The crossing had been particularly vile, the journey to Paris, if anything, worse, and Alan Clinton, as he stepped from the crowded carriage at the Gare du Nord and stretched his cramped limbs in an ecstasy of abandon, swore with cor- responding gusto.
“To hell with this bloody war!” he cried, glaring about him. “I quite agree with you, Clinton,” said a voice behind his left shoulder.
Who the devil—? He turned quickly. Then he reassured himself with a forced smile. He had never particularly cared for Brian Fordinghame, especially since Fordinghame had apparently run to cover and got himself a safe and cushy job in the Home Branch of Military Intelligence. “M.I.”—it was to laugh: if these gentry who were so cursedly careful of their own skins had served with him in the trenches for the past three years and a half, they’d know a lot more about Military Intelligence than they did at present!
A man of about thirty, lean and fit-looking, with keen, quizzical grey eyes, stood regarding him with a slight smile. Thinking of what he himself was about to do, Clinton felt that those same grey eyes were boring into him; they seemed to have the faculty of looking right through his body into his very soul. It was disconcerting.
The man wearing the green tabs of an Intelligence staff captain now nodded.
“How are you, Clinton?” he asked.
It was perhaps because the sight of green tabs had, during the past twelve months at least, invariably irritated him that the other’s reply was brusque.
“Oh, not so bad. And in any case”—ill temper coming swiftly to the surface, “it’s a lot you know about the war, Fordinghame.”
The other, disregarding the insult, refused to be ruffled. Instead, he smiled once again. It was an attractive smile— attractive in spite of its icy quality.
“Had a good crossing?” he asked. “Lousy.”
“Where are you going now?” “My hotel. I want some sleep.”
Fordinghame seemed determined to be friendly—and hospitable.
“I heard you were on this train, and I thought I would come along to the station and ask you to have a bite of food with me.”
“Oh, no reason in particular,” was the non-committal answer; “I just thought I’d like to have your company for an hour.”
The words did something to soften the other’s mood. Clinton’s voice, as he spoke, contained an element of regret. “Sorry, Fordinghame. I’d like to—but, honestly, I’m dog-
tired. I must get some sleep.” “Where are you staying?”
“Oh—” he paused. “A little place I know. Cheap—that’s a consideration, these days.”
“Yes, indeed,” agreed the staff captain. “Well, another time, perhaps. I shall be in Paris for a few days. When do you go up the line?”
“To-morrow, curse it!”
“Well, good-bye—and good luck!”
The man who had crossed to Paris with important dis- patches raised his right hand in a corresponding salute and then walked quickly away to find some sort of a conveyance. In August, 1918, one was lucky to find a decent taxi-cab.
He wasn’t lucky—and this increased his ill temper. The aged driver, who glared at him out of hideous, red-lidded eyes, was almost as much a derelict as the vehicle which— after a considerable argument, conducted with asperity on both sides—commenced to wheeze its way out of the crowded station.
Clinton flung himself back against the malodorous upholstery. The interior of the taxi smelt abominably, and, fresh from home, his nostrils had not yet become accustomed again to the vile stench of war. The fact was, he was thoroughly fed-up—if it hadn’t been for Marie he didn’t know but what.…But that, of course, was madness; and, especially now that he had his present job to do, the idea must not be seriously entertained. This did not prevent him, however, from wishing that a million miles separated him from everything connected with this cursed war. It was a hopeless ambition, for the end seemed as far off as ever. Even in London the never-ending horror had thrust itself upon him at every conceivable turn. In the theatres and music-halls one could not escape it; at the Service clubs the talk was of nothing else; even if one went out to a private dinner party one was pestered with questions about the trenches. The newspapers, the posters on the walls, the hoardings, even the shop-windows—God! How everything reeked of the beastliness!
