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Chapter Seventeen The Col of the Swallows
He pointed to the slip on the table.

‘You have seen the orders?’

I nodded.

‘The long day’s work is over. You must rejoice, for your part has been the hardest, I think. Some day you will tell me about it?’

The man’s face was honest and kindly, rather like that of the engineer Gaudian, whom two years before I had met in Germany. But his eyes fascinated me, for they were the eyes of the dreamer and fanatic, who would not desist from his quest while life lasted. I thought that Ivery had chosen well in his colleague.

‘My task is not done yet,’ I said. ‘I came here to see Chelius.’

‘He will be back tomorrow evening.’

‘Too late. I must see him at once. He has gone to Italy, and I must overtake him.’

‘You know your duty best,’ he said gravely.

‘But you must help me. I must catch him at Santa Chiara, for it is a business of life and death. Is there a car to be had?’

‘There is mine. But there is no chauffeur. Chelius took him.’

‘I can drive myself and I know the road. But I have no pass to cross the frontier.’

‘That is easily supplied,’ he said, smiling.

In one bookcase there was a shelf of dummy books. He unlocked this and revealed a small cupboard, whence he took a tin dispatch-box. From some papers he selected one, which seemed to be already signed.

‘Name?’ he asked.

‘Call me Hans Gruber of Brieg,’ I said. ‘I travel to pick up my master, who is in the timber trade.’

‘And your return?’

‘I will come back by my old road,’ I said mysteriously; and if he knew what I meant it was more than I did myself.

He completed the paper and handed it to me. ‘This will take you through the frontier posts. And now for the car. The servants will be in bed, for they have been preparing for a long journey, but I will myself show it you. There is enough petrol on board to take you to Rome.’

He led me through the hall, unlocked the front door, and we crossed the snowy lawn to the garage. The place was empty but for a great car, which bore the marks of having come from the muddy lowlands. To my joy I saw that it was a Daimler, a type with which I was familiar. I lit the lamps, started the engine, and ran it out on to the road.

‘You will want an overcoat,’ he said.

‘I never wear them.’


‘I have some chocolate. I will breakfast at Santa Chiara.’

‘Well, God go with you!’

A minute later I was tearing along the lake-side towards St Anton village.

I stopped at the cottage on the hill. Peter was not yet in bed. I found him sitting by the fire, trying to read, but I saw by his face that he had been waiting anxiously on my coming.

‘We’re in the soup, old man,’ I said as I shut the door. In a dozen sentences I told him of the night’s doings, of Ivery’s plan and my desperate errand.

‘You wanted a share,’ I cried. ‘Well, everything depends on you now. I’m off after Ivery, and God knows what will happen. Meantime, you have got to get on to Blenkiron, and tell him what I’ve told you. He must get the news through to G.H.Q. somehow. He must trap the Wild Birds before they go. I don’t know how, but he must. Tell him it’s all up to him and you, for I’m out of it. I must save Mary, and if God’s willing I’ll settle with Ivery. But the big job is for Blenkiron — and you. Somehow he has made a bad break, and the enemy has got ahead of him. He must sweat blood to make up. My God, Peter, it’s the solemnest moment of our lives. I don’t see any light, but we mustn’t miss any chances. I’m leaving it all to you.’

I spoke like a man in a fever, for after what I had been through I wasn’t quite sane. My coolness in the Pink Chalet had given place to a crazy restlessness. I can see Peter yet, standing in the ring of lamplight, supporting himself by a chair back, wrinkling his brows and, as he always did in moments of excitement, scratching gently the tip of his left ear. His face was happy.

‘Never fear, Dick,’ he said. ‘It will all come right. Ons sal ‘n plan maak.’

And then, still possessed with a demon of disquiet, I was on the road again, heading for the pass that led to Italy.

The mist had gone from the sky, and the stars were shining brightly. The moon, now at the end of its first quarter, was setting in a gap of the mountains, as I climbed the low col from the St Anton valley to the greater Staubthal. There was frost and the hard snow crackled under my wheels, but there was also that feel in the air which preludes storm. I wondered if I should run into snow in the high hills. The whole land was deep in peace. There was not a light in the hamlets I passed through, not a soul on the highway.

In the Staubthal I joined the main road and swung to the left up the narrowing bed of the valley. The road was in noble condition, and the car was running finely, as I mounted through forests of snowy Pines to a land where the mountains crept close together, and the highway coiled round the angles of great crags or skirted perilously some profound gorge, with only a line of wooden posts to defend it from the void. In places the snow stood in walls on either side, where the road was kept open by man’s labour. In other parts it lay thin, and in the dim light one might have fancied that one was running through open meadowlands.

