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Authors: R. F. Delderfield

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BOOK: Post of Honour
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The perfume of the roses from the sunken garden seemed to drench this end of the terrace so that when he heard a step on the flagstones and a voice calling him, he thought once more of Grace, whom he always associated with this garden. Then he saw a blur of white in the doorway and called, ‘I’m out here, Claire!’ and she came along the terrace towards him, her hair tumbling over the pink shawl he had given her last Christmas. She said, anxiously, ‘I wondered where on earth you were! What’s happened? Is it anything serious?’

‘Serious enough,’ he told her and repeated the gist of Franz’s conversation over the telephone. He was amazed to note that she seemed relieved rather than startled, as though the clash of armies had nothing to do with themselves or the people of the Valley. She said, ‘Well, all I can say is I’m glad you’re too old and the children are too young!’ and he thought the remark very typical of her and envied her ability to view catastrophe in such a personal light. He said, however, ‘It will make nonsense of all we’ve been trying to do down here, Claire. You realise that I suppose?’

‘I don’t see why it should,’ she argued, ‘James told you it couldn’t possibly last more than a month or so, didn’t he?’

‘I’d sooner take Uncle Franz’s word than Grenfell’s on an issue like this,’ he said. ‘If there are people around prepared to pay that much money for a five-year lease on a scrapyard they must have a good idea what’s likely to happen! Those kind of people, Uncle Franz’s kind, don’t make mistakes that cost money, not their money!’

‘Oh well,’ she said, cheerfully, ‘there’s nothing we can do about it is there? I suppose they must fight it out and then go home and pick up where they left off!’

He smiled, putting his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. It would be a shame, he thought, to try and explain to her what a conflict on this scale could do even to a place as remote as this, or to a woman with a civilian husband and children in rompers. She would soon find out if Uncle Franz’s gloomy prophecy came true. Then he thought how differently Grace would have reacted to the news and remembered that it was here, on this spot, that he proposed marriage on the night of the Coronation soirée. It was disturbing but also significant, he reflected, that Grace should seem so close tonight and the sharpness of his memories seemed almost an affront to Claire standing with her head on his shoulder inhaling the sweetness of the night air so he said shortly, ‘Come on, there’s no sense standing here, let’s go back to bed!’ and they went in and up the broad, shallow stairs. She curled up and was asleep almost at once and again he envied her narrow world. ‘There’s Ikey,’ he thought. ‘He’ll have to go but she never bothered much with Ikey. He always seemed to belong to the era of Grace and anyway, he’s a professional and might even welcome war as offering prospects of promotion.’ Then, as it began to grow light, he borrowed something of Claire’s complacency, thinking, ‘Dammit, maybe she’s right! There’s no sense in losing sleep over something that can’t be helped or altered! I’ll do my worrying when I have to!’ and was sorry then that she had gone to sleep for the scent of the roses seemed to linger about her, and it occurred to him that casual access to the woman beside him was a more exciting prospect than storming every citadel in Europe.


n the first week of November a persistent north-easterly, showering Channel spray and needles of sleet across the Valley, drove the yellow-eyed gulls from their fishing grounds on the sandbanks and launched them on one of their periodical circuits across the shoulder of the Bluff, west to the upper reaches of the Sorrel then back across the shorn fields of Four Winds.

The gulls knew the features of the Valley better than any earthbound creature and as they hovered over the woods and streams, peering down for unconsidered trifles, they must have been aware of some of the changes that had taken place there in the last few weeks. They no longer had to contend with the wild cries of Eveleigh’s crow-starver, or the ill-aimed pellets of Henry Pitts, because, at these two points of flight, they maintained height and swooped upon easier pickings behind the field kitchens of the vast tented camp that covered the moor between Periwinkle Farm and the Paxtonbury road. There was always food to be found here and nobody minded when they helped themselves from the bins ranged along the hedge that bordered the camp to the north. Thousands of men were living there but were either clumping about in cohorts, encouraged by bellowing figures out on the flanks, or cowering in their sopping tents, sheltering from wind and rain. So the gulls dived on the offal and hunks of bread scattered all around and flew off gorged to Coombe Bay, where the more observant might have noted other changes in and about the village, the absence of Tom Williams and his fishing team for instance, or the stillness of the house and garden where the old German professor had lived above the dunes, a man who had always welcomed them and encouraged them to take bread and bacon rinds he saved for them. This house, a favourite port of call for storm-driven gulls, was unoccupied now, its windows open to the rain and there were slivers of shattered glass lying on the lawns back and front, reflecting the pale gleam of the sun on the rare occasions it penetrated the low cloud. This, perhaps, was the most significant change of all, for there had been territorial camps on Blackberry Moor in years gone by but never a scene like the one enacted outside the old German’s house one wann evening in late August.