And now, here he was back in the very centre of things— and within twenty-four hours he would be reporting himself.…That reminded him. With a swift clutch at the heart, his hand closed on the dispatch-case by his side. A wave of relief passed through him. He must be careful. Yes, he must be a damned sight more careful than he would be if he were actually in the trenches, for—if what that Major-General fellow at the W.O. had hinted at was correct—thousands of lives, instead of merely his own, depended on the contents of that case being handed over safely.
The reflection sobered him. And it brought the somewhat consoling knowledge that, if he were fed up himself, millions of other human beings were in the same boat. He must carry on; the job was not yet finished. And, in any case, there was Marie.…
Twenty minutes later, the disreputable taxi drew up before a small but comfortable-looking hotel in a side street off the Boulevard des Capucines. Clinton had stayed at the Lion d’Or before; he had discovered this cosy hostelry some months previously, and he had a particular reason for choosing it now. So far as he had been able to ascertain, it was not frequented very much by Allied officers—a recommendation in itself.
The thought came, as he paid off the gargoyle of a driver, that Fordinghame might possibly have followed him to the place. Of course, the idea on the surface was ridiculous—but he took a keen look around all the same. These espionage fellows took themselves damned seriously, and one couldn’t be too careful. Not that he had anything to bother about—if every Allied officer who slept with a French girl now and then was to be cross-examined…! Yet, all the same, he couldn’t very well get those searching eyes of the Intelligence officer out of his mind. Funny, that Fordinghame should have been at the station at the very moment that he got out of the train. Had he been waiting for him—and, if so, why?
He told himself the next moment not to be such a damned fool. Any one would think he had something to hide—that he contemplated doing something shady.
Shrugging his shoulders, he walked into the hotel.
# # #
The dinner had been worth eating—which was something to say, in these days—and now Clinton was taking his ease. He was stretched out on a sofa in the private sitting-room he had engaged, when a distant siren brought him to his feet. Wrapped in the contemplation of his thoughts and the comfort induced by the meal, all sense of the war had temporarily slipped from him. But now the strident warning that enemy aircraft were paying another visit to the French capital brought him back to reality with a jerk. He cursed volubly. The siren shrieked again—this time so loudly that the picture of the Emperor Napoleon with the tricolour draped over it, which was the most prominent furnishing on the opposite wall, seemed to his excited fancy to quiver.
Throwing aside the copy of La Vie Parisienne, Clinton crossed the floor. As he did so, a knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” he ordered irritably.
A waiter, wearing a much-stained suit, entered nervously. “You rang, monsieur?”
Clinton remembered that he had touched the bell a few seconds before the first siren had sounded.
“Yes,” he returned, “and you’ve taken a pretty long time answering it.”
The man became obsequious.
“A thousand pardons, monsieur, but the hotel is so busy.”
“I dare say. Still,” pointing to the half-empty bottle of wine which had given him annoyance, “this wine’s rotten— that’s why I rang. I want it changed.”
The waiter made a gesture of hopelessness.
“That will be difficult, monsieur. The war makes it very difficult to get good wine.” Another gesture of hopelessness. “All Paris knows that.”
“That may be, but this would take the first prize for muck—take it away.”
The waiter, shrugging his shoulders once more, approached the small table, picked up the bottle and glass and prepared to leave the room.
“I will do my best, monsieur. I am sorry—”
Clinton, looking at the forlorn wretch—the waiter’s sense of hopelessness had struck him during dinner—changed his tone.
“Oh, that’s all right. Cut along now, and be back as soon as you can.”
“Yes, monsieur.” He walked to the door and then turned. A finger that shook pointed to a warning hanging on the wall. “It is necessary to remind you, monsieur, to read that notice. You must be very careful about keeping the curtains drawn. The law against showing any lights is very severe, with terrible penalties, and the siren has just sounded.”
“I heard it myself—I don’t happen to be deaf.”
The waiter seemed inclined to linger. “No doubt by this time you are used to the air bombs, monsieur?”
