"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, April 26, 2018

History is made at night: V for Vengeance by Dennis Wheatley (1942).

V for Vengeance by Dennis Wheatley (1942)


Streaks ahead of the previous Sallust adventure, The Black Baroness.

Wonderful little bits like a nursing home in Paris where inmates sleep and rest all day, then go out at night to carry out their Resistance assignments.

Even better: a Resistance leader who moves freely around Paris in a casket carried in a hearse.

Sallust escapes occupied Europe by kayaking from Ostend to England:

....Next morning they got the collapsible canoe down to the garage, which was empty, as the Comte's car had long since been commandeered; but there was a small working-bench at one end of the garage and a miscellaneous assortment of paints and gear.

The Comte proved quite useless at such work, but Frédéric was very helpful, and Gregory's natural ingenuity enabled him to devise means for not only making the necessary repairs but strengthening the canoe considerably. Having cut some pieces of wood to the required length they inserted them as extra struts, then used an old sunblind for patching the canvas where it had rotted, and carefully covered the edges of the patches with rubber solution. For the dual purpose of making it both more watertight and less conspicuous they painted it all over with a mixture blended to a dull green and broke up its outline by two broad strokes of purple which cut across its covered-in bow and stern.

It was evening again by the time they had finished, and although Gregory had hoped to set out that night Frédéric pointed out to him that he would be much wiser to give the paint twenty-four hours to dry; so he slept again under the hospitable de Werbomont's roof.

On the 13th they spent their time devising everything they could think of which might add to Gregory's chances of a successful voyage. In order to buoy up the boat, if it became waterlogged, Frédéric collected all the empty bottles that he could find, and having corked them, firmly wedged them as tightly as he could into the pointed bow and stern. They also sewed a number of cork table-mats into an old sheet so that when Gregory was within a reasonable distance of the English coast he could throw the sheet out and trail it in the water, where, as a big patch of whiteness, it might catch the eye of a British airman and result in help being sent out.

Like many wealthy Belgians, de Werbomont had laid in a good stock of tinned food at the time of the crisis, but he now willingly parted with some of his hidden reserve to provision the canoe. Bottles of water, a bottle of brandy, a torch, cigarettes and matches were also put aboard, an old carriage lamp was rigged up on the stern, and Frédéric succeeded in buying from one of the local fishermen a sou'-wester and an old suit of oilskins.

After dinner that night they waited anxiously until their neighbours had gone to bed, although this precaution was scarcely necessary, since the Belgians, as a whole, were much more pro-British than the French, and very few of them indeed were playing the part of Quislings.

Owing to the lack of proper heating, the population was going to bed early in these days, and even the German garrison, apart from the sentries on night duty, finding little amusement in the hostile town, preferred their barrack-rooms and messes to going out at night; so at half-past ten de Werbomont declared that he thought the coast was now about as clear as it would be at any time during the night.

Frédéric went out as a scout and, after having had a good look round the beach, came back to report that all was well, except for the danger that they might run into one of the German patrols which moved along it at irregular intervals; but that was a risk which had to be taken whatever time they set out.

De Werbomont then led the way down to the beach, while Gregory and Frédéric followed, carrying the now weighty canoe.

For the season of the year the sea was moderately calm, but even so quite biggish breakers were frothing on the shore, and it looked as though the little craft might easily be swamped before they could get it launched.

After a quick debate Gregory got into its cockpit just on the tide line; then, when he had thanked the other two and they had wished him luck, as a big wave came creaming in they ran him out through it till they were nearly waist-deep in the water. With a few swift strokes of his double paddle he sent the canoe leaping towards the next big breaker, just before it broke. For a second the boat rose almost perpendicular in the air, then it tilted forward, rushing down the farther slope, and he was off.

The first hundred yards proved a heavy strain. He had to keep the canoe head on to the incoming waves, otherwise, had one caught it sideways, it would have overturned, then been rolled back and dashed to pieces on the shore. But after a breathless fight he reached deeper water, and although the waves were just as big the strain of fighting them became considerably less.

He had little fear of going under, as the canoe was as buoyant as a cork. Even if it capsized it was virtually un-sinkable, so he would be able to cling on to it for as long as his strength lasted; but whether he had the stamina to make the journey was another question.

The moon was only four days from full, and while he had been making his preparations he had dreaded that it might be too bright for them to dare risk carrying the canoe down to the beach. Its light would have made them visible at quite a distance to any prowling Germans; but luck had favoured him again, as the sky was overcast, and not a glimmer of the moon could be seen.

On the other hand, he had to some extent counted on it for setting his course, and he would now have to rely entirely upon the little pocket compass with which de Werbomont had provided him; yet he dared not flash a torch to see it so long as he was near the coast, and for the first half-hour he had to make his way purely by guesswork.

It was only when he risked a first quick flash to look at the compass that he began to realise to the full what he had taken on. The tide had already swung him round, and he found that he was proceeding parallel with the coast. After that, holding his torch low, he flashed it down on to the compass every few minutes, as he soon found that if he did not do so he constantly lost his sense of direction. As far as possible, he endeavoured to maintain a steady stroke, knowing that the one thing he must not do was to exhaust himself too quickly. In the camouflaged boat he felt that he would be really unlucky if the Germans spotted him, provided he could cover a fair distance before morning, but he knew that to reach England safely would require every ounce of his endurance.

