The High Wire (9)

By: William Haggard
December 26, 2014

the-high-wire

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!

ALL INSTALLMENTS

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Chapter 9

De Fleury drove back to his flat in the bitter knowledge of both failure and crisis. The failure had been sharp and personal: the Security Executive had overreached him, and that the overreaching had been very much in the English manner, undramatic and almost casual, didn’t alter the brute fact of its achievement. De Fleury was too experienced to deceive himself: if the Executive had discovered about Giorgio it wasn’t conceivable that it didn’t also know about Hadley’s indiscretion at Sestriere. But Hadley had been left at Maldington, therefore the Executive both knew and had condoned. Which meant that it felt perfectly safe with Hadley, which meant in turn that it wasn’t afraid of any move by de Fleury against him. De Fleury hadn’t heard Sir William’s homely metaphor of Snakes and Ladders, but if he had he would wryly have agreed with it. Blackmail wasn’t something which could be stopped, then started again from scratch. Call one card and you called the hand. Rex Hadley was in the clear.

De Fleury sighed. He had in his flat a tape which he was rather proud of. He’d keep it as a souvenir, but he must accept that it was useless.

That was the failure, galling enough, but he recognized too a personal crisis. Victor would want his money’s worth: they wouldn’t let him off. He’d been chosen for his connexions, the social graces, background. And for their knowledge that he’d betrayed it. His wartime commission, discreetly revived, inflated into colonel — that hadn’t been done to oblige him. They’d done it because they had him; they’d saved him from prison and now he was their creature. His plan had failed but they’d have their own, and inescapably they’d involve him. Violence, he thought — brutal, degrading violence. The world he’d been born to was almost gone. On one side the rats, the Julian Cohns, nibbled at it ceaselessly: on the other the Victors, believing they were paladins, utterly debased the values they thought to save. The beatings-up, the torturings, the police who arrived too late…. And now he worked for Victor, if that were a legitimate word for it. Alas, he could think of others.

He said aloud, not knowing it: ‘Dear God, I’ve come pretty low.’

He went into his flat. It was five in the morning, too late to telephone Mary Francom, but he would have given much for her company. She had been irritating recently, out too often when he rang her, and there had been that ridiculous scene she had made him ten days ago. Nevertheless his first thought in trouble had been to send for her. Francis de Fleury frowned. Sometime, not now, he must think about Mary Francom. It would be excessively awkward if he’d fallen for her.

He made himself coffee. Inevitably it was Victor’s move again. Jacques and Pierre and Smithy were accounted for, so in a day or two a stranger would be calling on him. He might be polite or again he might not, for this time he’d be somebody pretty senior in Victor’s detestable organization. So the stranger would call, and formally he’d put himself under the military attaché’s instructions. But he’d have received his own already. He might listen to suggestion, matters of detail, but he wouldn’t change his plan. He’d neither wish nor dare to.

And he’d want de Fleury’s help; he could in fact demand it.

Francis de Fleury shrugged. He’d have to wait and it wouldn’t be agreeable.

Later that morning Rex was talking to Rudi Walther at Maldington. Rex hadn’t always liked him but had learnt to. Rudi was a German and proud of it, indeed rather pointedly Teutonic, since there had been people in England who had imagined that it would be easier for Rudi if they pretended he was an Austrian. Their motives had been generous but to Rudi infuriating. Rudi detested Austrians. They had been happy enough to be Germans while everything was going well, but as soon as the tide turned, presto, they begged to differ. Anyone would think there hadn’t been half a million people in the streets of Vienna shouting their heads off for the Anschluss. And politics apart, they were a second-class lot, the heirs of an empire which had never quite come off. And that shocking schlumperei….

So that the amiable belief that Rudi would feel happier in England if his hosts assumed he was an Austrian had produced in him a Teutonism much more noticeable than if he had been quietly accepted as a German. He wasn’t a Prussian but he clicked and bowed stiffly; he affected an eyeglass which he was always dropping; he clipped his hair, but the roll of fat at the back of the neck had been beyond him, for he was tall and spare and naturally elegant.

Now he came into Rex’s room, bowing, dropping the eyeglass and for once catching it. He sat down when invited to and lit a panatella. Rex had declined. Rudi said deliberately: ‘I don’t say we’ve got it — not the big bang — but I do say we know the road to it. I mean that if we ever succeed I think I see how we’ll do so. There’s a very long way to go, though.’

‘Then how can I help?’

‘You’re a very good engineer and I’m a physicist. We’re playing with temperatures near absolute zero.’

‘Don’t tell me you want me to beat it.’

‘I ask nothing so stupid. It’s a matter of fractions of a degree.’ Rudi knocked some ash off the panatella. ‘I can give you no assurance, far less a promise, but I can give you the evidence. And the evidence tells us that the lower we go the livelier becomes the catalyst.’ Rudi smiled politely. ‘Temperatures,’ he said, ‘are engineering.’

‘So is the law of diminishing returns. You know about our power-load.’

‘Yes. I know we don’t make our own — we couldn’t. It comes in from the grid on the pylons. We’ve three lines at present but there’s room for four.’

