"It is, as I told you, in my note, a queer business. The Antinous, a fast light cruiser, came in about a fortnight ago to have some defects made good in her high-speed geared-turbines. There was not much wrong, but her engineer commander recommended a renewal of some of the spur wheels. The officers and crew went on short leave in rotation, a care and maintenance party was put in charge, and the builders placed a working gang on board which was occupied in shifts, by night and by day, in making good the defects. When a ship is under repair in a river basin, it is practically impossible to keep up the beautiful order and discipline of a ship at sea. Men of all kinds are constantly coming and going, life on board is stripped of the most ordinary comforts and conveniences, there is inevitably some falling off in strict supervision. Lack of space, lack of facilities for moving about the ship, lack of any regular routine. You will understand. Just as the expansion in the New Army and the New Navy has made it possible for unknown enemy agents to take service in the Army and the Navy, so the dilution of labour in the shipyards has made it possible for workmen—whose sympathies are with the enemy—to get employment about the warships. The danger is fully recognised, and that is where Dawson's widespread system of counter-espionage comes in. There is not a trade union, among all the eighteen or twenty engaged in shipyard work—riveters, fitters, platers, joiners, and all the rest of them—in which he has not police officers enrolled as skilled tradesmen, members of the unions, working as ordinary hands or as foremen, sometimes even in office as "shop stewards" representing the interest of the unions and acting as their spokesmen in disputes with the employers. Dawson claims that there has never yet been a secret Strike Committee, since the war began, upon which at least one of his own men was not serving. He is a wonderful man. I don't like him; he is too unscrupulous and merciless for my simple tastes; but his value to the country is beyond payment."
"But where in the world does he raise these men? One can't turn a policeman into a skilled worker at a moment's notice. How is it done?"
"He begins at the other end. All his skilled workmen are the best he can pick out of their various trades. They have served their full time as apprentices and journeymen. They are recommended to him by their employers after careful testing and sounding. Most of them, I believe, come from the Government dockyards and ordnance factories. They are given a course of police training at Scotland Yard, and then dropped down wherever they may be wanted. Dawson, and inspectors like him, have these men everywhere—in shipyards, in shell shops, in gun factories, in aeroplane sheds, everywhere. They take a leading part in the councils of the unions wherever they go, for they add to their skill as workmen a pronounced, even blatant parade of loyalty to the interests of trade unions and a tasty flavour of socialist principles. Dawson is perfectly cynically outspoken to me over the business which, I confess, appals me. In his female agents—of which he has many—he favours what he calls a 'judicious frailty'; in his male agents he favours a subtle skill in the verbal technique of anarchism. And this man Dawson is by religion a Peculiar Baptist, in private life a faithful husband and a loving father, and in politics a strict Liberal of the Manchester School! As a man he is good, honest, and rather narrow; as a professional detective he is base and mean, utterly without scruple, and a Jesuit of Jesuits. With him the end justifies the means, whatever the means may be."
"And yet you admit that his value to the country is beyond payment. Dawson—our remarkable Dawson of the double life in the two compartments, professional and private, which never are allowed to overlap—Dawson is an instrument of war. We do not like using gas or liquid fire, but we are compelled to use them. We do not like espionage, but we must employ it. As one who loves this fair land of England beyond everything in the world, and as one who would do anything, risk anything, and suffer anything to shield her from the filthy Germans, I rejoice that she has in her service such supremely efficient guardians as this most wickedly unscrupulous Dawson. There is, at any rate, not a trace of our English muddle about him."
"Ours is a righteous cause," cried poor Cary desperately. "We are fighting for right against wrong, for defence against aggression, for civilisation against utter barbarism. We are by instinct clean fighters. If in the stress of conflict we stoop to foul methods, can we ever wash away the filth of them from our souls? We shall stand before the world nakedly confessed as the nation of hypocrites we have always been declared to be."
"Cary," I said, "you make me tired. We cannot be too thankful that we possess Dawsons to counterplot against the Germans, and that personally we are in no way responsible for the morality of their methods. Come off the roof and get back to this most interesting affair of the Antinous. I presume one of Dawson's men was working, unknown to his fellows, with the care and maintenance party, and another, equally unknown, with the engineers who were busy upon the gearing of the turbines. Many of the regular ship's officers and men would also have been on board. Had our remarkable friend his agents among them too? Everything is possible with Dawson; I should not be surprised to hear that he had police officers in the Fleet flagship."
"You are almost right. One of his men, a temporary petty officer of R.N.V.R., was certainly on board, and he tells me that down in the engine room was another—a civilian fitter. They were both first-class men. The electric wires, as you know, are carried about the ship under the deck beams, where they are accessible for examination and repairs. They are coiled in cables from which wires are led to the switch room, and thence to all parts of the ship. There are thousands of wires, and no one who did not know intimately their purpose and disposition could venture to tamper with them, for great numbers are always in use. If any one cut the lighting wires, for instance, the defects would be obvious at once; so with the heating or telephone wires. Nothing was touched except the lines to the guns, of which there are eight disposed upon the deck. From the guns connections run to the switch room, the conning tower, the gunnery control platform aloft, and to the gunnery officer's bridge. It was the main cable between the switch room and the conning tower which was cut, and it was one cable laid alongside a dozen others. Now who could know that this was the gun cable, and the only one in which damage might escape detection while the ship was in harbour? At sea there is constant gun drill, during which the electrical controls and the firing-tubes are always tested, but in harbour the guns are lying idle most of the time. It was evidently the intention of the enemy, who cut these wires, that the Antinous should go to sea before the defect was discovered, and that her fire control should be out of action till the wiring system could be repaired. That very serious disaster was prevented by the preliminary testing during the night before sailing, but the enemy has been successful in delaying the departure of an invaluable light cruiser for two days. In these days, when the war of observation is more important even than the war of fighting, the services of light cruisers cannot be dispensed with for an hour without grave inconvenience and risk. Yet here was one delayed for forty-eight hours after her ordinary repairs had been completed. The naval authorities are in a frightful stew. For what has happened to the Antinous may happen to other cruisers, even to battleships. If there is sabotage among the workmen in the shipyards, it must be discovered and stamped out without a moment's delay. This time it is the cutting of a wire cable; at another time it may be some wilful injury far more serious. A warship is a mass of delicate machinery to which a highly skilled enemy agent might do almost infinite damage. Dawson has been run off his feet during the past two days; I don't know what he has discovered; but if he does not get to the bottom of the business in double-quick time we shall have the whole Board of Admiralty, Scotland Yard, and possibly the War Cabinet down upon us. Think, too, of the disgrace to this shipbuilding city of which we are all so proud."
"We shall know something soon," I said, "for, if I mistake not, here comes Dawson." The electric bell at the front door had buzzed, and Cary, slipping from the room, presently returned with a man who to me, at the first glance, was a complete stranger. I sprang up, moved round to a position whence I could see clearly the visitor's ears, and gasped. It was Dawson beyond a doubt, but it was not the Dawson whom I had known in the north. So what I had vaguely surmised was true—Cary's Dawson and Copplestone's Dawson were utterly unlike. Dawson winked at me, glanced towards Cary, and shook his head; from which I gathered that he did not desire his appearance to be the subject of comment. I therefore greeted him without remark, and, as he sat down under the electric lights, examined him in detail. This Dawson was ten years older than the man whom I had known and fenced with. The hair of this one was lank and grey, while that of mine was brown and curly; the face of this one was white and thin, while the face of mine was rather full and ruddy. The teeth were different—I found out afterwards that Dawson, who had few teeth of his own, possessed several artificial sets of varied patterns—the shape of the mouth was different, the nose was different. I could never have recognised the man before me had I not possessed that clue to identity furnished by his unchanging ears.
"So, Dawson," said I slowly, "we meet again. Permit me to say that I congratulate you. It is very well done."
He grinned and glanced at the unconscious Cary. "You are learning. Bill Dawson takes a bit of knowing."
"Have you any news, Mr. Dawson?" asked Cary eagerly.
"Not much. The wires of the Antinous have all been renewed—the Admiralty won't allow cables to be patched except at sea—but I haven't found out who played hanky-panky with them. It could not have been any one in the engine-room party, as none of them went near the place where the wires were cut. Besides, they were engineers, not electricians, and could have known nothing of the arrangements and disposition of the ship's wires. My man who worked with them is positive that they are a sound, good lot without a sea-lawyer or a pacifist among them; a gang of plain, honest tykes. So we are thrown back on the maintenance party, included in which were all sorts of ratings. Some of them are skilled in the electrical fittings—my own man with them is, for one—but we get the best accounts of all of them. They are long service men, cast for sea owing to various medical reasons, but perfectly efficient for harbour work. Among the officers of the ship is a R.N.R. lieutenant with a German name. I jumped to him, but the captain laughed. The man's father and grandfather were in the English merchant service, and though his people originally came from Saxony, he is no more German than we are ourselves. Besides, my experience is that an Englishman with an inherited German name is the very last man to have any truck with the enemy. He is too much ashamed of his forbears for one thing; and for another he is too dead set on living down his beastly name. So we will rule out the Lieutenant R.N.R. My own man, who is a petty officer R.N.V.R., and has worked on a lot of ships which have come in for repairs, says that the temper among the workmen in the yards is good now. It was ugly when dilution of labour first came in, but the wages are so high that all that trouble has settled down. I have had what you call sabotage in the shell and gun shops, but never yet in the King's ships. We have had every possible cutter of the wires on the mat before the Captain and me. We have looked into all their records, had their homes visited and their people questioned, inquired of their habits—Mr. Copplestone, here, knows what comes of drink—and found out how they spend their wages. Yet we have discovered nothing. It is the worst puzzle that I've struck. When and how the gun cable was cut I can't tell you, but whoever did it is much too clever to be about. He must have been exactly informed of the lie and use of the cables, had with him the proper tools, and used them in some fraction of a minute when he wasn't under the eye of my own man whose business it was to watch everybody and suspect everybody. I thought that I had schemed out a pretty thorough system; up to now it has worked fine. Whenever we have had the slightest reason to suspect any man, we have had him kept off the ship and watched. We have run down a lot of footling spies, too stupid to give us a minute's anxiety, but this man who cut the Antinous's wires is of a different calibre altogether. He is AI, and when I catch him, as I certainly shall, I will take off my hat to him."
