AN ACCIDENTAL SPY
The boy sat up and rubbed his eyes. He was stiff, footsore, and a little chilly. There was no man-servant arranging his bath and clothes, no pleasant smell of coffee—none of the small luxuries to which he was accustomed. On the contrary, he had slept all night upon a bed of bracken, with no other covering than the stiff pine needles from the tall black trees, whose rustling music had lulled him to sleep.
He sat up, and remembered suddenly where he was and how he had come there. He yawned, and was on the point of struggling to his feet when he became aware of certain changed conditions in his surroundings. Some instinct, of simple curiosity perhaps, but of far-reaching effect, led him to crawl back into his hiding-place and watch.
Last night, after many hours of painful walking, two things alone had impressed themselves upon his consciousness: the dark illimitable forest and the double line of rails, which with the absolute straightness of exact science had stretched behind and in front till the tree-tops in the far distance seemed to touch, and the rails themselves to vanish into the black heart of the close-growing pines. For miles he had limped along the painfully rough track without seeing the slightest sign of any break in the woods, or any human being. At last the desire for sleep had overtaken him. He was a hardy young Englishman, and a night out of doors in the middle of June under these odorous pines presented itself merely as a not disagreeable adventure. Five minutes after the idea had occurred to him he was asleep.
And now in the gray morning he looked out upon a different scene. Scarcely a dozen yards from him stood a single travelling-coach of dark green, drawn by a heavy engine. At intervals of scarcely twenty paces up and down the line, as far as he could see, soldiers were stationed like sentries. They were looking sharply about in all directions, and he could even hear the footsteps of others crashing through the wood. From the train three or four men in long cloaks had already descended. They were standing in the track talking together.
The young man behind the bracken felt himself in somewhat of a dilemma. There was a delightful smell of fresh coffee from the waiting coach, and there seemed to be not the slightest reason why he should not emerge from his hiding-place and claim the hospitality of these people. He was a quite harmless person, with proper credentials, and an adequate explanation of his presence there. On the other hand, the spirit of adventure natural to his years strongly prompted him to remain where he was and watch. He felt certain that something was going to happen. Besides, those soldiers had exactly the air of looking for somebody to shoot!
It drew up within a few feet of the one which was already waiting. Almost immediately half a dozen men, who were already standing upon the platform of the car, descended. One of these approached rapidly, and saluted the central figure of those who had been talking together in the track. After a few moments’ conversation these two, followed by one other man only who was carrying a writing portfolio, ascended the platform of the train which had arrived first and disappeared inside.
The young man who was watching these proceedings yawned.
“No duel, then!” he muttered to himself. “I’ve half a mind to go out.” Then he caught sight of a particularly fierce-looking soldier with his finger already upon the trigger of his gun, and he decided to remain where he was.
In about half an hour the two men reappeared on the platform of the car. Simultaneously the window of the carriage in which they had been sitting was opened, and the third man was visible, standing before a small table and arranging some papers. Suddenly he was called from outside. He thrust his hat upon the papers, and hastened to obey the summons.
A little gust of breeze from the opening and closing of the door detached one of the sheets of paper from the restraining weight of the hat. It fluttered out of the window and lay for a moment upon the side of the track. No one noticed it, and in a second or two it fluttered underneath the clump of bracken behind which the young Englishman was hiding. He thrust out his hand and calmly secured it.
In less than five minutes the place was deserted. Amidst many hasty farewells, wholly unintelligible to the watcher, the two groups of men separated and climbed into their respective trains. As soon as every one was out of sight the Englishman rose with a little grunt of satisfaction and stretched himself.
He glanced first at the sheet of paper, and finding it written in German thrust it into his pocket. Then he commenced an anxious search for smoking materials, and eventually produced a pipe, a crumpled packet of tobacco, and two matches.
“Thank Heaven!” he exclaimed, lighting up. “And now for a tramp.”
He plodded steadily along the track for an hour or more. All the time he was in the heart of the forest. Pheasants and rabbits and squirrels continually crossed in front of him. Once a train passed, and an excited guard shouted threats and warnings, to which he replied in fluent but ineffective English.
“Johnnies seem to think I’m trespassing!” he remarked to himself in an aggrieved tone. “I can’t help being on their beastly line!”
Tall, smooth-faced, and fair, he walked with the long step and lightsome grace of the athletic young Englishman of his day. He was well dressed in tweed clothes, cut by a good tailor, a little creased by his night out of doors, but otherwise immaculate. He hummed a popular air to himself, and held his head high. If only he were not so hungry.
Then he came to a station. It was little more than a few rows of planks, with a chalet at one end—but a very welcome sight confronted him. A little pile of luggage, with his initials, G. P., was on the end of the platform nearest to him.
“That conductor was a sensible chap,” he exclaimed. “Glad I tipped him. Hullo!”
The station-master, in uniform, came hurrying out. The young Englishman took off his hat, and produced a phrase book from his pocket. He ignored the stream of words which the station-master, with many gesticulations, was already pouring out.
“My luggage,” he said firmly, laying one hand upon the pile, and waving the phrase book.
The station-master acquiesced heartily. He waxed eloquent again, but the Englishman was busy with the phrase book.
“Hungry! Hotel?” he attempted.
The station-master pointed to where the smoke was curling upwards from a score or so of houses about half a mile distant. The Englishman was getting pleased with himself. Outside was a weird-looking carriage, and on the box seat, fast asleep, was a very fat man in a shiny hat, ornamented by a bunch of feathers. He pointed to the luggage, then to the cab, and finally to the village.
“Luggage, hotel, carriage!” he suggested.
