Authors: Helen Macinnes
“Keep low,” Richard warned, “as we go across the saddle. And watch the sky-line.” They broke into a crouching run as they crossed the grass, and when they approached the top of the saddle they used the boulders to black-out their outlines to any watcher beneath them. They crossed the top by lying flat on the ground and edging their bodies carefully over. When they had reached the western side of the rocks, behind which they had lain this afternoon and looked down into the valley, Richard stood up and helped Frances to her feet. Normally, he thought, she would have giggled at the ludicrous figures they must have made in the last ten minutes. She would have had some joke to make about the rips on her clothes, the bruises and scratches on her legs. But she said nothing, only faced him with her large eyes still larger. He felt her hands; they were cold, like marble. He pulled out his flask of brandy.
“It’s safe enough on this path,” he said. “Take a good swig, Frances.”
She took it obediently and handed the flask back in surprise.
“Not even a cough or a splutter,” she said in amazement. Richard’s anxiety lessened. It was a good thing if she had started noticing her reactions.
“Got your wind?”
She nodded. “I’m all right.” The brandy had warmed her, and the sickness was gone.
“Well, I’ll let you do what you’ve always wanted to do. I’ll let you run down a hill.”
She was almost smiling. He caught her in his arms and hugged her.
And then they were running, carefully but steadily, down the broad path. Richard kept to the outside, holding her right hand as they ran. Their speed increased when they reached the darkening wood, for the path had broadened and was softened with pine needles. It twisted through the trees in zigzag curves, and these they shortened by slipping and sliding down the dry earth of the banks. The wood was already asleep. There were no sounds except the muffled pad of their feet, the occasional snap of a dry twig, the heaviness of their breathing. The trees were thinning, there was a little more light, and they were
passing the edge of the meadow and the track which led to the house. Down there, in front of them, were the bridge and the road itself.
Then Richard caught Frances tightly. Through the quickly falling dusk they could see a car on the roadway, and two men talking beside it.
“O God,” said Richard.
Frances looked at him in surprise.
“What’s wrong, Richard? Don’t you see who they are? It’s an American car.”
She was right. They started forward again. The two men looked as if they were getting into the car.
“’Hoy!” Richard called softly. The men halted, and turned round in amazement. And then they ran over the bridge to meet them.
“Well, I’ll be—” began van Cortlandt, and then stopped as he looked at them. Richard pushed Frances into his arms.
“Get her into the car and look after her. Park off the road, and not where it can be seen from the house. Keep the lights off. Be ready to start at a moment’s notice. Need your help, Bob. Are you game?”
Thornley took his eyes off Frances’ face and the cut on her shoulder where her ripped cardigan and blouse showed blood.
He nodded. “I’m ready,” he said, and moved off after Richard.
Van Cortlandt watched them go towards the dark house.
“Now just what’s this all about?” he said. Frances tried to smile.
“I sang, and we heard noises, and they said it was a dog.” Her voice was low and tired. He caught her as she stumbled
forward, and carried her to the car.
He moved the car as Richard had said and then turned to look at the girl beside him. She hadn’t fainted; she had just collapsed… Pretty thoroughly, too. There were tears running down her cheeks.
“I haven’t got a hankie. I lost it,” she said in a muffled voice.
He looked at her torn clothes. “I’m not surprised,” he said, and handed her the neatly folded one he kept in his breast-pocket. “Try this.”
Frances saw his concern. “I’m all right, really. All I need is a good cry.”
“Well, go ahead,” he said. “I’ve another handkerchief in my hip pocket. They are all yours.” He was rewarded with a weak smile.
“I can talk, now,” she said at last. “I don’t suppose you have anything I could eat? I’m sort of empty inside.”
“Only candy. I could give you a drink, though.”
“I’ve had one. Candy will do, beautifully.”
He watched her curiously as she ate the bar of chocolate.
“You can tell me as much or as little as you like,” van Cortlandt said. “I’ll not use it.”
Frances looked at his firm mouth and worried eyebrows.
