Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Tags: #A&A, #historical, #military, #suspense, #thriller, #war, #WW II
We had not been on the subject long before I was forced to realise that the two girls were anything but pro-British in their sympathies. I suppose I should not have been surprised, as having mixed so much with foreigners I was much more conscious than the majority of Englishmen that most of them are very far from regarding Britain as the benevolent, disinterested champion of freedom and democracy that we all like to believe her.
Great numbers of them are fully convinced that our policy is entirely inspired by selfish avarice, and that we should never go to war at all if we were not forced to protect those huge Imperial territories from which we draw our riches while keeping them half-empty and barring all less fortunate peoples out of them. Others, while admitting our integrity, have come to despise us because they consider that we have become decadent. They maintain that the ills of the world are entirely due to British weakness, incompetence and sloth. If we had given armed support to the Emperor Haile Selassie, instead of encouraging him to fight and then letting him down—if, instead of amusing ourselves with Football Pools, we had taken enough interest in the European situation to realise that Baldwin’s irresponsible, deliberate and wicked refusal to face unpalatable facts that such men as Churchill, Beaverbrook and Rothermere placed publicly before him was a menace to our very lives—if we had only stood by the Czechs, etc., etc. I knew all those arguments only too well, but all the same it came as a most unpleasant surprise to me to learn that Daphnis should be anti-British.
It was not, thank God, that she was pro-Nazi, but she argued that Britain had dominated the world and made a mess of it too long. It was time that some of the other nations had a chance—Italy, for example. She considered that it was mean and hypocritical of us to grudge Italy her newly-created Empire when we had such vast territories of our own. Italy was terribly overpopulated, yet worse off than practically any other nation in natural resources and arable land. She was full of praise for Mussolini and the remarkable way in which he had cleaned up Italy and lifted her from a third-class nation into the ranks of the Great Powers.
I agreed with her about that, as plenty of other people did before Musso did his filthy stabbing-in-the-back act, but I tried to point out that, basically, Fascism was only another name for Nazi-ism. The trouble was, though, that while Daphnis was not pro-Nazi, she certainly did not understand the full implications of National Socialism.
To her, it was just something young and new, as opposed to the doddering schoolmarmism of Britain. She said that obviously Hitler could not be such a bad man as the British painted him, otherwise he would not be so universally adored by his own people. She didn’t want Britain to sustain a crushing defeat and lose everything, but she thought that the Germans were entitled to a place in the sun and that it would be a very good thing if the British and French Empires could be split up so that all the other nations of Europe could have colonies of their own.
Naturally, I took a very different view, particularly about the Germans, and I became so occupied in my denunciation of the Nazis as an unscrupulous and loathsome gang of crooks that I lost all count of time, and was badly caught out by Daphnis saying:
“Well, we must leave you now, otherwise we shall be late for breakfast.”
Alcis had the decency to ride on alone for a little way, but I only had time to thrust my long letter into Daphnis’ hand and beg her to suggest some way in which I could see her alone if only for a few moments.
“I don’t see how I can,” she murmured, “but I’ll try to think of something. I could let you know if you come down to ride with us again at the same time tomorrow.”
“Of course I will,” I replied, and with the meagre comfort of her promise I had to be content.
You can imagine my chagrin when, on meeting the two girls again the following morning, Daphnis sadly confessed that she had failed to think of any way in which she could meet me alone without running a risk of getting into the most frightful trouble with her family. Naturally I didn’t want that, but I felt I should go positively crazy if, somehow or other, I could not manage to hold her in my arms at least once more before my leave was up. It was already Friday morning and I was due back at the camp outside Cairo on the Saturday night. Four days had slipped away since I had left hospital, and I now had only two days and one night left.
I think Daphnis must have said something to Alcis, as soon
after we met our gooseberry went off for a gallop along the shore, and even after she had cantered back remained for the best part of the ride near us but out of earshot. In consequence I was at least able to talk freely to Daphnis and stress the frightfully short time that I now should be in Alex.
