Espionage in Piccadilly.
The place: The kerb in front of the Criterion at Piccadilly Circus. The time: Five minutes past three on a broiling afternoon in July. As an idle lounger, apparently absorbed in contemplation of the ceaseless tide of human traffic that ebbed and flowed, I stood gazing along the famous London thoroughfare. In truth, I was keenly alert to every movement about me, for I had extremely important Secret Service work in hand.
I took out a cigarette, tapped it mechanically, and slowly lit it preparatory to crossing the road to Shaftesbury Avenue, when suddenly, from the procession of hurrying vehicles, a taxi detached itself and drew up to where I stood. I caught a momentary glimpse of a woman’s eager face half shaded by a fashionable hat. The next moment I was seated beside her, and we were bowling smoothly along Piccadilly.
“Ah, mon cher Monsieur Gerry!” exclaimed my pretty companion. “Well, has anything serious occurred?” she asked breathlessly, with her fascinating French accent.
“Listen, my dear madame, and I will explain,” I replied. “Hecq has sent me over from Paris in order to see you. I arrived only this morning, and am returning this evening. Something very serious is on foot, and Hecq wants you to get leave of your chief, and come over to help us.”
And here perhaps I may introduce my companion a little more fully. Gabrielle Soyez was a female agent of the British Secret Service, who had distinguished herself in her profession times out of number, both before and since the outbreak of war. Dark-haired and handsome, she inherited from her French father that seemingly irresponsible and irrepressible gaiety which so many of her countrywomen exhibit. From her English mother, no doubt, she had acquired the sterner, almost masculine, qualities which her femininity concealed but did not suppress. A splendid linguist, speaking several European tongues to perfection, she could, on occasion, pass as a native of some other countries. And one of her most amazing feats had been a journey right across Germany from Holland in wartime, in the character of a young German fräulein travelling to take up a position as governess in East Prussia. Added to her linguistic abilities, she possessed nerves of steel and a quick, subtle brain, which saw the real significance of many an almost unnoticeable incident. Nothing was too big or too small for her attention.
I knew her well. I had worked with her in more than one affair of international importance, and it was at my suggestion that Armand Hecq, the astute chief of the French International Secret Service Bureau, had applied for her to assist in the difficult task that lay before us.
“Something fresh this time?” queried the chic little lady, as we drove along. “And, pray, who has applied for me?”
“I have,” was my reply. “A very difficult task is before me, involving the risk of many lives, and you are the only woman I know in whom I can place absolute trust.”
“Except Doris, eh?” she flashed out, turning to me with a quizzical smile. She was referring to Doris Rae, my well-beloved, who lived with her mother in a quaint old timbered house buried deep in Worcestershire. In the stress of my war-work I had seen her but seldom for the past two years, for I was constantly on the move, but the bond between us was none the less true and perfect. And I nodded to my companion, with a laugh.
The time slipped by as I gave Madame Gabrielle her instructions. “To-day is Tuesday,” I said as we parted. “I shall expect you on Friday in Paris at the Orleans station. The express for Bordeaux leaves at eight twenty-seven. Watch for me, and enter another compartment of the train without speaking. Somewhere on the journey I will contrive to hand you your passport.”
“But what is the nature of this inquiry, Monsieur Sant?” Madame Gabrielle broke out.
“Well, to be frank,” I replied, “the French Admiralty report that the enemy has established a new secret submarine base off the Spanish coast. We are out to find it, and, what is more, to carry out reprisals on the pirates.”
Madame, seeing a good chance of a desperate adventure, grinned with satisfaction. “Très bien,” was her only comment.
So we parted, she to her hotel, I to wile away the few hours that remained to me before the departure of my train from Victoria. I went along to “White’s,” in St. James’s Street, for a cup of tea, and, after buying some packets of Dutch cigarettes—which I purchased with a purpose—looked in at my own flat in Curzon Street. The place seemed close and musty nowadays. After a brief conversation with Doris over the telephone, I started out to walk to the station. But I was not to get away from London without a startling surprise.
I have never been able satisfactorily to account for the adventure which befell me as I strolled through St. James’s Park on my way to Victoria. Whether I was the subject of an attack by a mere footpad, or by some tool of our enemies who knew of my work and mission, I cannot say. But one of those strange premonitions, which come so frequently to men who, like myself, carry their lives in their hands, as all spies do, undoubtedly saved my life.
