10

Looking back on those next twenty-four hours is, I find, like looking at a stage through the wrong end of a pair of opera-glasses. The people on it are moving, but their faces are too small to see. I must try to turn the glasses the right way round. And yet, when I try to do that the figures are blurred at the edges and distorted. It is only by, so to speak, looking at one portion of the stage at a time that I can see things clearly.

I realize now, of course, that I had completely lost my sense of proportion. It is always quite easy to realize that afterwards. The remarkable thing is that during the day which followed I did not lose touch with reality altogether. It was, to put it mildly, a fantastic day. The first touch of fantasy was provided by, of all people, Major Clandon-Hartley.

I was late down to breakfast and only the Vogels were left on the terrace.

I had a swelling that felt the size of a cannon-ball on the back of my head. Though not unduly painful now, it was very tender, and when I walked it throbbed every time my heels touched the ground.

I went rather gingerly to the terrace and sat down. The Vogels were just getting up to go. They beamed at me and came over. We exchanged good mornings. Then Herr Vogel fired the first shot of the day.

“Have you heard,” he said, “that the English major and his wife are leaving?”

My head throbbed violently. “When?”

“We do not know. Monsieur Duclos had the news. He is very well informed. It is best, I think. Best, that is, that the English go. There would be difficulty after yesterday’s affair. We shall be seeing you on the beach this morning?” He winked. “The American miss is already down there.”

I made some vague reply and they passed on. The very thing that I had feared had happened. Not that there was the remotest possibility that Major Clandon-Hartley was a spy. That was too absurd. And yet there was that fact of Mrs. Clandon-Hartley being an Italian. My mind went back to the Commissaire’s room and Beghin’s persistent questions as to my Italian acquaintances. It was not possible, but…

There was only one thing to do; telephone Beghin immediately. I gulped down my coffee and made my way through the lounge and the hall to the drive. I got no farther than halfway along it. Coming towards me from the gap in the trees that led to the garden was the Major; and he was showing every sign of wishing to intercept me.

“Been looking for you everywhere, Vadassy,” he greeted me when he was within talking distance. I stopped and he came up to me. He dropped his voice a trifle furtively. “If you’re not specially busy at the moment I’d like a private word with you.”

I must confess that, in spite of the obvious stupidity of the idea, the first thing that entered my head was the thought that the Major was going to confess to being a spy. I hesitated for a moment, then bowed formally. “Certainly, Major. I am at your disposal.”

Without a word he led the way back to the house and into the writing-room. He drew up a chair. “Damned uncomfortable, these chairs,” he said apologetically; “but they’re better than those in the lounge.”

This was untrue. It was obvious that he had chosen the writing-room because it was usually deserted. We sat down.

“I’m afraid I can’t offer you a cigarette,” he said. “I don’t smoke.”

His embarrassment was painful. I lit one of my own cigarettes. He leaned forward in his chair, clasping and unclasping his hands. He kept his eyes on the floor.

“Look here, Vadassy,” he said suddenly, “I wanted to have a word with you for a special reason.” He stopped. I waited, looking at the end of my cigarette. In the silence I began to hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.

“You weren’t down on the beach yesterday afternoon, were you?” he asked unexpectedly.

“No.”

“I thought not. I couldn’t remember having seen you.” He hesitated, fumbling with his words. “You probably heard about what happened there. Lost my temper, I’m afraid. Damned unpleasant.”

“I did hear something about it.”

“Thought you might have. You can’t expect people not to talk about a thing like that.” He stopped again. I began to wonder when we were coming to the point. Suddenly he raised his head and looked me in the eyes.

“They’re saying that I’m mad, aren’t they, that I’m not responsible for my actions?”

The question took me completely by surprise. I did not know what to reply. I felt myself reddening.

“I beg your pardon.”

He smiled faintly. “Sorry to spring that on you, but I had to know where I stood. I can see by your face that the answer is yes. Well, that’s what I wanted to have a word with you about, that and something else.”

“Oh, I see.” I tried to make the answer casual, as though I were used to people explaining why they were regarded as mad. He did not appear to be listening.