It began with an advance up the hill of a knot of Coombe Bay men, including Eph Morgan, the Welsh builder, Walt Pascoe, Tom Williams shortly before he joined the Naval Reserve and others, women and children as well as men. If the local posse could have been said to have had leadership it was vested in Horace Handcock, the Shallowford gardener. He it was who had preached the crusade in the bar of The Raven but he was too old and too drunk to take his place at their head when they stormed up the hill to register their disapproval of the Kaiser’s rape of Belgium.

The professor was at his desk when the clamour reached him and he got up to look out of his window. The first stone, flung by Walt Pascoe, smashed the glass and grazed his head, causing blood to flow. A moment later stones or clods had shattered every window at the front of the house. The professor remained downstairs long enough to bundle up his manuscripts but while he was doing this a fragment of glass struck his chin, inflicting another small wound. He went upstairs and locked himself in Gottfried’s bedroom overlooking the garden but soon this window was shattered and he saw that people had made their way round the house and were cavorting about his flower beds, pulling up plants and shrubs and howling like dervishes. Then Eph Morgan remembered, the German had a motor and at once linked it in his mind to the Squire’s derelict Belsize, still embedded in Sorrel mud. It seemed to Morgan a good idea that there should be two derelict cars in the district so, with the help of many willing hands, he trundled it out of the coach-house and on to a rose bed where, with the tools taken from the shed, it was soon reduced to a wreck. More people continued to arrive from the village and as it was nearly dusk someone suggested a bonfire so Pascoe punctured the petrol tank with a garden fork and soon there was a very good bonfire indeed, one that could be seen a great way off. Paul saw it as he crossed the ford and set off at a gallop for the village, making the journey in the record time of eleven minutes, for he was riding a mettlesome four-year-old that Rose had sold him just before the outbreak of war. He had been warned of the riot by Pansy Pascoe who had the forethought to use The Raven’s telephone and she urged him to come quickly before murder was done. Pansy was probably the only person in the village who disapproved of the riot. She had been employed by the professor as a daily help and he had treated her with kindness and generosity. She realised, however, that it was useless to argue with her husband Walt in his present mood, for he was full of beer, having enlisted that very day at Whinmouth and was due to depart the following morning. She said, on the telephone, ‘Do ’ee come quick, Squire! They’re murderin’ the poor old toad!’ and Paul had set off at once shouting to Chivers to send John Rudd after him and during his wild ride along the river bank he thought savagely of the strange madness that had seized people since newspapers had begun calling Germans ‘Huns’ and printing stories of crucified Belgian babies that no man in his sense could believe.

They would not have gone as far as to lay hands on the German. He could see that as soon as he flung himself from his horse and rushed round behind the house, where it seemed as though the entire population of the village was dancing round the blazing wreck of the Humber. The house, with all its windows shattered, looked empty but someone said the old professor was inside, hiding under a bed probably. Paul’s informant seemed to assume that the Squire had arrived to share in the fun and was astounded when Paul grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and shouted, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? Has everybody gone stark, staring mad?
started this business?
began it? Do you realise you could all go to prison for this?’ and he punched his way into the centre of the ring.

His words had immediate effect. For a long time now they had been content to have him do most of their thinking. Tom Williams said, a little shamefacedly, ‘I told ’em they was goin’ a bit far, Squire. Breaking the old devil’s windows would ha’ been enough to frighten the ole bastard out o’ the Valley!’ but he too had a shock when Paul spun round on him, shouting, ‘You bloody idiot, Tom! What harm has the old fellow ever done any of us, and how the hell can he be responsible for the Kaiser’s doings? He’s a fugitive from the Junkers himself! He only came here to get a bit of peace!’ Then, having cleared a ring and seeing people beginning to slip away round to the front of the house, he shouted, ‘The next person to throw a stone or touch anything here will be reported by me to the Whinmouth police, do you hear?’

