I knocked out a passing guard and stole his uniform, leaving him tied up and unconscious in Emily Wilkinson's room. The two of us went out through the front gate. I concocted a lengthy and involved explanation, the gist being that the prisoner wanted to go for a walk in the rain, and the general had given me orders to indulge whatever whim came over her. The gate guards shrugged and went back to their cigarettes.
It didn't take too long for us to get out of sight of the castle, under the cover of a thicket of evergreens. The sky was overcast and grey of various shades. We sat down to rest, surrounded on all sides by dying bracken. I had taken off my Teutonic jacket and laid it on the ground for us to sit on.
"The uniform could be useful, but maybe I should lose it. It does rather qualify me as a spy," I said.
"You are a spy," said Emily.
"Yes," I replied, "There is that."
All of a sudden there was the crashing sound of motion in the undergrowth behind us. I drew my pistol as the noise approached. Looking to one side, I saw that Miss Wilkinson had somehow acquired a revolver during our escape. I was not particularly surprised.
For a few seconds the violent rustling came closer and closer, then suddenly stopped. I crouched, putting one hand to the floor. The leaves up in the treetops brushed softly against each other in the wind.
Something snapped nastily against my ear. I span round to the left, raising my gun. In my sights I found a young boy, with an incriminating catapult in his hand. He must have been about ten, and was clad in short trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt. His dusty brown hair was tousled and all over the place. He glared at me, wrinkling his nose.
"Qui êtes-vous?" he demanded. I got the impression that the little twerp was using vous to be plural, not to be polite.
I lowered my pistol. It seemed ungentlemanly to point a gun a child.
"Je suis Anglais," I said, reading his pronoun the other way. He stared at me fixedly. He obviously hadn't registered my cunning French wordplay. "Est-ce qu'il ya une maison pres d'ici?"
"Notre maison. Ce n'est pas loin."
I wasn't having a great time winning the boy over. For all I knew he might lead us on some round the houses trail to the middle of nowhere. Call me judgmental but by the cut of his jib, the boy was a rotten little weasel.
"Francois!" A voice rang out among the trees. "Francois!"
Into sight hove a middle-aged man. His face was tanned and weather-beaten, with a slightly greying beard, cut short. He had a tweed hat with a small brim and seemed to be dressed for hunting. He carried no gun, though, that I could see.
"Francois," he said to the boy, "Tu dois retourner a la maison."
The boy - Francois - frowned, his brow furrowing like a ploughed field, and stomped away, muttering the occasional "Zut!" and other turns of phrase that I do not care to repeat here.
"Vous êtes Anglais, oui?" said the man, "I, ah, heard you speak with Francois."
"Yes..." I said, positively wary.
"You must come with me to the ville. The boy will certainly tell his father about you and his papa shall tell the Germans."
He doffed his hat and bowed his head.
"I am Vincent Lenoir, the gamekeeper. I work for the boy's father, Monsieur Duchamps. Please, we must get you to meet le Resistance."
Perhaps I was taking a risk in trusting him. He could easily have led us in to a trap - we were taking him at his word that he could even contact the resistance movement. But then again, our only alternative was to mooch around in the French countryside until we stumbled across the Maquis. Fortune favours the brave, they say, and I merely hoped it was true.
"Tres bien," said Miss Wilkinson, before I could open my mouth to speak, "Merci, Monsieur Lenoir. Monsieur Fielding, allons."
I picked up the jacket and followed. Monsieur Lenoir led us through a stretch of woodland for the better part of half an hour. There was no trail or marked path that I could see. Thin, scratching branches hung down in front of us and brushed through our hair as we crouched to pass. We made our introductions on the way, and the gamekeeper told us about the resistance fighters in the local area.
It must have been about three o'clock when we reached the edge of the woodland. The town was visible across the meadow that stretched out in front of us.
"You see this small house at the edge of town?" said Lenoir, pointing, "This is where we must be."
We crossed the meadow, trying to look nonchalant. This was hard going since the rain was getting more unpleasant by the minute, and the sodden ground spattered up at us as we walked. When we reached the house, Lenoir exchanged a couple of pass phrases that verged on the nonsensical and we were admitted. The next morning Miss Wilkinson and I got into the back of a farm lorry headed towards the coast. It was an uncomfortable ride - interminable jolting and bumping with the added bonus of the occasional nerve-wrecking German checkpoint. At last the lorry came to a halt, maybe ten hours later, and the back doors were opened. Not, we were relieved to find, by the Germans.
An SOE operative got us aboard a Free French trawler to take us down to Gibraltar, where we were escorted to an office in a Nissen hut on the docks. The room in which we found ourselves was bare but for a desk, a standing lamp and a filing cabinet. The walls were blank plaster, and there were scratches along the right-hand wall about three feet off the ground, as though something heavy had been dragged against it.
We waited there for some time, until the door swung open and a man entered breezily, carrying a wooden chair. He must have been in his early forties, with pale skin and dark hair that was beginning to fleck grey at the temples. His moustache was trimmed to the same width as his mouth, which formed a quiet smile. The collar of a Navy-issue shirt protruded at the collar of his dark blue jumper. He made eye contact with each of us and placed the chair behind Emily, off to one side slightly.
"Hello, hello," he said, letting go of the chair and hurrying around the other side of the desk, "Do have a seat please, Miss."
I put my hands in my pockets. Emily sat down, glancing at me. I took my hands out of my pockets and straightened up.
"Chair shortage?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, "Terribly sorry - we had a consignment coming down from Blighty, but the Boche sank it. Could be another month before we stop getting blisters. Allow me to introduce myself - I'm Captain Whately. I've been put OIC the Thera mission. I read your papers. Good work, very informative."
We had handed over the documents we stole from the castle almost as soon as we had arrived in Gibraltar, giving them to the most senior officer we could find. They had detailed some kind of expedition the Nazis had been undertaking. After that we had spoken to a wide variety of people about what and who we saw and heard.
"We know very little," said Captain Whately, leaning both hands on the desk, "About Aktion Eisschloss - that is, "Operation Ice Palace" - not even its general objective. What we do know is that surprisingly large numbers of personnel, including scientists, mountain troops, engineers and cryptographers are being transported to the Antarctic, to an unknown location that the Germans refer to as Point 103."
"Is that where they found the Minoan tablet?" I asked.
Captain Whately looked surprised for a moment, then (I presume) worked out how I would have heard about the tablet and continued.
"Quite so. Thanks to your valuable information we know that the Nazis have tied their Point 103 find to something similar from the Greek island of Thera. There's nothing on that island to speak of, at least not any more, but it may have once had a large population. Due to your knowledge of the ranking Germans involved, the Powers That Be have requested you accompany our mission to intercept and possibly infiltrate the Thera expedition."
"We'll be only too glad to help," said Emily.
Being on the payroll, I had to go with them - it was part of the job. But I was seriously beginning to suspect that Miss Wilkinson held her own life in little regard.
"We'll be travelling by submarine to the island, where a contingent will go undercover as local fishermen," said the Captain. That sounded like a plan dreamt up in the War Ministry somewhere.
"What do you mean 'we'?" I asked.
"Oh, I'm the commanding officer," said Whately, "I'm rather looking forward to travelling by submarine."
He wanted to go into hostile waters in a submarine? Were it not for my finely-honed English upbringing, doubt and panic might have started to creep in to my thoughts. However, since there was no backing out now, I decided to harness the power of blithe optimism.
"It'll be a ripping yarn to tell our grandchildren, sir," I said.
To be continued...
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