She’s on our land—Lord Arner’s land. It might cost us a couple of pounds if she blew through a hedge, leaving her loose like that. More, perhaps.”
I shoved him towards the door. “Come on. Let’s go and have a look at her.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “If you like.”
I had a couple of garden forks and a hank of cord in the back of the car, as luck would have it, that I’d got in Winchester for the house. There was a strap in the dickey, too. I took the lot out, wrapped my raincoat closely round me, swore a little, and set out with Lenden across the down.
It was infernally dark. The lights of the car behind us gave us a direction and prevented us from wandering in circles on the slopes. Lenden didn’t know where he had left the machine, but thought that he had walked for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour before it hit the road. We went stumbling on into the darkness for a bit, flashing my torch in every direction.
Presently I stopped. It was pretty hopeless to go on groping for her that way on a night like that.
“Did you land into wind?” I asked.
He nodded. “It was pure guesswork, of course. The wind must have been a bit under the starboard wing, because she went down to port as I touched. Still, I got her up again, so she can’t have been far wrong.”
“Right,” said I. “Now, did you land uphill or down?”
He considered for a moment. “Uphill, by the feel of it,” he said vaguely. “She pulled up pretty quickly. Yes, I’m sure it was uphill. Not much of a slope, though.”
“You had lights to land by?”
“Wing-tip flares. They burnt out as soon as I was on the ground, so I couldn’t see much.” He hesitated. “I say, let’s leave the ruddy thing.”
I disregarded that, and stood thinking about it for a minute. If he had landed uphill and into wind it localised the machine pretty well, especially as it was only ten minutes’ walk from the road. I bore round to the right, and began to traverse the only uphill slope that faced into the wind.
We found her at the top of the down, where the slope was gentle. I heard her before we got the light on her, a series of drumming crashes as the loose rudder flicked over from hard-a-port to hard-a-starboard, and then to port again. I switched the light in that direction, and there she was, facing more or less into wind with the controls slamming free. He hadn’t even troubled to drop the belt around the stick.
“Damn fine way to leave a machine,” I muttered. If he heard, Lenden did not reply.
That was a very big aeroplane. I hadn’t flown myself since 1917, when I went down with a bullet through my chest to spend the remainder of the war in Germany. I thought that I had forgotten all about that game. But now I am inclined to regard it as one of those things that no man ever really forgets; an old pilot will always linger a little over the photographs of aeroplanes on the back page of the Daily Mail. That is the only way in which I can account for the fact that I knew that machine by sight. The French had been doing a number of record-breaking long-distance flights upon the type; I stood there in the rain for a minute playing the torch upon the wings and fuselage, and wondered what on earth Lenden was doing with a French high-speed bomber.
“Where d’you get the Breguet from, Lenden?” I asked.
He hesitated for a moment. “I’ve been doing a job on her,” he said vaguely.
There was no point in standing there in the rain questioning a man who didn’t want to talk. The first thing was to stop those controls slamming about; I made him get up into the cockpit and tighten the belt around the stick. He obeyed me quietly. Then we set about pegging her down for the night.
In a quarter of an hour it was done. We’d buried the garden forks beneath each wing-tip and stamped the sods down over them, lashing the wing loosely to them with the cord. That was the best that we could do in the circumstances. It was a pretty rotten job when it was done, but it only had to hold till daylight. I didn’t think it was going to blow hard.
I went all round before we left to have a final look that everything was shipshape. The wind went sighing through the wires in the darkness, and the rain beat and drummed most desolately upon the fabric of the wings. Flashing my light under the fuselage I saw a sort of blunt snout four or five inches in diameter sticking out down below the clean lines of the body. I stooped curiously, and ran my fingers over the bottom of it. There was a lens.
“All right,” said Lenden from the darkness behind me. “It’s a camera.”
I straightened up and thought of the black packet that he had left in the car. But I had had enough of asking questions.
“Let’s get along back to Under,” I said, and turned towards the lights of the car. “Unless you’re staying here?”
He shook his head, and we went stumbling through the rain over the down towards the car. I was thoroughly wet by the time we got there, and not in the best of tempers. I’d done my best to help the man for the sake of old times, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit hurt at the way that he had received the assistance I had given him. And it was a funny business, too. I didn’t see what he was doing with a Breguet XIX in England, and I didn’t see what had brought him to make a forced landing with it in the middle of the night. And it was very evident that he didn’t want to tell me.
