AND AT that range he could not miss. Nor at that range could the patrol—or, at least, so it appeared to him. As he dropped flat a bullet went cracking past his head. The next shot, however, came from Major Bridie’s side. It came from Captain Manchon who was recovering from the mysterious and treacherous assault.
He fired twice and with effect—with so much effect, in fact, that Major Bridie reckoned there was now only one German left in any fighting condition at all. But from his point of view that was one too many, and very cautiously he began to raise himself to fire again.
He had just got himself up onto his left elbow and was peering anxiously into the gloom when there was a shattering roar, as though the air itself behind him had exploded. There was a flash and the scream of buckshot tearing by him. It was the Colonel bringing his 12-bore into play.
“Like potting at ducks,” he remarked triumphantly. “Kill an elephant with this stuff.”
The ensuing half-hour—and the next ten minutes in particular—proved to be the most crowded and eventful of Major Bridie’s already eventful and soldierly career. It could hardly have been expected that this ferocious infantry fusillade, coupled with the roar of the Colonel’s fowling piece, should have passed unnoticed by the resident garrison. There were now apparently men pouring out from the ground in all directions.
But there is nothing in military circles that spreads confusion like shots within a camp. The newcomers, for a start, completely misunderstood the direction of the fighting. Some deep natural instinct told them that they were being attacked from without and, led by their NCO’s, they went running to defend the gate. The ground between Major Bridie’s party and the gun pit was left almost unguarded.
They crossed it at the double, running openly now that all possibility of concealment was at an end. What held them was a four-foot wall of concrete with a camouflage net spreading down from it. They floundered and stumbled in the mesh. And then, as the young moon cleared the clouds for a moment and things had shapes again as well as outlines, they saw four shallow wooden steps leading down into the enclosure.
Not that the steps looked any too inviting. Some half-dozen men were scrambling up them, buckling on their equipment as they came. But they did not seem properly awake as yet; they were moving in the dazed clumsy fashion of men who have been roused again immediately after they have just turned in. And they were quite unprepared for the fire from Major Bridie’s and Captain Manchon’s revolver. They folded up and became a disorderly and unsoldierly confusion.
Major Bridie, however, was taking no chances. He removed one of his two precious grenades and, pulling the pin, lobbed the bomb neatly over the little parapet where the bodies seemed thickest. Seven seconds later he led his men down into the shambles which until their arrival had been a clean and well-cared-for service trench. The Mills grenade had done its work thoroughly. They reached the bottom step and stood there in the low circle of chalk without encountering any more of what the textbooks call opposition.
Firing had by now become pretty general throughout the camp. Everyone was blazing away at something, and casualties were beginning to mount up. The Germans knew only that they were being attacked; they still did not know by whom. It is even possible that they suspected they were outnumbered.
But they had by no means entirely lost their nerve. A machine gun, exactly in front of the entrance to the gun pit, and not more than twenty yards away, began raking the parapet, and Major Bridie and his companions had to fling themselves flat. It was a tribute to them as a team that they all instinctively did the same thing at once—not simply saving their own lives but getting on with the job as well. They proceeded as one man to worm forward toward the machine gun, while the stream of bullets went rocketing and screaming over their heads. At the angle at which the machine gunners were using their weapon it might have been at parachutists they were aiming.
One of the searchlights meanwhile had come into action. It began feverishly searching the sky for aircraft. Then another showed itself. And soon there was an insane shifting pattern as the light-crews hunted somewhere among the clouds for this invisible attacking army. It was while the two machine gunners were staring up into this aerial pattern that Flight Lieut. Stanislaus closed with them.
Major Bridie came up only in time to finish off the work. And it was Captain Manchon, still calm and very quietly spoken, who swivelled the gun round so that it commanded the gun pit. For the future historian it was a significant and auspicious moment. The attacking army had made its first important capture and was now armed with something substantially more serviceable than a 12-bore.