Slowly my head was getting clearer, and I was able to look round my problem. I banished from my mind the situation I had left behind me. Blenkiron must cope with that as best he could. It lay with him to deal with the Wild Birds, my job was with Ivery alone. Sometime in the early morning he would reach Santa Chiara, and there he would find Mary. Beyond that my imagination could forecast nothing. She would be alone — I could trust his cleverness for that; he would try to force her to come with him, or he might persuade her with some lying story. Well, please God, I should come in for the tail end of the interview, and at the thought I cursed the steep gradients I was climbing, and longed for some magic to lift the Daimler beyond the summit and set it racing down the slope towards Italy.

I think it was about half-past three when I saw the lights of the frontier post. The air seemed milder than in the valleys, and there was a soft scurry of snow on my right cheek. A couple of sleepy Swiss sentries with their rifles in their hands stumbled out as I drew up.

They took my pass into the hut and gave me an anxious quarter of an hour while they examined it. The performance was repeated fifty yards on at the Italian post, where to my alarm the sentries were inclined to conversation. I played the part of the sulky servant, answering in monosyllables and pretending to immense stupidity.

‘You are only just in time, friend,’ said one in German. ‘The weather grows bad and soon the pass will close. Ugh, it is as cold as last winter on the Tonale. You remember, Giuseppe?’

But in the end they let me move on. For a little I felt my way gingerly, for on the summit the road had many twists and the snow was confusing to the eyes. Presently came a sharp drop and I let the Daimler go. It grew colder, and I shivered a little; the snow became a wet white fog around the glowing arc of the headlights; and always the road fell, now in long curves, now in steep short dips, till I was aware of a glen opening towards the south. From long living in the wilds I have a kind of sense for landscape without the testimony of the eyes, and I knew where the ravine narrowed or widened though it was black darkness.

In spite of my restlessness I had to go slowly, for after the first rush downhill I realized that, unless I was careful, I might wreck the car and spoil everything. The surface of the road on the southern slope of the mountains was a thousand per cent worse than that on the other. I skidded and side-slipped, and once grazed the edge of the gorge. It was far more maddening than the climb up, for then it had been a straight-forward grind with the Daimler doing its utmost, whereas now I had to hold her back because of my own lack of skill. I reckon that time crawling down from the summit of the Staub as some of the weariest hours I ever spent.

Quite suddenly I ran out of the ill weather into a different climate. The sky was clear above me, and I saw that dawn was very near. The first pinewoods were beginning, and at last came a straight slope where I could let the car out. I began to recover my spirits, which had been very dashed, and to reckon the distance I had still to travel . . . And then, without warning, a new world sprang up around me. Out of the blue dusk white shapes rose like ghosts, peaks and needles and domes of ice, their bases fading mistily into shadow, but the tops kindling till they glowed like jewels. I had never seen such a sight, and the wonder of it for a moment drove anxiety from my heart. More, it gave me an earnest of victory. I was in clear air once more, and surely in this diamond ether the foul things which loved the dark must be worsted . . .

And then I saw, a mile ahead, the little square red-roofed building which I knew to be the inn of Santa Chiara.

It was here that misfortune met me. I had grown careless now, and looked rather at the house than the road. At one point the hillside had slipped down — it must have been recent, for the road was well kept — and I did not notice the landslide till I was on it. I slewed to the right, took too wide a curve, and before I knew the car was over the far edge. I slapped on the brakes, but to avoid turning turtle I had to leave the road altogether. I slithered down a steep bank into a meadow, where for my sins I ran into a fallen tree trunk with a jar that shook me out of my seat and nearly broke my arm. Before I examined the car I knew what had happened. The front axle was bent, and the off front wheel badly buckled.

I had not time to curse my stupidity. I clambered back to the road and set off running down it at my best speed. I was mortally stiff, for Ivery’s rack was not good for the joints, but I realized it only as a drag on my pace, not as an affliction in itself. My whole mind was set on the house before me and what might be happening there.

There was a man at the door of the inn, who, when he caught sight of my figure, began to move to meet me. I saw that it was Launcelot Wake, and the sight gave me hope.

But his face frightened me. It was drawn and haggard like one who never sleeps, and his eyes were hot coals.

‘Hannay,’ he cried, ‘for God’s sake what does it mean?’

‘Where is Mary?’ I gasped, and I remember I clutched at a lapel of his coat.

He pulled me to the low stone wall by the roadside.