Since I left Madame Gabrielle the weather had changed. Heavy clouds had rolled up, as if a storm were threatening, and it had grown very dark. Having time to spare, I had intentionally made a détour from my direct road, and I was in a lonely pathway when something, I know not what, made me suddenly face round, with every nerve and muscle braced for instant action.
I was only just in time. From the grass at the side of the pathway a man leaped at me. In the gloom I caught sight of his upraised arm and the flash of a knife.
It is hard to catch the practised student of jiu-jitsu unawares, and that fascinating form of self-defence has been one of my special hobbies. Like a flash I jumped in to meet the charge of my assailant. Before his knife could descend my right arm was crooked into his and I had his wrist in the grip of my left hand. Flinging my whole weight forward, I wrenched his right arm savagely backward and downward. With a half-stifled scream of pain the man toppled over backward, his head striking the ground with a crash that left him senseless.
Here was a pretty coil! I dared not wait to give the man into custody, for that would have meant police inquiries and endless publicity, to say nothing of missing my train and a fatal delay to my important mission. And just now I could not afford publicity. So I decided to leave him alone, to take his chance and make his own explanation, if necessary. Picking up his knife, I thrust it deeply into a flower-bed, and, stamping it well down with my heel, hurried on to the station, and was soon on my way to France. Who and what my assailant was I never heard. But I pondered over the incident a good deal on my journey, for it may have meant that my mission was already known. Still, this was unlikely, so I merely decided to keep an extra sharp look-out.
On Friday, at the hour I had appointed with Madame Gabrielle, I passed the barrier and walked along the platform of the Orleans station in Paris, where in the summer twilight the express, with its powerful, constantly exploding locomotive, stood ready for the long run across France to the Spanish frontier. I bought a copy of Le Soir at the bookstall, and while doing so my eye fell on a rather shabbily-dressed, insignificant-looking little man who apparently was lounging absently about.
Every “natural” spy, if I may use the term—and I think I am one of them—possesses a large measure of that intuition which is somewhat akin to a woman’s power of frequently jumping to a perfectly correct conclusion without the trouble of logically working a problem out. The things which matter in our calling are often seemingly the most trivial. There was nothing about this shabby little stranger to call particular attention to him, yet from the moment I saw him I felt instinctively that in some way my lot and his were bound up together. And, try as I would, I was unable to shake off that feeling.
How far I was correct the sequel will show.
As I entered the train I saw Madame Gabrielle, carrying her dressing-bag and followed by a porter with her hand luggage, pass the window of my compartment and enter a first-class carriage nearer the front of the train. Her eyes met mine as she passed, but she gave no sign of recognition. Of the little shabby man I saw nothing, though I kept a sharp look-out, and I concluded at last that he had left the platform.
All through that night the train roared onward by way of Orleans and Tours down to Bordeaux. I slept, as I usually do, but dreamed in a manner quite unusual with me. Throughout the night my sleeping thoughts were harassed by that shabby little man who had, I seemed to feel no doubt, witnessed my departure with a perfectly definite object.
Perhaps I may be permitted to say here a few words about myself.
I am a cosmopolitan, the subject of no country, though through my parents my sympathies are more English than anything else. British when in England, I am a Frenchman in France, an Italian in Italy; I can be a German in Germany, or a Spaniard in Spain. The explanation is, of course, that I have led a wandering life, being of almost every nationality by turn and nothing for long. My adventures have been facilitated by the fact that I happen to have known several languages from my earliest childhood. Whoever is born in Smyrna, as I was, has truly a ready-made profession in the matter of languages. At ten years old most lads in Smyrna can speak four or five tongues, and, in addition, I developed early a peculiar gift for languages, and an insatiable desire to speak as many as possible. Thus, all the principal European languages became equally familiar to me, and I speak them all almost as well as if each were my mother tongue.