After he had been out for about an hour and a half he heard the hum of planes in the darkness overhead. Only a matter of seconds later there came the crash of falling bombs behind him; the R.A.F. were making one of their raids on Ostend harbour.

The first bombs had hardly fallen before the German antiaircraft batteries opened up, and looking back he saw that the whole coast was now fringed with the long pointing fingers of searchlights, which swept the sky, groping for the raiders, and lit up the sea with a pale gleam for miles around. Mentally he wished the raiders luck and at the same time blessed them as he now no longer had to waste time and lose way every few moments while looking at his compass.

For the next twenty minutes he put his back into it and paddled straight ahead. Gradually the din behind him subsided; then the searchlights went out, plunging him again into complete darkness on the black waters.

Soon after one the sky cleared a little, and the moon became visible intermittently through breaks in the heavy clouds. Again he felt that his luck was in. The light was not sufficient for such a small craft as his to be sighted at any distance from a German patrol boat, but he had carefully worked out the position of the moon at various times for that night, so he was able to set his course by it, and once more prevent the loss of way from looking at his compass so frequently.

Hour after hour he ploughed on through the gently heaving sea with a steady rhythmic motion, resting for short periods now and again, but never long enough for the boat to be swept far off its course. About five o'clock he took a longer spell, and made a light meal of some biscuits and lukewarm coffee laced with cognac, which Frédéric had put into a bottle for him.

The moon had now set, and he paddled on for another couple of hours in darkness, then it gradually lightened until the grey streaks of dawn came up in the east. A little after dawn a wind got up, and this gave him considerable concern, as it was blowing at an angle across his bows, which meant that he could no longer stick to his even stroke and had to paddle much more strongly with one arm than the other to keep the nose of the canoe headed in the right direction. As the wind increased it became a devilish fight to prevent the little craft from being swung right round and driven far off her course.

Gregory was tired now; the muscles of his back ached, and his hands were beginning to blister. The wind, too, was whipping at the wave-caps, so that a constant spray lashed over the boat, stinging his face, covering it with salt brine and getting into his eyes.

Morning had come, and he was as much alone as if he had been in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. Owing to the fact that his head was only a few feet above sea-level, his horizon was very limited, and as the canoe shot down into the troughs of the waves he could often see no more than a few yards ahead; but when it swished up on to a crest he could catch a momentary glimpse of the heaving seas all round him for a considerable distance. He was out of sight of the Belgian coast, although he had not the least idea how far he had managed to get from it, and he was in two minds as to whether he wanted to see a ship or not, as he knew that in any case he must still be a very long way from England, so the odds on its being British or Nazi were about even.

At nine o'clock he abandoned the uneven battle for a little while he fed again, but it irked him bitterly that every moment he rested the canoe was now drifting sideways with the wind and undoing some of the heavy labour he had put in. When he began to paddle again another thing that worried him was that he had no means at all of judging what progress he was making while the sea continued to be so choppy. For all he knew he was only barely countering the effects of the tide and the wind, so that unless they lessened all his efforts might serve no better purpose than to keep him in the same position for hours, or even days, on end.

In the middle of the morning three British planes flew over, but he knew that they were much too high to see him, so he did not even bother to get out his cork-floated sheet, and in a few moments they had disappeared from view. Just after midday he saw a long pencil-shaped Dornier, which was flying at a much lower altitude. As it came towards him he feared for a moment that he might be spotted and machine-gunned, but its pilot must have seen something that interested him farther north, since the aircraft suddenly veered off in that direction. He was bitterly cold and had constantly to resist the temptation to take too frequent nips from the bottle of brandy, but he did not feel the least hungry and had to force himself to make another meal early in the afternoon, because he knew that it would help to keep his strength up.

About half-past three he sighted a destroyer. From her design he felt certain she was British, and he put on a terrific spurt in a wild endeavour to cut across her course. But even her apparently leisurely speed carried her along at far too swift a pace for him to get anywhere near her, and, although he waved his paddle and shouted at the top of his voice, owing to the fact that he was so low in the water she passed without her lookouts having seen him.

As it neared five o'clock his anxiety increased. The winter day was closing in, and it looked now as though he would have to spend a second night at sea. Even in a rowing-boat that would not have been quite so bad, as there he would at least have been able to stretch his limbs and warm himself a little by violent exercise; but in the tiny canoe he was imprisoned from the waist down, and had been sitting now in exactly the same position for close on nineteen hours. From time to time he was getting bouts of cramp, and he felt another night would be almost unendurable.

It was the realisation of this that caused him to light the carriage lantern which had been rigged-up just behind him. By doing so he deprived himself of the option to form a judgment as to whether any ship which might come on the scene were British or German before hailing, and in the latter case hoping to remain unobserved. If anyone saw the light at all and decided to investigate, it would be pure chance whether they proved friends of enemies; but he felt that the risk had now to be taken. If a Nazi ship picked him up it was hardly likely that they would shoot him out of hand, whereas, chilled to the marrow and desperately tired as he was, he felt that if he was not picked up at all there was a good chance of his dying of exposure.

