Authors: James Hilton
IGARS HAD BURNED LOW
, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had. Rutherford wrote novels; Wyland was one of the Embassy secretaries; he had just given us dinner at Tempelhof—not very cheerfully, I fancied, but with the equanimity which a diplomat must always keep on tap for such occasions. It seemed likely that nothing but the fact of being three celibate Englishmen in a foreign capital could have brought us together, and I had already reached the conclusion that the slight touch of priggishness which I remembered in Wyland Tertius had not diminished with years and an M.V.O. Rutherford I liked more, he had ripened well out of the skinny, precocious infant whom I had once alternately bullied and patronized. The probability that he was making much more money and having a more interesting life than either of us, gave Wyland and me our one mutual emotion—a touch of envy.
The evening, however, was far from dull. We had a good view of the big Luft-Hansa machines as they arrived at the aerodrome from all parts of Central Europe, and towards dusk, when arc-flares were lighted, the scene took on a rich, theatrical brilliance. One of the planes was English, and its pilot, in full flying-kit, strolled past our table and saluted Wyland, who did not at first recognize him. When he did so there were introductions all around, and the stranger was invited to join us. He was a pleasant, jolly youth named Sanders. Wyland made some apologetic remark about the difficulty of identifying people when they were all dressed up in Sibleys and flying-helmets; at which Sanders laughed and answered: “Oh, rather, I know that well enough. Don’t forget I was at Baskul.” Wyland laughed also, but less spontaneously, and the conversation then took other directions.
Sanders made an attractive addition to our small company, and we all drank a great deal of beer together. About ten o’clock Wyland left us for a moment to speak to some one at a table near by, and Rutherford, into the sudden hiatus of talk, remarked: “Oh, by the way, you mentioned Baskul just now. I know the place slightly. What was it you were referring to that happened there?”
Sanders smiled rather shyly. “Oh, just a bit of excitement we had once when I was in the Service.” But he was a youth who could not long refrain from being confidential. “Fact is, an Afghan or an Afridi or somebody ran off with one of our buses, and there was the very devil to pay afterwards, as you can imagine. Most impudent thing I ever heard of. The blighter waylaid the pilot, knocked him out, pinched his kit, and climbed into the cockpit without a soul spotting him. Gave the mechanics the proper signals, too, and was up and away in fine style. The trouble was, he never came back.”
Rutherford looked interested. “When did this happen?”
“Oh—must have been about a year ago. May, ’thirty-one. We were evacuating civilians from Baskul to Peshawar owing to the revolution—perhaps you remember the business. The place was in a bit of an upset, or I don’t suppose the thing could have happened. Still, it
happen—and it goes some way to show that clothes make the man, doesn’t it?”
Rutherford was still interested. “I should have thought you’d have had more than one fellow in charge of a plane on an occasion like that?”
“We did, on all the ordinary troop-carriers, but this machine was a special one, built for some maharajah originally—quite a stunt land of outfit. The Indian Survey people had been using it for high-altitude flights in Kashmir.”
“And you say it never reached Peshawar?”
“Never reached there, and never came down anywhere else, so far as we could discover. That was the queer part about it. Of course, if the fellow was a tribesman he might have made for the hills, thinking to hold the passengers for ransom. I suppose they all got killed, somehow. There are heaps of places on the frontier where you might crash and not be heard of afterwards.”
“Yes, I know the sort of country. How many passengers were there?”
“Four, I think. Three men and some woman missionary.”
“Was one of the men, by any chance, named Conway?”
Sanders looked surprised. “Why, yes, as a matter of fact ‘Glory’ Conway—did you know him?”
“He and I were at the same school,” said Rutherford a little self-consciously, for it was true enough, yet a remark which he was aware did not suit him.
“He was a jolly fine chap, by all accounts of what he did at Baskul,” went on Sanders.
Rutherford nodded. “Yes, undoubtedly … but how extraordinary … extraordinary …” He appeared to collect himself after a spell of mind-wandering. Then he said: “It was never in the papers, or I think I should have read about it. How was that?”
Sanders looked suddenly rather uncomfortable, and even, I imagined, was on the point of blushing. “To tell you the truth,” he replied, “I seem to have let out more than I should have. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter now—it must be stale news in every mess, let alone in the bazaars. It was hushed up, you see—I mean, about the way the thing happened. Wouldn’t have sounded well. The Government people merely gave out that one of their machines was missing and mentioned the names. Sort of thing that didn’t attract an awful lot of attention among outsiders.”
At this point Wyland rejoined us, and Sanders turned to him half apologetically. “I say, Wyland, these chaps have been talking about ‘Glory’ Conway. I’m afraid I spilled the Baskul yarn—I hope you don’t think it matters?”
Wyland was severely silent for a moment. It was plain that he was reconciling the claims of compatriot courtesy and official rectitude. “I can’t help feeling,” he said at length, “that it’s a pity to make a mere anecdote of it. I always thought you air fellows were put on your honor not to tell tales out of school.” Having thus snubbed the youth, he turned, rather more graciously, to Rutherford. “Of course, it’s all right in your case, but I’m sure you realize that it’s sometimes necessary for events up on the Frontier to be shrouded in a little mystery.”
