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Assignment in Brittany, Page 2

Helen Macinnes

  There was a note in Matthews’ voice which raised Hearne’s eyes from the map to the older man’s face. Anything you pick up... Was that inflexion on the you intended? If it were, then that was high praise.

  Matthews was speaking again. “I don’t think you’ll find this a difficult job.” Again there was that hint of emphasis on the you. “I think,” he was saying, “I think we can depend on you only to follow your instructions, and not to suffer from any attacks of misplaced brilliance.”

  Hearne’s elation faded, and then he saw the gleam in Matthews’ eye, and the repressed smile. He breathed again. So Matthews wasn’t displeased over his last attack of “misplaced brilliance,” after all. Hearne suddenly thought, perhaps he’s giving me this job just because I find it hard to be orthodox in my methods. Perhaps he isn’t so much against them as he always pretends to be.

  Matthews seemed to guess Hearne’s thoughts. “Seriously,” he said, “you did a good job at Bordeaux. But I’d like you to restrain yourself on this trip. No good getting lost to us.” And then, as if he felt he had been too expansive, he added, “Not after all the trouble I’ve had in training you.”

  “Yes, sir,” Hearne said.

  Matthews’ voice was matter-of-fact once more. “I suggest you memorise the contents of that folder. You’ll find all the necessary data in it, including observations on Corlay by one of his officers and by a man who had known him as a student. After you’ve got all that information memorised, you can start on Corlay himself. You’ll visit him each day in hospital, for two or three weeks. He can talk now. Find out everything you can to fill in the gaps. Study his voice, his expressions, all that sort of thing.”

  “What if he won’t talk? The Bretons can be very reticent, you know.”

  “I think he will. There is a certain amount of questioning which all strangers in Britain must go through at this time. We’ve never had so many aliens dumped so unexpectedly on our shores, and at rather a dangerous moment for us, too. There are rumours, even among the wounded, of what’s now called the Fifth Column. Fournier has seen Corlay, and dropped him that hint. He will talk, just to identify himself.”

  “Well, that sounds more hopeful... You say he looks like me?”

  “Looks? My dear Hearne, he’s the dead spit of you. If he could mislead me, you can mislead anyone who knows him.”

  “But his mother and father?”

  “Father killed in 1917. Mother bedridden. You’ll find it all in that folder. I investigated that sort of thing before I called you in. Now, if there had been a wife...” Matthews smiled, and shook his head slowly. When he spoke again, his voice was crisp and business-like. “I think you’re in luck this time, Hearne. You’ll learn more about your Celtic peoples in a month at Saint-Déodat than you did that year at Rennes University.” There was the sugar coating being spread on again. “What made you interested in the Bretons, anyway? Was it because you are a Cornishman yourself?”

  Hearne nodded. “That, and the fact that I like them, and that my father spent all his time in between his sermons writing about the early British saints. A lot of them ended up in Brittany, you know.”

  “Déodat being one? Well, that makes one of these nice coincidences.”

  “I can’t think of any Déodat except St. Augustine’s son,” Hearne said with a smile.

  “St. Augustine?” Matthews looked startled. “Didn’t know he was married.”

  “He wasn’t,” Hearne said, enjoying the shocked look on Matthews’ face. He added, “That was probably during Augustine’s ‘O God, make me pure but not yet,’ period.” For a strong Scots Presbyterian, Matthews was reacting in a very High Church manner. Hearne grinned amiably.

  “Well, I’ll be damned,” said Matthews. “Well, I’ll be—”

  “That’s about all, then?” Hearne asked tactfully.

  “Yes,” said Matthews. “Yes. I’ll see you again before you leave.”

  “How do I go?”

  It was Matthews’ turn to smile. “Just drop in,” he said.

  The sun had come out and with it a swarm of flies, fat black flies, inquisitive, persistent. But, at least, Hearne was beginning to feel dry and warm. He took the map out of his pocket to verify his position again. It was a detailed French map of Brittany with well-worn creases, stains and a jagged tear over the Atlantic corner for good measure. If he were questioned, he was to say that this map had been given him at Brest after he had arrived there by fishing-boat from Dunkirk. Better allow himself a slight case of shell-shock to account for the period between Dunkirk and the armistice. Shell-shock might be useful later: it could explain any strangeness, any lapse of memory. So, with this map, he had found his way home to the North of Brittany. The food in his pocket could be explained away, too... friendly peasantry department. Could be explained away. He smiled grimly at the phrase. He would just have to take especial care tonight in his short journey to Saint-Déodat, and then no explanations would be necessary to any curious patrol.

  He examined the map for the last time. He must be able to remember the details of the district to the north and west of this wood, to reach the toy railway which trailed the main road from Rennes to Saint-Malo. It would guide him part of the way. The rest would depend on his knowledge of these thin and thick red lines and winding black ones. He had looked at them so often in the past few days that they were etched on his memory as well as on this map. At last he admitted that he could do no more, that he must depend now on a combination of intelligence and intuition. There would be no moon tonight, but if the sky stayed clear the stars would be enough. Failing them, it would have to be by guess and by God.