As twilight deepened the wind went down a little, so he took the opportunity to have another rest, and laying down his paddle glanced behind him. He could have fainted for sheer joy. The same destroyer that he had seen earlier in the afternoon had evidently turned in her track, as she was now heading back towards him, and less than a quarter of a mile distant.

Getting out his sheet, he draped it on one end of the paddle and began to wave it wildly, almost upsetting the canoe. Next moment there was a faint shout from the destroyer, and he knew that he had been seen. He had been right about his vein of luck; it had held out after all.

The destroyer hove to, a boat was lowered, and the frozen Gregory helped aboard. For a little time he could not even stand upright, but when the Lieutenant-Commander came down off the bridge to question him he was getting back the use of his legs. Having given an account of himself, he was taken down to the ward-room by a sub-lieutenant, who gave him a good stiff drink and lent him a pair of dry trousers. He soon learnt that the destroyer was a unit of the Dover Patrol, and that, although he was a considerable way north of the course he had set himself, he had managed to place the best part of thirty miles between the Belgian coast and himself before he was picked up. The destroyer was now beating back to Dover, and to his great satisfaction it put him ashore there shortly after ten o'clock that night....


Although V for Vengeance has plenty of action in Spain, Portugal, and blitzed London, this is a Paris thriller.

Sallust and his comrades traverse the city like mad, shooting cops and hiding out in underground cathedrals made of human bones.

At one point Sallust and his comrade Stefan Kuporovitch must hijack a police transport in the dead of night to rescue their third musketeer, Madeleine Lavallière:

'What do they intend to do with Madeleine next?' Kuporovitch asked.

'At the moment she's in a cell at the Sûreté, but they'll transfer her to the Cherche-Midi, where they keep most of the women these days. What time that will be I can't tell. It all depends on when there's a police car free to do the job; but I should think they'll take her across within the course of the next two or three hours. Once she's inside you'll stand precious little chance of getting her out. The trick you played before won't work a second time, even if you could find another Luc Ferrière.'

'What happened to him?' Gregory interjected.

'The old chap's protesting his innocence and offering to swear to it on Mein Kampf. They're treating him quite decently at the moment, but I doubt if he'll get away with it when they find that stuff you planted in his house. Serve him right, too! The dirty little Quisling was responsible for our nursing-home being raided; and if you knew what those devils have done to poor little Nurse Yolanda and the others who were there you'd be ready to tear that old man's guts out with your naked hands. But, as I was saying, your only chance of rescuing Madeleine is to intercept the car that takes her to the Cherche-Midi. Now I must get back, otherwise I shall find myself having to smoke one of my own cigarettes.'

They gave Ribaud two hundred yards' start, then followed him until they reached the Sûreté. Walking round it, they took up their positions in a deep doorway on the opposite side of the road to the entrance of the courtyard, from which the police cars always drove in and out.

It was now getting on for half-past three, but another long wait was in store for them. Occasionally it was broken by a sudden tense expectancy as a police car came out of the yard, and they strained their eyes to see if Madeleine was in it. Had it not been for the bright moonlight they would have had no hope at all, but as long as the moon lasted they felt reasonably certain that they would be able to pick out a woman's figure, even if she were seated in the back of a car, some distance away. Four o'clock came, then an intensely worrying period when the moon disappeared behind the roof-tops, and semi-darkness partially obscured their view; but by five the street was lighting with the early summer dawn.

They were both very tired from their long vigil, and incredibly depressed by the thought that, even if they were able to make their attempt, it could only be a forlorn hope. Madeleine's escort was certain to be armed, and the driver of the car would have only to put his foot on the accelerator for it to streak away. Their opportunity would consist of no more than a bare half-minute, as the car turned out of the courtyard before developing its full speed.

Suddenly Kuporovitch gripped Gregory's arm, but at the same second Gregory had seen the same thing. A police car was running quietly out of the yard, and in its back they could plainly see Madeleine seated beside an agent de ville. They had long since discussed their method of attack in detail, and now, without an instant's hesitation, they put it into operation.

While Kuporovitch remained concealed in the doorway Gregory stepped out on to the pavement and hailed the driver of the car. Just as the man was about to put on speed he turned with a look of surprise. Letting the car run gently on he called: 'What d'you want?'

Gregory ran swiftly across the road to him, crying as he ran: 'For God's sake come and help me! Some men have broken into my apartment in that house. They've half-murdered my wife, and I only just managed to get away.'

The police chauffeur stopped the car and leant out of it, as he said quickly: 'That's bad luck, but we've got a prisoner and can't leave the car. There are scores of our chaps in the yard of the Sûreté there. Give a shout to some of them.'

Gregory was now right close up to the man, and he waited on tenterhooks for the next act in their skilfully staged plot. Suddenly it came—a single shot rang out. Unseen by the driver, Kuporovitch had come up behind the car and fired through its window, shooting through the back the agent de ville who was sitting next to Madeleine.

The instant Gregory heard the shot his hand darted forward. Grabbing the police chauffeur by the throat he dragged him from the seat. Then, lifting his fist, he hit the man a hard blow between the eyes, dropping him in the roadway and, scrambling into the car, seized the wheel.