We reached the car in silence, and bundled in out of the wet. I paused for a moment before pressing the starter.
“You’d better come along back with me to my place,” I suggested.
He seemed embarrassed at that. “It’s very good of you,” he said diffidently. “But I’d rather go straight to the station. I’m … in a hurry.”
“You won’t do much good at the station at this time of night,” I remarked. “There isn’t a train till twenty past seven.”
I considered for a moment, and added: “You’d better come along with me and sleep on the sofa if you want to catch that train. There’ll be a fire to sleep by, which is more than you’ll find at the station.” I eyed him thoughtfully. “There’s nobody else in the house. I’m a bachelor.” I don’t quite know why I added that.
He hesitated again, and gave in. “All right,” he said at last. “I’d like to very much.”
We were about five miles from Under Hall. I lived there, in the Steward’s House, just across the stable-yard from the mansion. It had been the most convenient arrangement in every way. Arner himself was over seventy years old, and too busy a man to occupy himself with the management of his estate; his only son was in Persia.
It was no great shakes as a job, but—it suited me. The screw wasn’t much to boast about, but I had a small income of my own that was getting gradually larger with judicious nursing, and the family treated me as an equal. It’s the sort of job that I’m cut out for. I was articled to a solicitor some years before the war, though I was country-bred. I tried it again for a year after the Armistice, and then I gave it up. I should have made a rotten lawyer.
I drove into the stable-yard at about a quarter-past two that night, left the car in the coach-house, and walked across to my own place with Lenden. The Steward’s House at Under is built into the grey stone wall that separates the gardens from the stable-yard, and the one big living-room has rather a pleasant outlook on the right side of the wall. There are three little bedrooms and a kitchen. It suited me to live there.
They had banked up the fire for me, and left a cold meal on the table with a jug of beer standing in the grate. There was a cold pie, I remember, and a potato salad. I threw off my coat, kicked the fire into a blaze, gave Lenden the use of my room for a wash, and settled down with him for a late supper.
I didn’t eat much at that time in the morning, but Lenden seemed hungry and made quite a heavy meal. I lit my pipe and sat there lazily with my back to the fire, waiting and smoking till he had finished. Between the mouthfuls he talked in a desultory manner about the war. The Squadron was re-equipped late in 1917, after I was shot down. With Bristol Fighters. I had heard that. Later they got moved to a place near Abbeville. He got shot through the thigh soon after that, and his observer was killed in the same fight, and he crashed in our support trenches. He became an instructor at Stamford when he came out of hospital. And afterwards at Netheravon. Yes, he supposed he’d been luckier than most.
“Damn sight better off than if you’d been in Germany,” I said shortly. “You didn’t stay on at all after the war?” I paused. “Someone told me that Standish had gone back,” I said, and watched the smoke curl into the darkness above the lamp. “Short-service commission, or something. I forget who it was.”
He nodded. “He did. But I came straight out at Armistice.” He glanced at me darkly across the table. “I was married. Got married in August, 1918, an’ I wanted to be out of it. Make a home for my girl, an’ all that sort of thing.” He grinned without laughing. “Like hell.”
I nodded absently.
Lenden had finished eating. “Went joy-riding with a fellow from Twenty-one Squadron that summer,” he said. “Early summer of 1919, just after the war. We had an Avro seaplane.” He mused over it for a minute. “My God, we’d got a lot to learn in those days. We took our wives with us, for one thing….”
He leaned his head upon his hands and began to tell me about this joy-riding concern. They spent practically the whole of their savings and gratuity upon this seaplane, and they started in with it to tour the South Coast towns, giving joy-rides at a guinea a head. In the prevailing optimism of those days they thought that they could make it pay.
Perhaps, if they had had a land machine they might have got away with it, in spite of their total lack of business experience. Lenden, with the knowledge that he had gained in later years, had no illusions on that point. But he himself put down their failure to the difficulty of operating the machine from the beach of a crowded seaside resort, and he talked for a long time about that.
“Handling the machine on to the beach. That’s what did us in—properly. Damn it, it took the hell of a time. Days when there was a sea breeze I’d come in to land over the town, sideslipping down over the houses and the promenade. We were always getting pulled up for flying too low over the promenade. They didn’t think about our having a living to get out of their ruddy town.”