“On the other hand,” replied Rutherford dryly, “one has a curious itch to know the truth.”
“It was never concealed from any one who had any real reason for wanting to know it. I was at Peshawar at the time, and I can assure you of that. Did you know Conway well—since schooldays, I mean?”
“Just a little at Oxford, and a few chance meetings since. Did
come across him much?”
“At Angora, when I was stationed there, we met once or twice.”
“Did you like him?”
“I thought he was clever, but rather slack.”
Rutherford smiled. “He was certainly clever. He had a most exciting university career—until war broke out. Rowing Blue and a leading light at the Union and prizeman for this, that, and the other—also I reckon him the best amateur pianist I ever heard. Amazingly many-sided fellow, the kind, one feels, that Jowett would have tipped for a future premier. Yet, in point of fact, one never heard much about him after those Oxford days. Of course the War cut into his career. He was very young and I gather he went through most of it.”
“He was blown up or something,” responded Wyland, “but nothing very serious. Didn’t do at all badly, got a D.S.O. in France. Then I believe he went back to Oxford for a spell as a sort of don. I know he went East in ’twenty-one. His Oriental languages got him the job without any of the usual preliminaries. He had several posts.”
Rutherford smiled more broadly. “Then of course, that accounts for everything. History will never disclose the amount of sheer brilliance wasted in the routine decoding F.O. chits and handing round tea at Legation bun-fights.”
“He was in the Consular Service, not the Diplomatic,” said Wyland loftily. It was evident that he did not care for the chaff, and he made no protest when, after a little more badinage of a similar kind, Rutherford rose to go. In any case it was getting late, and I said I would go, too. Wyland’s attitude as we made our farewells was still one of official propriety suffering in silence, but Sanders was very cordial and he said he hoped to meet us again sometime.
I was catching a transcontinental train at a very dismal hour of the early morning, and, as we waited for a taxi, Rutherford asked me if I would care to spend the interval at his hotel. He had a sitting room, he said, and we could talk. I said it would suit me excellently, and he answered: “Good. We can talk about Conway, if you like, unless you’re completely bored with his affairs.”
I said that I wasn’t, at all, though I had scarcely known him. “He left at the end of my first term, and I never met him afterwards. But he was extraordinarily kind to me on one occasion. I was a new boy and there was no earthly reason why he should have done what he did. It was only a trivial thing, but I’ve always remembered it.”
Rutherford assented. “Yes, I liked him a good deal too, though I also saw surprisingly little of him, if you measure it in time.”
And then there was a somewhat odd silence, during which it was evident that we were both thinking of some one who had mattered to us far more than might have been judged from such casual contacts. I have often found since then that others who met Conway, even quite formally and for a moment, remembered him afterwards with great vividness. He was certainly remarkable as a youth, and to me, who had known him at the hero-worshipping age, his memory is still quite romantically distinct. He was tall and extremely good looking, and not only excelled at games but walked off with every conceivable kind of school prize. A rather sentimental headmaster once referred to his exploits as “glorious,” and from that arose his nickname. Perhaps only he could have survived it. He gave a Speech Day oration in Greek, I recollect, and was outstandingly first-rate in school theatricals. There was something rather Elizabethan about him—his casual versatility, his good looks, that effervescent combination of mental with physical activities. Something a bit Philip-Sidney-ish. Our civilization doesn’t often breed people like that nowadays. I made a remark of this kind to Rutherford, and he replied: ‘Yes, that’s true, and we have a special word of disparagement for them—we call them dilettanti. I suppose some people must have called Conway that, people like Wyland, for instance. I don’t much care for Wyland. I can’t stand his type—all that primness and mountainous self-importance. And the complete head-prefectorial mind, did you notice it? Little phrases about ‘putting people on their honor’ and ‘telling tales out of school’—as though the bally Empire were the Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s! But, then, I always fall foul of these sahib diplomats.”
We drove a few blocks in silence, and then he continued: “Still, I wouldn’t have missed this evening. It was a peculiar experience for me, hearing Sanders tell that story about the affair at Baskul. You see, I’d heard it before, and hadn’t properly believed it. It was part of a much more fantastic story, which I saw no reason to believe at all, or well, only one very slight reason, anyway.
very slight reasons. I dare say you can guess that I’m not a particularly gullible person. I’ve spent a good deal of my life traveling about, and I know there are queer things in the world—if you see them yourself, that is, but not so often if you hear of them secondhand. And yet …”
He seemed suddenly to realize that what he was saying could not mean very much to me, and broke off with a laugh. “Well, there’s one thing certain—I’m not likely to take Wyland into my confidence. It would be like trying to sell an epic poem to
. I’d rather try my luck with you.”
“Perhaps you flatter me,” I suggested.
“Your book doesn’t lead me to think so.”
I had not mentioned my authorship of that rather technical work (after all, a neurologist’s is not everybody’s “shop”), and I was agreeably surprised that Rutherford had even heard of it. I said as much, and he answered: “Well, you see, I was interested, because amnesia was Conway’s trouble at one time.”