They heard, those who were not already gone, and within a few moments Paul had the garden to himself, except for some wide-eyed children who should have been in bed. He said, sharply, ‘Get on home. The policeman will be here in a moment!’ and they fled so that he was left to wonder whether, when John Rudd arrived, they should round up the rioters and make them extinguish the blazing car with water taken from the rain butt. He decided not to bother for the motor was all but destroyed and there was no danger of flames spreading to the rear of the house. He stood in the centre of the lawn and called, ‘Herr Scholtzer! Professor! It’s me, Squire Craddock! They’ve gone now, you’ve nothing to fear!’

There was no answer so he fried the back door and finding it open went in. On the first landing, holding a lamp above his head, he saw the old man looking down and seeing the blood on his face, Paul said, ‘I’ll send one of those fools to telephone for the doctor!’ but the German said, briefly, ‘No! Please! It is nothing, Mr Craddock!’ and came down to the hall where glass from the coloured panes in the front door crunched underfoot.

They went into the library, Scholtzer dabbing his head with a towel and in here was the same litter of broken glass and pages of manuscript blown to the floor. The room had always looked scrupulously tidy for the professor was a very methodical man and somehow, to Paul, the disorder emphasised the sheer idiocy of the assault. He said, grimly, ‘You must let me deal with this, professor. I’ll have every one of them in court for this night’s work!’ but the old man lifted his hand and said, ‘No, Mr Craddock, it was goot of you to come quickly but please, you will not make the case of it! That would do no goot for you and I have plans to leave very soon. The police were here with my papers this morning,’ and he began gathering up manuscript from the floor and sorting it into little piles.

‘You don’t have to leave on this account,’ Paul said, ‘they’ll not bother you again. Get a few things together and come back to the house with me. We can clear up in the morning and I can guarantee you plenty of assistance!’

The old man made no immediate reply but having finished collecting his papers he poured two glasses of gin and handed one to Paul. He seemed, Paul thought, very calm and resigned, as though a frenzied assault upon his property and person by people he had regarded as friends brought sadness but neither rancour nor fear. He said, finally, ‘You must not blame them so much, Mr Craddock! It will be happening all over Europe. It is kind that you should ask me to your house but it would not be wise, I think, to go. They would remember it against you as long as the fighting lasts. It would be different if my boy was here but there is nothing they can do to me. It is your glass that has been broken.’

‘And your motor that has been burned,’ growled Paul. ‘Where is Gottfried? I heard he had gone abroad earlier in the summer.’

‘He is in Germany,’ the old man said. ‘He went to Italy for a music examination in June. Then the foolish boy went tramping in the Dolomites and I have since heard that the authorities refused to allow him to leave. Perhaps, by now, he is in uniform. After all, he is German born, with German parents, and your Government would not consider him eligible for exchange. Perhaps his whereabouts are known and that is why your people come here to break windows.’

‘I’m sure that had nothing to do with it,’ Paul said but the fact that the shy young German was possibly serving in the Kaiser’s Army astounded him almost as much as the demonstration on the lawn. Gottfried had grown up in the Valley and seemed to Paul almost as much a part of it as Eveleigh’s children or Sam Potter’s daughter, Pauline. He said, ‘Can they compel him to serve in the Army?’ and the professor replied, with a shrug, ‘It will be a choice between the Army or prison. If I had foreseen such a thing I would have applied for his naturalisation papers when he was a child but one cannot blame oneself for not foreseeing what is happening in the world today.’

‘You say the police were here? Is it likely that you will be sent to an Aliens Camp?’

‘No,’ said the old man, ‘I have been given permission to go to the United States. My publishers and certain Oxford gentlemen were kind enough to vouch for me. It is a pity that Gottfried cannot change places with me, for even the Junkers could not use me as a soldier.’

BOOK: Post of Honour
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