It was to this gift of languages that I owed my entrance to the ranks of the French Secret Service. When still quite a boy I found myself, through a peculiar chain of circumstances, a homeless outcast in Paris. I had been tramping the boulevards, and, tired and hungry, had sat down with my back resting against a big tree. I was half asleep when I was roused by two men talking in a queer Dutch patois which I happened to understand. I suppose they thought they were alone, or, at any rate, that no one who might overhear them would be likely to understand their lingo. They were laying their plans for a daring raid on the house of a famous Paris banker. Boy as I was, the situation fascinated me, and as night drew on I shadowed the men and was the means of bringing about their capture under dramatic circumstances. They proved to be a much-wanted pair of international crooks. The affair brought me some credit with the French police, and in the end, finding out the value of my linguistic achievements, they began to employ me on small undertakings. I did well, was gradually entrusted with more important work, and was finally given regular employment. Such was my introduction to the world of espionage.
But to return to my story. At six o’clock on Saturday morning we drew into the great Bastide station at Bordeaux, where the train had half an hour’s wait. I alighted with all the other dishevelled passengers, to scramble to the buffet for our café an lait and brioche. In the scramble I pushed past Madame Gabrielle, who looked somewhat untidy after an obviously sleepless night, and as I did so I slid into her hand a little parcel screwed up in brown paper. In it was a note containing certain instructions, together with her passport, bearing her photograph in the name of Gabrielle Tavernier, described as “variety artiste.” So perfectly self-possessed was she that, although she had not seen me—I had pushed up behind her—she never even turned her head as the note slipped into her hand. It was this self-control which made her an invaluable helper; nothing ever seemed to take her by surprise, or to betray her into a hasty word or action.
I had just taken my first sip of coffee, when, glancing across the big restaurant, I caught sight, among the crowd of third-class passengers who were thirstily quaffing their bowls, of that same shabby little man whose presence on the platform in Paris had given me such an unpleasant shock. Evidently he had managed to elude my observation, and had joined the train without my seeing him.
I had been beaten at my own game! I had thought I had shaken him off, and his presence was an intensely disagreeable surprise.
There was, of course, no very obvious reason why he should not be a perfectly harmless fellow-traveller, but I was absolutely convinced in my own mind that his presence here in Bordeaux was in some way connected with my mission, and that it boded me no good.
Slipping from the station, I hurried across to the Place du Pont, where I knew there was a public telephone. I knew, of course, the password which “cleared the lines” for official messages, and in less than ten minutes I was in communication with Armand Hecq, at his house at St. Germain, outside Paris. To him I briefly explained how matters stood.
“I quite understand, Sant,” he said. “Leave matters to me and continue your journey. Bon voyage! I shall read the Matin every day.”
Then I rang off and hurried back to the station, just in time to catch the train as it drew out for the “Côte d’Argent,” “the Silver Coast,” as the French call that beautiful Biscayan seashore between the estuary of the Gironde and the golden sands of Spain.
Through the miles of flat pine woods of that lovely marsh country called the Landes, where the shepherds stride on their high stilts and watch the trains go by, we sped ever south, by way of the ancient town of Dax and on to sun-blanched Bayonne.
Now we were rapidly approaching the Spanish frontier, and I wondered what was transpiring between Hecq, in Paris, and the officials at Hendaye, the last French station, where the agents of police were stationed to prevent German spies from entering France by that particular back door.
I was soon to learn that Hecq had not been idle. Late in the afternoon the train pulled up at Hendaye, and, as it seemed to me, had hardly halted at the platform when I caught sight of my shabby little man being escorted from the station in the relentless grip of a couple of stalwart French gendarmes. Evidently Hecq was taking no chances, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the removal of my incubus. It turned out later that the shabby little man was a clever German spy, and, of course, he paid the invariable penalty.
Very soon the train moved across the long bridge over the river to Irun, and beyond. Thus we arrived at length at San Sebastian, the Brighton of Spain, at that moment in the full height of the sea-bathing season, and crowded with a motley assembly of Europeans of all nationalities, with, of course, a liberal sprinkling of desperate adventurers ever on the look-out for any crooked undertaking that promised plunder and profit.
Our plan, of course, was to avoid the slightest appearance of hurry. Anything in the shape of undue eagerness and haste might well mean arousing the suspicions of the Spanish authorities, who, being neutral, might very easily arrest us both (especially if I were recognised, as was always possible) as secret agents of the Allies. I entered an open cab and drove to the old Hôtel Ezcurra, where in past days I had eaten many a meal and drunk many a bottle of choice wine. Madame Gabrielle, in accordance with our arrangements, had gone to the Hôtel Continental in the Paseo de la Concha, the establishment most patronised by the gay society of Madrid, who loved to show off their Paris gowns and to exhibit, too often in the most plebeian fashion, the wealth which had come to them as a result of the war.