“I know,” he said, “that it’s damned bad form unloading one’s private affairs on strangers, that is, on people one’s just met; but I have a good reason. You see, Vadassy, you’re the only man I can talk to here.” He regarded me somberly. “I hope you don’t mind.”

I said, wondering what on earth it was all about, that I did not mind.

“It’s good of you to say so,” he went on; “these damned foreigners…” He stopped, evidently realizing that this was scarcely tactful. “You see, Mr. Vadassy, it’s about my wife.” He stopped again.

I was getting tired of this. “Supposing,” I suggested, “that you take my good will for granted and say what you want to say. You must remember that I have no idea what you are talking about.”

He flushed. There was a suggestion of a return to the military manner. “Quite right. No good beating about the bush. I wouldn’t be sitting here wasting your time at all if there wasn’t a reason. Put my cards on the table. Tell you the whole story. Then you can judge for yourself. Don’t want you to get the wrong idea.” He drove his fist gently into the palm of his other hand. “I’ll put my cards on the table,” he repeated.

“I met my wife early in 1918 in Rome.” He paused, and I was afraid that there were going to be more hesitations; but this time he went on.

“It was just after the Italians had folded up at Caporetto and retreated across the Piave. I’d been transferred to the staff as attache to a divisional general. Well, the British and French War Offices were pretty worried about the Italian situation. Most of the people thought, of course, that the Austrians were after the industrial areas around Milan; but there were whispers, and pretty loud ones, that the Austro-German General Staff wouldn’t have detached so many troops from the Western front for that alone and that their real plan was to outflank the Swiss barrier via the North Italian plain with Lyons as the objective. A sort of Drang nach Westen.” He stumbled over the German.

“Anyway, ourselves and the French sent guns and troops into Italy to stop the rot, and a few of us were drafted there to sort things out. I went to Pisa first. They’d got their railway system into a shocking mess. Of course, I knew damn-all about railways, but there was a promoted ranker with me who’d had some civilian experience in England, and together we got along famously. Later in ’18 they sent me down to Rome.

“Have you ever been in Rome in winter? It’s not at all bad. There was a pretty big British colony there at the time, but it was mostly army, and it was part of our job to mix with the Italians and get friendly. For two pins they’d have made peace. Well, I’d been there about a couple of months when I had a bit of bad luck. You know, some of those Italian cavalry officers are amazing riders and a bit mad. So are the horses. Anyway, I was out for a canter with one of these chaps one day, and he put his horse at a jump that I shouldn’t like to try on a Grand National winner. My animal tried to follow, and I took a toss that busted a leg and a couple of ribs.

“I was living in a hotel, and as they couldn’t look after me there I had to go into hospital. The trouble was that just about that time there’d been a dust-up in the north. The wounded were being sent down by the trainload from the base hospitals to make room for the fresh casualties. Beds were scarce and the place they took me to was overcrowded and hopelessly understaffed. I sent out an S.O.S. to an Italian staff officer I knew, and the next day I was moved to a huge private villa just outside Rome. It belonged to a family who had volunteered to nurse convalescent officers. Their name was Staretti.”

He glanced at me. “I dare say you’re wondering what the hell all this has got to do with what happened on the beach yesterday afternoon.”

I was actually wondering more than that. I was wondering what, in any case, the happenings on the beach had to do with me. But I merely nodded.

“I’m coming to that,” he said. He began to knead his fingers as though they were cold.

“The Starettis were a curious family. At least I thought so. The mother was dead. There were only the old man and his children-two daughters, Maria and Serafina, and a son, Batista. Maria was about twenty-five and Serafina was two years younger. Batista was thirty-two. Staretti himself was a dried-up, wizened old chap with a shock of white hair. He was seventy, a big banker in Rome, and as rich as Croesus. Well, you know you can’t live in somebody’s house for weeks on end without getting a pretty good idea of how each one feels about the others. I used to sit out in the garden most of the day with my leg and ribs strapped up, and they used to come and talk to me. That is, all except old Staretti, and he was nearly always at his office or seeing ministers. He was quite important in Rome at that time. But Maria used to come out a lot and sometimes Serafina, though she used to talk about nothing except the Italian who’d got me in there. They were going to be married. Then Batista started coming.