  He settled himself more comfortably in his bracken bed. The sweet smell of fern and grass, the warmth of the sun, the increasing hum of the innumerable insects, drowned him pleasantly. He felt himself slipping into light sleep. Tomorrow, he was thinking, tomorrow Bertrand Corlay would be home.



  A cool breeze awakened him. The bright green of the bracken and trees was no longer bathed in sunlight. The glade had darkened, as if a shade had been pulled down over a window. The gentle hum of insects had gone, the birds had become silent. There was only the uneasy stirring of branches overhead, the anxious rustling of the leaves. Not a pleasant sound, Hearne thought, especially when a man was hungry and cold. As the dusk deepened, he made an effort to get up. He was much stiffer than he had even thought. He sat with his back against a tree, and ate half of his rations, such as they were. The other half he replaced stoically in his pocket. If he bungled tonight, there would be another day to provide for.

  At last the darkness had thickened enough to let him reach the edge of the trees. He walked slowly, even painfully at first, but by the time the first stars began to show, he was ready.

  He looked at the North Star, and got his bearings. The fields ahead seemed horribly naked. In a way, he thought as he left the trees, this was something like taking a dive from a plane, except that he didn’t have to worry this time about the parachute opening.

  The ground, becoming more tamed as it descended, sloped gently into a broad shallow valley. The clumps of gorse grew more sparsely, much to Hearne’s relief. It hadn’t been so easy to avoid them at first. By the time he had reached the first cultivated patch of land, he was moving more confidently. His stiffness was forgotten, and his eyes had become accustomed to the shapes and shadows within the darkness.

  He passed a house, hidden unexpectedly behind some trees. A dog barked, and he saw a dull yellow light fill one of the windows as a lamp was lit. He felt an extraordinary compulsion to stay and watch. The glow from the small square window reached out into the coldness of the night and held him there, standing irresolute. Then the dog barked again, and the spell was broken. He moved swiftly away. Behind him the light still shone, but there was no sound of men’s voices or of following feet. Then other trees and a twist in the path blocked out the house, and he was alone in a field of straggling corn, hedged with
gnarled fruit-trees.

  It was strange how you could be trapped by a moment like that, when your control over your movements was suspended, when nothing seemed to matter anyway. Strange, and dangerous. He couldn’t allow himself any off-guard moments, he reminded himself grimly. He thought again of that light. No footsteps, no men’s voices. When the dog had barked, the light had appeared so quickly, as if someone were lying awake, listening, waiting. A woman, perhaps, hoping against hope. This summer, there would be plenty of women, waiting and hoping. And he couldn’t allow himself any sentiment, either: that was another luxury he couldn’t afford this trip. He concentrated on the fields.

  The faintly luminous hands on Corlay’s watch told him it was fully an hour since he had stepped out of the woods. He was late. Either he had gone too carefully, or he had missed his direction. The discouraging idea that he had landed in another part of the Breton countryside, after all, began to take root. One minute he was calling himself a damned fool; and then the next, he was imagining what he’d use for transit if he found himself on the steep banks of the River Rance. It should be well behind him. If it weren’t, he’d have a nice cold swim ahead of him. He remembered Matthews’ old consolation; blessed is he who expects the worst, for he shall not be disappointed. He walked gloomily on. If he came to a village, he could scout out its name. Of course the villages hereabouts would all have gold-plated neon signs and—and at that moment, he almost tripped over the miniature railway-line. Not that it was noticeable, wandering so lightheartedly through the grass and flowers, along the hedgerows, and across the winding country roads without so much as a by-your-leave. He advanced cautiously along it, moving quietly through the shadows. The new moon was not yet born. Only the stars lighted the clear sky.

  He passed occasional farm-houses, darkened and asleep in the curves of their fields. Now and again there would be a village to avoid. Once he came to an unexpected road and a small wooden shed which was probably a station—nameless, in the best railway tradition. Twenty yards away was a hidden village, a dozen little stone houses round the inevitable church. German notices were posted here on the wall beside which he sheltered. But no one stirred. Reassured, he crossed the treacherous road, his eyes searching the sleeping village. “Café de France et de Chateaubriand,” he noted. That cheered him up, somehow, in spite of a large white proclamation with giant black letters shouting after him Bekanntmachung!

  He had reached the protection of some trees. And then a shadow moved—just there, about fifty yards ahead, in that unfortunate patch of open ground. He drew back against a tree. Another shadow moved, close behind the first one. His eyes followed their careful progress as his mind raced quickly from one plan to another. If he kept behind these two men, they would slow up his pace. He must circle to his left (for to the right lay the main roadway to the coast, and he had better keep well clear of that), increasing his speed, so that he would pass the two men and come back to the railway-line well ahead of them.