For three days I remained at the Ezcurra, so pleasantly situated behind the lovely lime-trees in the Paseo de la Zurriola, and to which the smart, chattering officers of the unwarlike garrison, in their grey uniforms and peaked caps, resorted every evening. I had previously decided upon the character I would assume; it was that of a Dutch theological student. I gave out that I spoke no Spanish—of course I spoke Dutch—and pretended a vast interest in visiting the ancient churches—San Vincente in the old town, Santa Maria at the ascent of the Mont Urgull, and the beautiful old churches of Hernani and Azpeitia, as well as the prehistoric rock caves of Landarbaso. All the time, of course, I was keenly on the alert, my ears ready for any scrap of information that might chance to come my way.
One day I had been visiting the little village of Azcoitia, the birthplace of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. At a pleasant old fonda close by I had dropped in for a dish of olla, that kind of stew so dear to the Spanish palate, when, at a table near by, I noticed two middle-aged men who quite obviously were not Spaniards. Apparently they were Italian, for they spoke that language, and their clothes had obviously been made by an Italian tailor. But I noticed instantly a fact which at once aroused my suspicion—the boots they wore were of German manufacture!
Men’s nationality and habits are often betrayed by their footwear, and my observations on the boots and shoes of people of both sexes have seldom led me wrong. Indeed, I always pay the closest attention to clothes, for nothing will so completely “give away” an assumption of a pretended nationality so promptly as an error in dress. Every scrap of clothing I was wearing had been bought in Holland, and I was sure of my disguise. My suit I had purchased of Buijze, in the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam. The pseudo-Italians, carefully got up as they were for the part they were playing, had forgotten one important item, and I had little difficulty in coming to the conclusion that they were really Germans. I decided to keep a sharp watch on them. The question was: were they watching me?
I dawdled over coffee and cigarettes till they rose to leave, when I paid my bill with the intention of tracking them back to San Sebastian. Unfortunately I was baulked immediately. Fond of exercise, I had walked out to Azcoitia; the two strangers had driven, and I had the mortification of seeing their carriage start for the city. It was useless to attempt to follow; they were out of sight long before I could have hoped to get the slow-moving Spaniards to provide me with a carriage. There was nothing for it but to return as I had come, and keep a sharp eye open for the mysterious strangers. It was evident that, if they really knew me, they must have satisfied themselves that for the present, at any rate, I was actually idling, and that there was “nothing doing.”
Returning to the Ezcurra, I wrote out an advertisement which I sent to a certain address in Paris. I knew that it would appear immediately in the “personal” column of the Matin. It was in French, but the English translation read: “Isis.—Mother has fortunately passed crisis, and going on well.—Felox.”
This advertisement, I knew, would appear both in London and Rome, as well as in Paris. To the uninformed it would appear innocent enough, but certain persons in the Allied capitals knew that “Felox” was myself, and, reading the announcement, would be reassured as to the progress of my secret mission.
Next day I spent idling about the beautiful blue bay of La Concha, taking my evening apéritif at the Casino, and after dinner I spoke to Madame Gabrielle over the telephone. I told her, of course, about the two mysterious strangers, giving her as full a description as possible of their appearance, and urging her to keep the keenest watch for them.
When I returned to the palm-lounge, a page-boy brought me a telegram addressed to van Hekker, the name by which I was known at the hotel.
Opening it, I found that it had been sent from London. It was a cryptic message which read:
“Fontan remains here. Goods marked C.X.B. arrived fourteenth, twenty-three cases. Awaiting samples second quality.”
Without giving the least sign that the telegram was of any special interest, I read it through and carelessly slipped it into my pocket. But the news it contained was startling. It put an entirely fresh complexion on affairs, and it meant that I must act without delay. Unless within twenty-four hours or so I secured a triumph, my mission would be unsuccessful, and in all probability some two thousand human lives would pay the price of my failure.
It was absolutely essential that I should discover without delay the identity of “Fontan,” for there lay the crux of my difficulty. With that knowledge in my possession I should have more than a chance of success; without it I was merely a blind man groping in the dark.
Categories: English Literature