“Batista hated the old man and the old man hadn’t got much time for him. I think quite a lot of the trouble was because Batista had something wrong with his heart and wasn’t fit enough for the army. The old man was very hot on smashing the Austrians. Anyway, Batista used to moan to me about how his father overworked him and kept him short of money, and tell me what he’d do when old Staretti died and the money came to him. It used to get a bit boring at times. He was a nasty piece of work, and fat and flabby even then; but I’d got nothing much to do except look at the scenery, and that was even more boring-just a long, flat plain with a clump of cypresses here and there, dull. But one thing struck me about Batista. He had his father’s business instincts, a sort of complicated cunning that saw about three moves ahead of everyone else. I found out a bit more about that later.

“Those weeks went pretty quickly, all things considered. Maria and I got on pretty well together. It wasn’t exactly a nurse-and-patient business, because they had a proper nurse in to look after me. But Maria didn’t like all these young pups of Italian officers who used to prance round taking a darn sight too much for granted. She couldn’t handle them like her sister. Anyway, in the end Maria and I arranged that when the war was over I should come back and that we should get married. But we said nothing about that to anyone, though I think Serafina had a pretty shrewd notion of the way things were. You see, she being a Catholic made it difficult, and we didn’t want the thing discussed until we were ready. In the spring I was drafted back to France.

“Well, things went all right with me until August, when I was caught in a gas-shell bombardment. It was latish in 1919 before they finally shot me out, with about half a lung in working order, and told me to live in a warm, dry climate. Well, that suited me, and I made tracks for Rome. They were all very pleased to see me, especially Maria. A few weeks later we announced our engagement.

“It seemed at first as if everything was fine. Old Staretti was delighted. I think he was a bit sorry that I hadn’t an arm or a leg shot off instead of being gassed, but he promised us the earth. Plans were going ahead for the wedding and the climate was working wonders with my chest; and then the trouble started.

“By this time Batista was pretty high up in his father’s business, and one day he came to me and asked me if I’d like to make a packet of money. Well, naturally, I wanted to hear more about it. It appeared that a lot of people were making comfortable little fortunes by buying up surplus machine-guns from the Italian government, cheap, and shipping them to Syria, where they fetched about six times as much from the Arabs. The only thing you needed was capital to buy the guns. That was the way Batista put it.

“Well, as you can imagine, I jumped at the chance. Batista moaned that he’d only got about a thousand quid in dollars and that we should need at least five to make it worth while. I agreed to put up the four. It was just about all I had apart from my pension and a small reversionary interest in an estate belonging to my cousin, and I was keen to multiply the four by six.

“I knew nothing about business. Never been able to make head or tail of it. Give me some men and guns and a job to do with them and I’ll do it. But I’ve got no head for pettifogging business dealings. I left all that side of it to Batista. He said that it had to be cash, so I got cash. He said that he’d look after the details. I let him. I even signed a lot of papers that he gave me to sign. I may have been a fool, but anyway my Italian wasn’t so very good that I was in a position to check up on him even if I’d wanted to.

“Nothing happened for a time, then one day old Staretti sent for me. He said that it had been brought to his notice that I had engaged in a business deal with two men, whose names I had never even heard of, in connection with a shipment of machine-guns to Syria and that I had given them a written guarantee to pay them twenty-five per cent of the selling price in Syria. I said that I knew nothing about any twenty-five per cent, but that I had invested four thousand pounds with Batista in a shipment of machine-guns. I knew nothing more than that about the business side. He had better ask Batista.

“Well, he got very angry at that. There was my written guarantee. Had I or had I not signed it? I admitted signing it, but said that I had not known what I was signing. He told me not to play the fool and demanded an explanation. To cut a long story short, it turned out that the paper I’d signed had been a guarantee of twenty-five per cent to the two men at the Italian War Office responsible for selling the machine-guns-in other words, a large-scale bribe. Well, the political situation was a bit touchy then and the War Minister had come down on old Staretti like a ton of bricks, wanting to know what the hell his future son-in-law was playing at. Pretty embarrassing for the old boy, it was.