“I simply dare not meet you at a restaurant or a cake-shop,” she insisted. “Alex is such a small place, at least the part where girls like myself could go, and my parents would be certain to hear of it. I wonder, though, if I could manage to get down to the garden at night, in spite of Mother being at home. Her room is next to mine, but she goes to bed quite early. It would mean tiptoeing past her door on going down and coming back, but if I’m awfully careful I don’t think she’d hear me. I do want to see you again, Julian, and if you like I’ll chance it.”
That put me between the devil and the deep sea. I wanted more than anything else in the world to have that stolen meeting, but it seemed a rotten business on my part to urge her to do something which might land her in serious disgrace.
I had just made up my mind to tell her that she must not risk it when she said, with sudden decision: “That’s the only thing to do, and if I’m caught I’ll pretend that I’m walking in my sleep. I used to as a child and no one will be able to prove that I’m lying.”
Once that was settled we had the meeting to look forward to and it put us both in a far happier frame of mind, so that for the rest of the ride both of us were full of joyous excited anticipation of the coming night.
Yet once I had left her I became restless and nervy. In vain I tried to read or amuse myself in various other ways throughout the day, but I could think of nothing except Daphnis and my all-absorbing love for her.
So far I had said nothing to her about marriage. Perhaps that was innate caution resulting from my numerous past affairs, in several of which I had had to exercise considerable skill to prevent myself being hooked by charming little gold-diggers who would have liked to establish a permanent claim on my handsome income; and I had no idea at all if Daphnis regarded me as a potential husband or not. Possibly she believed that her people would never consent to her marrying an Englishman and so had put the whole question right out of her mind. On the other hand, since she had been so jealously guarded, it was quite on the cards that, like an early-Victorian miss, she took it for granted that any man who said that he loved her and kissed her on the lips automatically wanted to marry her; but that there was no hurry
about going into details and that I should find a way to do so in due course.
In any case, I had definitely made up my mind that I wanted to marry her and the sooner the better. I see no point in long engagements, particularly when there is a war on, so I intended to tell her that night that there was nothing whatever to be frightened of, and that I meant to come round on the following morning to call formally on her mother and father and ask her hand in marriage before I returned to Cairo.
Had she been an English girl I might have been a little worried about my past, and the effect that its disclosure, which I could not have decently avoided, would have had upon her and my prospective parents-in-law. But I felt that I could produce the grim skeleton which I kept so carefully locked in my cupboard to Daphnis without fear when the first suitable opportunity offered, and it did not seem to me that I was bound to go into the matter at all with the parents of a girl who knew no English people, and with whom I had not the faintest intention of settling down in England to live.
Apart from that I saw no reason why a father of any nationality should consider me as an unsuitable husband for his daughter. I was young, sound in wind and limb, and had no previous encumbrances, either wives, children, or troublesome ex-mistresses. I had a comfortable fortune, carefully invested, and when my elderly uncle, the old Major-General, died, however much he might dislike me, he could not prevent me coming into the baronetcy.
With these thoughts in my mind I set off from my hotel that night, arriving outside the little door in the garden wall well before midnight, which had been the hour agreed on. As I stood there I puffed hard upon a cigarette, my nerves all keyed up with the anticipation that the next hour would prove a milestone in my life, giving again that solidity which would come from having someone besides myself to care for.
The moon was now in its last quarter and the sky was cloudy again, so that not a glimmer of moon, or even starlight, came through, and it was very dark, so dark that more than once I examined the door with my lighter to make quite certain that I was waiting outside the right one.
At last there came the sound of the turning key and a crack of greyness showed. Unable to wait a second longer, my heart thumping in my chest, I pushed the door open and stepped inside. Subconsciously I noticed a row of pale yellow squares on
the ground floor of the distant house, where lights were still on behind drawn curtains, but my whole attention was fixed on Daphnis, whose figure showed only a faint whitish blur on the darkness. I stretched out my arms and a moment later she was in them.
