The Affair of the SCARLET BAND
In which Dr. Augustus Vane solves the mystery of the bombing of the secret airdrome at Bramble Nasing
W. E. JOHNS
NOTHING exercises the imagination like war. No urge in peacetime, however ambitious, can have behind it quite the same vital force as that which is created by the threat of death and destruction. And with the advance of learning, more and more avenues are explored for ways and means to harass the enemy, some of a highly technical nature, others so artless that for a time they defy detection by their very simplicity. Into the latter category must go the Affair of the Scarlet Band, which, while by no means the most spectacular of Doctor Vane’s exploits, was, from the point of view of logical reasoning, one of his minor triumphs. It proved to me that once a man is master of his intellect, no problem is insolvable.
As the war settled down into its stride I came to rely more and more upon the advice of Doctor Augustus Vane,
the strange and apparently unsophisticated little amateur criminologist who had offered his services to my branch of the counter-espionage section of M.I.5 when the clash became imminent. He would not occupy an office in my building, but continued to work at home in the manner of a consulting specialist. Thus, when air raids on Britain started in earnest, and I was forced to confess that there was more behind the successful raids on Bramble Nasing Airdrome than met the eye, it was to the Doctor’s house that I took my worry. Briefly, it was this:
Bramble Nasing was more than an ordinary service airdrome. It was the experimental establishment to which new-type aircraft were taken for testing, which meant that some of our best pilots, and most highly qualified aviation technicians, were also there. Naturally, in these circumstances every possible precaution had been taken
to prevent the flying field from being molested by the enemy, and nowhere else had such care and thought been expended on camouflage. The actual village of Bramble Nasing lay in the heart of rural England far from any other military target, and this alone should have afforded some protection. The field was four miles away, and so well had it been worked by camouflage into the landscape that from the air it was calculated to defy the most expert eyes. A lane meandered across the sward. A brook kept it company. On either side, the landing ground was broken by hedges into fields of roots, pastures and stubble, the whole dotted with barns, haystacks, and other features common in agricultural country. All this, of course, was paint, but so cleverly had it been applied that the test pilots themselves admitted that they were sometimes nervous about landing, and flinched instinctively as they glided to
land into what appeared to be a scries of obstructions.
^ et with all this, on no fewer than live occasions had a lone enemy bomber, flying at a great height, found the spot; and its course, traced from the coast, proved beyond doubt that the pilot knew precisely where he was going. Had these machines all got back home we might have thought that a special pilot, a man acquainted with the district, had been selected for the job; but of the five, three had been shot down on the return journey. Yet on the following day another machine appeared over the airdrome. How was it being done? How were these pilots able to find their way so easily to the spot—and recognize it?
One of the German pilots bailed out when his machine was hit; he was brought in, and 1 had a word with him. He was a young fellow, unable to speak a word of English, and 1 did not disbelieve him when he said that never before had he been in the country, or over the country. How, then, did he find his objective? This was something he was not prepared to divulge. 1 myself examined the crashed machine hoping to find a map, for even though a pilot may not actually plot his course on it, not infrequently he accidentally makes some mark perhaps with the point of his pencil —while studying the map before the raid. Even the way a map is folded will sometimes tell a story that can be read by exixrts. But no map could be found, which in itself was remarkable. Thinking perhaps the pilot had thrown it overboard before bailing out I had every inch of the ground searched. But no map was found.
That night a hundred tons of paint was used on the airdrome, and by dawn it presented a different picture. The lane and the stream had disappeared. Instead, a farmhouse complete with outhouses nestled amid purple heather, broken by groups of Scotch firs and outcrops of grey rock. So realistic was all this that a pilot who had been stationed on the spot for months actually overshot the landing ground and damaged his undercarriage. Yet the very next day a Junkers came over at twenty-five thousand feet, and laid a string of eggs right across the airdrome. The pilot covered the same course as the others, having crossed the coast at the same spot. A homing pigeon could not have flown a straighter course. It was amazing. It was more; it was uncanny.