Meanwhile, Kuporovitch had run round the other side of the car. He jumped in beside Gregory, and with his gun still in his hand thrust it in the face of the agent de ville; but he had no necessity to shoot again. The man was lying back, either unconscious or dead.

The single report of the Russian's automatic had been enough to raise the alarm in the courtyard of the Sûreté. Other policemen were now running from it, shouting at them to halt; but Gregory had the brake off. He let in the clutch and the car shot forward.

A pistol cracked, another and another. The shots echoed through the quiet dawnlit street. A bullet clanged on the metal-work of the car; another hit one of the rear tyres, which went off with a loud plop. The car swerved wildly, but Gregory managed to get it under control. Crouching over the wheel he drove on all out, in spite of the bumping rim.

But he knew that he would never be able to get clear away in the car now. The rim must be cutting the flattened tyre to pieces, and the stout rubber-covered canvas might catch in the axle, causing it to jam. In addition, there had been a number of other cars in the courtyard of the Sûreté. In them the police would give chase at once, and he could not hope to outdistance the pursuit with one of his back tyres gone.

He took the first corner to the left at full speed, ran on a little way, then turned right, into the entrance of a mews. 'Come on!' he cried, jumping out. 'We've got to run for it!'

Kuporovitch had been leaning over the back of the seat examining the agent de ville. He found that his victim was still breathing, and he hoped the fellow would live. He had little time for the French police who were now co-operating with the Germans, but he knew that they were more or less forced to do so, and it had been particularly distasteful to have to shoot the fellow in the back; but Madeleine's safety being involved, he had not hesitated an instant, as it was so obviously the one certain means of putting the man out of action before he could offer any resistance.

There was no time to examine the policeman further, so Kuporovitch extricated his body from the car and, seizing Madeleine's arm, began to run. Gregory had only waited to see that the other two were out before setting off at a pace which he thought Madeleine could manage.

As it was still early the mews was empty, except for one chauffeur who was cleaning a car, which had a red label Médecin pasted on its windscreen. At first the man made as though to intercept them, but Gregory cried: 'Get out of the way! The Germans and the police are after us!'

Immediately the man's expression changed. He pointed to his garage. 'Get in there! I'll tell them you ran past.'

With a hurried word of thanks they ran into the garage and crouched down behind an empty trailer that occupied the back of it, while the chauffeur went on cleaning his car.

A moment later they heard a police car drive up. Excited questions were flung at the man who had hidden them; but apparently the police were satisfied with his replies, as they drove on, and silence again fell in the mews.

After another few minutes the chauffeur came in to them and said: 'The coast's clear now, but they may come back later to make a more careful search. You'd better get out while the going's good.'

As they thanked him for his help he shrugged: 'Oh, that's nothing. It's a treat to be able to put one over on the police, now they've gone in with those filthy Boches….'


25 April 2018

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Wheatley touch: review of The Black Baroness (1940).

The Black Baroness by Dennis Wheatley (1940).

During World War Two Wheatley found work in the UK government by writing never-never phantasies for UK special operations. These chaps gave Churchill and his fellow thuggish bully-boys some derring-do claptrap with which to dream upon at bedtime while they sold off the British Empire to Washington.

We get a hint of that bourgeois fantasyland when we read in The Black Baroness about all the shortcomings a bourgeois democracy creates for warmongers: most pro-appeasement politicians are being duped in pro-Hitler fifth column honey traps, most politicians have feet of clay, and the British voter is -- well!

Wheatley tries to have his cake and eat it, too. Condemning the UK rulers in with a broad brush, at the same time he can write:

....'Chamberlain,' boomed the baronet, 'was right about Munich-right every time. We wouldn't have stood a dog's chance against Hitler if we'd gone to war with him then. Chamberlain was clever enough to trick him into giving us a year to rearm, and in spite of the innumerable things that should have been done and yet were not done, at least the groundwork was laid which saved Britain from immediate and probably irremediable defeat. Whatever may happen to Chamberlain now, when history comes to be written he will assume his rightful place as a great and far-seeing Prime Minister who had the courage to accept the odium for having made Britain eat humble pie over the surrender of Czechoslovakia so that she might have a chance to save herself.'

The Black Baroness is filled with incident and dramatic climax: in fact it is nearly all climax. At least until the end, when we get to the final fate if the baroness herself, whereupon Wheatley breaks with the logic and continuity of motivation he has created for his villainess.

Still, the novel is not lacking scope, and is arresting considering it is a thriller written almost in real-time.

....April the 8th to June the 14th. It was just sixty-seven days since Hitler had swooped by night on unsuspecting Norway, and Gregory was thinking of the hideous chapters of history that had been made in that short time.

King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina had been driven from their thrones. Leopold of Belgium was now branded for ever as a traitor. A million soldiers and civilians had died and another million lay wounded in the hospitals. Ten million people had been rendered homeless and another twenty million had fallen under the brutal domination of the Nazis. Paris had fallen and the enemy were in possession of the Channel ports, which brought their bombers within twenty-five miles of England. It had been one long nightmare tale of incompetent leadership, disaster, treachery and defeat....

That's how Wheatley narrates it, and it is a great thriller novel.

