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IT HOWLS AT NIGHT
THE FAIR AT LA LINEA
THERE was a fair at La Linea, the last
stronghold of Spain just across the Neutral Ground from Gibraltar, and La Linea
was en fête. The Spaniards for miles around had flocked to the town, had made
holiday all that day, and would continue to make holiday all that night, and for
the rest of the week. And they had been, and would continue to be, ably assisted
by all that was brightest and best on the Rock.
George Winter and I wandered across the
fairgrounds on our way to the gates with the intention of going home, for our
pockets were by now alarmingly light, and we had decided to call it a day.
Originally there had been three of us, but the third, young Pongo Slazenger, had
got lost—which was the usual thing where young Pongo was concerned. George and I
never worried about him; wherever he was, he was probably imbibing the wine of
the country and telling the tale to some charming and unsophisticated lass.
Spain, I may add, is even to-day a land of
unsophisticated lasses—and extremely sophisticated ones. There seems to be none
in between. And Pongo, though a transparently guileless youth, undoubtedly had a
flair . . . and a habit, confusing to his friends, of falling violently in love
at least once a month.
George was singing. He has a ghastly voice and
is well aware of the fact, but he was singing. He discoursed crooningly on
certain psychological and pathological reactions following immediately upon some
ball or rout unspecified. Fortunately his voice was drowned in the general
uproar—the Spaniard is always very noisy when he is enjoying himself. Having the
rudiments of a conscience, I had refrained from adding to George’s goat-like
bleating, and was strolling quietly along, thinking of this and that and many
I was thinking chiefly of that incredible
adventure of mine in Tangier, among the sickly and distorting fumes of hashish,
wherein a very dear old friend of mine had played such a sterling part. Chiller,
we called him, his proper name being Charles Edgerton; he had been the hero.
There had also been a heroine, that shining lady, Miss Barbara Mayne. The
general upshot of the affair had been that, upon my thirty-fourth proposal of
marriage, Barbara had stunned me into a state of imbecility by accepting it.
Incidentally, after the dust of conflict had cleared away, it was discovered
that Chiller had disappeared. Which, however, occasioned no surprise, because
Chiller is one of those secretive, almost legendary beings whose lives are at
the beck and call of the Foreign Office, and his friends spend most of their
spare time speculating on his whereabouts.
All this, of course, is another story—one that
has already been told—and has nothing whatever to do with this one. Still, I
couldn’t help wondering. . . .
In this fashion, George polluting the warm
night air with tuneless song, I preoccupied, we went through La Linea, passed
through the gates, and wandered down the road, white in the moonlight, that runs
through the Neutral Ground to the Barrier Gates.
We were not the only pedestrians. Little
groups sauntered along ahead of and behind us. Young people chiefly, a few
officers in mufti, and a number of children; the latter desperately tired, but
happy and bearing trophies of an entirely satisfactory and thoroughly misspent
evening. Suddenly George, in the midst of a groaning commentary on how easy it
is to remember—something—and how hard it is to forget, broke off sharply,
grabbed my arm, and quickened his pace.
“Hullo!” he said. “There’s Geoff!”
A little way ahead of us a young man was
sauntering lazily down the road. He was a massive figure. He was bareheaded, his
hands were stuck in his pockets, and a big pipe sagged in the corner of his
mouth. Sagged, because he was whistling softly as well as smoking. You’ve got to
be clever to do that; I can manage low notes myself, but high notes have me
George, dragging me up to this young giant,
smote him heavily between the shoulder-blades, thus changing a note of
surpassing shrillness to a surprised gurgle.
“Hullo, young fella!” he said.
“’Lo, George,” said the massive one. And, with
a good-humoured growl, “I wish you wouldn’t do things like that. You nearly made
me swallow my pipe!”
“Some swallow!” observed George. “By the way,
I want you two eggs to mingle. Lieutenant Geoffrey Marlow—Bill Hamilton. Geoff’s
an engineer, Bill. Fills sandbags or something.”
We shook hands. Later I was to know Lieutenant
Geoffrey Marlow very well indeed; genial, imperturbable, self-reliant, utterly
careless of appearances—and a stout fella in a tight corner.
He grinned amiably, and looked at George.
George admitted that I was the son of my
father, Major John Hamilton, the Garrison Adjutant, apologised for it, and
commiserated with my absent parent.
“What does he do with himself?” asked Marlow,
falling into step with us. “Is he one of the world’s workers?”
“Work?” said George with biting scorn.
“No—he’s a literary gent!”
“A literary gent?”
“He writes books and things.”
Lieutenant Marlow appeared interested.
“Writes books, does he? I wonder if he knows
anything for the Caliente races?”
“Fathead!” said George. “Not that kind of
book. He’s a perishin’ author. You know the sort of thing—three hundred pages
full of gore and passion and thud and blunder. . . .”