"You say that the Antinous is all right now?" I observed.
"Yes. I saw her towed out of the repair basin an hour ago, and she must be away down the river by this time. It is not of her that I'm thinking, but of the other ships which are constantly in and out for repairs. There are always a dozen here of various craft, usually small stuff. While the man who cut those wires is unknown I shall be in a perfect fever, and so will the Admiral-Superintendent. We'll get the beauty sooner or later, but if it is later, there may be had mischief done. If he can cut wires in one ship, he may do much worse things in some other. The responsibility rests on me, and it is rather crushing."
Dawson spoke with less than his usual cheery confidence. I fancy that the thinness and whiteness of his face were not wholly due to disguise. He had not been to bed since he had been called up in the middle watch of the night before last, and the man was worn out.
"If you take my poor advice, Dawson," I said, "you will cut off now and get some sleep. Even your brain cannot work continuously without rest. The country needs you at your best, and needs you very badly indeed."
His dull, weary eyes lighted as if under the stimulus of champagne, and he turned upon me a look which was almost affectionate. I really began to believe that Dawson likes me, that he sees in me a kindred spirit as patriotically unscrupulous as himself.
He jumped up and gripped my hand. "You are right. I will put in a few hours' sleep and then to work once more. This time I am up against a man who is nearly as smart as I am myself, and I can't afford to carry any handicap."
I led him to the door and put him out, and then turned to Cary with a laugh. "And I, too, will follow Dawson's example. It is past one, and my head is buzzing with queer ideas. Perhaps, after all, the Germans have more imagination than we usually credit them with. I wonder—" But I did not tell to Cary what I wondered.
* * * * *
We were sitting after breakfast in Cary's study, enjoying the first sweet pipe of the day, when the telephone bell rang. Cary took off the earpiece and I listened to a one-sided conversation somewhat as follows:—
"What! Is that you, Mr. Dawson? Yes, Copplestone is here. The Antigone? What about her? She is a sister ship of the Antinous, and was in with damage to her forefoot, which had been ripped up when she ran down that big German submarine north of the Orkneys—Yes, I know; she was due to go out some time to-day. What do you say? Wires cut? Whose wires have been cut? The Antigone's? Oh, the devil! Yes, we will both come down to your office this afternoon. Whenever you like."
Cary hung up the receiver and glared at me. "It has happened again," he groaned. "The Antigone this time. She has been in dry dock for the past fortnight and was floated out yesterday. Her full complement joined her last night. Dawson says that he was called up at eight-o'clock by the news that her gun-wires have been cut exactly like those of the Antinous and in the same incomprehensible way. He seems, curiously enough, to be quite cheerful about it."
"He has had a few hours sleep. And, besides, he sees that this second case, so exactly like the first, makes the solution of his problem very much more easy. I am glad that he is cheerful, for I feel exuberantly happy myself. I was kept awake half the night by a persistent notion which seemed the more idiotic the more I thought all round it. But now—now, there may be something in it."
"What is your idea? Tell me quick."
"No, thank you, Dr. Watson. We amateur masters of intuition don't work our thrilling effects in that way. We keep our notions to ourselves until they turn out to be right, and then we declare that we saw through the problem from the first. When we have been wrong, we say nothing. So you observe, Cary, that whatever happens our reputations do not suffer."
Cary tried to shake my resolution, but I was obdurately silent. While he canvassed the whole position, bringing to bear his really profound knowledge of naval equipment and routine—and incidentally helping me greatly to realise the improbability of my own guesswork solution—I was able to maintain an air of lofty superiority. I must have aggravated him intensely, unpardonably, for I was his guest. He ought to have kicked me out. Yet he bore with me like the sweet-blooded kindly angel that he is, and when at the end it appeared that I was right after all, Cary was the first to pour congratulations and honest admiration upon me. If he reads this book he will know that I am repentant—though I must confess that I should behave in just the same abominable way if the incident were to occur again. There is no great value in repentance such as this.
We reached Dawson's office in the early afternoon, and found his chief assistant there, but no Dawson. "The old man," remarked that officer, a typical, stolid, faithful detective sergeant, "is out on the rampage. He ought by rights to sit here directing the staff and leave the outside investigations to me. He is a high-up man, almost a deputy assistant commissioner, and has no call to be always disguising himself and playing his tricks on everybody. I suppose you know that white-haired old gent down here ain't a bit like Bill Dawson, who's not a day over forty?"
"I have given up wondering where the real Dawson ends and where the disguises begin. The man I met up north wasn't the least bit like the one down here."
"A deal younger, I expect," said the chief assistant, grinning. "He shifts about between thirty and sixty. The old man is no end of a cure, and tries to take us in the same as he does you. There's an inspector at the Yard who was at school with him down Hampshire way, and ought to know what he is really like, but even he has given Dawson up. He says that the old man does not know his own self in the looking-glass; and as for Mrs. Dawson, I expect she has to take any one who comes along claiming to be her husband, for she can't, possibly tell t'other from which."
"One might make a good story out of that," I observed to Cary.
"I don't understand," said he. "Mr. Dawson told me once that I knew the real Dawson, but that few other people did."
"If he told you that," calmly observed the assistant, "you may bet your last shirt he was humbugging you. He couldn't tell the truth, not if he tried ever so."
"What is he at now?" I asked.
"I don't know, sir. And if he told me, I shouldn't believe him. I don't take no account of a word that man says. But he's the most successful detective we've got in the whole Force. He's sure to be head of the C.I.D. one day, and then he will have to stay in his office and give us others a chance."
"I don't believe he will," I observed, laughing. "There will be a sham Dawson in the office and the genuine article will be out on the rampage. He is a man who couldn't sit still, not even if you tied him in his chair and sealed the knots."
We spent a pleasant hour pulling Dawson to pieces and leaving to him not a rag of virtue, except intense professional zeal. We exchanged experiences of him, those of the chief assistant being particularly rich and highly flavoured. It appeared that Dawson when off duty loved to occupy the platform at meetings of his religious connection and to hold forth to the elect. The privilege of "sitting under him" had been enjoyed more than once by the assistant, who retailed to us extracts from Dawson's favourite sermon on "Truth." His views upon Truth were unbending as armour plate. "Under no circumstances, not to save oneself from imminent death, not to shield a wife or a child from the penalties for a lapse from virtue, not even to preserve one's country from the attacks of an enemy, was it permissible to a Peculiar Baptist to diverge by the breadth of a hair from the straight path of Truth. Hell yawned on either hand; only along the knife edge of Truth could salvation be reached."
"He made me shiver," said the chief assistant, "and he drove me to thinking of one or two little deceptions of my own. When Dawson preaches, his eyes blaze, his voice breaks, and he will fall on his knees and pray for the souls of those who heed not his words. You can't look at him then and not believe that he means every word he says. Yet it's all humbug."
"No, it is not," said I. "Dawson in the pulpit, or on the tub—or whatever platform he uses—is absolutely genuine. He is the finest example that I have ever met of the dual personality. He is in dead earnest when he preaches on Truth, and he is in just as dead earnest when, stripped of every moral scruple, he pursues a spy or a criminal. In pursuit he is ruthless as a Prussian, but towards the captured victim he can be strangely tender. I should not be surprised to learn that he hates capital punishment and is a strong advocate of gentle methods in prison discipline."
The chief assistant stared, opened a drawer, and pulled forth a slim grey pamphlet. It was marked "For Office Use Only," and was entitled, "Some Notes on Prison Reform," by Chief Inspector William Dawson.
I had begun to read the pamphlet, when a step sounded outside; the assistant snatched it from my hand, flashed it back into its place, and jumped to attention as Dawson entered. He surveyed us with those searching, unwinking eyes of his—for we had the air of conspirators—and said brusquely: "Clear out, Wilson. You talk too much. And don't admit any one except Petty Officer Trehayne."
"The Antigone!" cried Cary, who thought only of ships. "The Antigone! Is she much damaged?"