I had hardly touched her when I realised that there was something wrong. She didn’t feel right. She didn’t smell right. Her kiss was different and her lips were thin and hard. In a second it flashed upon me that this was not Daphnis that I was holding but some other woman, and I thrust her from me.
Out of the heavy gloom there came a stupid infuriating giggle, then Alcis’ voice:
“I’m afraid you took me for Daphnis, didn’t you? Are you very disappointed?”
The giggle and the voice clearly implied that she had not minded being kissed, and had purposely let me take her for Daphnis. Evidently she had been sent to let me in, but she could quite easily have stepped back instead of deliberately allowing me to take her in my arms. I was absolutely furious.
“Where—where’s Daphnis?” I managed to stammer.
“She couldn’t come, so she sent me to entertain you instead.”
This brazen offer to act as a substitute for Daphnis was so blatant and unwelcome that I’m afraid I did not scruple about hurting Alcis’ feelings as I replied curtly:
“Thanks, I don’t want entertainment, and you’re telling a lie when you say that she sent you for that purpose. Why couldn’t she come? What’s gone wrong?”
“All right, then,” Alcis suddenly flared. “You shall have the truth if you prefer it. Paolo arrived unexpectedly from Cairo this afternoon, so my aunt arranged a dinner-party. The guests are still here and naturally, now Paolo has come back, Daphnis hasn’t any more time to give to a stray Englishman like you.”
“Who the hell’s Paolo?” I demanded angrily.
In reply I got the final blow.
“He’s a Secretary at the Italian Legation and he is Daphnis’ fiancé.”
Alcis’ explanation of Daphnis’ non-appearance was so totally unexpected, the news that she was engaged to be married so shattering, that for a few moments my brain went completely blank. Without consciously parting from Alcis I found that the door had closed behind me and that I was standing in the street.
Anyone who has read the earlier part of this journal may say that it served me darn’ well right, and that having dallied amorously without serious intentions in the past, Fate was evening up the balance now that I really had fallen for somebody by placing her out of my reach. Yet I can honestly declare that I have never deliberately led a girl up the garden path with the idea of just amusing myself and then throwing her over.
Of course it would not be fair to imply that Daphnis had promised to marry me while already engaged to somebody else, but she had led me up the garden path to the extent of believing that she cared for me as much as I did for her, and she had never even hinted that I had a rival who already had a definite claim upon her.
I suppose, in view of the voice that I had heard on the first night I entered the garden, I should have been prepared for something of this kind; but silly as it may seem now, in the past week I had really come to believe that I had fallen asleep for a few moments behind the bushes, and only dreamed that Daphnis had been in the garden with another man before coming down to meet me.
Now I knew quite definitely that I had not been dreaming. Alcis had said that Paolo was a Secretary at the Italian Legation, and both Daphnis and the man had spoken in Italian. Then there was her sympathy with the Italians and admiration for Mussolini’s achievements—sentiments which could hardly be wondered at if she was engaged to a prominent Fascist.
Sick with rage, mortification and disappointment, I made my way slowly back to the hotel. On my arrival I ordered a bottle of brandy and a syphon to be sent up to my room with a vague idea of trying to drown my misery. Of the three emotions I think disappointment was uppermost. I wanted so frightfully the feel of Daphnis’ hands and lips; the caress of her whispers and the magic of her laughter. Anyone who has really been in love will know
that it is no joking matter, and that when things don’t go right one can hunger for the touch of one’s beloved as desperately as any dope addict ever craved for drugs.
That night I drank far more brandy than was good for me as I sat, hour after hour, engaged in a morbid inquest on what seemed the death of my one genuine love affair. I had to admit to myself that I had done my best to force myself on Daphnis, and therefore was at least partly to blame. Apparently she had been physically attracted for the moment, and as her fiancé was in Cairo had given way to the temptation to amuse herself, knowing that I should be leaving Alex at the end of the week and that if she played her cards skilfully it was most unlikely that any unpleasant complications would result. Doubtless that was why she had been so insistent that I should not call or write to her. She was evidently anxious to keep her parents entirely in the dark about me.