There is a distressing habit among my friends
and acquaintances of treating me as if I were unable to speak for myself. Why, I
don’t know, and I have given up worrying about it. This habit is at its height
among my own family. I rather think it originated in boyhood days when my father
would return from barracks in the evening, and, jerking his thumb at me, bark,
in true cavalry fashion: “Well; and what devilment has he been up to to-day?”
And even now, if we go to a tea-fight anywhere, my hostess will remark to my
mother, “And does your son take sugar, Mrs. Hamilton?”
Once, stung to indignation, I expostulated
with a pal of mine, who advanced a comforting theory. He said: “It’s
complimentary, Bill, that’s what it is. I might almost say reverence. They
recognise your genius, and they’re probably afraid of breaking into a
world-shaking train of thought . . . I expect that when Shakespeare and Anne
Thingummy went out to a party somewhere the lady of the house would start the
whoopee by asking Anne, ‘And does dear William take sack?’ ”
Naturally, my reply to this had been to
suggest that he send it to Ripley. . . .
“Gosh!” said Lieutenant Marlow, impressed. “He
ought to be good for a loan!”
George went on talking about Exhibit A.
“He got mixed up in a mess in Tangier a little
while ago, came back, and wrote a book about it. Sold like synthetic gin.
Translated into all languages of the world, including Scandinavian. Banned in
Hollywood. Made a pile. Made—” Here he addressed me directly. “How many million
copies were sold, Bill?”
“Judging by the publishers’ reports and
accounts, at least a hundred and twenty-seven people bought the thing. And,” I
added, “if some of you buzzards who call yourselves pals would rally round and
buy a few copies instead of scrounging my one and only I might get a few more
George made a scornful noise, and changed the
subject. “Seen anything of young Pongo, Geoff?”
“No. I thought he was going with you. I’ve
been about with Gonzalez.”
Gonzalez was a Lieutenant of Spanish Cavalry
in the regiment stationed at La Linea.
“We lost him. You know his little ways.”
“Uh-huh!” grunted Marlow through his pipe.
“He’s probably got some girl or another and is making love to her, learning to
play the guitar, and getting tight in between times.”
The conversation died away. George broke into
song— at least, I suppose that is what it was meant to be. He made uneasy
noises, like a cow that has mislaid its calf. Marlow’s whistle shrilled out in
opposition. I trudged along quietly.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
The sharp challenge of the sentry at the
Barrier Gates cut short the musical treat. George stopped short and stared at
the sentry as if he had never seen such a being before. The sentry repeated his
“You blokes had better say something,”
observed Marlow cheerily. “The next command is, ‘Halt, or I fire!’”
I had purposely held my peace, because I had
expected my officer acquaintance to reply.
“No speaka da English!” said George hastily.
“Frankenstein,” said I, not to be outdone in
imbecility. “Complete with monster.”
The sentry, now recognising us for what we
were— three young devils old enough to know better—contented himself with
calling out the sergeant of the guard. He came at the double, a red-faced man
with a fierce waxed moustache. George nonchalantly strolled up to him and poked
at one of the waxen spikes, to see, as he explained later, if it would bend
“Hullo, Hitler!” he said genially. “How’s the
head swastika and all the little noughts and crosses?”
“Now, then, gentlemen,” said the sergeant
persuasively. “Passes, please!”
Every night, except upon such an occasion as
this, the Barrier Gates are closed at sunset, and thereafter none may enter
without first producing, for the inspection of the sergeant of the guard, a pass
signed by the Garrison Adjutant. Anyone may go out, but none may enter without
his pass. Now and then, of course, someone forgets, mislays, or loses his pass,
and then the sergeant is forced, if satisfied by the individual’s bona fides, to
ring up the Garrison Adjutant—a proceeding that sometimes called the G.A. from
his bed, and at all times irritated that very methodical soldier—for permission
to pass that individual through.
While the fair at La Linea was on, the Gates
remained open until nine o’clock. After that time they were closed, and passes
were then the order of the day—or, rather, night. I must explain this because it
has a very definite bearing on the story. It was getting on for eleven o’clock
when we arrived there.
The sergeant inspected our passes, saluted
Marlow, who nodded genially—only on the screen does a British officer,
bareheaded, or in mufti, return a salute—and smiled a recognition as he read my
“How’s it going?” I asked. “Any lost passes
“Three of ’em,” said the sergeant gloomily.
“And we got a couple of drunks in the cells. ’E”—referring to the Garrison
Adjutant— “ ’e give me ’ell last time I rung up.”
“Well, you’re not dragging him out of bed this
time,” I told him.
“I’m glad to ’ear that!”
“You’re glad too soon,” I murmured
sympathetically. “It’s worse than that. He’s playing chess with the Senior
“Gawd!” muttered the sergeant, and passed us