How was it being done? I was asked, by those in high places, and the demand became insistent. Obviously, something had to be done about it, and quickly, for if the story leaked out and the public got to hear about it—well, war-strained nerves are only too glad to find an excuse for criticism. Unfortunately, in war there are jobs that only get the limelight when something goes wrong, and the Secret Service is one of them. The thing was hardly in Doctor Vane’s line, for he was no airman, but in sheer desperation I rushed up to see him.
I found him in his laboratory, and his mild blue eyes met mine sympathetically as I bustled in. Without a word he went out and returned carrying with tender care a bottle of old French brandy. He poured a little in a glass and passed it to me.
“That should both please your palate and restore your equanimity,” he murmured. “Is the problem as abstruse as all that?”
I sipped the brandy and relaxed a little. “It is,” I answered, and told him the story. “It’s incredible,” I concluded.
“Oh no, hardly that,” he protested gently, brushing the hair back from h^ forehead. “Shall we say, unusual? Don’t worry, what these young Germans can see we, too, shall be able to see.”
He fetched an ordnance survey map, and unfolding it on a bench studied it for some time in silence.
“It’s about eighty miles from the coast to Bramble Nasing,” I told him.
He nodded, folded the map and put it away. “So I observe. We must get busy, or the same thing will be happening at other airdromes. Inspired by the success of the scheme—whatever it may be—the enemy will certainly put it into operation elsewhere. Official minds tend to work like that. You have, of course, aerial photographs of the locality?”
I opened my portfolio and took out a number of photographs, both vertical and oblique, some straight shots of the airdrome itself and a mosiac of the whole district. He subjected them to a close scrutiny under a powerful magnifying glass.
“Is your car outside?” he asked.
I told him that it was.
“Then I’ll ask Georgette to put up some sandwiches. It’s a line day, and a picnic in the country might prove beneficial.”
“You’re thinking of running down to Bramble Nasing?” The doctor smiled. “It’s a nice rural spot,” he replied.
WE DROVE straight down to the airdrome, where we parked the car, but Vane appeared to have no interest in either the camouflaged buildings or landmg ground.
“Why need we waste time on this pretty paint work when obviously it fails to deceive those for whom it is intended?” he remarked naively, and set off on foot across country, walking briskly on a roughly circular course,
following the airdrome boundary, but always keeping some distance from it.
From time to time he made inconsequental observations about the scenery, and the local flora. Once he picked a poppy, one of the scarlet field poppies that occurred in large numbers and held it out to me. “A Flanders poppy,” he said whimsically. “Very appropriate.”
It seemed hardly the time for sentiment, but knowing his peculiarities I said nothing. I suppose we must have walked the best part of five miles before he sat down and unpacked the sandwiches.
“Lunch time,” he remarked, smiling apologetically. “But what about the airdrome?” I protested. “Have you discovered anything yet?”
“We’re getting along very nicely,” he murmured casually, offering me another sandwich.
“Have you seen something?” I inquired.
“Only what you have seen,” he answered evenly. “If you’re ready we will proceed.”
To my surprise he now struck off at a tangent, heading up some gently rising ground on the south side of the airdrome. From the top of the ground fell away again into a shallow depression, so that a panorama some miles wide lay before us. I fully expected that Vane would subject this to a close scrutiny, but after a quick penetrating stare he seemed to have no further interest. He picked a blade of grass and nibbled it reflectively. “Tired?” he asked, glancing at me.
“We may have a longish walk in front of us.”
“Go ahead,” I invited. “I suppose there is a definite object in all this hiking?”
The doctor looked pained. “Should I waste your time, do you think, if there were not?” he reproved me.
“Then perhaps you’ll be kind enough to tell me just what you’re looking for?” I suggested pointedly.
“That’s only fair,” he consented. “I’m looking for the enemy agent who is primarily responsible for your trouble. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we shall find him, but there is a chance that if he remained in the district he left a trail that we should not find it hard to follow. Come along.”
We walked on in silence, still keeping across country, sometimes climbing hedges and other obstructions. In this way we must have covered about four miles, and as the day was sultry I began to regret my hasty decision to walk indefinitely. We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. And when finally Vane climbed a railway embankment, and on reaching the top laughed as if the whole thing were a joke,
I thought it was time to lodge a complaint.
