The High Wire (7)
December 14, 2014
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize William Haggard’s 1963 novel The High Wire, the fifth title in his acclaimed Col. Charles Russell espionage adventure series — which, at the time, was considered by critics (if not the general public) superior to Ian Fleming’s Bond series. “Haggard lacked Fleming’s snooty dilettantism, and was better at creating subtle layers of political intrigue,” Christopher Fowler has written. “Haggard treats his women with more respect, too. They are investigators and heroines with lives of their own. As for exoticism, try Haggard’s character Miss Borrodaile, the elegant, black-clad, former French Resistance fighter with a steel foot.” Under the editorship of HILOBROW’s Joshua Glenn, the Save the Adventure book club will reissue The High Wire as an e-book for the first time ever. Enjoy!
On the other side of the Channel Jacques and Pierre had at once reported and had been disciplined just as quickly; and within an hour the story had come back to de Fleury. Victor, he was thinking, was prompt at least, but apart from that reflection he was furious. The loss of Jacques and Pierre was something he could accept — they had been useful potentially but also expendable — but Victor’s action had been an insult. It was true that he had had Cohn killed without even informing his military attaché, but there had been justification for that. Military attachés were the happier, the safer too, not to be consulted in some gutter killing, but de Fleury had been sent to London with a precise and agreed plan. He had accepted the assignment gladly, since it had saved him from the probability of a considerable spell in prison. Still, he had had his instructions, the terms of his employment in a sense, and Victor had arbitrarily overridden them, indulging the crudest violence — madness. De Fleury genuinely detested violence. This wasn’t some steaming colony, or a desert crust on an ocean of oil. Victor had been good in those — oh, very. This was London, a civilized capital in its queer English way, and Hadley far from some frightened native. Victor loved violence for violence had served him well. The beatings-up, the torturings, the police who arrived too late….
The provinces of empire lost, the sapping, degrading wars.
Not here — not here indeed. Victor was mad to think of it; Victor, of course, was a little mad. To serve what he served he had to be.
De Fleury considered the new situation. The Security Executive had been intelligent; they hadn’t wanted an open political scandal and they’d neatly avoided one. But had they told Hadley that there had been a plan to beat information out of him, a brutal scheme hatched in another country? If that were so then blackmail, even the severest forms of it, would seem small beer. But de Fleury didn’t believe that Hadley would have been told. He wouldn’t have told him himself, for it was an axiom of the trade that a man who needed protection was very much easier to protect if he wasn’t aware of it; and everything the Executive had done, or rather had not, suggested that its policy was that the fewer people knew about last night the better.
In which case Hadley would know nothing of any attempt at violence; all Hadley would know was that de Fleury had strings on him. Very well then, he’d tighten them. Victor, head down, had come charging in and earned for his pains a smarting snub. That was how he’d see it — a rebuff from Charles Russell, a rival. But the original plan was still uncompromised, so why not proceed with it? De Fleury had never imagined that Rex would break at once, indeed he would have been astonished if he had even shown signs of it. The essence of blackmail was that it was cumulative, a weapon in a craftsman’s hands. And de Fleury was a craftsman with a craftsman’s pride. This was where his skill came in, the expertise and judgement. They’d sent him to London to use them, the calculated, mounting squeeze. He’d been successful before and with very tough men.
De Fleury rose, pouring himself a whisky. His forebears had been serving kings when Victor’s had been peasants. Victor had come lunging in, a middle-class soldier, a violent clown….
De Fleury finished his drink. He’d stick to his plan for he was certain it was a good one. He’d timed the next move carefully, plotting a curve of strength. He’d given Hadley a week and the week was almost up. So he’d hit him again and he’d strike where it hurt. Now he’d strike at his private life.
He began to check carefully, for he was thorough as well as ruthless; he reached for a file. It was a dossier on Rex Hadley and the Executive itself wouldn’t have been ashamed of it. De Fleury read it through again…. There had been an unhappy marriage, and then, six weeks ago, divorce. Mrs Hadley had had money and the alimony hadn’t been crippling. Hadley had played the gentleman — the usual place and at one of two usual hotels. That had been six weeks ago, and at present there was only the decree nisi. So there’d be six more weeks before the absolute. Rex Hadley was starting life again; Rex Hadley was vulnerable.