He stared morosely at the table-cloth. “The sea breeze was hell. I’d land a couple of hundred yards out, and then turn to taxi in to the beach. Then the fun began, and we’d come taxi-ing in to the beach with a twenty-mile wind behind, blowing us straight on to the sand. We hit the beach like that once or twice when we were new to the game, an’ stove in a float each time. When we got sick of patching floats I used to try and swing her round into the wind again at the last moment, to check her way. Often as not I’d get outside the stretch of shore the Council had roped off for us in doing that, and go driving in among the bathers. That meant stopping the prop for fear of hitting them, and blowing ashore on to the beach. And there was always a row about it afterwards.
“We never got more than three ten-minute joy-rides done in the hour,” he said. “And the engine running the whole time. It meant that we had to make the charge thirty shillings a flight.”
And so it came to an end. They began operations in May at Brighton; by July they were in difficulties, and in September they gave up. They were lucky in that they were able to sell the machine, and in that way they realised sufficient of their capital to pay off most of the bills and to leave them with about fifty pounds each in hand.
“I sent my wife back to her people for a bit,” said Lenden. “That was the first time.”
He relapsed into silence, and sat there brooding over the table. And when he spoke again, I was suddenly sorry for the man. “It’s ruddy good fun having to do that,” he said quietly. “Especially when it’s the first time.”
He went on to tell me that he had been out of a job then for about two months, hanging about the aerodromes and living on what he could pick up. He bought and sold one or two old cars at a profit; in those days there was ready money to be made that way. And so he eked out his little means until he got a job at Hounslow with A.T. and T.
I raised my head inquiringly.
“Aircraft Transport and Travel,” he replied. “On the Paris route. We used to fly Nines and Sixteens from Hounslow to Le Bourget, and get through as best you could. Later on we moved to Croydon.”
I nodded. “I crossed that way once. They gave us paper bags to be sick into.”
“Dare say. It was all right while the fine weather lasted, but in the winter … it was rotten. Rotten. No ground organisation to help you—no wireless or weather reports in those days. Days when it was too thick to see the trees beyond the aerodrome we used to ring up the harbour-master at Folkestone and get a weather report from him. But we didn’t do that much.
“And people used to pay to come with us,” he said slowly. “On days like that.”
He rested his chin upon one hand and stared across the white table into the shadows of the room. “I’ve taken a Sixteen off from Hounslow with a full load of passengers when the clouds were right down to the ground,” he said, “and flown all the way to the coast without ever getting more than two hundred feet up. Time and again. Jerking her nose up into a zoom when you came to a tree or a church, and letting her down again the other side so’s you could see the ground again. At over a hundred miles an hour. Crossing the Channel like that—ten minutes in a cold sweat, praying to God that your compass was right, and your engine would stick it out, and you’d see the cliffs the other side before you hit. And then, at the end of it all, to have to land in a field half-way between the coast and Le Bourget because it was getting too thick for safety.” He paused. “It was wicked,” he said.
They used to carry the much advertised Air Mails. That meant that the machines had to fly whether there were passengers to be carried or not. It was left to the discretion of the pilot whether or not the flight should be cancelled in bad weather; the pilots were dead keen and went on flying in the most impossible conditions.
“Sanderson got killed that way,” he said. “At Douinville. An’ all he had in the machine was a couple of picture postcards from trippers in Paris, sent to their families in England as a curiosity. That was the Air Mail. No passengers or anything—just the Mail.” He thought for a little. “Now that was a funny thing,” he said quietly. “Sanderson hit a tree on top of a little cliff, and he died about a week later. An’ all the time in the hospital he was explaining to the nurse how he’d put his machine in through the roof of the Coliseum and what a pity it was, because there was a damn good show going on at the time and he’d gone and spoilt it all. And presently he died.
“We got a bit more careful after that,” he said.
For Lenden that had been a good job. He told me that he had been making about nine hundred a year while it lasted. He took a little flat in Croydon and lived there with his wife for twelve months or so.
“That was a fine time,” he said. “The best I’ve ever had. We’d got plenty of money for the first time since we were married. An’ Mollie liked the flat all right, and she made it simply great. We thought we was going on for ever, an’ we were beginning to make plans to get into a house with a bit of garden where we could have fruit trees and things. And we were going to have a pack o’ kids—two or three of them, as soon as we got settled.”