WHAT is more, they could now see in front of them what they had come to see. Big Hermann was there, gleaming in the semidarkness, grey and blotched and enormous like an elephant. The barrel seemed to extend tapering endlessly. The muzzle was probably twenty feet above the ground. But now that they were actually up against it, the absurdity of even attempting to destroy the thing overwhelmed them. It was the Colonel who made the first suggestion.
“Why not chuck a Mills down the spout?” he asked ingeniously. “Blow the thing up from inside?”
The reply to the question was delayed indefinitely. For, from behind the gun, other figures began to emerge. And as they came they fired.
The ground around Major Bridie’s party split and spattered and it was obvious that it was Tommy-guns and not rifles they were using. But there were only a handful of them and they, too, were not sure what it was that they were attacking.
That was why, led by Hauptmann Karl Ludwig, the man who had caused all the trouble, they kept their fire concentrated on the four steps of concrete that provided the only entrance to the gun pit. And that was why, also, they provided such an excellent target to Major Bridie at the machine gun. At twenty yards a machine gun can be a very destructive weapon. Hauptmann Karl Ludwig himself was among the first of the victims.
It was just before he had fired his last burst and had had the satisfaction of seeing the fire in front of him cease suddenly, that Flight Lieut. Stanislaus uttered a little cry. It was not a scream; it was in fact not like a cry of pain at all. It was simply as though a grunt had abruptly been forced out of him.
When Major Bridie turned round he found that Flight Lieut. Stanislaus was holding his middle like a schoolboy with the stomach-ache. Only,the hands that were pressed against him were wet and sticky with something. Flight Lieut. Stanislaus had been shot very neatly and efficiently right through the stomach.
Major Bridie’s first instinct was to hoist the man over his shoulder and run with him. And it was only as he bent down to lift him that he realized he had nowhere to go. And he realized at the same moment that he could hardly hold parleys with the opposing commander and demand a corner of the gun pit for a dressing station. Besides, Flight Lieut. Stanislaus was trying to speak. He kept raising one of his wet sticky hands and pointing straight in front of him. “Don’t mind about me,” he kept saying. “The gun. Go and get the gun.”
After nearly five precious seconds of indecision, Major Bridie obeyed him. He began the assault on the gun itself. So far as he could tell it was at that moment entirely unmanned. But the rest of the camp wasn’t; the uproar in the gun pit had brought everyone else running there. The tramp of heavy feet could already be heard on the hard concrete that led to the steps.
“We will guard the entrance, the Colonel and I,” Captain Manchon said formally and a little pompously. “Major Bridie, the destruction of the gun is in your hands.”
It is doubtful, however, if Major Bridie heard the whole of the speech. For, by the time Captain Manchon had finished speaking Major Bridie was already halfway toward the enormous steel wagon that housed the gun. And he was slinging himself up the rungs of the mounting ladder before there were any shots from behind him.
Captain Manchon meanwhile had thrown a grenade, and the first batch of Germans who had attempted to enter their own gun pit had been obliterated. No one else seemed anxious for the moment to make the experiment. They were not to know that it was Captain Manchon’s last grenade he had thrown, and that his revolver had jammed and was useless. They might have behaved very differently if they had realized they were being held at bay by a shotgun.
Major Bridie had now reached the level platform of the wagon and was crawling along it. The platform widened suddenly and he was actually up on the firing platform. The breech of the gun, as big as a steel door in a safe, stood open in front of him.
Major Bridie began calculating rapidly how much damage would be done by one Mills grenade lodged neatly in that chamber. And it was while he was calculating, that something red-hot went tearing through his right arm. Major Bridie found himself doubled up from the pain. He kept telling himself that the one thing he mustn’t do was to faint.
But there was a sound that made him forget even the pain for a moment. It was the sound of someone crawling on all fours; a soft, muffled sound, but unmistakable. And it came from somewhere on the wagon itself. Whoever it might be was advancing more than stealthily.
Major Bridie held his breath and comforted himself with the thought that a revolver at pointblank range would have the same effect whether it was held in the right hand or in the left.