De Fleury dialled a number. ‘Is that van Omnigens?’ Van Omnigens were solicitors of formidable eminence, standing advisers to de Fleury’s embassy. They were also, when they trusted you, rather more forthright than most. ‘Mrs Beatrix Agar, please. My name’s de Fleury.’
Presently a soft voice answered him. A great many people had underestimated that gentle voice, and most had regretted the misjudgement.
‘Beatrix, can you dine with me? Tonight? I know it’s short notice.’
‘I’d love to but I’ve a date.’ Mrs Agar regretted her previous engagement. She chose her men friends carefully and Francis de Fleury was a favourite.
‘Then tell me about your divorce law. I gather it’s an anachronism.’
‘Francis, you’re coming on. English divorce law rests on the assumption that two people who want a divorce and could arrange one decently shouldn’t be allowed it unless one of them has committed what’s called a matrimonial offence.’
‘I wish I were. Have you heard of the bench of bishops?’
‘We tamed our own.’
‘I wish I could say the same. Not that I’m not sorry for them sometimes. Twenty years ago or so they wanted to change their prayer book, the way they spoke to God in fact. And what do you think happened? Parliament wouldn’t let them.’
De Fleury said cautiously: ‘I’m a foreigner. This is England.’
‘You’re a diplomat and delicate. But it doesn’t work like that when anything important comes along, divorce law, for instance — something which affects the lives of ordinary people. Then politicians listen with their ears pinned back. That’s votes, you see, or might be, and votes are politics, not prayer books.’
‘I don’t think I follow.’
‘I can’t say I blame you. This, as you said, is England. In America, where legal cruelty means anything from having the wrong haircut to not eating breakfast they manage less outrageously, and in catholic and logical countries where the Church is still powerful divorce is quite simply impossible. But otherwise it’s civil law. Here we get the worst of both worlds.’
‘I don’t understand it.’
‘Poor Francis, poor sensible foreign Francis. I told you you couldn’t have a divorce simply because both of you wanted one. That would be too easy, divorce by consent, and that’s a dirty word. So if neither of you has indulged in a matrimonial offence, and probably neither has, one of you either has to commit one or else to pretend to. Mostly you simply pretend, but if it’s found out that’s terrible. You’ve cheated, tried to deceive the wise and learned judge. You won’t get your decree or, if you’ve got a first decree, a nisi, it might even be rescinded. That’s happened where someone’s been careless or when somebody did the dirt on him.’ There was a feline chuckle. ‘Don’t quote me, by the way. We’re terribly respectable.’
‘How long between the first decree and what you call the absolute?’
‘Three months if it breaks your way. Francis, I know you’re a bachelor. I ask no questions, but you can send him to me if you like. Not both of them — ever. Meanwhile I’ll tell you something. It makes me ashamed, it makes me sweat, but you pay us very handsomely.’
‘All right then, tell me.’
‘Far and away the easiest matrimonial offence to handle is straight adultery. I can’t give your friend a name — my senior partners would have strokes — but I could give him an introduction who will give him an introduction who will give him another. You’ll have gathered it’s a sort of game, a shameful one. So you find your woman and take her away. She’ll be a professional of course. One of the best has three boys at prep. school and does it to pay the fees.’
‘You’re obliged to go to bed with her? Forgive me if I sound innocent. I’m only a poor foreigner.’
‘She’d scream if you tried. You sleep on the floor and set your alarm for half-past seven. When it goes off you undress and get into bed with her. Then you ring for breakfast and, if you’ve chosen the right hotel, the chambermaid knows the drill.’
‘So it depends on the chambermaid?’
‘Where they have chambermaids.’
‘And what about the hotel register?’
‘That wouldn’t be enough alone, not unless there was a long back history of association with the same woman. The theory of the thing is that she’s simply a tart you picked up.’
‘And if the servant breaks down? If she makes a mess of giving evidence?’
‘If you go to the right hotel she won’t.’
‘But if she does?’
‘It would depend on the judge’s liver. And religion.’