"No. Whoever tried to cut her wires was disturbed, or in too great a hurry to do his work well. The main gun-cable was nipped, but not cut through. She will be delayed till to-morrow, not longer. I am not worrying about the Antigone, but about the new battleship Malplaquet, which was commissioned last month, is nearly filled up with stores, and is expected to leave the river on Saturday. We can't have her delayed by any hanky tricks, not even if we have to put the whole detective force on board of her. Still, I'm not so anxious as I was. This Antigone business has cleared things up a lot, and one can sift out the impossible from the possible. To begin with, the Antinous was in for repairs to her geared turbines, and the Antigone for damage to her forefoot. Engineers were on one job, and platers and riveters on the other. Different trades. So not a workman who was in the Antinous was also in the Antigone. We can rule out all the workmen. We can also rule out my lieutenant R.N.R. with the German name who has gone to sea in the Antinous. The care and maintenance party in the Antigone was not the same as the one in the Antinous, not a man the same."
"You are sure of that?" cried I, for it seemed that my daring theory had gone to wreck. "You are quite sure."
"Quite. I have all the names and have examined all the men. They were all off the ship by eleven o'clock last night. I hadn't one of my own men among them, but, to make sure, I sent Petty Officer Trehayne on board at eight o'clock to keep a sharp look-out and to see all the harbour party off the vessel. He reported a little after eleven that they were all gone and the ship taken over by her own crew. The damage was discovered at four bells in the morning watch."
"Six o'clock a.m.," interpreted Cary.
"It looks now as if there might be a traitor among her own crew, which is her officers' job, not mine. I wash my hands of the Antigone, but it is very much up to me to see that nothing hurtful happens to the Malplaquet. The Admiral has orders to support me with all the force under his command; the General of the District has the same orders. But it isn't force we want so much as brains—Dawson's brains. I have been beaten twice, but not the third time. I've told the Yard that if the Malplaquet is touched I shall resign, and if they send any one to help me I shall resign. Between to-day, Thursday, and Saturday I am going to catch the wily josser who has a fancy for cutting gun cables or Dawson will say good-bye to the Force. That's a fair stake."
The man swelled with determination and pride. He had no thought of failure, and drew inspiration and joy from the heaviness of the bet which he had made with Fortune. He took the born gambler's delight in a big risk.
"Then you think that the Antinous and the Antigone were both damaged by the same man, and that he may have designs upon the Malplaquet?" said I.
"I don't propose to tell you what I think," replied Dawson stiffly.
"Still," I persisted, passing over the snub, "you have a theory?"
"No, thanks," said Dawson contemptuously. "I have no use for theories. When they are wrong they mislead you, and when they are right they are no help. I believe in facts—facts brought out by constant vigilance. Unsleeping watchfulness and universal suspicion, those are the principles I work on. The theory business makes pretty story books, but the Force does not waste good time over them."
"What are you going to do?"
"This is Thursday afternoon. I am going to join the Malplaquet presently, and I'm not going to sleep till she is safely down the river. I'm going to be my own watchman this time."
"How? In what capacity?"
Dawson gave a shrug of impatience, for his nerves were on edge. For a moment he hesitated, and then, recollecting the high post to which I had tacitly been appointed in his household, he replied:
"I am going as one of the Marine sentries."
"It's no use, Dawson," protested I emphatically. "You are a wonder at disguise, and will look, I do not doubt, the very spit of a Marine. But you can't pass among the men for half an hour without discovery. They are a class apart, they talk their own language, cherish their own secret traditions, live in a world to which no stranger ever penetrates. You could pass as a naval officer more easily than you could as a Pongo. It is sheer madness, Dawson."
He gave a short laugh. "Much you know about it. I have served in the Red Corps myself. I was a recruit at Deal, passed two years at Plymouth, and served afloat for three years. I was then drafted into the Naval Police. Afterwards I was recommended for detective work in the dockyards, and at the end of my Marine service joined the Yard. My good man, I was a sergeant before I left the Corps."
"I give up, Dawson," said I. "Nothing about you will ever surprise me again. Not even if you claim to have been a Cabinet Minister."
A queer smile stole over his face. "No, I have not been a minister, but I have attended a meeting of the Cabinet."
Cary interposed at this point. "Yours is a fine idea, Mr. Dawson. As a Marine sentry you can get yourself posted by the Major wherever you please, and the Guard will not talk even though they may wonder that any man should want to do twenty-four hours of duty per day. The Marines are the closest, faith-fullest, and best disciplined force in the wide world. Bluejackets will gossip; Marines never. You will be able to watch more closely than even Trehayne, who, I suppose, will also be on board."
"Yes. He is coming up soon for instructions. It's his last chance, as it is mine. He sees that he must be held responsible for the wire cutting in the Antinous, and to some slight extent also in the Antigone, and that if anything goes wrong with the Malplaquet he will be dismissed. I shall be sorry to lose him, for he is an exceptionally good man, but we can't allow failures in petty officer detectives any more than we can in chief inspectors."
"Where does Trehayne come from? His name sounds Cornish," I asked.
"Falmouth, I believe. He is quite young, but he has had nearly three years in the Vernon at Portsmouth and in the torpedo factory at Greenock. A first-class engineer and electrician and a sound detective. He has been with me for some twelve months. You will see him if he calls soon."
I had been thinking hard over the details of Dawson's plans while the talk went on, and then ventured to offer some comments.
"It is fortunate that you have grown a moustache since you were in the north; you could not have been a Marine as a clean-shaven man."
"I often have to shave it," said Dawson, "but I always grow it again between whiles. One can take it off quicker than one can put it on again. False hair is the devil; I have never used it yet and never will. So whenever I have a spell of leisure I grow a moustache against emergencies—like this one."
My next comment was rather difficult to make, for I did not wish either Cary or Dawson to divine its purpose. "If I may make a suggestion to a man of your experience it would be that none of your men here, not even your chief assistant or Trehayne, should know that you are joining the Malplaquet as a Marine. Two independent strings are in this case better than a double-jointed string."
"I never tell anything to any one, least of all to Pudden-Headed Wilson. He is loyal, but a stupid ass with a flapping tongue. Trehayne is close as wax, but, on general principles, I keep my movements strictly to myself. He will be in the ship, but he won't know that I am there too. The Commander must know and the Major of Marines, for I shall want a uniform and the free run of the ship, so as to be posted where I like. The Marine Sergeants of the Guard may guess, but, as Mr. Cary says, they won't talk. You two gentlemen are safe," added Dawson pleasantly, "for I've got you tight in my hand and could lock either of you up in a minute if I chose."
A peculiar knock came upon the door, a word passed between Dawson and the police sentry outside, and a young man in the uniform of a naval petty officer entered the room. He was clean-shaven, looked about twenty-five years old, was dark and slim of the Latin type which is not uncommon in Cornwall, and impressed me at once with his air of intelligence and refinement. His voice, too, was rather striking. It was that of the wardroom rather than of the mess deck. I liked the look of Petty Officer Trehayne. Dawson presented him to us and then took him aside for instructions. When he had finished, both men rejoined us, and the conversation became light and general. Trehayne, though clearly suffering from nervous strain after his recent professional failures, talked with the ease and detachment of a highly cultivated man. It appeared that he had been educated at Blundell's School, had lost his parents at about sixteen, had done a course in some electrical engineering shops at Plymouth, and when twenty years old had secured a good berth on the engineering staff of the Vernon. He could speak both French and German, which he had learned partly at school and partly on the Continent during leave. Dawson, who was evidently very proud of his young pupil and assistant, paraded his accomplishments before us rather to Trehayne's embarrassment. "Try him with French and German," urged Dawson. "He can chatter them as well as English. But he is as close as wax in all three languages. Some men can't keep their tongues still in one."
I turned to Trehayne and spoke in French: "German I can't abide, but French I love. My vocabulary is extensive, but my accent abominable—incurably British. You can hear it for yourself how it gives me away."
"It is not quite of Paris," replied Trehayne. "Mais vous parlez francais tres bien, tres correctement. Beaucoup mieux que moi."
"Non, non, monsieur," I protested, and then reverted to English.
"Now," said Dawson, when Trehayne had left us, "I must get along, see the Commander of the Malplaquet, and draw a uniform and rifle out of the marine stores. It will be quite like old times. You won't see me until Saturday, when I shall be either a triumphant or a broken man. What is the betting, Mr. Copplestone?"
I could not understand the quizzical little smile that Dawson gave me, nor the humorous twitch of his lips. He had contemptuously disclaimed all use of theories, yet there was more moving behind that big forehead of his than he chose to give away. Did his ideas run on parallel lines with mine; did he even suspect that I had formed any idea at all? I could not inquire, for I dislike being laughed at, especially by this man Dawson. I had nothing to go upon, at least so little that was palpable that anything which I might say would be dismissed as the merest guesswork, for which, as Dawson proclaimed, he had no use. Yet, yet—my original guess stuck firmly in my mind, improbable though it might be, and had just been nailed down tightly—I scorn to mystify the reader—by a few simple sentences spoken in French.