Then, just as he raised his hand ready to fire, he caught sight of his strange visitor. What he saw restrained him. It was a white staring face from which most of the lampblack had been scraped off. The man was Flight Lieut. Stanislaus.
MEANWHILE, in the front line, at the foot of the stairs, the Colonel was enjoying himself immensely. The defense of the whole position now depended on him. It was his supreme moment, the very hour to which the whole of his muddled, ineffectual life had been leading. And he rose to it.
He blazed away with both barrels from behind the concrete bastion where he was kneeling; reloaded and fired again. The gunmakers in Pall Mall had been right; the effect of buckshot at fifteen yards can be devastating. The men who tried to storm the stairway thought—and they were right—that some new weapon which they had not previously encountered was being used against them.
Behind the front line, on the platform of the gun, Major Bridie and Flight Lieut. Stanislaus had been very busy. Only, in a strange way, it was Flight Lieut. Stanislaus who had taken things into his own hands. He had removed the two grenades he was carrying as though they were no longer of any use to him. And he was desperately trying the levers one by one like a maniac who finds himself alone for a moment in the cab of a railway engine.
When he saw what was happening the Major lost his temper for a moment.
“Stop fiddling, you fool,” he shouted. “Blow in the breech mechanism before we’re both killed!”
But Flight Lieut. Stanislaus only shook his head.
“Too big,” he said. “Over the edge is the only way.”
“Blow it up, damn you!”
Flight Lieut. Stanislaus, however, had now found the lever for which he had been searching. It was the lever that connected the gun with its motive power in the trailing wagon. As he pressed it, the whole wagon beneath them trembled, and Major Bridie was aware that they were moving.
It was slow at first. The gun merely shuddered and vibrated a little. But as the lever was pushed full forward—it was now a full six points farther forward on the dial than German Service regulations permitted—Big Hermann responded. Every moment they were gaining speed. The gun was already travelling faster than any other big gun in the history of such expensive playthings. It was creeping up to ten miles an hour, which for something that weighs nearly one hundred and fifty tons is a lot of momentum.
And the track, camouflaged with more netting, opened out before it. They tore it up as they proceeded. Major Bridie said nothing, and clung onto the side rail that was pulsating like the rail of a destroyer at speed. In his mind’s eye he saw what was ahead of them —remembered that picture of the track leading out on this little undercliff, with only that little pile of rocks between them and the sheer drop into the sea below.
But it was not apparently going to be a simple matter, driving the gun along like a railway train. The gun crew and the station garrison had seen that the gun, their gun, was moving and they came after it. They began firing at it and there were vicious crackles and spurts as the bullets hit the hard metal of the gun.
Flight Lieut. Stanislaus turned.
“Get off,” he commanded. “Get off before it’s too late.”
All the most obstinate streaks in Major Bridie’s nature mingled for a moment.
“I’m stopping here with you,” he argued.
“Get off,” Flight Lieut. Stanislaus shouted back at him. “Get off and hold them up.”
In the end it was not Flight Lieut. Stanislaus, but a soldier who suddenly appeared running beside them, who decided Major Bridie. The man had a Tommy-gun in his hands and he was now level with them. As he raised his gun to fire, Major Bridie flung himself at him. He was not a large man, but there was weight and force behind him. They went rolling over and over in the darkness. When they finished up Major Bridie was on top. In the end, he killed the man with his own Tommy-gun.
AND IT was because Major Bridie was so busy with the Tommy-gun, using it against the other figures who came pouring in his direction, that he did not see the solitary and sensational end of Flight Lieut. Stanislaus.
Big Hermann was putting up a classical performance. It was travelling at nearly twelve miles an hour. And it had started rocking, "in front, the pile of stones that had been erected for buffers loomed up, jagged and distorted in the darkness. Big Hermann hit them full on and smashed through them like a tank. Then, with a lurch that nearly rolled Flight Lieut. Stanislaus off his platform, Big Hermann came off the rails altogether and began plowing its w’ay across the sheer hard rock. Like a house in a landslide it went careering down the cliff.