‘I don’t know,’ he said hoarsely. ‘We got your orders to come here this morning. We were at Chiavagno, where Blenkiron told us to wait. But last night Mary disappeared . . . I found she had hired a carriage and come on ahead. I followed at once, and reached here an hour ago to find her gone . . . The woman who keeps the place is away and there are only two old servants left. They tell me that Mary came here late, and that very early in the morning a closed car came over the Staub with a man in it. They say he asked to see the young lady, and that they talked together for some time, and that then she went off with him in the car down the valley . . . I must have passed it on my way up . . . There’s been some black devilment that I can’t follow. Who was the man? Who was the man?’

He looked as if he wanted to throttle me.

‘I can tell you that,’ I said. ‘It was Ivery.’

He stared for a second as if he didn’t understand. Then he leaped to his feet and cursed like a trooper. ‘You’ve botched it, as I knew you would. I knew no good would come of your infernal subtleties.’ And he consigned me and Blenkiron and the British army and Ivery and everybody else to the devil.

I was past being angry. ‘Sit down, man,’ I said, ‘and listen to me.’ I told him of what had happened at the Pink Chalet. He heard me out with his head in his hands. The thing was too bad for cursing.

‘The Underground Railway!’ he groaned. ‘The thought of it drives me mad. Why are you so calm, Hannay? She’s in the hands of the cleverest devil in the world, and you take it quietly. You should be a raving lunatic.’

‘I would be if it were any use, but I did all my raving last night in that den of Ivery’s. We’ve got to pull ourselves together, Wake. First of all, I trust Mary to the other side of eternity. She went with him of her own free will. I don’t know why, but she must have had a reason, and be sure it was a good one, for she’s far cleverer than you or me . . . We’ve got to follow her somehow. Ivery’s bound for Germany, but his route is by the Pink Chalet, for he hopes to pick me up there. He went down the valley; therefore he is going to Switzerland by the Marjolana. That is a long circuit and will take him most of the day. Why he chose that way I don’t know, but there it is. We’ve got to get back by the Staub.’

‘How did you come?’ he asked.

‘That’s our damnable luck. I came in a first-class six-cylinder Daimler, which is now lying a wreck in a meadow a mile up the road. We’ve got to foot it.’

‘We can’t do it. It would take too long. Besides, there’s the frontier to pass.’

I remembered ruefully that I might have got a return passport from the Portuguese Jew, if I had thought of anything at the time beyond getting to Santa Chiara.

‘Then we must make a circuit by the hillside and dodge the guards. It’s no use making difficulties, Wake. We’re fairly up against it, but we’ve got to go on trying till we drop. Otherwise I’ll take your advice and go mad.’

‘And supposing you get back to St Anton, you’ll find the house shut up and the travellers gone hours before by the Underground Railway.’

‘Very likely. But, man, there’s always the glimmering of a chance. It’s no good chucking in your hand till the game’s out.’

‘drop your proverbial philosophy, Mr Martin Tupper, and look up there.’

He had one foot on the wall and was staring at a cleft in the snow-line across the valley. The shoulder of a high peak dropped sharply to a kind of nick and rose again in a long graceful curve of snow. All below the nick was still in deep shadow, but from the configuration of the slopes I judged that a tributary glacier ran from it to the main glacier at the river head.

‘That’s the Colle delle Rondini,’ he said, ‘the Col of the Swallows. It leads straight to the Staubthal near Grunewald. On a good day I have done it in seven hours, but it’s not a pass for winter-time. It has been done of course, but not often. . . . Yet, if the weather held, it might go even now, and that would bring us to St Anton by the evening. I wonder’— and he looked me over with an appraising eye —‘I wonder if you’re up to it.’

My stiffness had gone and I burned to set my restlessness to physical toil.

‘If you can do it, I can,’ I said.

‘No. There you’re wrong. You’re a hefty fellow, but you’re no mountaineer, and the ice of the Colle delle Rondini needs knowledge. It would be insane to risk it with a novice, if there were any other way. But I’m damned if I see any, and I’m going to chance it. We can get a rope and axes in the inn. Are you game?’

‘Right you are. Seven hours, you say. We’ve got to do it in six.’

‘You will be humbler when you get on the ice,’ he said grimly. ‘We’d better breakfast, for the Lord knows when we shall see food again.’

We left the inn at five minutes to nine, with the sky cloudless and a stiff wind from the north-west, which we felt even in the deep-cut valley. Wake walked with a long, slow stride that tried my patience. I wanted to hustle, but he bade me keep in step. ‘You take your orders from me, for I’ve been at this job before. Discipline in the ranks, remember.’

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