Mount Ararat, 1948
...from behind that craggy steep till then The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head. I struck and struck again, And growing still in stature the grim shape Towered up between me and the stars, and still, For so it seemed, with purpose of its own And measured motion like a living thing, Strode after me.
- William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 381-389
The young captain's hands were sticky with blood on the steering wheel as he cautiously backed the jeep in a tight turn off the rutted mud track onto a patch of level snow that shone in the intermittent moonlight on the edge of the gorge, and then his left hand seemed to freeze onto the gear-shift knob after he reached down to clank the lever up into first gear. He had been inching down the mountain path in reverse for an hour, peering over his shoulder at the dark trail, but the looming peak of Mount Ararat had not receded at all, still eclipsed half of the night sky above him, and more than anything else he needed to get away from it.
He flexed his cold-numbed fingers off the gear-shift knob and switched on the headlamps-only one came on, but the sudden blaze was dazzling, and he squinted through the shattered windscreen at the rock wall of the gorge and the tire tracks in the mud as he pulled the wheel around to drive straight down the narrow shepherds' path. He was still panting, his breath bursting out of his open mouth in plumes of steam. He was able to drive a little faster now, moving forward-the jeep was rocking on its abused springs and the four-cylinder engine roared in first gear, no longer in danger of lugging to a stall.
He was fairly sure that nine men had fled down the path an hour ago. Desperately he hoped that as many as four of them might be survivors of the SAS group he had led up the gorge, and that they might somehow still be sane.
But his face was stiff with dried tears, and he wasn't sure if he were still sane himself-and unlike his men, he had been somewhat prepared for what had awaited them; to his aching shame now, he had at least known how to evade it.
In the glow reflected back from the rock wall at his right, he could see bright, bare steel around the bullet holes in the jeep's bonnet; and he knew the doors and fenders were riddled with similar holes. The wobbling fuel gauge needle showed half a tank of petrol, so at least the tank had not been punctured.
Within a minute he saw three upright figures a hundred feet ahead of him on the path, and they didn't turn around into the glow of the single headlamp. At this distance he couldn't tell if they were British or Russian. He had lost his Sten gun somewhere on the high slopes, but he pulled the chunky.45 revolver out of his shoulder holster-even if these survivors were British, he might need it.
But he glanced fearfully back over his shoulder, at the looming mountain-the unsubdued power in the night was back there, up among the craggy high fastnesses of Mount Ararat.
He turned back to the frail beam of light that stretched down the slope ahead of him to light the three stumbling figures, and he increased the pressure of his foot on the accelerator, and he wished he dared to pray.
He didn't look again at the mountain. Though in years to come he would try to dismiss it from his mind, in that moment he was bleakly sure that he would one day see it again, would again climb this cold track.
BOOK ONE. Learn, Not Speak
Of my Base Metal may be filed a Key, That shall unlock the Door he howls without.
- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat,
Edward J. FitzGerald translation
From the telephone a man's accentless voice said, "Here's a list: Chaucer...Malory..."
Hale's face was suddenly chilly.
The voice went on. "Wyatt...Spenser..."
Hale had automatically started counting, and Spenser made four. "I imagine so," he said, hastily and at random. "Uh, 'which being dead many years, shall after revive,' is the bit you're thinking of. It's Shakespeare, actually, Mr.-" He nearly said Mr. Goudie, which was the name of the Common Room porter who had summoned him to the telephone and who was still rocking on his heels by the door of the registrar clerk's unlocked office, and then he nearly said Mr. Philby; "-Fonebone," he finished lamely, trying to mumble the made-up name. He clenched his fist around the receiver to hold it steady, and with his free hand he shakily pushed a stray lock of sandy-blond hair back out of his eyes.
"Shakespeare," said the man's careful voice, and Hale realized that he should have phrased his response for more apparent continuity. "Oh well. Five pounds, was it? I can pay you at lunch."
For a moment neither of them spoke.
"Lunch," Hale said with no inflection. What is it supposed to be now, he thought, a contrary and then a parallel or example. "Better than fasting, a-uh-sandwich would be." Good Lord.