The station-master beamed all over. With a shout, which must have reached the village, he awakened the sleeping man. In less than five minutes the Englishman and his luggage were stored away in the carriage. His ticket had been examined by the station-master, and smilingly accepted. There were more bows and salutes, and the carriage drove off. Mr. Guy Poynton leaned back amongst the mouldy leather upholstery, and smiled complacently.
“Easiest thing in the world to get on in a foreign country with a phrase book and your wits,” he remarked to himself. “Jove, I am hungry!”
He drove into a village of half a dozen houses or so, which reminded him of the pictured abodes of Noah and his brethren. An astonished innkeeper, whose morning attire apparently consisted of trousers, shirt, and spectacles, ushered him into a bare room with a trestle table. Guy produced his phrase book.
“Hungry!” he said vociferously. “Want to eat! Coffee!”
The man appeared to understand, but in case there should have been any mistake Guy followed him into the kitchen. The driver, who had lost no time, was already there, with a long glass of beer before him. Guy produced a mark, laid it on the table, touched himself, the innkeeper, and the driver, and pointed to the beer. The innkeeper understood, and the beer was good.
The driver, who had been of course ludicrously over-paid, settled down in his corner, and announced his intention of seeing through to the end this most extraordinary and Heaven-directed occurrence. The innkeeper and his wife busied themselves with the breakfast, and Guy made remarks every now and then from his phrase book, which were usually incomprehensible, except when they concerned a further supply of beer. With a brave acceptance of the courtesies of the country he had accepted a cigar from the driver, and was already contemplating the awful moment when he would have to light it. Just then an interruption came.
It was something very official, but whether military or of the police Guy could not tell. It strode into the room with clanking of spurs, and the driver and innkeeper alike stood up in respect. It saluted Guy. Guy took off his hat. Then there came words, but Guy was busy with his phrase book.
“I cannot a word of German speak!” he announced at last.
A deadlock ensued. The innkeeper and the driver rushed into the breach. Conversation became furious. Guy took advantage of the moment to slip the cigar into his pocket, and to light a cigarette. Finally, the officer swung himself round, and departed abruptly.
“Dolmetscher,” the driver announced to him triumphantly.
“Dolmetscher,” the innkeeper repeated.
Guy turned it up in his phrase book, and found that it meant interpreter. He devoted himself then to stimulating the preparations for breakfast.
The meal was ready at last. There were eggs and ham and veal, dark-colored bread, and coffee, sufficient for about a dozen people. The driver constituted himself host, and Guy, with a shout of laughter, sat down where he was, and ate. In the midst of the meal the officer reappeared, ushering in a small wizened-faced individual of unmistakably English appearance. Guy turned round in his chair, and the newcomer touched his forelock.
“Hullo!” Guy exclaimed. “You’re English!”
“Yes, sir!” the man answered. “Came over to train polo ponies for the Prince of Haepsburg. Not in any trouble, I hope, sir?”
“He is an officer of the police, sir, on special service,” the man answered. “You have been reported for trespassing on the State railway this morning.”
“Trespassing be blowed!” Guy answered. “I’ve got my ticket for the frontier. We were blocked by signal about half a dozen miles off this place, and I got down to stretch my legs. I understood them to say that we could not go on for half an hour or so. They never tried to stop my getting down, and then off they went without any warning, and left me there.”
“I will translate to the officer, sir,” the man said.
“Right!” Guy declared. “Go ahead.”
There was a brisk colloquy between the two. Then the little man began again.
“He says that your train passed here at midnight, and that you did not arrive until past six.”
“Quite right!” Guy admitted. “I went to sleep. I didn’t know how far it was to the station, and I was dead tired.”
“The officer wishes to know whether many trains passed you in the night?”
“Can’t say,” Guy answered. “I sleep very soundly, and I never opened my eyes after the first few minutes.”
“The officer wishes to know whether you saw anything unusual upon the line?” the little man asked.
“Nothing at all,” Guy answered coolly. “Bit inquisitive, isn’t he?”
The little man came closer to the table.
“He wishes to see your passport, sir,” he announced.
“He wants to know why you were going to the frontier, sir!”
“Sort of fancy to say that I’d been in Russia, that’s all!” Guy answered. “You tell him I’m a perfectly harmless individual. Never been abroad before.”
The officer listened, and took notes in his pocketbook of the passport and letter of credit. Then he departed with a formal salute, and they heard his horse’s hoofs ring upon the road outside as he galloped away. The little man came close up to the table.
“You’ll excuse me, sir,” he said, “but you seem to have upset the officials very much by being upon the line last night. There have been some rumors going about—but perhaps you’re best not to know that. May I give you a word of advice, sir?”
“Let me give you one,” Guy declared. “Try this beer!”
“I thank you, sir,” the man answered. “I will do so with pleasure. But if you are really an ordinary tourist, sir,—as I have no doubt you are,—let this man drive you to Streuen, and take the train for the Austrian frontier. You may save yourself a good deal of unpleasantness.”
“I’ll do it!” Guy declared. “Vienna was the next place I was going to, anyhow. You tell the fellow where to take me, will you?”
The man spoke rapidly to the driver.
“I think that you will be followed, sir,” he added, turning to Guy, “but very likely they won’t interfere with you. The railway last night for twenty miles back was held up for State purposes. We none of us know why, and it doesn’t do to be too curious over here, but they have an idea that you are either a journalist or a spy.”
“Civis Britannicus sum!” the boy answered, with a laugh.
“It doesn’t quite mean what it used to, sir,” the man answered quietly.
Categories: English Literature