Authors: Eric Ambler
“Ambler combines political sophistication, a gift for creating memorable characters and a remarkable talent for turning exciting stories into novels of wonderful entertainment.”
“Ambler is, quite simply, the best.”
The New Yorker
“Here Mr. Ambler has fashioned a real treat.”
“The whole story is a good yarn and up-to-the-minute in its political implications.”
The New York Times
“Mr. Ambler has fashioned a real thriller.”
“Ambler may well be the best writer of suspense stories.… He is the master craftsman.”
The Dark Frontier
Epitaph for a Spy
Cause for Alarm
A Coffin for Dimitrios
Journey Into Fear
Judgement on Deltchev
The Schirmer Inheritance
State of Siege
Passage of Arms
The Light of Day
The Ability to Kill and Other Pieces
A Kind of Anger
To Catch a Spy
The Intercom Conspiracy
Send No More Roses
The Care of Time
Here Lies Eric Ambler
The Story So Far
Eric Ambler was born in London in 1909. Before turning to writing full-time, he worked at an engineering firm and wrote copy for an advertising agency. His first novel was published in 1936. During the course of his career, Ambler was awarded two Gold Daggers, one Silver Dagger, and a Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain, named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers Association of America, and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. In addition to his novels, Ambler wrote a number of screenplays, including
A Night to Remember
The Cruel Sea
, which won him an Oscar nomination. Eric Ambler died in 1998.
FIRST VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD EDITION, OCTOBER 2001
Copyright © 1937, copyright renewed 1965 by Eric Ambler
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain as
by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., London, and in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1937.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ambler, Eric, 1909–
Background to danger / Eric Ambler.
Originally published: Uncommon danger. London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1937.
1. Orient Express (Express train)—Fiction. 2. British—Europe—Fiction.
3. Railroad travel—Fiction. 4. Smuggling—Fiction, 5. Europe—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6001.M48 U6 2001
TO MY MOTHER
“To-day, with Europe assuming the appearance of an armed camp in which an incident, unimportant in itself, would be sufficient to ignite a conflagration that would consume Europe and perhaps spread to other quarters of the globe: to-day, when national security in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, depends primarily upon the strength and effectiveness of a nation’s armed forces, the question of supply of raw materials and particularly supply of petroleum is of the first importance.”
sunny morning in July, Mr. Joseph Balterghen’s blue Rolls-Royce oozed silently away from the pavement in Berkeley Square, slid across Piccadilly into St. James’s, and sped softly eastward towards the City of London.
Mr. Balterghen was a very small man and, as his Rolls-Royce was a very large car, the few persons waiting for buses on the north side of Trafalgar Square would have had to have craned their necks to see him. None of them troubled to do so. This was a pity, for, while Mr. Balterghen was anything but pleasing to the eye, he was chairman of Pan-Eurasian Petroleum and of fifteen other companies and a director of thirty more, including one bank. In the words of those who write bank references, he was “highly respectable.”
That the phrase had nothing to do with church attendances, ten-o’clock bedtimes and nicely rolled umbrellas was made obvious by his face. A disgruntled business associate had once described it as looking like “a bunch of putty-coloured grapes with some of the crevices filled in.” He should have added that the grapes were also very shrivelled and that a black tooth-brush moustache sprouted surrealistically from the lower part of the bunch.
As his car glided down Northumberland Avenue, Mr. Balterghen gnawed thoughtfully at this moustache. The chauffeur, catching a glimpse of this in the driving mirror, muttered “the perisher’s goin’ to a board meetin’,” opened out along the Embankment, and did not look in the driving mirror again until he pulled up outside the new offices of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company in Gracechurch Street.
Inside the building, Mr. Balterghen stopped gnawing his moustache, set his face in the impassive glare he reserved for business hours, and was shot up to the sixth floor in a chromium-plated lift. Then he went to his office.