  And then the noise of heavy trucks rumbled across the quiet fields. When they were about a quarter of a mile distant, Hearne glanced at the watch on his wrist. It pointed to 10.58. The trucks were travelling slowly, probably half blacked out. About fifteen miles an hour, he guessed. He strained his eyes, but the trees which were spaced along the roadway broke his line of vision. Here and there, where the edge of the road was clear, he could see black lumbering shapes, like a herd of elephants stringing out towards a water-hole. Yes, fifteen miles an hour was about right. He listened patiently, his eye on his watch. When the last of the column had reached about a quarter of a mile away, and the hum of engines was fading towards the coast, the time on the watch was 11.01. They had taken three minutes to pass through half a mile, roughly at about fifteen miles an hour. That would give him almost a quarter of a mile of trucks. And many of them had been carrying oil: there was no mistaking the noise of the chains trailing on the paved roadway, clattering above the hum of the powerful engines.

  Ahead of Hearne, the two men had fallen flat on the ground. When the sound of motors had died away, they moved quickly towards the nearest cover. They didn’t want to attract any German interest, either. But even if they wanted to avoid the Nazis, that didn’t mean he wanted to meet them. He moved quickly to his left up the sloping hill, working round the edge of the patch of open ground in front of him. He set off impatiently: he was losing time having to make this detour to avoid these two blighters. But his temper improved with the easiness of the ground. He could no longer see the men, but he would allow himself half a mile before he turned back towards the toy railway again. He made it in good enough time, for he found plenty of cover. He blessed the Breton habit of never clearing their fields completely of trees. He had often wondered why the farmers should have taken the trouble, year after year, to plough and reap all round every small tree. Now he felt grateful to them.

  The half-mile was covered. Time now, he told himself, to swerve to his right, down through that small wood. Beyond it he would find the railway-line again. It was strange, he thought, to slip so quietly and cautiously through this peaceful countryside, past the small stone houses with their black windows staring at him like sightless eyes, past the sleeping people and the brooding church towers, while down in the valley the Nazi trucks lumbered along with their death-bringing loads.

  He had entered the wood, and, for the second time that night, almost fell over the narrow tracks of the railway.

  “What the hell—” he thought, and then cursed silently as he realised that he must have been working his way gradually down towards the railway all the time he had thought he was keeping parallel.

  And then suddenly a weight hit his knees, two arms were tightly locked round his legs, and he pitched forward on to his face with a grunt as the wind was knocked out of him. When he got back his breath, he found he was pinned to the ground. The larger of the two men was sitting astride him with a firm grasp on the back of his neck, with a strong knee-hold on his arms.

  “He’s French.” The boy who was squatting in front of him, watching him gravely, pronounced the verdict in a low whisper. “At least,” the whispered voice went on, “he’s wearing a French uniform. But he may be a Jerry. Never can tell, these days.”

  “You should have let me fetch him one, lad,” whispered back the weight across Hearne’s shoulders. The slow drawl and flat overtones were unmistakably Yorkshire.

  Hearne thought quickly: maintain he was French and. speak with a bogus English accent, and he’d still lose time in explanations; or he could just speak French, and they’d still argue whether he was friend or foe. He decided to risk it.

  “You tackle too high,” he said in English to the big Yorkshireman. The weight on his back shifted.

  “Eh, what’s that?”

  “You tackle too high. And for Jesus’ sake, don’t raise that voice of yours. Do you want to bring a pack of Nazis down on us, you bloody fool?”

  The Yorkshireman dropped his voice again, but there was an angry vehemence in his whisper. “I never tackled high in my whole life.”

  “Well, that’s no reason to flatten me now, you blithering idiot.”

  “Sounds as if he might be English,” the boy remarked. He was feeling Hearne’s pockets gently. He removed the revolver and slipped it info his own pocket. “Get off, Sam,” he said then.

  “Not me,” said Sam, and settled his weight more squarely. “I’m fine as I am.”

  Hearne addressed himself to the thin-faced, anxious boy. “Go on, pick up his moosket for him, Wellington. Do you want us all to be caught?”

  “What’s your regiment?” the boy asked suddenly.

  “Liaison officer,” parried Hearne. “Ninth French Army. Sedan and points west, ever since.”

  “Where did you get these clothes?”

  “Where did you get yours?” Hearne grinned as he looked at their blue peasant blouses, ill-fitting jackets and ragged corduroy trousers. “Look here, I could talk much better with Sam off my back, and
it’s about time we were moving on. I’m in a hurry, if you aren’t. And you might remember that I’d have used my revolver at once if I had been a Jerry.”

  “One wrong move from you, me lad, and I’ll flatten you proper,” Sam said placidly, and rose to his feet. He thrust one large red fist under Hearne’s nose for emphasis. “See?”

  “I see,” Hearne said with a smile. “And even if it was high, it was a damned good tackle.” Sam only grunted in reply, but an answering grin spread slowly over his large face. Strange couple, thought Hearne: the serious, fair-haired boy, thin and haggard, who spoke such precise clipped English, and the plain Yorkshireman with his broad back and vowels.

  “Which way are you heading?” the boy asked. He might have been twenty, but he looked more like seventeen.


  “Then we can go on together.” His tone was very definite. That would have been his answer if Hearne had said “South.”

  “I don’t want to lose that gun,” Hearne said.

  The boy smiled. “I’ll look after it very well.” He nodded to Sam, who took his place behind Hearne, and set off without another word.