There was silence in the room for a minute. “You can’t run a show like that without a subsidy,” he said at last. “Or you couldn’t in those days, with the equipment we had. It lasted on into the winter of 1920. Then Aircraft Transport and Travel—it was a damn good name, that—they packed up. And that was the end of that.”
He was staring into the shadows at the far end of the room, and speaking in a very quiet voice. I had heard something of that early failure in the heroic period of aviation, but this was the first time that I had heard a personal account.
This time he was longer out of a job. The flat in Croydon was broken up and his wife went back again to her people, while Lenden went wandering around the south of England in his search for flying work. The time had gone by when motor-cars could be bought and sold at a profit by those outside the trade, and I gathered that by the end of four months his wife’s parents were financing him. In the end he found a job again in his own line of business, as pilot for an aerial survey to be made in Honduras.
“D’you ever meet Sam Robertson?” he inquired. “He was an observer in the war, and he got this contract for a survey for the Development Trust. Raked round in the city and got it all off his own bat. And he got me in on it to do the flying for him.
“In Honduras. They’d taken over a concession up the Patuca—there’s lashings of copper up there if only you could get it out. Lashings of it. This survey was one of the first shows of that sort to be done. It was a seaplane job. Sam bought a Fairey with a Rolls Eagle in her from the Disposals crowd, and we left for Belize in March, 1921.
“It meant leaving Mollie with her people,” he said. “I could make her a pretty fair allowance, of course. I’d got the money then—for as long as the job lasted.”
I stirred in my chair. “Was this a photographic survey, then?” I asked.
He nodded. “In a way. The contract didn’t run to a proper mosaic of photographs. There wasn’t any need for it for what they wanted, and, anyway, we’d have had a job to line it up because there’s never been any sort of ground work done there to give you a grid. No. We picked up one of their people at Trujillo, a fellow called Wilson who was their resident out there, and he came on up the Patuca with us. We did most of the work with oblique photographs, and each evening he made up a rough map of the country we’d flown over.”
He paused. “It was the copper he was mostly interested in. You can tell it by the colour of the trees, you know. They look all dusty and dried up from the air, different to the rest of the jungle. You can see the copper areas quite clearly that way.”
He said it was the devil of a country. From Belize they had gone by a little coastal steamer, Brazilian-owned, to Trujillo. There they erected the machine, on the beach, in the sun. The inhabitants were a sort of Indian, very quiet and mostly diseased.
“They used to come and sit round staring at us, without saying anything at all,” he said. “And then when we’d sweated a bucket we’d go in to the pub and drink with the Dagoes. It was a rotten place, that. Rotten.”
When the machine was ready they sent a launch full of stores round by sea to the mouth of the Patuca; he told me that the concession was about a hundred miles up the river. Wilson went with the launch; Lenden and Robertson gave them three days’ start and went after them in the seaplane. In a couple of hours’ flight they had passed the launch, and then they carried on up the river to the agreed meeting place—Jutigalpa.
He told me that that was a glorified mud village, with a Spanish-speaking half-caste to collect a few taxes from the Indians. They lived in a native hut, picketing the machine in the shade of the trees on the beach. That was to be their home for the next six months.
They started flying operations as soon as the launch arrived. They had a very fat mechanic, Meyer by name; within the first three days he was down with fever and some form of heat apoplexy, and had to be sent back to Trujillo in the launch. That delayed them for a week. Then they carried on with the flying, and had surveyed about a third of the area when they crashed a float. Lenden, in taxi-ing the machine on the water, ran her over a submerged snag which ripped their port float from bow to stern; he was fortunate in being able to run the machine ashore before she sank.
“And there we were,” he said, “for the next three months, till we got a new float out from England. Wilson went back with Robertson to Trujillo to send the order, and then Robertson came back to Jutigalpa, and we built a sort of palm-leaf hut over the machine with the Indians. And then we just sat on our backsides in that rotten little hole and waited for the float.”
When the float came they repaired the machine and carried on, finishing the survey in about six weeks. From the point of view of the Development Trust it was a success; they had found out what they wanted to know about their land cheaply and accurately.
“We finished the job, and came back to Trujillo,” said Lenden.
The coals fell together with a little crash. It was about half-past three in the morning. I had lost all desire to go to bed; now that Lenden was talking freely I wanted to hear the end of his story. I knew what was coming. Gradually, and in his own way, he was working up to the point of telling me what he had been doing with that Breguet on the down. I wanted to know about that.