‘Suppose she were later to change her mind — resile?’
‘And why should she do that?’ Beatrix Agar was surprised.
‘I just wanted to be sure, I —’
But Beatrix interrupted him. ‘Listen, Francis, I think I’ve said enough. Send your friend along to me.’
“Thank you,’ he said, ‘I will.’
He put up the receiver, pleased. It had been much as he had thought. He looked at Hadley’s file again, confirming a place name. Then he sent for a taxi and directed it to Victoria.
He caught a train to Brighton.
Rex noticed the letter next evening for it hadn’t come by post. He opened it standing and read it once quickly. Then he took it to his study.
It was quite a short letter and expressed unequivocably. The writer had been to a seaside resort called Brighton, and there he had passed a night at an hotel which was vulgarly known as the Jezebel. His breakfast had been brought to him by an Italian floor-waiter named, unremarkably, Giorgio. As Mr Hadley might remember, the writer spoke Italian, and the floor-waiter had been delighted to talk his own language. He had in fact talked freely — very freely. He’d been concerned in a recent divorce case, and the evidence he had given had at the time amused him. Now he wasn’t so amused, for the writer had had a little talk with him. He’d talked about English law, the extraordinary, the incomprehensible respect in which the English held it. The waiter had begun to wonder. Not that mere doubt was final, but the waiter was venal as well as cynical; he had a home in Italy and would like to go back there. With capital, of course. So the writer had explained to him how that capital might be forthcoming. A simple statement to the appropriate authorities…. As it happened Mr Hadley’s was the first case he’d appeared in: it was later, when he’d been at the Jezebel longer, when it happened again and again, when people kept approaching him…. His conscience wouldn’t stand for it — that would be how to put it to the English. He was an innocent Italian working man, a good catholic at that. And hadn’t Mr Hadley left him rather a large tip? For Mr Hadley, his decree not yet absolute….
Well, there it was. Mr Hadley would remember that he owed the writer certain information.
Rex read this letter with a calmness which surprised him. The shock, he thought, came later, the blank despair. For the moment he could think impersonally and he began to do so.
…The police or perhaps Charles Russell? Hardly. Rex held the paper against the light. It was the cheapest foolscap, and if there was a watermark he couldn’t see it. The paper could have been bought at a thousand shops. The typewriting too — it would be stupid to imagine that de Fleury would have used a typewriter which could easily be traced to him. In any case, pinning the letter to de Fleury wouldn’t help Rex himself. It would be awkward for de Fleury but it wouldn’t remove this Giorgio. Giorgio wanted money: it wasn’t important who paid him, de Fleury or a successor. Rex remembered that it was Friday, and the evening before he had been supposed to report to de Fleury. Like some cheap petty spy. Naturally he hadn’t.
…By God, they don’t waste time.
He heard himself laugh though the sound wasn’t pleasant. Russell had suggested that he marry Mary Francom. Naturally . the idea had occurred to him and naturally he’d hesitated. Now he wouldn’t be marrying anyone; he’d be caught in holy deadlock with Irene, so clever, so articulate Irene. She’d been interested in the mystic East and in something called social service; she’d almost destroyed him. Now he’d be tied to her for years while white-fingered lawyers, frightened to soil them, fiddled and coughed and finally did nothing.
Rex walked to his office, finishing the work he’d left that morning. There was nothing important and for that he was thankful.
He went back to his ugly house much later than usual, but with his mind made up. Russell had suggested marriage with Mary Francom, and he’d thought the idea a fair one; he’d consider it, let the proposal lie; he’d do some of that unconscious cerebration Irene had been so hot for. Now he most certainly wouldn’t. He mightn’t be free to marry her — not now.
So that decided it — he’d do his damnedest. He knew who might help him and it wasn’t Charles Russell. He didn’t like asking favours, but now he’d be obliged to. They’d dismiss him of course, he’d have to leave Maldington. That would be bitter, but it was less important than his private freedom. Sir William might help him in that since he’d been through the farce himself. He might, and there was no one else.
Rex went to bed early, setting his alarm for four o’clock. It was a longish drive to Birmingham.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire.”
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”