"It might be a picnic lunch, the fools," the bland voice went on, "and here we are barely in January-so do bring a raincoat, right?"
Repeat it back, Hale remembered. "Raincoat, I follow you." He kept himself from asking, uselessly, Picnic, certainly-raincoat, right-but will anyone even be there, this time? Are we going to be doing this charade every tenth winter for the rest of my life? I'll be fifty next time.
The caller hung up then, and after a few seconds Hale realized that he'd been holding his breath and started breathing again. Goudie was still standing in the doorway, probably listening, so Hale added, "If I mentioned it in the lectures, you must assume it's liable to be in the exam." He exhaled unhappily at the end of the sentence. Play-acting into a dead telephone now, he thought; you're scoring idiot-goals all round. To cover the blunder, he said, "Hello? Hello?" as if he hadn't realized the other man had rung off, and then he replaced the receiver. Not too bad a job, he told himself, all these years later. He stepped back from the desk and forced himself not to pull out his handkerchief to wipe his face.
Raincoat. Well, they had said that ten years ago too, and nothing had happened at all, then or since.
"Thank you, Goudie," he said to the porter, and then walked past him, back across the dark old Common Room carpet to the cup of tea that was still steaming in the lamplight beside the humming typewriter. Irrationally, it seemed odd to him that the tea should still be hot, after this. He didn't resume his seat, but picked up his sheaf of handwritten test questions and stared at the ink lines.
Ten years ago. Eventually he would cast his mind further back, and think of the war-surplus corrugated-steel bomb shelter on the marshy plain below Ararat on the Turkish-Soviet border, and then of a night in Berlin before that; but right now, defensively, he was thinking of that somewhat more recent, and local, summons-just to pace the snowy lanes of Green Park in London for an hour, as it had happened, alone and with at least diminishing anxiety, and of the subsequent forty hours of useless walks and cab rides from one old fallback location to another, down the slushy streets and across the bridges of London, cursing the confusing new buildings and intersections. There had been no telephone numbers or addresses that he would have dared to try, and in any case they would almost certainly all have been obsolete by that time. He had eventually given it up and taken the train back to Oxford, having incidentally missed a job interview; a fair calamity, in those days.
At least there was no real work to do today, and none tomorrow either. He had only come over to the college so early this morning to use fresh carbon paper and one of the electric typewriters.
Between the tall curtains to his left he could see clouds like hammered tin over the library's mansard roof, and bare young oak branches waving in the wind that rattled the casement latches. He would probably be wanting a raincoat, a literal one. God knew where he'd wind up having lunch. Not at a picnic, certainly.
He folded the papers and tucked them into his coat pocket, then ratcheted the half-typed sheets out of the typewriter, and switched the machine off.
He hoped it would still be working right, and not have got gummed up by some undergraduate teaching assistant, when he got back-which would be, he was confident, in at most a couple of days. The confidence was real, and he knew that it should have buoyed him up.
He sighed and patted the pockets of his trousers for his car keys.
The wooded hills above the River Wey were overhung in wet fog, and he drove most of the way home from the college in second gear, with the side-lamps on. When at last he steered his old Vauxhall into Morlan Lane, he tossed his cigarette out the window and shifted down to first gear, and he lifted his foot from the accelerator as the front corner of his white bungalow came dimly into view.
When he had first got the job as assistant lecturer back in 1953, he had rented a room right in Weybridge, and he remembered now bicycling back to the old landlady's house after classes in those long-ago late afternoons, from old habit favoring alleys too narrow for motor vehicles and watching for unfamiliar vans parked or driving past on the birch-shaded lanes-tensing at any absence of birdcalls in the trees, coasting close by the old red-iron V.R. post-box and darting a glance at it to look for any hasty scratches around the keyhole-and alert too for any agitation among the dogs in the yards he passed, especially if their barking should ever be simultaneous with a gust of wind or several humans shouting at once.
The old, old saying had been: Look to dogs, camels don't react-though of course there had been no camels in Weybridge anyway.