The fascinating class reality of the situation can be read in several articles in this Marxist newspaper from the period.

The fall of France is a worthy topic for the novelist, and despite his have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too view of politics, Wheatley does not disappoint.

I particularly enjoyed this example of the Wheatley touch:

"....But you have no credentials and admit yourself that you're not operating in any of the M. I. Services; so you can hardly expect me to trust you with an important military secret.'

Gregory smiled. 'I was about to say, sir, that there must be some things few German agents could possibly know; for instance, how the rooms are arranged in some of our West-End clubs, the best years for vintage port, the etiquette of the hunting field, and what takes place during a levee at St. James's Palace. If you care to test me out with a few questions of that kind I think you'll find you can satisfy yourself that I'm all right.'

The General accepted the suggestion and for a few minutes he fired questions at Gregory until they found that they had several mutual acquaintances, details about whose idiosyncrasies and relatives brushed away the General's lingering hesitation, so he said: 'Well, as far as I know, King Leopold is now at Ostend, but more than that I can't tell you.'

'Thanks. Now, how d' you suggest that I should get there?'

'If the matter is as urgent as you say, I'd better lend you a car and a driver.'

'I'd be very grateful if you could, sir.'

'Come with me and I'll fix it up.' The General led Gregory outside and handed him over to the divisional transport officer, who waved him away ten minutes later.

24 April 2018

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What goes around comes around: Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child (2009).

….There were photographs in the middle of the book. All except one were bland snapshots tracing Sansom's life from the age of three months to the present day. They were the kind of things that I imagine most guys could dig out of a shoebox in the back of a closet. Parents, childhood, schooldays, his service years, his bride-to-be, their kids, business portraits. Normal stuff, probably interchangeable with the pictures in all the other candidate biographies.

But the photograph that was different was bizarre.

The photograph that was different was a news picture I had seen before. It was of an American politician called Donald Rumsfeld, in Baghdad, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, back in 1983. Donald Rumsfeld had twice been Secretary of Defense, but at the time of the picture had been a special presidential envoy for Ronald Reagan. He had gone to Baghdad to kiss Saddam's ass and pat him on the back and give him a pair of solid gold spurs as a gift and a symbol of America's everlasting gratitude. Eight years later we had been kicking Saddam's ass, not kissing it. Fifteen years after that, we killed him. Sansom had captioned the picture Sometimes our friends become our enemies, and sometimes our enemies become our friends. Political commentary; I supposed. Or a business homily, although I could find no mention of the actual episode in the text itself….

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child (2009).

Gone Tomorrow is one of the best detective puzzles Lee Child has given us in his Jack Reacher series of thrillers. It is filled with misdirecting clues and red herrings. In the end, they all add up. Reverse-engineering the plot, the mystery reader is staggered by the sheer inventiveness Child has employed for our bafflement.

The usual Reacher novel elements are here. A young, determined female NYPD detective named Theresa Lee. An old hand named Winchester who starts out looking like a foe and ends up as a careful ally.

This is not a modestly scaled rural tale like Make Me or The Midnight Line. It is a big, urban wallop of action with multiple cop and national security agencies, all waiving the Patriot Act and asking questions later. In fact, one goon squad agency shoots Reacher with gorilla tranquilizer not once, but twice.

Reacher's nemesis at first seems to be a North Carolina senatorial candidate, but once the true enemy reveals itself, the effect is stunning. It is Child's greatest piece of misdirection, and deserves a slow, professional round of applause.

21 April 2018

Faked Passports by Dennis Wheatley (1941)

Faked Passports

(Gregory Sallust Book 3)
By Dennis Wheatley (1941).

Those who read Dennis Wheatley should savor his novels with a long spoon.

His adoration of Bonapartist European strongmen like Göring, Voroshilov, and Churchill is nauseating. But I do not read thrillers for political education.

There is enough wit, panache, and aplomb in Faked Passports to carry us over Wheatley's views.

The novel picks up where the previous Sallust adventure, The Scarlet Impostor, left off.

November 1939.

UK agent Gregory Sallust crash lands in Germany. Bluffs his way to Berlin in a "borrowed" uniform. Has a tet-a-tet with Göring. Convinces Göring to send him to Finland instead of having him shot.

In Finland, reteams with love of his life Erika Von Epp. Tries to spike the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the imminent Russo-Finnish War. Turns tables on local Gestapo goons, evades Helsinki police. Then evades invading Red Army while fleeing north with Erika, chum Flight-Lieutenant Freddie Charlton, and Freddie's love Angela Fordyce.

They get stranded in the desolate Arctic. In their escape from Helsinki, Sallust has received a head wound, and from this a case of amnesia.

The four find a cabin whose inhabitants have been killed by Red Army troops. There they live in tranquility into early 1942, when a Red Army detachment returns. It's either reclaim their cabin or freeze to death.

….Angela's deep blue eyes sparkled angrily in her pale face. "What I couldn't do to these filthy Russians!" she exclaimed. "Surely there's some way in which we could turn them out of our little home. We've all been so happy there."

Freddie shook his head. "We've got our rifles, darling, and I daresay Gregory and I could pot a few; but that would only be like stirring up a hornets' nest. Two of us couldn't possibly tackle eighty of them."