But he anticipated me by raising his hand. “Yes, I know how you feel,” he said humbly. “And now you’re going to tell me that our jaunt must end, for if we go trampling through the field of mustard that lies ahead the farmer will be after us with his gun?”
“If we do any damage we’re likely to get in wrong with the Ministry of Food,” I pointed out.
“Then suppose we go across to the farmhouse which I perceive nestling in the trees on our right, and beg a drink of water?” he suggested. “It’s been a dry walk.”
“That suits me,” I agreed, relieved that our long tramp had at last come to an end. “This sort of thing is too much like hare and hounds, which is no game for a man of my age,” I remarked.
He chuckled. “That’s exactly what we have been playing,” he exclaimed.
“I didn’t see any trail,” I muttered.
Vane laughed aloud. “Believe me, it was there. Have you ever heard the saying that those who live in woods ultimately fail to see the trees?” Then, with a change of tone, he added, “I have a feeling that we are getting near the hare. I notice from the bulge in your hip pocket that you have brought your automatic. If our hare turns out to be a tiger, as it may, you will need it. But say nothing and act naturally. Now let’s go and get that drink.”
We walked on, slowly now, to the farmhouse.
As we neared it Vane shook his head sadly. “Farming in this country isn’t what it was when I was a boy,” he mused. “There was a time when farmers took a pride in keeping their land spotless, but now—just look at the condition of this place. Hedges overgrown, weeds everywhere. One might be pardoned for thinking that this farmer at least is a lazy fellow, or else he doesn’t know his job.”
I knew the doctor well enough to know that this was no idle statement, but before I could demand an explanation he had turned in a gateway and was walking up to the front door.
A nasty-looking mastiff came towards us, showing its teeth.
“Is this the hare?” I asked sarcastically, my hand instinctively creeping towards my hip pocket.
“Keep your hand away from that pocket,” said Vane sharply, “we’re being watched.”
A moment later the farmer appeared and called off the animal. He was a burly fellow, well-dressed in plus fours. “You want something?” he challenged bluntly.
“A drink of water if you would be kind enough to oblige,” answered Vane. “It’s rather hot, walking.”
The man regarded us stonily for a second, and then went
back into the house to reappear with a jug of water and a glass. He said nothing, but just stood there watching us drink. And so far as I was concerned there was no deception about it, for I was genuinely thirsty.
Vane handed the jug and the glass back with a word of thanks. The farmer nodded and walked away, so we strolled on down a track to the main road.
“A churlish fellow,” I remarked.
“He has reason to be,” murmured Vane. “Men who follow his profession arc seldom garrulous. Apart from
that, he was, of course, a foreigner—I should say from Bavaria.”
I stopped, but the doctor caught my sleeve. “He’s watching us,” he said curtly. “Keep walking. Well, he’s your man.”
“Then why are we walking away?” I asked quickly. “Let’s go back and-”
“Get ourselves involved in a gun tight? There is no need for that. There are at least two other men in the house—I saw them watching us through the window. I also saw all I
needed to see. May I suggest that we leave the lighting —if there is to be any—to men better equipped for the job? You’ll need a fairly strong party to surround the house and clean it up. We may as well go back to the car.”
“Thank you,” I said bitterly. “And now perhaps you will tell me what all this is about?”
Doctor Vane linked his arm in mine and led the way back to the eminence that overlooked the airdrome on the one hand, and the depression, wherein the farm was situated, on the other.
Said he, “From here I shall be able to illustrate visually all my points. The rest I can leave safely in your hands, for it is likely to be sordid rather than romantic—I mean, of course, that the arrest of the enemy agents who have settled themselves in the farmhouse. Still, I have enjoyed our day, for it has not been without interest.”
Vane lay down on the grass, and, chin in hand, gazed across the smiling landscape.