I swung round, pitched one or two more lumps of coal into the grate, and poked them up. Lenden got up absently from the table and came and threw himself down into a chair before the fire.
“No,” he said at last. “You wouldn’t have heard about it here. But there was a tornado out there that year. Sam Robertson and I settled down at Trujillo for a few weeks while he got in touch with some of the mines in Nicaragua. We thought that while we were there we might get one or two more jobs of the same sort in that district, and Wilson gave us a whole lot of help in getting them. We’d just about fixed to go down to the Santa Vanua—it was a sort of forestry survey that they wanted there—when the storm came.”
He was staring into the fire, and speaking very quietly. “It came one evening, quite suddenly. We had the Fairey pegged down upon the beach in the lee of a cliff—it was the only place we had to put her. But no pickets could have stood against that wind. We got the whole town out to hold her down. I dare say there were fifty of us hanging on to her in the dusk, and she blew clean out of our hands and away up the beach.”
He glanced at me. “She was all we had, you know—the whole capital. Sam and I hung on to her after she took charge—and she chucked us off like a horse. Robertson fell soft, but I broke an arm as I went down.” He passed his hand absently up his left forearm. “Yes—she was all we had, and she went flying up the beach till she cartwheeled into a little corrugated-iron hut and knocked it flat, and then on—what was left of her—till she fetched up against the forest. We lay on the beach all that night because we could hear the houses crashing in the town, and Robertson made splints for my arm. And when the morning came and it blew itself out, half the houses in the place were down and Sam was as rich as me.”
“That’s rotten luck,” I muttered.
He nodded. “Yes, it was bad luck, because there was all the makings of a survey business out there. But that finished us, and we came home Third Class.”
And so he gave up aviation. He had been bitten three times, and he’d enough of it. He wanted to settle down, he said, and live with his wife. He told me that he had come to the conclusion out in Trujillo that flying was no good for a married man, and that he must look for more stable employment in the future. He realised that he would have to start at the bottom. Wilson stepped in there and gave him an introduction to a cousin who ran a firm of wholesale clothiers in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and Lenden came home to England to start work in the city on four pounds ten a week. With Robertson he had been getting seven hundred a year.
“I took Mollie out of pawn again,” he said, a little bitterly, “and we got furnished rooms between Eltham and Lewisham, not very far from her people. And that year it went all right.”
He stared into the fire. “I was the proper city gent. Mr. Everyman. I wore a bowler hat and a morning coat like all the other stiffs, and carried a pair of gloves, and read the Daily Mail going up and the Evening News coming down.”
It seemed to have been a poor sort of job. From the first there was little chance that he could make a success of it; the clerks with whom he worked had forgotten more about business than he had ever known. He was unsuited for it temperamentally, and he was getting fifteen shillings a week more than the others, which didn’t make things any easier for him. And he was desperately hard up. He couldn’t live on his pay; his wife’s parents had to come forward again and make him a substantial allowance, and that got him on the raw. He told me all this that night.
He stuck it out for two years.
“I chucked it in the early summer of 1924,” he said, and shot the ash from his cigarette into the fire. “It’s the spring that gets you, in a job like that; when the days begin to get a bit warm and sunny, an’ you know you could make better money out in the clean country on an aerodrome.”
He was quiet for a little after that, and then he said: “We were right on the rocks by then, and not a chance of things getting any better. I was still on four pounds ten a week. The way I put it to the old man—I said I simply had to go where I stood a chance of earning a bit more money. It wasn’t good enough to stick on like that. He cut up pretty rough about it, but I was through with the City. Mollie went home again for a bit, and I went back to the old game.”
It was joy-riding again this time, as a paid pilot to a concern called the Atalanta Flying Services. The Atalanta Flying Services was a three-seater Avro, painted a bright scarlet all over. The pilot who had been flying her before had just cut off with all the loose cash in the kitty, and while they tracked him down Lenden got the job to carry on. This time, however, the directors put a secretary into the concern to keep him company.
“We picked up the machine at Gloucester,” he said, “where the other fellow left her when he vanished. There were four of us in the game. There was the secretary—a chap called Carpenter—and a ground engineer, and an odd-job man, and myself. We had the Avro, and a Ford lorry that was all covered-in with tarpaulins and fitted up for sleeping and living in, and a Cowley two-seater. Carpenter used to drive the Cowley on in front and get to the next town a day or so ahead of us, and fix up the landing-ground with the farmer, and get out the posters.”