THE MARINE SENTRY
We had a whole day to fill in before we could get any news of Dawson's vigil in the Malplaquet, and I have never known a day as drearily long. Cary and I were both restless as peas on a hot girdle, and could not settle down to talk or to read or to write. Cary sought vainly to persuade me to read and pass judgment upon his Navy Book. In spite of my interest in the subject my soul revolted at the forbidding pile of manuscript. I promised to read the proofs and criticise them with severity, but as for the M.S.—no, thanks. Poor Cary needed all his sweet patience to put up with me. By eleven o'clock we had become unendurable to one another, and I gladly welcomed his suggestion to adjourn to his club, have lunch there, and try to inveigle the Commander of the Malplaquet into our net. "I know him," said Cary. "He is a fine fellow; and though he must be pretty busy, he will be glad to lunch somewhere away from the ship. If we have luck we will go back with him and look over the Malplaquet ourselves."
"If you can manage that, Cary, you will have my blessing."
He did manage to work the luncheon part by telephoning to the yard where the Malplaquet was fitting out, and we left the rest to our personal charms.
Cary was right. The Commander was a very fine fellow, an English naval officer of the best type. He confirmed the views I had frequently heard expressed by others of his profession that no hatred exists between English and German sailors. They leave that to middle-aged civilians who write for newspapers. The German Navy, in his opinion, was "a jolly fine Service," worthy in high courage and skill to contest with us the supremacy of the seas. He had been through the China troubles as a lieutenant in the Monmouth—afterwards sunk by German shot off Coronel—knew von Spee, von Mueller, and other officers of the Pacific Squadron, and spoke of them with enthusiasm. "They sunk some of our ships and we wiped out theirs. That was all in the way of business. We loved them in peace and we loved them in war. They were splendidly loyal to us out in China—von Spee actually transferred some of his ships to the command of our own senior officer so as to avoid any clash of control—and when it came to fighting, they fought like gentlemen. I grant you that their submarine work against merchant ships has been pretty putrid, but I don't believe that was the choice of their Navy. They got their orders from rotten civilians like Kaiser Bill." Imagine if you can the bristling moustache of the Supreme War Lord could he have heard himself described as a civilian!
Our guest had commanded a destroyer in the Jutland battle, and assured us that the handling of the German battle squadrons had been masterly. "They punished us heavily for just so long as they were superior in strength, and then they slipped away before Jellicoe could get his blow in. They kept fending us off with torpedo attacks until the night came down, and then clean vanished. We got in some return smacks after dark at stragglers, but it was very difficult to say how much damage we did. Not much, I expect. Still it was a good battle, as decisive in its way as Trafalgar. It proved that the whole German Fleet could not fight out an action against our full force and have the smallest hope of success. I am just praying for the chance of a whack at them in the Malplaquet. My destroyer was a bonny ship, the best in the flotilla, but the Malplaquet is a real peach. You should see her."
"We mean to," said Cary. "This very afternoon. You shall take us back with you."
The Commander opened his eyes at this cool proposal, but we prevailed upon him to seek the permission of the Admiral-Superintendent, who, a good deal to my surprise, proved to be quite pliable. Cary's reputation for discretion must be very high in the little village where he lives if it is able to guarantee so disreputable a scribbler as Bennet Copplestone! The Admiral, fortunately, had not read any of my Works before they had been censored. When printed in Cornhill they were comparatively harmless.
I must not describe the Malplaquet. Her design was not new to me—I had seen more than one of her type—but as she is now a unit in Beatty's Fleet her existence is not admitted to the world. As we went up and down her many steep narrow ladders, and peered into dark corners, I looked everywhere for a Marine sentry whom I could identify by mark of ear as Dawson. I never saw him, but Trehayne passed me twice, and I found myself again admiring his splendid young manhood. He was not big, being rather slim and wiry than strongly built, but in sheer beauty of face and form he was almost perfectly fashioned. "Do you know that man?" I asked of our commander, indicating Trehayne. "No," said he. "He is one of the shore party. But I should like to have him with me. He is one of the smartest looking petty officers that I have ever seen."
We were shown everything that we desired to see except the transmission room and the upper conning tower—the twin holy of holies in a commissioned ship—and slipped away, escaping the Captain by a bare two minutes. Which was lucky, as he would probably have had us thrown into the "ditch."
The end of the day was as weariful as the beginning, and we were all glad—especially, I expect, Mrs. Cary—to go early to bed. That ill-used lady, to whom we could disclose nothing of our anxieties, must have found us wretched company.
We had finished breakfast the next morning—the Saturday of Dawson's gamble—and were sitting on Cary's big fireguard talking of every subject, except the one which had kept us awake at night, when a servant entered and announced that a soldier was at the door with a message from Mr. Dawson. "Show him in," almost shouted Cary, and I jumped to my feet, stirred for once into a visible display of eagerness.
A Marine came in, dressed in the smart blue sea kit that I love; upon his head the low flat cap of his Corps. He gave us a full swinging salute, and jumped to attention with a click of his heels. He looked about thirty-five, and wore a neatly trimmed dark moustache. His hair, also very dark, was cropped close to his head. Standing there with his hands upon the red seams of his trousers, his chest well filled out, and his face weather tanned, he looked a proper figure of a sea-going soldier. "Mr. Cary, sir," he said, in a flat, monotonous orderly's voice, "Major Boyle's compliments, and could you and your friend come down to the Police Station to meet him and Chief Inspector Dawson. I have a taxi-cab at the door, sir."
"Certainly," cried Cary; "in two minutes we shall be ready."
"Oh, no, we shan't," I remarked calmly, for I had moved to a position of tactical advantage on the Marine's port beam. "We will have the story here, if you don't mind, Dawson."
He stamped pettishly on the floor, whipped off his cap, and spun it across the room. "Confound you, Mr. Copplestone!" he growled. "How the—how the—do you do it?" He could not think of an expletive mild enough for Mrs. Cary's ears. "There's something about me that I can't hide. What is it? If you don't tell, I will get you on the Regulation compelling all British subjects to answer questions addressed to them by a competent naval or military authority."
"You don't happen to be either, Dawson," said I unkindly. "And, beside, there was never yet a law made which could compel a man to speak or a woman to hold her tongue. Some day perhaps, if you are good, I will show you how the trick is done. But not yet. I want to have something to bargain with when you cast me into jail. Out with the story; we are impatient. If I mistake not, you come to us Dawson triumphant. You haven't the air of a broken man."
"I have been successful," he answered gravely, "but I am a long, long way from feeling triumphant. No, thank you, Mrs. Cary, I have had my breakfast, but if I might trouble you for a cup of coffee? Many thanks."
Dawson sat down, and Cary moved about inspecting him from every angle. "No," declared he at last, "I cannot see the smallest resemblance, not the smallest. You were thin; now you are distinctly plump. Your hair was nearly white. Your cheeks had fallen in as if your back teeth were missing. Your lower lip stuck out." Dawson smiled, highly gratified. "I took in all my people at the office this morning," he said. "They all thought, and think still, that I was a messenger from the Malplaquet, which, by the way, is well down the river safe and sound. Just wait a minute." He walked into a corner of the room, moved his hands quickly between his side pockets and his face, and then returned. Except for the dark hair and moustache and the brown skin, he had become the Dawson of the Thursday afternoon. "It is as simple for me to change," said the artist, with a nasty look in my direction, "as it seems to be for Mr. Copplestone here to spot me. It will take a day or two to get the dye out of my hair and the tan off my skin. I am going to have a sharp touch of influenza, which is a useful disease when one wants to lie in. Since Sunday I have only been twice to bed."
We filled him up with coffee and flattery—as one fills a motor car with petrol and oil—but asked him no questions until we were safely in Cary's study and Mrs. Cary had gone about her household duties. "Your good lady," remarked Dawson to Cary, "is as little curious as any woman I have met, and we will leave her at that if you don't mind. The best thing about our women is that they don't care tuppence about naval and military details. If they did, and once started prying with that keen scent and indomitable persistence of theirs, we might as well chuck up. Even my own bright team of charmers never know and never ask the meaning of the information that they ferret out for me. Their curiosity is all personal—about men and women, never about things. Women—"
I cut Dawson short. He tended to become tedious.
"Quite so," I observed politely. "And to revert to one big female creature, let us hear something of the Malplaquet."
"You at any rate are curious enough for a dozen. It would serve you right to keep you hopping a bit longer. But I have a kindly eye for human weakness, though you might not think it. I joined the ship on Thursday afternoon, slipping in as one of a detachment of fifty R.M.L.I. who had been wired for from Chatham. They were an emergency lot; we hadn't enough in the ship for the double sentry go that I wanted. All my plans were made with the Commander and Major Boyle, and they both did exactly what I told them. It isn't often that a private of Marines has the ordering about of two officers. But Dawson is Dawson; no common man. They did as I told them, and were glad to do it. I had extra light bulbs put on all over the lower decks and every dark corner lit up—except one. Just one. And this one was where the four gun-cables ran out of the switch-room and lay alongside one another before they branched off to the fore and after turrets and to the port and starboard side batteries. That was the most likely spot which any one wanting to cut the gun-wires would mark down, and I meant to watch it pretty closely myself. We had double sentries at the magazines. The Malplaquet is an oil-fired ship, so we hadn't any bothering coal bunkers to attract fancy bombs. I was pretty sure that after the Antinous and the Antigone we had mostly wire-cutting to fear. When a man has done one job successfully, and repeated it almost successfully, he is pretty certain to have a third shot. Besides, if one is out to delay a ship, cutting wires is as good a way as any. I had an idea that my man was not a bomber."