“The ancients, most of whom spent more of their lives in war than in peaceful occupations, were aware that simple stratagems are the best,” he resumed. “Particularly those which, by conforming to nature, presented nothing unusual to the spectator. Let us take an example. You will recall the incident in the history of Herodotus, the simple ruse employed to send a message into enemy territory. The head of a mute slave was shaved, and the message inscribed on his pate. The hair was then allowed to grow and he proceeded on his mission, carrying a message which he was unable to read; and, since he had no tongue, he could not betray himself or his master. He couldn’t lose the message without literally losing his head. Nothing could be more simple, nothing more safe, or more effective. You see, my dear Ludlow, hair is as common on the human head as are red field poppies in an English landscape. You observed the poppies, of course. I invited you to examine one?”
A ray of light shot into my brain. “You mean--”
“The airdrome is ringed with poppies. Seed is easy to obtain. It is small and light. Millions could be carried in a single pocket. The plant is an annual and comes quickly into flower. A man had only to stroll for an hour round your airdrome, dropping seed as he went, to render useless all your elaborate paint work. And mark this: once the man had finished his walk his work was done. He might be arrested, executed—but the poppies would bloom. So you see, whatever appeared to be underneath, the German pilots had only to drop their bombs within the scarlet band to hit their objective. Every one on the airdrome must have seen the flowers; you yourself trampled through them; yet not one realized their significance. Why? Simply because they were as much to be expected as grass in a field.”
“But wait a minute,” I broke in. “The pilot had first to find the ring of poppies.”
“Of course. The railway line we crossed runs direct to the coast. The enemy pilots had only to follow the line to come to a landmark so conspicuous that it could not be missed. You remember the field of yellow mustard? This again was a perfectly natural crop.”
“But that was miles from the airdrome,” I pointed out.
“Admittedly, but the airdrome was indicated by an arrow so enormous that it could not be observed in one glance except from a great height. Thus, it was not seen by people on the ground. You are, at this very moment, actually sitting on it—or on a minute portion of it.”
I stared about me like a fool, for all I could see was grass, dark, rich, blue-green grass.
“Since the arrow had to cross more than one type of vegetation different methods were employed in its delineation,” went on Vane inexorably. “That part on which we are seated was marked by the simple expedient—after the manner of the poppies —by a man merely strolling from the mustard field in the direction of the airdrome dropping a thin trail of nitrate of soda as he went. Nitrate of soda, like all nitrogenous fertilizers, is a leaf maker. It is quick in action. The result is a line of lush herbage different in color from the rest. You saw me test a piece of the grass as we came along. Of course, from the ground the line is not easy to see because the edges merge with the untreated grass, but from the air it stands out plainly enough. On your photograph it might be mistaken for a hedge.”
“Go on,” I said weakly.
“But when the delineator reached the area of heather, which, being woody, would not respond so readily to treatment,
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Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5
he changed his formula to sodium chlorate, ¡ j which is deadly to all vegetable life. If you stand up you will see a line of dead heath j running almost to the edge of the airdrome, a line which, as in the case of the fertilizer, i would be easier to see from a distance than ! near at hand. And that, my dear fellow, i was all there was to it.”
I was silent for a moment, shaken by the i simplicity yet effectiveness of the device. “But the farmer—how did you know he I was our man?”
“Oh—that!” Vane smiled. “In the first ; place there was the field of mustard. A stranger could hardly ask a farmer to plant a particular crop in a particular field without arousing his curiosity. Hence, it seemed probable that the farmer himself was the culprit. When we neared the farm my suspicions were confirmed. Poppy seed is small and not easy to handle without spilling any. Poppy seed had been dropped in small quantities in several places about the farm, and between the farm and the point where the scarlet band began. So, too, had small quantities of of sodium chlorate, which made small dead patches of grass. You may recall that I remarked on the untidy nature of the farm as we approached it. But we had better not remain talking here. Collect your man and his assistants, and cut the poppies without delay. At the same time I would advise you to get a horticulturalist to make a close examination of every airdrome in the country for similar natural phenomena. I’ll get back to the experiment on which I was working when you called. But I’m glad you brought me into the country; it has been both pleasant j and instructive.”
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