The British officer laughed. “Well, we’ve had just a few in London, you know, not to mention the trenches. So they’re expecting those Zeppelins here tonight, are they?”
A look of hatred flashed into the sallow face.
“Yes, monsieur; on every night that there is no moon we expect them now. Ah! ces sales Boches!” A grimy fist was clenched and lifted up.
Clinton watched him with barely concealed amusement.
These Gallic melodramatics!
“Well, cut along now,” he ordered again.
“Yes, monsieur.” But the man still stayed. “If I had a Boche here.…” This time both hands were raised, whilst their owner went through the motions of choking a man to death. “We have the raids so often now that every one in Paris gets to hear the noise of the engines in his sleep.” Some indistinct French which the British officer could not understand followed, and then the man spoke in English again. “The boom of those bombs on our poor city!”
By this time Clinton was getting sick of the fellow. Self-pity was all right in its way—but Paris was suffering from a surfeit of it. He looked at the fellow keenly.
“How have you managed to escape military service?” The man put a hand to his breast.
“It is my heart, monsieur. Ah, but it is great sorrow for me. How gladly would I serve la patrie! How freely would I give it my life!” He threatened to become maudlin. The listener had the traditional English dislike of sentimentality. Besides, by now he was tired of the fellow’s face.
“Well,” he said, “if you take my tip you’ll hang on here— and think yourself damned lucky to have got such a good billet.”
The waiter’s face changed. Hatred convulsed its ugliness. Absurd as it was, Clinton thought for a moment that the man was actually going to attack him.
“You joke, monsieur,” cried the other angrily. “Every Frenchman loves his country—and would gladly die for it.” “A good many Englishmen have done that—poor devils!
And let me tell you—by the way, what’s your name?” “Pierre, monsieur.”
“Let me tell you, Pierre, that the trenches aren’t exactly drawing-rooms.”
“That I can well understand, monsieur; I have heard so many stories.…Yes, this war is terrible. And how will it end?” “Oh, Jerry’ll get whacked all right; don’t you worry about that. He’ll want some wearing down—but we shall do it.” “What a happy day that will be for France, monsieur!” (The speaker struck an attitude which, if Clinton had yielded to the impulse, would have made him double up with laughter.) “The tragedy of Sedan! The humiliation of Alsace-Lorraine! Ah, but they will all be wiped out upon the day that France enters Berlin in victory.”
“Yeh. But I’m afraid there’s a long way to go yet.” The waiter thrust his sallow face forward.
“Are you from the Somme front, monsieur?”
“No.” A sudden suspicion came. “Why do you ask that?” The fellow was ready with his reply.
“My brother is there—on the Somme front. He is with the artillery.”
“I see. Well, I don’t envy him; the Somme isn’t any too pleasant a place nowadays.”
“Don’t I know?” “How do you know?”
“I hear from my brother whenever he can write,” was the quick retort. “The Boche, does he not make the—what you say?—offensive there, n’est-ce-pas?”
“I don’t know. He’s usually doing something of the sort.” Clinton’s patience was exhausted. “Look here, what about that wine?”
The waiter crouched humbly.
“Pardon, monsieur. I think too much of the war, but it is because of my brother.” He turned and put a hand on the door. “But I go now.”
Yet he could not leave the room without turning round once more.
“Monsieur, a thousand pardons, I forget. There is another British officer in the hotel to-night; he has asked for you.”
Clinton took some time before replying. Marie was due in a few minutes—and he didn’t want her seen by any one.
“A British officer?” he returned. “Yes, monsieur.”
The next words were as though he were speaking to himself: “I don’t know any one in Paris who is likely to ask for me. Do you know his name?”
Relief came in an overwhelming flood. Clinton laughed. (“Peter Mallory,” he told himself. “Well I’m damned!”) And then, to the waiter: “Ask him to come up at once.”
“Oui, monsieur.” The fellow was smiling as he turned away.