Then it turned over. The moment before it toppled, Flight Lieut. Stanislaus, his work done, was standing up waving. Then the huge mass of metal caught him, and he was buried. So far as he was concerned it was all ended.
But for Big Hermann the end was not yet. The rock against which the gun had come to rest gave way with a report like an explosion, and went bounding off into the sea. And the gun began to move again, dragging everything with it — small trees, boulders, the very rock itself. By the time it reached the cliff edge, Big Hermann was the centre of its own private avalanche. It disappeared finally into the darkness with the noise of mountains falling.
It seemed as the crash died away that complete silence followed it. It was as though the Germans, aghast at what had happened, had stopped running, too. Then the sound of feet broke out again as they tore down the cliff slope. It was evident they were now convinced that somehow an invading force had managed to break through their shore defenses.
Major Bridie reflected that he had seen enough of A Battery Long-Range Coastal Artillery and resolved to try and make his way back onto the open moorland above the cliff. He still entertained a hazy idea that somehow he might be able to force his way through the wire entanglement and get clear of the place. There wasn’t exactly the same need for secrecy any more.
And as he ran he remembered dimly the boat that they had left moored on the foreshore. He decided to go for it, not because there seemed even the faintest chance of reaching it, but simply because when a man is running he has to have some direction in his mind. And as he ran he wondered what had become of the rest of the party.
Flight Lieut. Stanislaus he knew all about—or rather could imagine. But Captain Manchon and the Colonel had been in a pretty tight corner when he had last seen them. He was just reconciling himself to the fact that Captain Manchon must have died in the way in which he would have liked to die—facing the Germans—when he nearly ran into the man. He was as calm and unconcerned as ever. He was actually standing with his hands on his hips looking out in the direction of the cliffs where the torches of the Germans could be seen searching for the invading army that had so mysteriously landed in their midst.
“I was wondering if you were still alive, Major Bridie,” was all he said.
But Major Bridie was in no mood for polite conversation.
“Seen the Colonel?” he asked.
Captain Manchon shook his head.
“He was much occupied last time I saw him,” he answered. “Since then he has disappeared.” He paused. “And Stanislaus?” he asked.
“Gone over the edge with the gun,” Major Bridie told him.
“Good,” said Captain Manchon. “It is as he would have wished it.” He turned and saluted. “And now, my dear Major,” he said, “it is time for you to return to your boat. For all we know it may still be there. And even if it is not, it is as well to be shot there as here.”
“Ought to look for the Colonel,” Major Bridie answered stoutly.“May be wounded, you know.”
“He was wounded while he was still with me,” Captain Manchon answered. “And then I could not find him. But I have found you and it is time you were going.”
“Time that we were going,” Major Bridie corrected him.
Captain Manchon shook his head.
“No,” he said slowly. “I stay here. It is my country, you see.”
“Can’t go back without you,” Major Bridie answered, all the old obstinacy in his nature rekindling.
Captain Manchon raised his hands for a second above his head.
“Must every Englishman always be a fool?” he demanded. “You have more information about this gun emplacement than anyone else in England and you propose staying here. For me it is different. I have friends here. By the time morning comes I shall have melted into the landscape. I shall be a fisherman or a laborer. I can look after myself.”
THEY had reached the wire forest around the camp by now, and Major Bridie began cutting the strands with his snips. Then, seeing the spiked foliage of steel that could never be severed in a whole night, he began to burrow into the tiny gap he had made.
The barbs caught at him, tearing his clothes. They penetrated to the soft skin underneath and plucked out little bits of the living flesh. It was like being impaled on a gigantic sprawling cactus, and his hands dripped blood every time he lifted them. A strand flicked across his face and he felt his ear give a monstrous, straining tug as he moved.