“Of course, I denied it absolutely, and then he sent for Batista. The moment Batista came into the room I knew that I’d been done to a turn. There was a smug grin on his face that made me long to knock him down. He pleaded complete ignorance of the whole affair. He said that he was very shocked.”

I saw the Major clench his fists until the knuckles showed white.

“There’s not much more to it,” he went on at last. “Apparently old Staretti had altered his will, leaving half his money to Maria. Batista was out to scotch that. And he did. He also relieved me of my four thousand. I had a dreadful scene with the old boy. He accused me of trying to blacken his son’s name and of marrying his daughter for his money. He said that the marriage was off and that if I didn’t get out of Italy within twenty-four hours he’d have me arrested and risk the scandal. I went,” he added slowly, “but I hadn’t finished being a damned fool yet because I let Maria go with me against her father’s wishes. We were married in Bale.”

He stopped. I said nothing. There was nothing to say. But he hadn’t finished yet. He cleared his throat.

“Women are funny creatures,” he said inanely. He paused. “I don’t think my good lady knew just how little money I had when she said she wanted to go with me. She’d been used to something different from cheap hotels. We tried England for a bit, but my chest wouldn’t stand it. Then we went to Spain. When the trouble started we had to clear out. We went to Juan les Pins for a time, but it got too expensive in the season, so we moved along here. She hates it all. She should never have left her own people. We’re all foreigners to her. She even hates speaking English. And sometimes I think she hates me. She’s never really forgiven me for letting Batista put it across me. She says that I must be mad. Sometimes she tells other people that, too.” There was infinite weariness in his voice now.

“You should have seen her when she recognized Batista yesterday. She knows what he did to me, yet she was overjoyed to see him. It fairly bowled me over. And then he started. He’s got the old man’s money now, and he laughed at me. He made a joke out of the way he’d treated me. A joke! Good God, if I’d had a gun in my hand I’d have shot him. As it was, I just hit him and not even in his smug, grinning face, but in his fat belly. The swine!” His voice had risen and he began to cough. But he managed to stop himself. He looked at me challengingly. “You probably think I’m a damned fool, eh?”

I muttered a denial.

He laughed bitterly. “You aren’t far wrong. And you’re going to think me a damned outsider as well because I’m going to ask you to do something for me.”

For some reason my head throbbed painfully. At last we were coming to the point. I said, “Yes?” and waited.

He had become formal and embarrassed again. He stumbled over the words as though each one was an effort. “I wouldn’t have told you all this, Vadassy, but I wanted you to understand the circumstances. Damned difficult thing to ask anyone. My good lady and I, we can’t stay in this place after that business yesterday. Everybody gossiping. Embarrassing for all concerned. Climate doesn’t suit my chest, either. There’s a boat that leaves Marseilles every Monday for Algiers. Thought we’d catch it. Trouble is-” he hesitated. “Hate to bother you with my private affairs like this, but the fact is I’m in a bit of a corner. Wasn’t expecting this Algiers trip. Quite a bill from Koche as well. These things happen. Must sound to you horribly like a hard-luck story. Can’t stand cadgers myself. But the fact is, Vadassy, that if you could possibly lend me a couple of thousand francs until the end of the month it would be helpful. Hate to ask you, but you know how it is.”

I had not the slightest idea what to say, but I opened my mouth to speak. He forestalled me.

“Of course, I shouldn’t expect you to lend me money without security. I’ll naturally give you a post-dated cheque on Cox’s bank-that is, if you don’t mind it in pounds. Safer than francs, what!” He gave a forced laugh. There were small beads of perspiration on his temples. “Shouldn’t dream of troubling you at all, of course, but as we’ve got to leave this place it puts me in a damned awkward position. Know you’ll understand. You’re the only person here I should care to ask, and-well, I don’t have to tell you how much I should appreciate it.”