"Nobody but a lunatic would expect you to, my hero," she said sarcastically. "I meant that you should use that marvellous brain of yours to think up some way of getting rid of them."

Freddie remained quite unruffled by her taunt. He knew perfectly well that brains were not his long suit and he did not mind admitting it. "You've got a better head than I have," he replied at once, "so you do the thinking and I'll carry out any plan you like to suggest."

Erika looked hopefully at Gregory for a second, then quickly away again. She felt certain that if his brain had been functioning properly he would have hatched some clever scheme in no time but, although he had got back scores of pieces of miscellaneous knowledge since he had lost his memory, his brain was still incapable of constructive thought.

He was just standing there with a look of childish interest in his eyes; obviously willing to accept anything that anybody else might plan but totally unable to plan anything himself. His face, which so openly portrayed the crippled state of that once swift and brilliant mind, wrung her heart with pity to such an extent that she could think of nothing else just then. She found it impossible to focus her own mind on the problem of producing any scheme which might save them from freezing to death that night or, at best, a terrible journey through the snows which would end in their capture.

"I know!" Angela suddenly exclaimed. "The Russians are a superstitious lot, aren't they?"

"Not the tough eggs in the Kremlin," replied Freddie. "They're all atheists; but I expect these chaps here believe in all sorts of things—certain to, as they're mostly Asiatics."

"Right, then; let's play ghosts," Angela went on excitedly.

"Ghosts!" repeated Erika.

"Yes. They won't place any sentries round a camp like this, as it's miles from anywhere. When they've all gone to sleep we could dance round the place waving lights and emitting the most blood-curdling yells."

"It's good, that! Darned good," Freddie exclaimed. "Worth trying, anyhow. With luck they might think the place is haunted and take to their heels."

Although it had been dark for some time it was still before five in the afternoon. The glimmer of lights through the trees and an occasional faint shout showed that the Russians were still busy at their tree-cutting under arc-lamps which they had erected; so it looked as though the party would have to wait for several hours before they could put their plan into operation, but they started their preparations at once.

Erika got behind the sleigh. With the chattering teeth of a swimmer who is about to plunge into icy water she undid her furs and lower garments so that she could pull off her suspender belt. When she produced it the others stared in amazement but she smiled and said: "The best ghosts always give the death-rap before they put in a personal appearance. I mean to use the elastic on this belt to make a catapult."

"I don't get you, darling," Gregory murmured.

"Go and cut me a nice forked branch, not too thick, but strong and springy. Then trim it down and you'll soon see."

Freddie, meanwhile, was delving into the contents of the sleigh for any tins or cardboard boxes he could find; with the intention of punching holes in them which, when a light was placed inside, would show eyes, nostrils and a mouth like grinning death's heads.

It took them two hours' hard work but by the end of that time Erika and Gregory had made four good catapults and by rummaging in the snow at the base of the trees had collected enough small, hard fir-cones for ammunition; while Angela and Freddie had an assortment of seven ghost-masks into each of which they had fitted a candle from a box that was among the most precious stores taken from the house. At half-past seven they drank the rest of the lukewarm coffee and ate a scratch meal from some of the supplies, which were so cold that, at first, they could hardly bear them in their mouths. Soon after eight Freddie went off to make a reconnaissance. Half an hour later he returned to say that the men occupying the tents had turned in but that a light was still burning in the house.

They huddled under the rugs in the sleigh for an hour, then went forward again together. The light was now out and the moon was not yet up; the whole camp was wrapped in the stillness of the Arctic night so they proceeded to arrange their dispositions. Freddie and Angela were to go round to the far side of the clearing and take on the tents while Erika and Gregory attended to the house. They reckoned that their supply of fir-cones would last them for about half an hour, if they used them two at a time with short intervals between, and by then they hoped to have the soldiers badly rattled. The death-masks were then to be lit for a few minutes, blown out and carried to another place, then re-lit and blown out again and so on, moving in circles round the camp. Lastly, when Freddie held one of the masks aloft in the air, that was to be the signal upon which they would all give tongue to the most banshee-like screeches they could manage.

It was with tense expectancy that Erika and Gregory first loosed their catapults, directing their aim at the darkened window of the living-room, and they distinctly heard the sharp "rap-rap" as the cones struck the window one after the other. They waited a little and as nothing happened loosed off two more. Still nothing happened; but after the third "rap-rap" the lamp was lit and somebody came to the door of the house to peer out.

Seeing no-one the man went in again, the light was put out and, presumably, he climbed back on to the top of the oven. They gave him a few minutes to settle down then started to shoot again.

In the meantime Angela and Freddie's fir-cones had been thudding on to the tents. They were taking two at the end of the row by turns. First a man came out of one, then a man came out of the other. They saw each other, had a short angry argument and returned to their respective tents.

Erika and Gregory's second series of shots next had effect. The light went on in the house again and this time the officer came right outside to shout something to his men. Several soldiers came out of the tents that Angela and Freddie had been attacking and, advancing to the middle of the clearing, held a short consultation with their commander.