There had still then been periods when he couldn't sleep well or keep food down, and during those weeks when he was both too jumpy and too quickly tired to pedal the bicycle, he would generally walk home, kicking a stone along ahead of himself and using the opportunity to scan the macadam for skid-marks, or-somehow not implausible-seeming on those particular afternoons-for a stray bowed metal clip carelessly dropped after having had cartridges stripped off it into the box magazine of a rifle, or for the peel-off filter-cover from a gas mask, or for any bits of military-looking cellulose packaging or wire insulation...or even, though he had never actually let this image form in his mind and it would have been hard to see anyway on the black tarmac, for circles scorched into the pavement, circles ranging in size from as tiny as a pinhead to yards across. Sometimes on clear evenings he would simply hurry right past the house and on to the public house by the Bersham road, and come back hours later when the sky was safely overcast or he was temporarily too drunk to worry.
In '56, with the aid of one last shaky Education Authority grant, he had finally got his long-delayed B. Litt. from Magdalen College, Oxford and been promoted to full lecturer status here, and soon after that he had begun paying on this house in the hills on the north side of the University College of Weybridge. By that time he had finally stopped bothering about-"had outgrown," he would have said-all those cautious vigilances that he remembered the wartime American OSS officers referring to as "dry-cleaning."
And he had felt, if anything, bleakly virtuous in abandoning the old souvenir reflexes; fully eight years earlier C himself, which had been white-haired Stuart Menzies then, had summoned Hale to the "arcana," the fabled fourth-floor office at Broadway Buildings by St. James's Park, and though the old man had clearly not known much about what Hale's postwar work in the Middle East had been, nor the real story about the recent secret disaster in eastern Turkey, his pallid old face had been kindly when he'd told the twenty-six-year-old Hale to make a new life for himself in the private sector. You were reading English at an Oxford college before we recruited you, C had said. Go back to that, pick up your life from that point, and forget the backstage world, the way you would forget any other illogical nightmare. You'll receive another year's pay through Drummond's in Admiralty Arch, and with attested wartime work in the Foreign Office you should have no difficulties getting an education grant. In the end, for all of us, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria vanescere."
Sweet and fitting it is to vanish for the fatherland. Well, better than die, certainly, as the original Horace verse had it. Hale had known enough by then to be sure that he had effectively vanished from the ken of even the highest levels at Broadway, and all but one of the ministers in Whitehall, long before that final interview with C.
So what dormant, obsolete short-circuit was this, that was still occasionally using the old codes as if to summon him? No one had made any kind of contact with him in Green Park on that day in the winter of '52, and he was sure that no one would be there today, on this second day of 1963. The whole fugitive Special Operations Executive had finally been closed down for good in '48, and he assumed that all the surviving personnel had been cashed out and swept under the rug, as he had been.
Here's a list, he thought bitterly as he stepped on the clutch and touched the brake pedal: Walsingham's Elizabethan secret service, Richelieu 's Cabinet Noir, the Russian Oprichnina, the SOE-that's four, speak up! They're all just footnotes in history. Probably there's an unconsidered routine at the present-day SIS headquarters to call agents of all the defunct wartime services and recite to them an un-comprehended old code, once every ten years. He recalled hearing of a temporary wartime petrol-storage tank in Kent that had been wired to ring a certain Army telephone number whenever its fuel level was too low; somehow the old circuitry had come on again during the 1950s, long after the tank itself had been dismantled, and had begun once a month calling the old number, which had by that time been assigned to some London physician. Doubtless this was the same sort of mix-up. Probably SIS had telephoned the old lady's boardinghouse in Weybridge before trying the college exchange.
Still, do bring a raincoat.
He had stopped the car in the narrow street now, half a dozen yards short of his gravel driveway and partly concealed from the house by the boughs of a dense pine tree on the next-door property. Of course the only cars parked at the curbs were a Hillman and a Morris that belonged to his neighbors. From here he couldn't see the bowed drawing room windows, but the recessed front door certainly didn't give any obvious sign of having been forced since he'd locked it early this morning, and the driveway gravel didn't look any different; even the cleaning woman wasn't due until Friday.