THE SUMMER OF 1914 WAS THE FINEST IN LIVING MEMORY. All over Europe the sun shone, day after day, from a sky without a cloud. Holidaymakers traveled as they wished across a continent at peace, reveling in green woods and clean, warm seas. They crossed national borders unimpeded. Almost no one noticed the storm building on the political horizon; even newspapers mostly ignored it. The war struck with the suddenness of an avalanche and carried everything away.
There was never to be another summer like it.
Toward the end of June in that year the Greek steamship Hermes, preparing to depart from Port Said and having a vacant stateroom, embarked at short notice a gentleman whose name was entered in the log as Colonel Julius Creighton. He was polite and aloof and inscrutable. During the crossing of the Mediterranean, he remained extremely reticent about both himself and his business. He was without question an English milord, but beyond that obvious deduction, neither the officers nor the other passengers were able to progress. Everyone was intrigued when he chose to disembark at Cattaro, in Montenegro, which was not on the road to anywhere. The English, they agreed, were crazy. They would all have been considerably more surprised had they been able to follow his subsequent travels.
He set foot on European soil on the twenty-eighth of June, which by coincidence was the day Archduke Francis Ferdinand's death in Sarajevo opened the first crack of the collapse that was to bring down the whole world. The Montenegro border was less than fifty miles from Sarajevo. The reader is therefore cautioned that Colonel Creighton had absolutely nothing to do with the assassination.
He progressed rapidly north and east, traveling mainly on horseback through wild country, until he reached the vicinity of Belgrade. In a wagon in a wood, he was granted audience by a gypsy voivode, whose authority transcended national borders.
Creighton continued eastward and spent a night as guest of a certain count of ancient lineage, lord of a picturesque castle in Transylvania. In Vienna he met with several people, including a woman reputed to be the most skilled courtesan in Austria, with the fairest body in Europe, but the substance of their meeting was unrelated to such matters.
By the fifteenth of July he had reached St. Petersburg. Although the Russian capital was racked by workers' strikes, he succeeded in spending several hours talking with a monk celebrated for both his holiness and his political connections.
On the twenty-third, when Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia, Colonel Creighton arrived in Paris, having wasted a couple of days in a cave in the Black Forest. Paris was in the throes of the Caillaux scandal, but he ignored that, conferring with two artists and a newspaper editor. He also took an overnight train south to Marseilles to visit Fort St. Jean, European Headquarters of the Foreign Legion. He spent most of his time there in the chapel, then returned to the capital.
On July 28, when Austria declared war on Serbia, he obtained a berth on the next boat train to London--a surprising feat, considering the near-panic in the Gare du Nord.
On reaching England, he completely disappeared.
* * * *
EDWARD ARRIVED IN GREYFRIARS ON THE 4.15 FROM London. It was the Saturday of August Bank Holiday weekend, and the little station was almost deserted. Paris had been in panic. London was a riot of trippers fighting their way out of town, heading for the seaside. Greyfriars was its usual sleepy country self.
He emerged from the station, bag in hand, to find the Bodgley Rolls at the curb, with Bagpipe himself at the wheel.
Edward said, "Damned good of you to put me up, Bodgley," and climbed in.
Bagpipe said, "Good to see you, old man. Care to go for a spin?" He was trying not to swallow his ears at being allowed to drive the Rolls.
So Timothy Bodgley drove Edward Exeter home to Greyfriars Grange by a somewhat roundabout route, but took care that they arrived in decent time to get ready for dinner. Edward thanked Mrs. Bodgley for taking him in at such short notice--and at his own request, of course, but that part of it was too painful to mention. She insisted he was always welcome.
Then there was a gap. This is a common result of head injuries.
He retained no record at all of the next hour. After that came a few scattered images of dinner itself, random pages saved from a lost book. His most vivid recollection was to be of his own intense embarrassment at being in blazer and flannels, like a stray dog that had wandered into the thoroughbred kennel. One of his cases had been stolen in Paris, and he had had no time to hire evening clothes on his dash through London. He had had no English money, either, and the banks were closed on Saturdays.
The nine or ten faces around the table remained only a blur. The Bodgleys themselves, of course, he knew well: Bagpipe and his parents--the large and booming Mrs. Bodgley, and the peppery general with his very red face and white mustache. There was a Major Someone, an ex-India type. There was a Dowager Lady Somebody and the vicar. And others. The scraps of conversation he did remember were all about the imminence of war. The major explained at length how easily the French and the Russians between them would roll up the Boche. Everyone agreed it would all be over by Christmas.
Later, when the ladies had withdrawn and left the men to the port and cigars, the talk was of the need to teach the Germans a damned good lesson, and which regiment Edward Exeter and Timothy Bodgley should join, and how lucky they were to be young enough to serve.
The evening concluded with patriotic songs around the piano, and everyone turned in early because the general was scheduled to read the lesson in church the next morning.
Later still, Edward sprawled on the window seat in his room while Bagpipe in pajamas and dressing gown sat on the chair, and the two of them nattered away like old times in the junior dorm. Bagpipe raved about the book he was reading, The Lost World, and promised to lend it to Edward as soon as he had finished. They reminisced about their schooldays, amused to discover that a mere week away had already wreathed Fallow in a haze of nostalgia. They returned to the subject of the war, and Bagpipe waxed bitter.
"Me enlist? It's not meant, old man. Won't pass the medical. Not Pygmalion likely!" Even as he said it, his lungs sounded like a dying cat. He had asthma; he had never been able to run even the length of cricket pitch without turning blue, but he was a straight enough chap in spite of it. He would miss the war, and Edward was at a loss to know how to comfort him, although he babbled nonsense about valuable alternatives, like intelligence work.
Then Bagpipe shrugged it off and tried to hide his chagrin. "What say we go down and raid the larder, like old times?"
Edward must have agreed, although he retained no recollection of doing so. A trivial boyish prank like that should have been beneath their dignity, but perhaps it suited the mood of unreality that had so suddenly descended upon their lives. They had emerged from the ordered, cloistered discipline of school into a world poised on the brink of madness.
The kitchen was in the oldest part of the Grange, a vast stone barn of echoes and monumental furniture and unsettling, unexplained shadows. There, for Edward Exeter, reality ended altogether.
After that there were just a few confused frozen images, like blurred photographs in newspapers, or line drawings in the Illustrated London News. There was a girl screaming, her screams reverberating in that cavernous stone scullery. She had wild eyes and hair that hung down in long ringlets. There was a knife. There was blood--a porcelain sink with blood pouring into it. He retained a very foggy memory of people beating on the door, trying to get in, and of himself fending off the knife-wielding maniac with the aid of a wooden chair. There was a terrible pain in his leg.
Then darkness and nightmare.