While they were talking, Angela and Freddie started shooting at the two tents at the other end of the row and soon several men appeared out of each of those to join the group in front of the house. The whole party then walked round the house and round the tents but, finding nothing, went in again, with the exception of two men whom the officer had apparently ordered to remain outside on watch.

As soon as the camp had settled down again the ghostly attackers recommenced their shooting and almost at once got results. The officer came stamping and cursing out of the house; the soldiers ran from their tents to meet him. Soon every man in the camp was up and about, arguing with his comrades as to what could be causing the uncanny rapping which by this time nearly all of them had heard.

The moment had now come to light the death-masks. No sooner had Freddie lit the first than two of the soldiers spotted it and letting out a yell of terror dived back into their tent. As the other masks were lit up general pandemonium broke loose; but it proved a dangerous business. Several of the soldiers blazed off with their rifles and Angela very nearly paid for her brilliant idea with her life. A bullet struck her fur cap from her head just as she was stooping to blow out the candle in one of the masks before moving it.

Freddie ordered her back among the trees and lifting the still-lighted mask on high at arm's length gave a blood-curdling wail. Its echo, even more fearsome, came from the far side of the clearing as Gregory and Erika gave tongue. The Asiatic Russians waited for no more. They had had their fill of terror. With the officer running as hard as any of them the whole party of eighty men took to their heels and fled blindly down the track with the screeches of the demons still ringing in their ears.

Having given the terrified soldiers a few minutes to get well clear of the encampment the two couples advanced and met in front of the house where, striking an attitude, Freddie and Gregory shook hands like Wellington and Blücher after Waterloo.

"Well I'm damned!" Angela appealed indignantly to Erika. "Did you ever see such impudence? Here are our two privates giving themselves the airs of Generals when it was I who planned the campaign and you who invented the secret weapon with which we won it; and it isn't even as though we had scored a complete victory yet."

"But they've gone," said Gregory simply.

"I know, dear"—Erika laid a hand on his arm—"but they'll come back. By morning they will have come to the conclusion that they were only imagining things. We've got to put in a lot of hard work yet before we can hope to scare them away for good. You go along to the road now and act as sentry until one of us relieves you. I doubt if any of them will venture near the camp till daylight, but they just might when the moon rises. If you see anybody approaching you can easily warn us by starting to scream like a banshee again."

"That's right," Angela agreed, "and Freddie had better go and fetch in the Lapps and the horses before they are all frozen to death, while you and I prepare a hot meal."

The two men went off obediently about their appointed tasks and as the girls busied themselves with the cooking they discussed further measures for putting the fear of the devil into the Asiatics. The soldiers would certainly recommence their wood-cutting operations as soon as daylight came and to wait until the following night to stage another ghostly attack, even if they drove the men out of the camp again, simply meant that they would return once more the following day. To be really effective the next attack must take place in daylight, to convince the troops that the site they had chosen for their camp was haunted by day as well as by night, and it was Erika who thought of the poltergeist.

There was a good quantity of crockery in the house and the peculiarity of a poltergeist is that it has a passion for hurling china about. The plan entailed the sacrifice of a number of plates and dishes but they considered this would be well worth it if they could devise a means of making them fall from the shelves of the dresser and crash on the floor, apparently without human aid.

The dresser backed on to the stable and in the store-room there were several reels of wire which the trapper had used for making snares. Angela suggested that if they bored tiny holes through the partition wall they might run wires underneath some of the crockery so that when the wires were jerked away the crockery would fall; then, even if the officer got up on to a chair to see what was causing these apparently inexplicable accidents, by the time he did so there would be no evidence for him to find as the wires would have been pulled away through the holes.

When Freddie came in he told them that he had duly stabled and fed the horses but that Bimbo, Mutt and Jeff with their dog-sleigh had entirely disappeared; so they could only suppose that the Lapps would turn up again in due course. Immediately the girls had outlined their plan to him he set to work with a gimlet from the tool-chest, boring holes through the partition wall. They then sat down to the meal which was now ready.

After they had eaten Freddie went out to relieve Gregory, who came back and ate his belated supper while the girls went on boring the holes that Freddie had started and arranging their less valued pieces of crockery in the right positions near them. When Gregory had finished they explained to him what they wanted done with the wire. Going round to the stable, he pushed the loose ends from the reels through the holes to the girls in the living-room where they adjusted them under the china. He then unreeled the lengths of wire, laying them under the stable doors and burying them in a shallow trench, which he made with his boot in the snow as he went along, until all their extremities lay with the empty reels near a tree about a hundred and twenty yards from the back of the house.

Erika, who had read much more about black-magic than any of the others, had made further plans by the time he had finished it. She declared that they must make the clearing appear as though a witches' sabbath had been held in it, as that was better calculated to prevent the superstitious Asiatics from spending another night there than anything else. First they went to the soldiers' tents. Taking all they could find there they smashed everything smashable and scattered the things and pieces in every direction except in the centre of the clearing, which Erika said must be left free for the witches' circle. Gregory was then set to run round a central point, kicking up the snow right and left as he went and stamping it down in the middle of his track as though a crowd of mad people had danced round and round in a ring there. While he was occupied with this Erika asked Angela to take over the job of sentry for Freddie because she wanted a man's strength to help her to make a big snow effigy of a goat in the centre of the circle. When Freddie arrived she had already fetched a couple of shovels and started work.