"I thought that you scorned theories," I put in dryly. "When they are wrong they mislead you, and when they are right they are no help."
Dawson frowned. "Shut up, Copplestone," snapped Cary.
"We were in no danger from the lighting, heating, and telephone wires, for any defect would have been visible at once. It was the gun and gunnery control cables that were the weak spots. So I had L.T.O.'s posted in the spotting top, the conning tower, the transmission room, the four turrets, and at the side batteries. Every few minutes they put through tests which would have shown up at once any wires that had been tampered with. After the shore party had cleared out about nine o'clock on the Thursday, no officer or man was allowed to leave the ship without a special permit from the Commander. This was all dead against the sanitary regulations of the harbour, but I had the Admiral's authority to break any rules I pleased. By the way, you two ought never to have been allowed on board yesterday afternoon—I saw you, though you didn't see me; it was contrary to my orders. I spoke to the Admiral pretty sharp last night. 'Who is responsible for the ship?' says I. 'You or me?' 'You,' says he. 'I leave it at that,' says I."
"One moment, Dawson," I put in. "If the shore party had all gone, how was it that I saw Petty Officer Trehayne in the ship?"
"He had orders to stay and keep watch—though he didn't know I was on board myself. Two pairs of police eyes are better than one pair, and fifty times better than all the Navy eyes in the ship. Of all the simple-minded, unsuspicious beggars in the world, give me a pack of naval ratings! I wouldn't have one of them for sentries—that is why the fifty emergency Marines were sent for." Dawson's limitless pride in his old Service, and deep contempt for the mere sailor, had come back in full flood with the uniform of his Corps.
"I started my own sentry duty in the dark corner I told you of as soon as I had seen to the arrangements all over the Malplaquet, and I was there, with very few breaks of not more than five minutes each for a bite of food, for twenty-six hours. Two Marine sentries took my place whenever I was away. I had my rifle and bayonet, and stood back in a corner of a bulkhead where I couldn't be seen. The hours were awful long; I stood without hardly moving. All the pins and needles out of Redditch seemed to dance up and down me, but I stuck it out—and I had my reward, I had my reward. I did my duty, but it's a sick and sorry man that I am this day."
"There was nothing else to be done," I said. "What you feel now is a nervous reaction."
"That's about it. I watched and watched, never feeling a bit like sleep though my eyes burned something cruel and my feet—they were lumps of prickly wood, not feet. Dull lumps with every now and then a stab as if a tin tack had been driven into them. Beyond me in the open alley-way the light was strong, and I could see men pass frequently, but no one came into my corner till the end, and no one saw me. I heard six bells go in the first watch ('Eleven p.m.,' whispered Cary) on Friday evening, though there was a good bit of noise of getting ready to go out in the early morning, and I was beginning to think that all my trouble might go for naught, when a man in a Navy cap and overalls stopped just opposite my dark hole between two bulkheads. His face was turned from me, as he looked carefully up and down the lighted way. He stood there quite still for some seconds, and then stepped backwards towards me. I could see him plain against the light beyond. He listened for another minute or so, and, satisfied that no one was near, spun on his heels, whipped a tool from his dungaree overalls, and reached up to the wires which ran under the deck beams overhead. In spite of my aching joints and sore feet I was out in a flash and had my bayonet up against his chest. He didn't move till my point was through his clothes and into his flesh. I just shoved till he gave ground, and so, step by step, I pushed him with the point of my bayonet till he was under the lights. His arms had come down, he dropped the big shears with insulated handles which he had drawn from his pocket, but he didn't speak a word to me and I did not speak to him. I just held him there under the lights, and we looked at one another without a word spoken. There was no sign of surprise or fear in his face, just a queer little smile. Suddenly he moved, made a snatch at the front of his overalls, and put something into his mouth. I guessed what it was, but did not try to stop him; it was the best thing that he could do."
Dawson stopped and pulled savagely at his cigar. He jabbed the end with his knife, though the cigar was drawing perfectly well, and gave forth a deep growl which might have been a curse or a sob.
"Have you ever watched an electric bulb fade away when the current is failing?" he asked. "The film pales down from glowing white to dull red, which gets fainter and fainter, little by little, till nothing but the memory of it lingers on your retina. His eyes went out exactly like that bulb. They faded and faded out of his face, which still kept up that queer, twisted smile. I've seen them ever since; wherever I turn. I shall be glad of that bout of influenza, and shall begin it with a stiff dose of veronal.... When the light had nearly gone out of his eyes and he was rocking on his feet, I spoke for the first time. I spoke loud too. 'Good-bye,' I called out; 'I'm Dawson.' He heard me, for his eyes answered with a last flash; then they faded right out and he fell flat on the steel deck. He had died on his feet; his will kept him upright to the end; that was a Man. He lived a Man's life, doing what he thought his duty, and he died a Man's death.... I blew my whistle twice; up clattered a Sergeant with the Marine Guard and stopped where that figure on the deck barred their way. 'Get a stretcher,' I said, 'and send for the doctor. But it won't be any use. The man's dead.' The Sergeant asked sharply for my report, and sent off a couple of men for a stretcher. 'Excuse me, Sergeant,' I said, in my best detective officer voice, 'I will report direct to your Major and the Commander. I am Chief Inspector Dawson.' He showed no surprise nor doubt of my word—if you want to understand discipline, gentlemen, get the Marines to teach you—he asked no questions. With one word he called the guard to attention, and himself saluted me—me a private! I handed him my rifle—there was an inch of blood at the point of the bayonet—and hobbled off to the nearest ladder. My word, I could scarcely walk, and as for climbing a ship's ladder—I could never have done if some one hadn't given me a boost behind and some one else a hand at the top. The Commander and the Major of Marines were both in the wardroom; I walked in, saluted them as a self-respecting private should do, and told them the whole story."
"It was Petty Officer Trehayne," said I calmly—and waited for a sensation.
"Of course," replied Dawson, greatly to my annoyance. He might have shown some astonishment at my wonderful intuition; but he didn't, not a scrap. Even Cary was at first disappointing, though he warmed up later, and did me full justice. "Trehayne a spy!" cried Cary. "He looked a smart good man."
"I am not saying that he wasn't," snapped Dawson, whose nerves were very badly on edge. "He was obeying the orders of his superiors as we all have to do. He gave his life, and it was for his country's service. Nobody can do more than that. Don't you go for to slander Trehayne. I watched him die—on his feet."
Cary turned to me. "What made you think it was Trehayne?" he asked. This was better. I looked at Dawson, who was brooding in his chair with his thoughts far away. He was still seeing those eyes fading out under the glare of the electrics between the steel decks of the Malplaquet!
"It was a sheer guess at first," said I, preserving a decent show of modesty. "When I heard how the enemy plotted and Dawson counter-plotted with all those skilled workmen in his detective service, it occurred to me that an enemy with imagination might counter-counterplot by getting men inside Dawson's defences. I couldn't see how one would work it, but if German agents, say, could manage to become trusted servants of Dawson himself, they would have the time of their lives. So far I was guessing at a possibility, however improbable it might seem. Then when Dawson told us that he had sent Trehayne into the Antigone and that he was the one factor common to both vessels—the workmen and the maintenance part were all different—I began to feel that my wild theory might have something in it. I didn't say anything to you, Cary, or to Dawson—he despises theories. Afterwards Trehayne came in and I spoke to him, and he to me, in French. He did not utter a dozen words altogether, but I was absolutely certain that his French had not been learned at an English public school and during short trips on the Continent. I know too much of English school French and of one's opportunities to learn upon Continental trips. It took me three years of hard work to recover from the sort of French which I learned at school, and I am not well yet. The French spoken by Trehayne was the French of the nursery. It was almost, if not quite, his mother tongue, just as his English was. Trehayne's French accent did not fit into Trehayne's history as retailed to us by Dawson. From that moment I plumped for Trehayne as the cutter of gun wires."
Dawson had been listening, though he showed no interest in my speech. When I had quite finished, and was basking in the respectful admiration emanating from dear old Cary, he upset over me a bucket of very cold water.
"Very pretty," said he. "But answer one question. Why did I send Trehayne to the Antigone?"
"Why? How can I tell? You said it was to make sure that the shore party were all off the ship."
"I said! What does it matter what I say! What I do matters a heap, but what I say—pouf! I sent Trehayne to the Antigone to test him. I sent him expecting that he would try to cut her wires, and he did. Then when I was sure, though I had no evidence for a law court, I sent him to the Malplaquet, and I set my trap there for him to walk into. How did I guess? I don't guess; I watch. The more valuable a man is to me, the more I watch him, for he might be even more valuable to somebody else. Trehayne was an excellent man, but he had not been with me a month before I was watching him as closely as any cat. I hadn't been a Marine and served ashore and afloat without knowing a born gentleman when I see one, and knowing, too, the naval stamp. Trehayne was too much of a gentleman to have become a workman in the Vernon and at Greenock without some very good reason. He said that he was an orphan—yes; he said his parents left him penniless, and he had to earn his living the best way he could—yes. Quite good reasons, but they didn't convince me. I was certain sure that somewhere, some time, Trehayne had been a naval officer. I had seen too many during my service to make any mistake about that. So when I stood there waiting in that damned cold corner behind that bulkhead, it was for Trehayne that I was waiting. I meant to take him or to kill him. When he killed himself, I was glad. As I watched his eyes fade out, it was as if my own son was dying on his feet in front of me. But it was better so than to die in front of a firing party. For I—I loved him, and I wished him 'Good-bye,'"
Dawson pitched his cigar into the fire, got up, and walked away to the far side of the room. I had never till that moment completely reverenced the penetrative, infallible judgment of Little Jane.
