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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 other things.

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 beaten.

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.

“Hamilton—any relation?”

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?”

I reflected.

“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 badly-needed bobs.”

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 challenge.

“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 without busting.

“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 name.

“How’s it going?” I asked. “Any lost passes to-night?”

“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 Chaplain.”

“Gawd!” muttered the sergeant, and passed us through.


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