He thought for a minute. “I dare say you’ve seen the posters,” he said. “We came all round this part of the country. We had ’em printed in red, very big and staring. Like this:
FOR THE RED AEROPLANE!
You’ve seen people walking on the wings at the cinema, but have you ever seen it with your own eyes? Have you ever flown in an aeroplane at a dizzy height above the ground while a man walked coolly to the extreme tips of the wings?
BUT YOU CAN NEXT WEEK!
The Atalanta Flying Services are coming, with Captain Lenden, M.C., who shot down fourteen enemy machines in the war and is one of Britain’s most experienced airmen. The Air Ministry have certified that Captain Lenden is
Flying daily from Shotover Farm, by kind permission of Mr. Joshua Phillips.
“And a lot more of the same sort of thing,” he said. “You know.”
Two very happy years followed. The job was one that suited Lenden; it was a country life with few business worries. The pay worked out at about four hundred and fifty, and that enabled him to make a respectable allowance to his wife, though he seldom had an opportunity of seeing her. With the Avro, the Ford lorry, and the Morris-Cowley, the Atalanta Flying Services went wandering, and for the first eighteen months wherever they wandered they made money. They were entirely self-contained.
“We did it this way,” he said. “We’d pick our field, and put up a fence of sackcloth round as much of it as we could. We charged sixpence for admission to see the flying. Just by the entrance we had the lorry, and we used it as a sort of office in the day. At night we used to picket the machine as close to the van as we could get her, and then turn in, all snug for the night.”
They went all over the country in the next two years, staying ten days at each little town. From Gloucester they worked down through Devon into Cornwall; then back along the whole length of the south coast, till in the winter of 1924 they found themselves in Kent. At Croydon they overhauled the machine and went north into Essex, and up the coast to Sheringham and Cromer. In 1925 they went right up the east coast as far as Edinburgh, and back through the Midlands; till in the spring of 1926 they found themselves again in Gloucester.
He glanced at me. “I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a job so much as that, taking it all round. It was damn hard work. But it suited me—the life did.”
He stopped talking, and remained staring moodily into the fire. I realised that the next episode had proved less prosperous and left him to himself for a bit. The fire was dying down; I got up and threw a few more lumps on, and raked the ashes from the hearth. I settled down into my chair again and lit a pipe. It was about four o’clock in the morning.
“What happened next?” I asked. I wanted to hear the end of this story if it meant sitting up all night.
He roused himself, and smiled a little. “What happened next,” he said quietly, “was that Mollie left me.”
I wasn’t prepared for that, though on his own showing nothing was more probable. I said something or other, but he went on again without listening.
“It was my fault, of course. We’d never been able to have a proper home, or the kids we wanted. And one way or another I’d given her a rotten time of it. We hadn’t lived together for two years when that happened. There was a cousin of hers, a chap in the Navy … She was still a girl, you know—a good bit younger than me. I went down to see her at her people’s place.”
He was quiet for a minute, and then he laughed. “I came away out of it as soon as I could. There was a girl at Gloucester who got me out of that mess. Worked in an office there. She was a damn good sort, an’ her name was Mollie, too. I took her to the Regent at Cheltenham, and we spent a night there, and I sent my wife the bill. And presently I got a notice that she was suing for divorce….”
He sat brooding in his chair for a bit then, staring into the fire, immersed in memories. But presently he roused himself again.
“That killed my luck,” he said. “After that happened everything went wrong. We started off again from Gloucester to do the south coast, and at every place we went we showed a loss. At every ruddy place. Places like Taunton and Honiton, where we’d been really busy a couple of years before—if we got a dozen of them into the air it was all we did. People seemed to have got tired of it. We carried on that way for a couple of months, and then the directors got tired of it too. I brought the machine up to Croydon to be sold, and that was the end of that.”
He lit another cigarette. “I hadn’t got a home to go to then,” he said.
He said no more than that, but something in the way he said it revealed to me something of what that meant to him. I know now that he was a man of little stamina. In all his roving and uncertain life since the war he had always had a base, somewhere to retire to, to be alone with his wife and to regain his self-respect. I think his wife must have been a great backbone to him. He wasn’t the sort of man ever to make a name for himself alone, and in the loss of his wife he had suffered a grave injury.
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