But he kept on. Behind him, moving delicately like a cat, came Captain Manchon. At the end of five minutes when Major Bridie raised his head he saw that they were in the very centre of the mass. Bleeding, torn, dishevelled, he persisted, and the outer perimeter came in sight. Then the snips broke. The steel which had pruned so many of Parkstone’s best rose trees collapsed in his hands. They tore the remaining strands apart with their fingers and began their great retreat.
They had not gone very far, however, before they heard something in front of them that made them stop dead. It was the noise that a barbed-wire gang makes when it is throwing out new entanglements. They could hear the strands thrashing against each other and the posts quivering as they took the weight. At the sound they both threw themselves flat again.
“Locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen,” Major Bridie told himself.
But there could be no going back now. They were in a narrow trench that ran parallel with the wire, and behind them it led back to the entrance of the camp. Somewhere, some unthinkable distance ahead, lay the boat. Very cautiously they began to crawl forward.
And then from the darkness they heard the last words that they would ever have expected to hear spoken. The words were very clear and distinct. And they were uttered in a voice that was suddenly familiar.
“If I got myself in here I suppose I can get out again,” the Colonel’s voice was saying.
All the same, he was in a bad way when they found him. He was upside down, hanging by one foot from a noose of wire that held his boot like a rat-trap. And with his hands he was frantically searching for anything that he could grip onto. It was not until they had disentangled him and lowered him to the ground that they saw he was holding in one hand a very ordinary brass clock.
He brandished it exultantly in their faces.
“From the clubhouse,” he said. “Sort of trophy, don’t you know. Got in there and pinched it when all the Huns went running outside. Don’t suppose they’ve even missed it yet.”
Major Bridie did not answer. He simply began forcing the Colonel along. He noticed then how slowly the man moved and he had cause to remember it afterward. When he remembered it, and remembered how the Colonel had said nothing about it, his opinion of that erratic gentleman took a different shape.
The ditch that they were following led parallel alongside the road. They stumbled blindly along it, once coming upon a spot that was either a cliff spring or a dew pond, where the water was icy and where they had to wade nearly up to their knees. And once they came upon a miniature forest of hawthorn through which they had to force their way, the living spurs cutting into them as the dead ones of the barbed wire had just done.
But as it turned out they had cause to be grateful to those untender trees. For there was suddenly movement and commotion on the road which until this moment had been empty. They saw the dimmed headlight of a car, of two cars, of three and, a moment later, a motorized unit with two anti-aircraft guns and a truck packed full of soldiers all sitting very upright like lead soldiers in a nursery set went roaring past them. They all had Tommy-guns in their laps and it was evident that they were convinced they were on their way to repulse some pretty large-scale Commando landing. The Colonel muttered something about wishing he had his 12-bore with him.
Then, when the trucks had passed, Major Bridie led them forward again. There was a queer sense inside each of them as of walking off the stage in the middle of the act—the middle of the act which they themselves had created. For in front it was still a dark, lonely night with only the wind rushing through it, while behind them the coastal defenses were busy turning night into a kind of frantic day.
The shore searchlights had come on and, finding nothing, had made the situation over to the gunners. There were flashes every few seconds and shell after shell went screaming out to sea. Throwing all caution to the winds they had even trained some of the searchlights along the ground and were combing the place for Commandos.
It was the Colonel who kept on holding up the retreat. He had to pause every few minutes to get his breath; and he would keep on talking. In between the gasps he told them how the Germans had disfigured the clubhouse by drawing Swastikas on the walls and how over the mantelpiece there was a picture of Adolf Hitler that he hadn’t had time to smash. «But all the time Major Bridie was forcing him forward. Even Captain Manchon gave him an arm and the three staggered along like drunks returning from a late party.
BUT THEY got there all right. An hour and a half after they had started they were at the head of the steps leading down to the beach. It was only three miles from their starting place but it might have belonged to a different world. Except for a few sea gulls that started up, they had the place to themselves. Major Bridie reconnoitred and then, very cautiously, like a burglar, began the descent.