Dawson came back after a few minutes, picked up another cigar from Cary's box, and sat down. "You see, I have a letter from him. I found it in his quarters where I went straight from the Malplaquet."
"May we read it?" I asked gently. "I was greatly taken with Trehayne myself. He was a clean, beautiful boy. He was an enemy officer on Secret Service; there is no dishonour in that. If he were alive, I could shake his hand as the officer of the firing party shook the hand of Lody before he gave the last order."
Dawson took a paper from his pocket, and handed it to me. "Read it out," said he; "I can't."
I took the letter from Dawson and glanced through it. The first sheet and the last had been written very recently—just before the boy had left his quarters for the last time to go on board the Malplaquet; the remainder had been set down at various times; and the whole had been connected up, put together, and paged after the completion of the last sheet. Trehayne wrote a pretty hand, firm and clear, the writing of an artist who was also a trained engineer. There was no trace in the script of nervousness or of hesitation. He had carried out his Orders, he saw clearly that the path which he had trod was leading him to the end of his journey, but he made no complaint. He was a Latin, and to the last possessed that loftiness of spirit wedded to sombre fatalism which is the heritage of the Latins. He was at war with his kindred of Italy and France, and with the English among whom he had been brought up, and whom he loved. He was their enemy by accident of birth, but though he might and did love his foes better than his German friends of Austria and Prussia, yet he had taken the oath of faithful service, and kept it to the end. I could understand why Dawson—that strange human bloodhound, in whom the ruthless will continually struggled with and kept under the very tender heart—would allow no one to slander Trehayne.
Cary was watching me eagerly, waiting for me to read the letter.
Dawson's head was resting on one hand, and his face was turned away, so that I could not see it. He could not wholly conceal his emotion, but he would not let us see more of it than he could help. He did not move once during my reading.
* * * * *
To Chief Inspector William Dawson, C.I.D.
Will you be surprised, my friend, when you read this that I have left for you, to learn that I, your right-hand man in the unending spy hunt, I whom you have called your bright jewel of a pupil, Petty Officer John Trehayne, R.N.V.R., am at this moment upon the books of the Austrian Navy as a sub-lieutenant, seconded for Secret Service? Have you ever been surprised by anything? I don't know. You have said often in my hearing that you suspect every one. Have you suspected me? Sometimes when I have caught that sidelong squint of yours, that studied accidental glance which sees so much, I have felt almost sure that you were far from satisfied that Trehayne was the man he gave himself out to be. I have been useful to you. I have eaten your salt, and have served you as faithfully as was consistent with the supreme Orders by which I direct my action. With you I have run down and captured German agents, wretched lumps of dirt, whom I loathe as much as you do. Those who have sworn fidelity to this fair country of England, and have accepted of her citizenship—things which I have never done—and then in fancied security have spied upon their adopted Mother, I loathe and spit upon. I have taken the police oath of obedience to my superiors, and I have kept it, but I have never sworn allegiance to His Majesty your King, whom I pray that God may preserve though I am his enemy. To your blunt English mind, untrained in logic, my sentiments and actions may lack consistency. But no. Those agents whom we have run down, you and I, were traitors—traitors to England. Of all traitors for whom Hell is hungry the German-born traitor is the most devilish. I would not have you think, my friend, that I am at one with them. Never while I have been in your pay and service have I had any communication direct or indirect with any of the naturalised- British Prussian scum, who have betrayed your noble generosity. I have taken my Orders from Vienna, I have communicated always direct with Vienna. I am an Austrian naval officer. I am no traitor to England.
* * * * *
I spring from an old Italian family which has long been settled in Trieste. For many generations we have served in the Austrian Navy. With modern Italy, with the Italy above all which has thrown the Holy Father into captivity and stripped the Holy See of the dominions bestowed upon it by God, we have no part or lot. Yet when I have met Italian officers, and those too of France, as I have frequently done during my cruises afloat, I have felt with them a harmony of spirit which I have never experienced in association with German-Austrians and with Prussians. I do not wish to speak evil of our Allies, the Prussians, but to one of my blood they are the most detestable people whom God ever had the ill-judgment to create.
* * * * *
I was born in Trieste, and lived there with my parents until I was eight years old. In our private life we always spoke Italian or French, German was our official language. I know that language well, of course, but it is not my mother tongue. Italian or French, and afterwards English—I speak and write all three equally well; which of the three I shall use when I come to die and one reverts to the speech of the nursery and schoolroom, I cannot say; it will depend upon whom those are that stand about my deathbed.
When I was eight years old, my father, Captain —— (no, I will not tell you my name; it is not Trehayne though somewhat similar in sound), was appointed Austrian Consul at Plymouth, and we all moved to that great Devonshire seaport. I was young enough to absorb the rich English atmosphere, nowhere so rich as in that county which is the home and breeding-ground of your most splendid Navy. I was born again, a young Elizabethan Englishman. My story to you of my origin was true in one particular—I really was educated at Blundell's School at Tiverton. Whenever—and it has happened more than once—I have met as Trehayne old schoolfellows of Blundell's they have accepted without comment or inquiry my tale that I had become an Englishman, and had anglicised my name. Among the peoples which exist on earth to-day, you English are the most nobly generous and unsuspicious. The Prussians laugh at you; I, an Austrian-Italian, love and respect you.
* * * * *
When I was sixteen, after I had spent eight years in Devon, and four of those years at an English public school, I was in speech and almost in the inner fibres of my mind an Englishman. Your naval authorities at Plymouth and Devonport, as serenely trustful and heedless of espionage as the mass of your kindly people, allowed my father—whom I often accompanied—to see the dockyards, the engine shops, the training schools, and the barracks. They knew that he was an Austrian naval officer, and they took him to their hearts as a brother, of the common universal brotherhood of the sea. I think that your Navy holds those of a foreign naval service as more nearly of kin to themselves than civilians of their own blood. The bond of a common profession is more close than the bond of a common nationality. I do not doubt that my father sent much information to our Embassy in London—it was what he was employed to do—but I am sure that he did not basely betray the wonderful confidence of his hosts. Our countries were at peace. My father is no Prussian; he is a chivalrous gentleman. I am sure that he did not send more than his English naval friends were content at the time that he should send. For in those years your newspapers and your books upon the Royal Navy of England concealed little from the world. I have visited Dartmouth; I have dined in the Naval College there with bright sailor boys of my own age. It was then my one dream, had I remained in England, to have become an Englishman, and to have myself served in your Navy. It was a vain dream, but I knew no better. Fate and my birth made me afterwards your enemy. I would have fought you gladly face to face on land or sea, but never, never, would I have stabbed the meanest of Englishmen in the back.
When I was sixteen years old I left England with my parents and returned to Triest. I was a good mathematician with a keen taste for mechanics. I spent two years in the naval engineering shops at Pola, and I was gazetted as a sub-lieutenant in the engineering branch of the Austrian Navy. My next two years were spent afloat. Although I did not know it, I had already been marked out by my superiors for the Secret Service. My perfect acquaintance with English, my education at Blundell's, my knowledge of your thoughts and your queer ways, and twists of mind, had equipped me conspicuously for Secret Service work in your midst.
As a youth of twenty, in the first flush of manhood, I was seconded for service here, and I returned to England. That was five years ago.
* * * * *
[I paused, for my throat was dry, and looked up. Cary was leaning forward intent upon every word. Dawson's face was still turned away; he had not moved. It seemed to me that to our party of three had been added a fourth, the spirit of Trehayne, and that he anxiously waited there yonder in the shadows for the deliverance of our judgment. Had he, an English public school boy, played the game according to the immemorial English rules? I went on.]
* * * * *
It was extraordinarily easy for me to obtain employment in the heart of your naval mysteries. Few questions were asked; you admitted me as one of yourselves. I took the broad open path of full acceptance of your conditions. I first obtained employment in a marine engineering shop at Southampton, joined a trade union, attended Socialist meetings—I, a member of one of the oldest families in Trieste. Though a Catholic, I bent my knee in the English Church, and this was not difficult, for I had always attended service in the chapel at Blundell's. To you, my friend, I can say this, for you are of some strange sect which consigns to the lowest Hell both Catholics and Anglicans alike. Your Heaven will be a small place. From Southampton I went to the torpedo training-ship Vernon. Again I had no difficulty. I was a workman of skill and intelligence. I was there for more than two years, learning all your secrets, and storing them in my mind for the benefit of my own Service at home.