To Mr. Balterghen’s second secretary, his master’s office was an evergreen source of wonder. Blundell had been taken into Pan-Eurasian under Mr. Balterghen’s “Recruiting-from-the-Universities” plan and was one of the few bewildered survivors of the subsequent “Experience-not-Education” purge. “Balterghen’s room,” he had once told his wife, “is more like a harlot’s parlour than an office. He’s got a red Turkey carpet and stippled green walls, a Second Empire desk and a Chinese lacquer cabinet, a neo-Byzantine book-case and six baroque chairs plus a Drage-Aztec cocktail cabinet that flies apart and exposes all the bottles and things inside when you press the button. Even if you didn’t know from experience what a complete wart the man is, that room would tell you.”
The first thing Mr. Balterghen did on that sunny July morning was to operate his cocktail cabinet. From it he took
a large bottle of stomach powder and mixed himself a draught. Then he lit a cigar to take the taste away and rang the fifth bell along on the Second Empire desk. After a short interval, Blundell came in.
“What time was the meeting called for, Blundell?”
Mr. Balterghen spoke English as though he had a hot potato in his mouth.
“Eleven, Mr. Balterghen.”
“It’s five to now; are the other directors here?”
“All except Lord Welterfield.”
“We’ll begin without his lordship.”
“Very well, Mr. Balterghen. I’ll tell Mr. Wilson. Here are your notes.”
“Put them down there. Wait a minute. If a gentleman named Colonel Robinson calls for me about twelve forty-five, I don’t want him shown in here to wait. Put him in a vacant office on the floor below. You understand? I don’t want him shown up here.”
“Yes, Mr. Balterghen.”
He went out.
At eleven two precisely, the board of directors of Pan-Eurasian Petroleum began their meeting.
The agenda that day was tackled with a certain amount of gusto. All knew that there was only one really interesting item on it, but that titbit had been placed last. When Lord Welterfield arrived at a quarter to twelve his profuse apologies were acknowledged hurriedly. It did not, it was clear, matter whether Lord Welterfield was present or not.
“I see,” said Mr. Balterghen at last, “that the next item on the agenda concerns my Rumanian negotiations.”
He said it with an air of slight surprise that deceived nobody. The board settled itself in its chairs. The chairman continued:
“I don’t think Lord Welterfield was present at the first meeting we held on this subject, so I think that I had better
run over the few main points that were discussed then. You will remember that, in nineteen twenty-two, the Company obtained a drilling concession from the Rumanian Government. That concession covered a tract of land east of Jassi which was believed at the time to be rich oil country. You will also remember that the concession turned out to be a failure from the company’s point of view. In the years nineteen twenty-three and twenty-four only five thousand barrels were produced and early in nineteen twenty-five the most promising well ceased producing. Our geologists reported unfavorably on the prospects of striking commercially useful deposits and the concession was, to all intents and purposes, written off as a dead loss. At the time, this did not matter very much as our subsidiaries in Venezuela, Mexico and the Near East were producing profitably, and, for that matter, still are.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“But,” continued Mr. Balterghen, “the developments in the political situation in Europe during nineteen thirty-five and thirty-six have suggested that we should look once again in the direction of Rumania. The sanctions against Italy taught Mussolini one thing at least—that Italy could not safely depend for her supplies of oil on the Caribbean. Iran and Iraq were in the hands of the British. Russia was in the hands of the Soviets. The Italian fleet was oil-burning, the big Italian air force would be helpless faced with an oil shortage; so would the mechanised army. There was only one solution—Rumania. At the moment Italy is taking large quantities of Rumanian oil. She will take more. Her new armament programme—and I speak from personal knowledge—is based less on further increases in man-power than on the addition of submarines to her navy, heavy bombers to her air force, and a new kind of tank to her army. That is important, for in all three cases”—he tapped a stubby finger
on the table—“in all three cases Diesel engines are being used.”
The meeting looked impressed. The chairman licked his lips and went on.
“I did not have to explain to you gentlemen that here was worthwhile business. Lord Welterfield will, I feel sure, see the point immediately. Two months ago we made representations to the Rumanian Government. We asked that the existing concessions should be revised. We told them that we were ready to pay and pay handsomely. All that we required was a fair share of the oil lands at present divided between our competitors. Our agents in Bucharest approached the right people. Steps were taken—their nature is unimportant to this meeting—to ensure a favourable reception of our proposals in Governmental circles. It was arranged that at the November session of the Rumanian Chamber of Deputies a responsible leader would table our proposals for concession revision as a necessary reform—as, of course, it is.”