The descent, however, became more rapid as it proceeded, and not merely because the Colonel missed his footing and nearly sent Captain Manchon crashing forward onto Major Bridie below. It was another motorized unit sent up to strengthen the whole of the shore defenses that served to quicken things. It arrived suddenly along the curve of the road and drew up with a crunch of big treaded tires biting deep into the ground. Immediately there was the heavy clatter of feet and the noise of equipment being unloaded. Major Bridie began going down the stairs two steps at a time. Somewhere at the bottom there still lay the body of the sentry that Flight Lieut. Stanislaus had strangled.
They had just reached the beach when they heard the sound of iron-nailed boots somewhere on the steps above them. Major Bridie started to run. To his own ears the noise of his boots on the shingle was deafening. Pie expected to hear shots from behind him at any moment. But he staggered on—it was only now that he realized how weak, how utterly exhausted he was—and behind him the Colonel and Captain Manchon kicked up their own uproar as they walked.
He had reached the spot by now where the boat should have been. Or at least he thought he had reached it. But there was no sign of any boat; the shingly beach stretched unbroken in either direction. The two others had come up by now and the three men stood there looking out across the twenty-five miles or so of black water that separated them from England.
Then, very faintly, somewhere in front of him Major Bridie heard the sound of water lapping against something and he realized that the tide had come in. The boat, carefully anchored by Captain Manchon right up against the surf-line, was now drifting lazily back and forth on its length of rope somewhere out there in the murk.
Major Bridie decided to go in, and stepped into the water like a determined bather. He even told himself that the end had really come at last, and wondered where his body would have drifted by the time somebody found it. He had a kind of sneaking hope that it might come to rest finally on the English side. Then his feet went into a marine pothole and he threw out his arms to save himself. The last thing he realized as he went down was that his right hand had touched something hard like the gunwale of a small boat.
But even having found it, it was still difficult enough to climb into it. He managed to get his. fingers over the side but they were too stiff from the cold to close properly, and he was too weak to pull himself up. He just hung there dazed while the boat drifted. Then, just when he had told himself that he would have to let go and take the consequences, he found that his feet were resting on shingle, and he could walk.
Summoning up the last relics of his strength, he pushed the boat in front of him like a sort of watery pram. Captain Manchon waded in to meet him and disentangled the anchor. The rope disappeared in the water with a slap and the boat was free again. As Major Bridie looked at it his heart sank. It seemed more the sort of thing for a quiet afternoon outing on the Serpentine than for a cross-Channel journey by night.
He looked around him for a moment.
“Where’s the Colonel?” he asked.
Captain Manchon shook his head.
“He is mad,” he answered. “Quite mad. He has walked back to meet the Germans. He is probably on his way to Berlin by now. You must go without him.”
Major Bridie looked at his watch again.
“I will give him one minute,” he said. “If he isn’t back by then we’ll go and look for him.”
Captain Manchon raised his arms expressively.
“Why did we have to bring him?” he asked. “He is not safe even to himself.”
The second hand of Major Bridie’s watch had travelled round and was approaching the fifty-five seconds when they heard a sound on the beach close beside them. It was as though they were being charged point blank with the bayonet. The pebbles just above them were being kicked in all directions. Major Bridie and the Captain got ready to jump into the boat and make off if there was still time for them.
But they were too late. With a crash two figures came sprawling at their feet and lay there. To his amazement he saw that the nearest figure was in German uniform. Also, his hands were tied.
Then the second figure got to his knees and spoke, and Major Bridie saw that it was the Colonel.
“Our prisoner,” he said triumphantly. “Went to fetch him. Interrogate him when we get him to the other side.”
IT WAS Captain Manchon who retrussed the prisoner’s feet and slung him into the boat, even though he disapproved heartily of the whole proceeding. He expressed himself strongly on the subject and kept suggesting that as soon as they reached really deep water they should do something about it. Major Bridie, however, was too busy to take much notice. He was trying to fit a pair of worn and primitive oars into rowlocks that would have disgraced a river ferryman. He was interrupted only by Captain Manchon who had started to wade ashore again.