I stared at him helplessly. At that moment I would have given almost anything to have had in my pocket five thousand francs, to have been able to smile cheerfully, to produce my notecase, to reassure him. “Good heavens, yes, Major! Why didn’t you say so before? No trouble at all. Better make it five thousand. After all, it’s only a matter of cashing a cheque, and a Cox’s cheque is as good as a Bank of England note any day. Delighted to be of assistance. Glad you asked me.” But I had no five thousand francs. I had not even two thousand. I had my return ticket to Paris and just enough money to pay my bill at the Reserve and live for a week. I could do nothing but stare at him, and listen to the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. He looked up at me.

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, and then again: “I’m sorry.”

He stood up. “Quite all right,” he said, with ghastly unconcern; “not really important. Just wondered if you could manage it, that’s all. Sorry to have taken up so much of your time. Damned inconsiderate of me. Forget about the money. Just wondered, that’s all. Enjoyed having a jaw, though. Not often I have a chance of speaking English.” He drew himself up. “Well, I’ll be getting along to do a little packing. Expect we shall be leaving early tomorrow. And I shall have to get that wire off. See you before we go.”

Too late I found tongue.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Major, that I can’t help you. It’s not a question of not wanting to cash a cheque for you. I haven’t got two thousand francs. I’ve only just got enough to pay my bill here. If I had any money I should be only too delighted to lend it to you. I’m terribly sorry. I-” Now that I had started I wanted to go on apologizing, to embarrass myself to restore his self-esteem. But I had no chance to do so for, even as I was speaking, he turned on his heel and walked out of the room.

When, some ten minutes later, I telephoned to the Commissariat and asked to speak to the Commissaire, Beghin’s irritable voice answered.

“Hello, Vadassy!”

“I have something to report.”

“Well?”

“Major and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley may be leaving tomorrow. He has tried to borrow money from me to pay his and his wife’s fare to Algiers.”

“Well? Did you lend him the money?”

“My employers have not yet paid me for the Toulon photographs,” I retorted recklessly.

To my surprise this impertinence was greeted with a squeaky chuckle from the other end.

“Anything else?”

Rashly, I gave way to the impulse to deliver a further gibe.

“I don’t suppose you’ll think it important, but last night I was knocked down by somebody in the garden and searched.” Even as I said it I knew that I had been very foolish. This time there was no answering chuckle but a sharp order to repeat myself. I did so.

There was a significant silence. Then:

“Why didn’t you say so at first instead of wasting time? Did you identify the man? Explain yourself.”

I explained myself. Then came the question that I had been dreading.

“Has your room been searched?”

“I think so.”

“What do you mean by ‘think so’?”

“Two rolls of film were taken from my suitcase.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

“Was anything else taken?” The question was very deliberate.

“No.” The camera, after all, had been taken from the chair in the hall.

There was another silence. Now he was going to ask me if the camera was safe. But he did not do so. I thought we had been cut off, and said: “Hello!” I was told to wait a minute.

My head throbbing painfully, I waited two minutes. I could hear a murmur of voices, Beghin’s squeak and the Commissaire’s growl, but I could not catch what they were saying. At last Beghin returned to the telephone.

“Vadassy!”

“Yes?”

“Listen carefully. You are to go straight back to the Reserve, see Koche, and inform him that your suitcase has been forced open and that several things have been stolen-a silver cigarette-case, and a box containing a diamond pin, a gold watch-chain and two rolls of film. Make a fuss about it. Tell the other guests. Complain. I want everyone at the Reserve to know about it. But don’t ask for the police.”

“But-”

“Don’t argue. Do as you are told. Was your suitcase forced?”

“No, but-”

“Then force it yourself before you tell Koche. Now understand this. You are to bring in the question of the films as an afterthought. You are annoyed principally about the valuables. Is that clear?”

“Yes, but I have no cigarette-case or diamond pin or gold watch-chain.”

“Of course you haven’t. They have been stolen. Now get on with it.”

“This is impossible, absurd. You cannot force me to do this-” But he had already hung up.

I walked back to the hotel with murder in my heart. If there was a bigger fool than myself in this business, it was Beghin. But he had nothing to lose except a spy.

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