“I know, Henry. I suppose it’s only fair to let you know what’s happening, seeing that you are partly mixed up with it now, anyway. Do you mind if I eat while I talk?” Van Cortlandt restrained his grin. These people, really… There, he was catching it from them. “Lost it,” she had said apologetically when she looked as if she had almost lost everything else, including her life. “Eat while I talk, do you mind?”
“Remember, not a word of this to anyone. Not until we
are all safely out of this country. It’s—” She hesitated for the right word.
She gave her first real smile. “Yes, dynamite.”
She tried to get the things she would say into the right order. Her story was slow and halting. She began with the visit that afternoon to the Englishman who was no Englishman. Van Cortlandt listened attentively and patiently, his eyes trying to see her face in the darkness. He didn’t miss the pauses, when she would struggle for words and the story would take a leap forward. She was near the end of it now. There was a note in her voice which held him silent through the long pause between the phrases.
“…and missed…and fell…over a precipice. We climbed back on our tracks and crawled and ran and then we saw you.”
“And what about the German whom you knew?”
“I suppose he would try to trace the other. He must have heard the shot, and the scream.” She stopped suddenly, and there was another pause. “There were signs of the fall, you know, where the stones slipped.”
Van Cortlandt whistled. “Well,” he said, “that was quite an afternoon you had yourselves.”
Frances said nothing to that. She tried to see out of the car, but it was almost dark. “I wonder why they are so long?” she said.
“Don’t worry; they can take care of themselves,” but his face was less confident that his words.
“I could kick myself,” he added. “I’m the big mouth who gave you away.”
Frances looked at him in amazement. “You know, I haven’t
asked you how on earth you got here. You should be in Innsbruck, and Bob, too. I was so glad to see you, I forgot to ask.”
“Well, it was like this. Bob saw you start off, and when you didn’t get back before six as you had promised, he got worried. My guess was that you had forgotten. You were sort of vague about it. But he just shook his head gloomily and said he was going to wait. So we hung about, and then that black-haired guy arrived on his bicycle. I was standing at the hotel door— Bob was somewhere inside—and he had a look at our suitcases and the car. Just then the hotel man came out and stopped to speak to me. He said we were late. I said yes. He said was there anything wrong? And
said you hadn’t got back yet. At that the black-haired chap got on to his bicycle and went over to Frau Schichtl’s. I didn’t like that. And I liked it less when he must have found out you weren’t there, because he shot past us and went right back in the direction he had come from, with the dog just behind him.
“I had the sense to ask who he was. The hotel man shrugged his shoulders and said something about the house with the red shutters. And then Bob came out, and he and I had some beer, and we talked it over. And the later it became, the worse we liked it. We went to see Frau Schichtl, and we worried her too. But anyway she could tell us the quickest way to get to the house. That worried Bob still more, because it was the road you had taken that afternoon. Then we thought we would go and see for ourselves. Bob said you hadn’t been prepared for a long walk or climb when you left the village; he had noticed you weren’t wearing your boots, and that clinched the argument. We thought we would ask at the house and find out if anyone had seen you; we were both hoping that perhaps
you had tried a short-cut home: and had sprained an ankle or something.
“Well, we got to the house, and knocked loudly enough, but we got no answer. Silent as the tomb. We were talking about what we should do next, and we were just about to leave when we heard Richard.”
“Thank heaven for that,” said Frances quietly.
They were both silent.
“I’m tired,” said Frances suddenly, and he saw her eyes close. He reached for the rug and wrapped it round her, and pillowed her head more comfortably against the back of the seat. She was already asleep.
He strained his eyes through the darkness, but he could see only the outlines of the bushes and trees. He could hear nothing, except the gentle breathing of the girl beside him. Poor kid, he thought. What was that Gilbert and Sullivan thing? “Here’s a how d’you do…” It was all that, and more. Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed, he told himself. He slipped some gum into his mouth, and settled down to wait, with his gloomy speculations for company. What interested him most in Frances’ story were the omissions.
As Richard and Bob Thornley moved towards the house Richard gave a concise and abbreviated version of what had happened. Like Frances, he was careful to be vague about Mespelbrunn, but his account of the way she had saved him on the mountain-side was included.