“This is where we say good-by,” Captain Manchon said simply.
He made a small and lonely figure as he stood there up to his knees in water, and Major Bridie began to move cautiously to the stern of the boat to say good-by to him. He never managed actually to shake hands with him, however, because the forward party of the Germans who had come down the steps behind them was now too near.
Captain Manchon hurriedly extracted himself from the water and moved off into the darkness. He was silent in this as in everything else he did. Then, with a splash that nearly submerged the boat, the Colonel clambered in and Major Bridie pushed off.
It was probably the splash that betrayed them. Between the oar beats Major Bridie could hear the sound of voices on the shore, and very soon there were more than voices. A whole volley of rifle shots rang out and the water round them was whipped up with bullets. One bullet a little higher than the rest, that came unpleasantly close to his right ear, made Major Bridie start so violently that he nearly lost his oars.
But they were a small target and the night was a very dark one. Small patches of mist still hung over the water and there was only the plash-plash of the oars to reveal them. Also, the men on the shore had not the least idea what it was they were firing at. Inside their trained obedient German minds probably the last thing they anticipated was a fourteen-foot rowboat. At the end of half an hour they were still firing. But by then they had probably given up all hope of hitting anything. The Lieutenant in charge had even denied that there was anything there at all and was delivering a stern lecture on war nerves.
At the end of an hour Major Bridie gave up all attempt at rowing. He had now reached that point of exhaustion where he had ceased to be a human being at all and had become a machine. Only he was a very bad machine. He was not strong enough to pull the oars through the water. All that he could do was to cut gliding slices that, got the boat nowhere, and then sit back again waiting for enough strength to make the next stroke.
As soon as the Colonel took the oars from him he went straight off into a sleep which was more than ordinary sleep. It was a complete hypnosis that separated him from everything around him. He might have been tucked up snugly on a spring mattress instead of lying on the wooden floorboards of a boat with his head resting across a pair of German military boots still too tightly strapped together for their owner to shift them.
Even the little deluges of water that kept slopping into the boat, raising the level of the small sea within, did nothing to disturb him. He was dreaming of Libya while his teeth were still chattering with cold.
IT WAS some time later—how long he did not know because his watch had stopped by then—when he woke up. And it was not for several minutes that he could understand where he was. He was conscious only of the fact that every portion of him ached, and that he felt sick; very sick. He struggled up onto one elbow and looked about him.
What he saw was not reassuring. His legs stretched out in front of him were completely under water and the first face he saw was the prisoner’s. That unfortunate man had managed to wriggle himself into a position of some protection and at least his mouth was above water. All the same, every time an extra large wave broke over them the water broke over his face and ran down his chin.
On the rowing seat the Colonel was still sitting. But he was not rowing. He was bent double, with his head almost between his knees, and he was grasping the gunwale with either hand. Of the oars there was now no trace at all.
He was still alive when Major Bridie got to him. But if Major Bridie had slept any longer he would not have had even the opportunity of saying good-by. When he raised the Colonel’s head and looked at him, it was a face that had been drained of blood that he saw. The original lampblack had long since been washed off and only the pallid ghostly flesh remained.
He opened his eyes for a moment and smiled.
“Sorry about this,” he said. “Must have dropped off for a moment. Remember now, I did come over a bit faint.”
He tried to straighten himself but the pain was too much for him. He clutched at his stomach like a man who has just been kicked.
“Swine got me there,” he said. “Didn’t want to say anything about it,” he added apologetically, “because I thought it would only hold things up.”
The effort of straightening himself had been too much, however. His fingers—and Major Bridie noticed suddenly that they were the hands of an old man—let go of the gunwales, and he slid down onto the floor of the boat. He opened his eyes again and his lips moved once or twice before he began speaking. When he did speak, it was very husky and faint.