To have made an ordinary snow-man would have been an easy matter, but to make anything that looked like a goat was far more difficult, even though they now had a bright moon to work by; so first they built a large, square base with a solid back to serve as a throne for the snow-animal to sit on. Then they piled up a pillar of the hard, frozen snow out of which Erika sculptured with a carving-knife the figure of the animal. When she had finished it did not look particularly like a goat, but its long pear-shaped head and hoof-like extremities definitely gave it the appearance of some sort of large beast and the slanting eye-sockets, into which two fir-cones had been stuck for pupils, gave it a most menacing and sinister expression.

Gregory was standing admiring her handiwork when, to their surprise, he announced: "I know that the Devil is supposed to appear in the form of a goat in Central Europe, but they don't have goats in these parts. The nature myths of the Arctic all make him take the form of a reindeer or a moose."

"Fine, darling, fine," Erika laughed. "That's all the better. We've got lots of reindeer antlers in the meat store. If you'll get me a pair I'll fix them on its head. I think, too, it would be more effective if we could blacken the brute a bit. What about some soot?"

Gregory fetched the antlers and Freddie succeeded in raking down half a bucket of soot from the flue in the chimney with which they black-powdered the snow-devil. By the time they had finished the moon was high above the trees and in its eerie, silver light the totem of age-old evil seemed to radiate malignance even to its creators.

They spent another half-hour in acting like demons themselves by pulling down the tents, ripping them to pieces, blunting the edges of the circular saws and smashing in the sides of the lorries with axes; but they did not interfere with the engines, as the last thing they wished to do was to rob the Russians of the means of making a speedy departure, and occult forces although at times mischievous and dangerous would hardly be likely to sabotage machinery hidden under the bonnets of the lorries. It was one o'clock in the morning when, chilled to the bone and exhausted with their labours but highly satisfied, they gathered again in the house.

When they were all thoroughly warmed up once more it was decided that the two girls should sleep the night through while the men took turns to watch at the entrance to the camp; but they agreed that they must be clear of the house again by seven o'clock, although there would still be over three hours of darkness to go, in case the Russians plucked up courage to return first thing in the morning.

At six they were all up again. After a good, solid, hot breakfast they took great pains to dispose of any evidence that they had spent the night there but threw the officer's things all over the floor and turned the heavy table over on its side as though the poltergeist had been at work. Gregory fed the horses and led them back to the sleigh while Freddie dug a pit in the snow by the extremity of the wires which led into the house. Angela took up her position some distance to his right where she could see the front of the building and could signal to him without being seen from the camp. When Gregory returned all four of them settled down to wait.

It was half-past ten before the Russians put in an appearance and then, even from a distance, Angela could see that the poor wretches were in an extremity of misery, from having had to spend the night out on the open road. Some of them were limping as though affected by frost-bite in the feet; four of them were being carried by their comrades and all of them were bowed as though they no longer had the vitality to walk erect. Shambling through the snow they reached the edge of the clearing and halted there in a scared, silent huddle as they took in the devastated state of their camp and the grim, black figure that stood out so clearly against the dead whiteness of the ground.

Several of them turned to run again; but the officer gave a sharp order which halted the men, and they all stood there jabbering excitedly for several moments before plucking up the courage to advance. In wonder and fear they approached the witches' circle, those behind pushing forward the ones in front. For a time they stood staring at the malignant-looking beast, but none of them had the courage to cross the trodden track where they obviously thought that snow-demons had danced the night before. Then they split up into little groups and began to collect their broken, scattered belongings.

The officer and two of the men walked resolutely over to the house. Angela gave them a couple of minutes to take in the overturned furniture and the equipment which had been strewn about then she signalled to Freddie. He pulled hard on one of the wires and in the deep stillness of the forest they heard quite clearly the crash that followed.

With yells of fright the officer and his men came bounding out of the door and it was a good five minutes before they mustered the pluck to go in again. Angela signalled. Freddie pulled another wire. There was another crash; and out came the frightened men again as though an enraged lion were after them. This time they made no further attempt to enter the house but, getting a long pole, proceeded to fish the officer's belongings out of the room, through the open doorway, without crossing the accursed threshold.

When they had rescued the things from the poltergeist's lair the officer gave a shout and his half-frozen men came straggling towards him through the snow. He addressed them for a few moments then, apparently inspired by some new impetus, they scattered and quickly began to load up their six lorries.

Angela's stratagem had succeeded and her victory was complete. Three-quarters of an hour later, except for a little scattered rubbish, there was not a trace of the Russians in the clearing. Bag and baggage they had moved on further north to form a new camp in a more congenial atmosphere; and it was a safe bet that they would not select a place within several miles of that devil-ridden spot.

Freddie brought the horses and sleigh back and after clearing up the smashed crockery they were able to settle down in their refuge as though they had never been driven out of it. Nevertheless, after their midday meal Freddie and Gregory went out and felled two tall trees on either side of the track so that they fell across it. Then they cut the lower branches from many others and fixed these firmly among the boughs of the fallen trees; thereby forming a screen which would prevent any other troops that passed along the road seeing the house from it even in daylight….


21 April 2018