Thornley listened in silence, and then as Richard finished speaking in the low voice which was almost a whisper, said, “Pity you didn’t get the other blighter too.”
The house was just as van Cortlandt had described it to Frances. Silent as the tomb. They tried the front door and windows. As they expected, they were locked. The back door was locked, too.
“Goes to bed early,” whispered Richard.
“The maid. Or else she was packed off home.”
“Can’t risk breaking a window, then?”
“No, she may be asleep in her room,” Richard said. He
pointed to a window. “That may be the room. Can you climb?”
Thornley looked at the balcony at the side of the house. He grinned.
“Easy meat,” he said softly. He swung himself up easily from a windowsill. He had a professional way of feeling for a hold and using his feet. Richard wondered if he were one of the Cambridge roof climbers. In that case it
easy meat. Thornley had a hold of the balcony now; he pulled the rest of his body up slowly until he could swing a leg over the railing. The whole thing looked so simple that one would hardly have guessed the strain on his arms and shoulders. He disappeared silently over the edge of the balcony.
Richard kept close to the shadow of the house. Above him, he heard a shutter being tried. Then there was a shadow on the balcony, and a whisper. “Barred and bolted. Hopeless. I’ll try another room.” The shadow vanished.
Richard waited. The minutes seemed like hours. He thought he had heard a shutter being forced open… And that sound might be a window. He began to blame himself for not having tried to climb up himself, even with his stiff shoulder and torn knees. What the devil was keeping Bob? Just as he was trying to think of the easiest way to get up, he heard Thornley’s voice in a whisper above him.
“Here. Lend us a hand.” He was supporting another man. Richard watched Thornley help the man over the railing, and then lower him, holding on to the man’s wrists. Richard braced himself to take the man’s weight as he dropped.
“Right,” he whispered. Thornley, half over the railing, grunted, and let go of the man’s wrists. Richard caught him by the thighs as he fell, and they rolled over together on the grass. Thornley swung himself lightly down beside them, and helped them to their feet.
“Winded?” he asked the man.
“All right, thanks. Neat job.” He stood up shakily, and looked from Thornley to Richard.
“Who was here this afternoon?” he asked.
“I was,” Richard said.
The man turned to Thornley. “There’s a summerhouse at the edge of the wood, beside two tall trees hiding a mast?” Thornley looked towards where the man pointed, and nodded. The man went on, “There’s a wireless set there, and a motor bicycle. Can you put them out of action?”
“We’ll start for the car,” said Richard, as Thornley grinned and turned to sprint for the summerhouse. He put the man’s arm round his shoulder, and held him at the waist; together they walked slowly towards the path. The man might have been thirty or fifty; he was one of those bird-faced Englishmen whose age it was difficult to guess. He was of medium height and thin. His hair was mouse-coloured; his eyes were nondescript. His voice had no marked accent.
“Why were you here this afternoon?”
“We were directed to Mespelbrunn from Innsbruck.”
“And you found him?”
“Not the one we were looking for.”
“Who are the ‘we’?”
“My wife and myself.”
“You look as if you had met trouble.”
“Complications. I left my wife in the car.”
“You’ve a car? Good.”
“And an American—a reporter.”
“Not so good.”
“He’s a decent sort. We can trust him.”
The man shook his head and cracked a smile. “Trust no newspapermen; they’ve an itch for a story. If he asks questions, I’m Smith, who helped escapes from concentration camps. It’s true, anyway. Who’s the other, our blond Tarzan?”
“I know his brother.”
“I’ll be Smith for him too.”
They had reached the fringe of trees. There was no sound of running footsteps from the wood above them. There was still some safety, yet, thought Richard. He wished Thornley would come. The man’s weight was tiring him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Shaky and stiff. But better every moment. Good to be free again.”
“How did they get you?”
“The man who posed as Mespelbrunn was supposed to be in sympathy with the underground movement. He even helped some escapes. Got at me through them. How were Nürnberg and Innsbruck, by the way?”