“Good show while it lasted,” he said. “Never thought we’d really bring it off. Only wonder what the authorities will say when we get back.” He paused and, after a moment, he added still more faintly: “If anything happens to me take care of the prisoner.” His voice dropped still lower, and he began fighting for his breath. “And the clock,” he added. “Don’t forget the clock.”
Then his eyes closed and he appeared to be sleeping. When Major Bridie tried to move him he slid down still lower in the bilge water and his lower jaw dropped open.
Major Bridie sat looking at him without moving. All that he could think about was the way in which he had hustled the Colonel along that cliff path not knowing of the bullet wound he carried. There was very little else to think about. Major Bridie was alone now except for the trussed German soldier in the bows. The boat was half full of water and the oars were gone. All that he could do was to sit there and stare up at the already lightening sky. It was, he reckoned by ordinary standards, somewhere round about breakfast time.
And all the time he kept telling himself that he must remain awake. It was as though simply by not allowing himself to go to sleep he could still contrive to remain in command of operations. Squaring his shoulders he sat there with arms folded and waited for the dawn and whatever it might have to bring.
THAT was how he was sitting when a Catalina saw the boat. The flying boat circled round him twice, and the air-gunner waved his hand. Major Bridie raised his head and tried to wave back. But he was too weak. In the end he dismissed the plane with a rather curt sort of nod.
And it seemed to Major Bridie that after the flying boat had gone away again and help should presumably have been on the way, whole centuries passed with nothing happening. He counted the waves until he reached one hundred and ninetyseven and then lost count and began arguing with himself as to whether he should have counted the little ones as well. Then he tried carrying on a muddled, inconsequential conversation with the prisoner who could not understand English.
In the end he gave up both the calculation and the conversation and sat there fast asleep with his eyes wide open.
He was not even greatly interested when an MTB came alongside and great rough hands lifted him out as tenderly as if he had been a baby. All that he remembered clearly was telling his rescuers that there was a brass clock somewhere on board that was very important for sentimental reasons . . .
There followed a glorious interval of peace with the whole world being kind to him. He was dimly aware of hot drinks being poured down his throat and blankets being wrapped round him and hot water bottles being placed at his feet. People said things to him and patted him on the shoulder and he did not even have to trouble to answer. It was like being a small cosy god surrounded by very attentive worshippers.
When he came to, he was back in Parkstone again with Bea Lillie sitting beside the bed. And in his present state he wasn’t even surprised. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to be there. If only the pneumonia jacket with its cotton-wool padding hadn’t been quite so suffocating he would have been perfectly content. There was, however, one other thing that annoyed him. It was a remark that Bea Lillie made when she saw that he was awake at last.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself gadding off like that,” she said. “It gave us such a turn. We all thought you’d all been kidnapped. At your time of life, too.”
It was that last remark that rankled, and as he grew convalescent he took her to task about it. They had a lot of long conversations on the balcony of the nursing home as the weather grew better and Major Bridie was quite astonished to find out how intelligent a really goodlooking woman sometimes can be.
But it was not from Bea Lillie at all, but from an Intelligence Officer who came down from Whitehall specially to interrogate him, that Major Bridie learned that it was Bea Lillie who had put round the general alarm, and that it was because of her that there were Catalinas and MTB’s searching that bit of Channel for what was left of the expedition.
It was after the Intelligence Officer had gone away again that Major Bridie had another of his long and private conversations with Bea Lillie. They had just reached the most important part of it when the ward bell rang and Bea Lillie got obediently to her feet. But Major Bridie leaned forward and caught hold of her by the hand.
“Let ’em wait,” he said. “This bit is private. I know there are plenty of young fellows more your own age, and you could have the pick of them. But all the same”—here Major Bridie paused and cleared his throat —“if you haven’t actually decided anything I’d just like you to know ...”
And because Bea Lillie guessed what was coming she bent forward and kissed him.
Over the bed the temperature chart still showed 103.5 on a graph that went up and down like a switchback. At the moment it was going up again.