It was at Portsmouth that there came to me the great temptation of my life, for I fell in love, not as you colder people do, but as a Latin of the warm South. She was an English girl of good, if undistinguished, family. Though in my hours of duty I belonged to that you call the 'working classes,' I was well off, and lived in private the life of my own class. I had double the pay of my rank, an allowance from my father, and my wages, which were not small. There were many English families in Portsmouth and Southsea who were graciously pleased to recognise that John Trehayne, trade unionist, and weekly wage-earning workman, was a gentleman by birth and breeding. In any foreign port I should have been under police supervision as a person eminently to be suspected; in Portsmouth I was accepted without question for what I gave myself out to be—a gentleman who wished to learn his business from the bottom upwards. I will say nothing of the lady of my heart except that I loved her passionately, and should have married her—aye, and become an Englishman in fact, casting off my own, country—if War had not blown my ignoble plans to shatters. There was nothing ignoble in my love, for she was a queen among women, but in myself for permitting the hot blood of youth to blind my eyes to the duty claimed of me by my country. When war became imminent, I was not recalled, as I had hoped to be, since I wished to fight afloat as became my rank and family. I was ordered to take such steps as most effectively aided me to observe the English plans and preparations, and to report when possible to Vienna. In other words, I was ordered to act in your midst as a special intelligence officer—what you would call a Spy. It was an honourable and dangerous service which I had no choice but to accept. My dreams of love had gone to wreck. I could have deceived the woman whom I loved, for she would have trusted me and believed any story of me that I had chosen to tell. But could I, an officer, a gentleman by birth and I hope by practice, a secret enemy of England and a spy upon her in the hour of her sorest trial, could I remain the lover of an English girl without telling her fully and frankly exactly what I was? Could I have committed this frightful treason to love and remained other than an object of scorn and loathing to honest men? I could not. In soul and heart she was mine; I was her man, and she was my woman. With her there were no reserves in love. She was mine, yet I fled from her with never a word, even of good-bye. I made my plans, obtained certificates of my proficiency in the Vernon, kissed my dear love quietly, almost coldly, without a trace of the passion that I felt, and fled. It was the one thing left me to do. My friend, that was two years ago. She knows not whether I am alive or am dead; I know not whether she is alive or is dead. Yet during every hour of the long days, and during every hour of the still longer nights, she has been with me. I have done my duty, but I do not think that I wish to live very much longer. If death comes to me quickly—and to those in my present trade it comes quickly—will you, my friend, of your bountiful kindness write to [here followed a name and address] and repeat exactly what I now say. Do not tell what I was or how I died, but just write, "He loved you to the last." There is a portrait in a locket round my neck and a ring on my finger. Send her those, my good friend, and she will know that your words are true.
* * * * *
I fled as far from Portsmouth, where my dear love dwelt, as I could go; I fled to Greenock, that dreadful sodden corner of earth where the rain never ceases to fall, and the sun never shines. At Greenock one measures the rainfall not by inches, but by yards. Sometimes, not often, a pale orb struggles through the clouds and glimmers faintly upon the grimy town—some poor relation of the sun, maybe, but not the godlike creature himself. For six months, in this cold desolate spot, among a people strangely unlike the English of Devon, though they are of kindred race, I laboured for six months in the Torpedo Factory. I lived meanly in one room, for my Austrian pay and allowance had stopped when War cut the channels of communication. I could, had I chosen, have drawn money from German agencies in London, but I scorned to hold truck with them. They were traitors to the England which trusted and protected them, and of which they were citizens. I lived upon my wages and preserved jealously all that I had saved during my years of comparative affluence at Portsmouth. It was duty which made me a Spy, not gold.
One day I was called into the office of the Superintendent, and it was hinted to me, diplomatically, not unskilfully, that I was desired to take service with the English secret police. I feigned reluctance, made difficulties, professed diffidence, until pressure was put upon me, and I was forced to accept a position which I could never by any scheming have achieved. Those whom the gods seek to destroy, they first drive mad—you are a very trustful unsuspicious folk, all except you to whom I write. But even you did not, I am sure, suspect me at the beginning. I was sent to Scotland Yard in London to be trained in my new duties. You saw me there, and claimed me for your staff, and I came to this centre of shipbuilding and worked here with you. I was clothed in the uniform of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
There are two matters closely affecting my personal honour which will seem of small moment to you—you who display always a sublime patriotic scorn of every moral scruple; but to me they are great. I am of the old chivalry of Italy, and I have been taught at school in England always to play the game. Though I wore the uniform of the R.N.V.R., it was as a disguise and cloak of my police office; I was never attested. I have never, never, never sworn allegiance to England. I have always kept troth with my own country; I have never broken troth with England. Had the English naval oath been proffered to me, I should have refused it at any hazard to my personal safety. My honour is unstained.
You have paid me for my work, I have taken your pay, but I have not spent it upon myself. Every penny of it for the last twelve months will be found at my quarters. I have lived upon what I saved at Portsmouth—lived sometimes very scantily. My funds are running low. What I shall do when they are exhausted I cannot tell. Perhaps, who knows, they will last my time. As for the rest, that packet of Treasury Notes which has been my police pay, unexpended, will you take it, my friend, and pay it to the fund for assisting the English sailors interned in Holland? I should feel happier if they would accept it, for I have, as you will presently learn, taken some of their names in vain. I have not broken any oath, and I have not used your pay; my honour is unstained.
* * * * *
[Again I paused and glanced at Dawson. He had not even winced—at least not visibly—when Trehayne had held him free from every moral scruple. He must, I think, have read the letter many times before he had handed it to me. Cary looked troubled and uneasy. To him a spy had been just a spy—he had never envisaged in his simple honest mind such a super-spy as Trehayne. I went on.]
* * * * *
Now nothing was hidden from me; I had within my hands all the secrets of England's Navy. My one difficulty—and it was not so great a one as you may think—was communication with my country. Never for one moment did it fail. Years before it had been thought out and prepared. I varied my methods. At Portsmouth, during the early weeks of the War, I had employed one means, at Greenock another, here yet another. The basis of all was the same. It was much more difficult for me to receive orders from my official superiors in Austria, but even those came through once or twice. Never, during the whole of the past year, have I failed to send every detail of the warships building and completed here, of the ships damaged and repaired, of the movements of the Fleets in so far as I could learn them. My country and her Allies have seen the English at work here as clearly as if this river had been within their own borders. John Trehayne has been their Eye—an unsleeping, ever-watching Eye. Shall I tell you how I got my information through? It was very simple, and was done under your own keen nose. One of the R.N.V.R. who went with your Mr. Churchill to Antwerp, and was interned in Holland, was a friend of mine at Greenock, well known to me, I wrote to him constantly, though he never received and was never meant to receive my letters. They were all addressed to the care of a house in Haarlem where lived one of our Austrian agents who was placed under my orders. All letters addressed by me to my friend were received by him and forwarded post haste to Vienna. Do you grasp the simplicity and subtlety of the device? My friend was on the lists of those interned in Holland, no one here knew where he lodged, the address used by me was as probable as any other; what more natural and commendable than that I should write to cheer him up a bit in exile, and that I should send him books and illustrated magazines? If it had been noticed by the postal authorities in Holland that my friend did not live at the address which I used, it would have been supposed that I had made a mistake, and no suspicion would have been attracted to me. But how did my letters, books, and magazines containing information, the most secret and urgent, pass through the censorship unchecked? That again was simple. My letters were those which a friend in freedom in England would write to his friend who was a captive in Holland. They were personal, sympathetic, no more. The books and magazines were just those which such a man as my friend would desire to have to lighten the burden of idleness. Between the lines of my letters, and on the white margins of the books and papers, I wrote the vital information which my country desired to have, and I desired to give. The ink which I used for this purpose left no trace and could not be made visible by any one who had not its complementary secret. It is the special ink of the Austrian Secret Service; you do not know it, your Censors do not know it, your chemists might experiment for months and years and not discover it. I used it always, and you never read what I wrote. Now you will understand why I wish the small stock of money, my police pay, which I could not myself have used without dishonour, to go to the interned sailors in Holland. I feel that I owe to my friend some little reparation for the crooked use to which I have put his name.
There is little more to tell. Three weeks ago I received by post from London a copy of Punch. It had been despatched to me unordered, from the office of the paper in an office wrapper. You know that English papers may not now be sent abroad to neutral countries except direct from the publishing offices of the newspapers themselves. It is a precaution of the censorship, childish and laughable, for what is easier than to imitate official wrappers? I guessed at once, when I saw this unordered copy of Punch, that the wrapper was a faked one, and that it had come to me bearing orders from my superiors. I applied my chemical tests to the margins of the pages and upon the advertisement of a brand of whisky appeared the orders which I had expected. I read what was written, and I have not suffered greater pain—no, not upon that day when I fled from Portsmouth without a word of good-bye to the woman who possessed my heart. For I learned then that my country, the proud, clean-fighting Austria, had given up its soul into the keeping of the filthy Prussian assassins. I was directed to damage or delay every warship upon which I worked, to employ any means, to blow up unsuspecting English seamen—not in the hot blood of battle, but secretly as an assassin. A step in rank was promised for every battleship destroyed. Had these foul Orders admitted of no loophole through which my honour might with difficulty wriggle, I should have taken the only course possible to me. I should have instantly resigned my commission in the Austrian Navy, and taken my own life. But it happened that I had an alternative. I was ordered to damage or delay warships. I would not treacherously slay the English sailors among whom I worked, but I would, if I could, delay the ships. My experience taught me that the simplest and most effective way was to cut the electric wires, and I decided to do it whenever opportunity offered. I could not do this for long. I was certain to be discovered. You are not a man who fails before a definite problem in detection. But before I was discovered I could do something to carry out my Orders.
I cut the gun-wires of the Antinous. It was easy. I was the last to leave of the shore party. Then you sent me on board the Antigone. She was closely watched, the task was very difficult, and dangerous; I was within the fraction of a second of discovery, but I took one chop of my big shears. The job was ill done, but I could do no better.
You warned me fairly, that if injury came to the Malplaquet, while under my charge, that I should be dismissed. She was my last chance as she was your own. But what to me were risks? I had lost my love, and my country had dishonoured herself in my eyes. I was nameless, loveless, countryless. All had gone, and life might go too.
* * * * *
I am completing this letter before going on board the Malplaquet and placing it where you will readily find it. I know you, my friend, more intimately than you know yourself. I am certain that even now you are in the ship, that you are preparing snares into which I shall in all probability fall. Your snares are well set. If I fail, it will be through you; if I am caught, it will be through you. But be sure of this—if we meet in the Malplaquet, the fowler and the bird, it will be for the last time. You may catch me, but you will not take me. For a long time past I have provided against just such an outcome as this. Upon my uniform tunics, upon my overalls, I have fixed buttons, hollowed out, each of which contains enough of cyanide of potassium to kill three men. If I were court-martialled and shot, there would be no disgrace to me, an officer on secret service, but a whisper of it might steal to Portsmouth and give deep pain to one there. No one will learn of the petty officer of R.N.V.R. who died far away in the north. The locket with the portrait is round my neck, the ring is upon my finger. Both are ready waiting for you who will do what I ask and will keep my secret from her.
I have the honour to be, sir,
Your obedient servant,
* * * * *
I folded up the papers and returned them to Dawson, who carefully placed them in his pocket. In the shadows the spirit of Trehayne still seemed to be waiting. I thought for a few minutes, and then rose to my feet. "He was an officer on secret service," said I slowly. "An enemy, but a gallant and generous enemy. In love and in war he played the game, Requiescat in pace."
"Amen," said Cary.
Dawson rose and gripped our hands. "I have the locket and the ring, and I will write as he wished. It is the least that I can do."
They buried Trehayne with naval honours as an enemy officer who had died among us. England does not war with the dead. Though he had fallen by his own hand, the Roman Church did not withhold from an erring son the beautiful consolation of her ritual. Cary and I openly attended the funeral. Dawson was officially in bed, suffering from his much-desired attack of influenza. But in the firing party of Red Marines, whose volleys rang through the wintry air over the body of Trehayne, I espied one whom I was glad to see present.
THE WOMAN AND THE MAN
If one believed Dawson's own accounts of his exploits—I can conceive no greater exercise in folly—one would conclude that he never failed, that he always held the strings by which his puppets were constrained to dance, and that he could pluck them from their games and shut them within his black box whenever he grew wearied of their fruitless sport. He trumpets his successes, but he never speaks of his failures—he buries them so deeply that he forgets them himself. He veils his plans, movements, and personal appearance in a fog of mystery. None, not even his closest associates, know what he would be at until a job is completely finished, and finished successfully. Thus when he succeeds, his own small world is deeply impressed—even nauseated—by the compelling spectacle of a Dawson triumphant; when he fails, very few know or hear of the failure. He loves the jealousy of his equals and inferiors even more than the admiration of his superiors. Thoroughly to enjoy life he must be surrounded by both in the amplest measure.
What I now have to tell is the story of a failure—a failure due to his refusal ever to allow his right hand to know what his left hand sought to do. He never told me himself one word concerning this story. I obtained the details partly from Captain Rust, partly from Dawson's Deputy, but chiefly from the lady who filled the star role. Dawson himself foolishly introduced me to her nearly two years later; he did not anticipate that we should become friendly, confidential, that we should discuss him and his little ways over cups of tea, made the sweeter by the clandestine nature of our frequent meetings. He had not allowed for the fascinations of the lady—fascinations so alluring that even I, a middle-aged Father of a Family and Justice of the Peace, was instantly reduced by them to the softest moral pulp; and he had not allowed for the Puckish glee with which I welcomed the tale, rolled it round in my wicked fancy, and bent its ramifications into an orderly narrative.
* * * * *
I very vividly remember my first meeting with the lady. She came one day, a fortnight after I had returned from Cary's flat to my neglected duties, heralded by a short note from Dawson. "I shall be greatly obliged if you will give Madame Gilbert all assistance in your power. She is one of my team." That was all, but my curiosity was piqued. I had heard much of Dawson's team of feminine assistants—rudely called by rivals his "harem"—and I was eager to meet one of them. I ordered Madame Gilbert to be admitted to my presence. She came, I saw, she conquered. When I assert that in two minutes she had plucked me from my chair of dignity, flung me upon the Turkey carpet, and jumped upon me with her daintily shod feet, I do not exaggerate.
She was not very young—I put her at two or three years over thirty. She was, or gave herself out to be, a widow. She was a female detective; I was a modest gentleman of rigid English respectability, not without some matrimonial experience in the ways of Woman. There was nothing in the purpose of her visit to have caused her to come upon me as a Venus, fully armed, and to have forced me to an abject surrender. From the feathers of her black picture hat to the tips of her black velvety shoes she was French-clad, the French of Paris, and wore her clothes like a Frenchwoman. She was dressed—bien habillee, bien gantee, bien coiffee. Her hair was red copper, her skin—the "glad neck" of her dress showed a lot of it—had the colour and bloom, the cream and roses, of Devon. Her eyes were very large and of a deep violet All these charms of dress and face and colour I could have gallantly withstood, but the voice of her settled my business at once. Its rich, full tone, its soft, appealing inflection, the pretty foreign accent with which she then chose to speak English—I can hear them now. I have always been sensitive to beautiful voices, and Madame Gilbert's voice is beyond comparison the most beautiful voice in the wide world.
Madame Gilbert made one or two small requests to which I gave an immediate assent, and then she asked me to do something within my power but much against my uncontrolled will. "Madame," said I shamelessly, "as you are strong be merciful; let me off as lightly as you can." She laughed, and eyed me with interest. My defeat had been with her, of course, a certainty, but perhaps it took place more rapidly than she had expected. "I have not asked for much," said she.
"It is not what you have asked that I fear, but what you may ask before I get you out of my room," said I.
She laughed again and let me down very gently. I did not tell her more than three secrets which I was pledged never to reveal. "That's all," said Madame Gilbert. "Thank Heaven," said I.
On the following afternoon, about four o'clock, Madame Gilbert called again upon me. When her card was brought in I trembled, and for a moment had in mind to deny myself to her. But I thrust away the cowardly thought. Be brave, said I to myself, advance boldly, attack the terrible delightful siren, say "no" to her once, and you will be saved! She entered, and though my knees shuddered as I rose to greet her, my mien was bold and warlike. She warmly squeezed my hand, and I returned the attention with empressement. For a few minutes we exchanged polite compliments, and then she sprung upon me in her tender confident tones, a request so preposterous that my rapidly flitting courage was stimulated to return. Be brave, I murmured to myself, attack boldly, say "No," and you will be saved for ever.
"I deeply regret, madame," said I coldly, "that it is not possible for me to accede to your wishes." It was done, and I breathed more freely though the sweat broke out on my forehead.
Her eyes opened upon me with the pained surprised look of a deeply disappointed child. "Oh, Mr. Copplestone," she moaned, "and I thought that you were my friend."
I clutched tightly at the arms of my faithful chair and held to my programme of heroic boldness.
"You shouldn't have asked me such a question. You really shouldn't—you know you shouldn't."
Her eyelids flickered, and the violet pools which they uncovered glittered with a moisture which was not of tears, and she laughed, laughed, and continued to laugh with the deepest enjoyment.
"I wanted to see how much you would stand," said she at last.
From that moment her spell over me was broken, and we became friends. I admired her as much as ever, but she was no longer the all-devouring siren. I could say "no" to her as easily as to the most dowdy and unbeautiful of female axe-grinders.
"Will you permit me to offer you a cup of tea so as to wash from your mouth the unpleasant taste of my brutal refusal?"
"I will," said Madame Gilbert graciously.
We issued from my office and betook ourselves to a pleasant shop where we could drink tea and nibble cakes, and talk without being overheard. Madame Gilbert, I observed, had a healthy appetite.
We talked of ourselves and exchanged delicious confidences. "You have asked me many questions," I said. "May I ask one of you? What are you? You are not English, and you are not, I think, French."
"Shall I also learn a lesson from you in unkindness and say 'No'?" she inquired. "But it would be cruel, for you have really been quite nice to me. I will reveal the secret of my birth." She put up one hand and began to tick off the countries which had been privileged to play a part in her origin and education. "My father was a Swede—one; my mother was an Irishwoman—two. I was born at Cork in Ireland, but remember nothing about it, for my father died when I was three years old, and my Irish mother removed instantly to Paris—three. By the way, I have observed that the Irish and the Scotch always run away from their own countries at the first possible opportunity. Why is this?"