‘You want a few more kilowatts?’

‘And your skill to use them.’

‘I’ll go after it at once.’ Rex rubbed his chin. ‘Could you call this the critical experiment?’

Rudi said cautiously: ‘It’s not a phrase I like. You might.’

“Then shouldn’t we report it?’

‘No.’ Rudi had answered unhesitatingly; he rose unexpectedly, leaning his thin body against the wall, his pale eyes still on Rex’s. “There is a theory that in a totalitarian state a scientist cannot work freely. It is mistaken.’ Rudi’s English was almost accentless, but in moments of emphasis his speech held the tang of an alien formality. ‘It is an error,’ he repeated. ‘For geneticists, possibly, but not for a physicist. You can tell a geneticist the results which will fit your political opinions, and you can advise him to work accordingly. If he is wise he does so. But you cannot do that to a physicist because a physicist’s work can be verified much more quickly. His masters will ask him for things.’

‘As are ours.’

‘You do not quite follow me. There are well-meaning if muddled people who suppose that in a fascist or communist state a physicist’s mind cannot work freely. I have tried to explain that that is not so. A physicist’s mind is necessarily free. But not his body.’

‘Oh, come. We —’

‘I beg you to listen. There is security at Maldington, we both know that, but at the moment it is tolerable. But go to our masters, use a phrase like critical experiment, and what do you suppose will happen? The clamps will come down at once. You have servants, haven’t you? — a couple. In a matter of days they will give you notice and others will replace them. You are English and underestimate your own security. It may be that I do too. And do you suppose that you will be allowed to spend week-ends in London, or I in my senior common room?’

‘Still —’

Rudi sat down again. ‘There is no still. I didn’t escape to England to use my brains — those I could use in Dresden. I came here for the little things, not intellectual freedom, the great big meaningless words, but to go where I liked and when, to know that my caddie was just a caddie. Inside this wire there will be agents — spies. That is proper and fair. But I can go where I like still, and that I value greatly. You shall not take it from me.’

‘You may lose it in any case if Project A succeeds.’

‘Yes — for a time. That I have accepted, for I have a debt as a guest and I mean to repay it. Moreover the time will be limited. But I will not accept that you shackle me now.’ Rudi smiled his gentle smile. ‘Prematurely, I assure you. We’ve a long way to go still.’

Rex thought it over, asking at last: ‘I may call that a threat?’

Rudi Walther shrugged. ‘There would always be work for me at Cambridge.’

‘I think you’re more useful here. On any terms.’

Rudi rose again easily. “Then we may hope for a few more kilowatts.’ He bowed and left, and Rex whistled softly. Rudi Walther had acquired an almost English talent for understatement.

Rex telephoned to London…. Yes, they would start on a new line at once. Since it was for Maldington….

*

Mary Francom knew that a proposal of marriage was a serious matter and that Rex had been serious when he had made one. But he hadn’t expected her to ask time to consider it, and she saw she had surprised him. He wasn’t a conceited man, but he must know that materially he had everything to offer her — a home, a respectable income, the security of settled nationality. She had pointed out that they must wait, in any case, a month till his decree was absolute. He had agreed without fuss — reason was wholly with her and he was a reasonable man — but she knew she had puzzled him.

She hadn’t been playing hard to get: there was something she must be sure of. She was a scrupulous woman and it was her scruples which had deterred her. They had been scruples for the future, not the past. De Fleury had been right in deciding that the Executive would say nothing to Rex about any physical attempt against him, since it was indeed an axiom that protection was both easier and more effective if the person being protected were ignorant that it was happening. But it was equally an axiom that a reliable agent shouldn’t be asked to work in the dark. Mary had been told everything, the affair of Giorgio included, and the implications had been discussed with her. One of them was that de Fleury himself was no longer dangerous. She was at liberty to disengage herself. Not too abruptly — that would look suspicious — but she was free to leave him if she wished to.

Mary had said she did, and why; and over his unquestionably best sherry Charles Russell had congratulated her, waving aside as detail the fact that she wasn’t yet officially engaged. He had had the air of an amiable father after a successful piece of matchmaking. Mary had thought it strange but it had touched her.

But the future? she had asked — the possibility of further violence? Russell hadn’t denied that it existed, but that was a matter for the Executive. Looking solemn he had made her an unaccustomed little speech. He could well understand her question, but she would permit him to point out that one attempt had already been defeated. One mustn’t relax and the Executive wouldn’t, but forewarning was half the battle. And for the fiancé of an employee the Executive would regard itself as something more than officially committed. Miss Francom must accept his assurances….

She had done so happily enough, for she had a high opinion of the Executive’s competence. What worried her was something more feminine, a certain reservation about its logic. Russell had spelt out to her the position as he saw it: the attempt to blackmail Hadley through his marriage, the threat to his divorce, had failed; therefore blackmail had failed totally. There could be no going back to anything in the past. De Fleury had a tape still. Much good might it do him to play it since it couldn’t do harm to Hadley.

Mary had listened carefully, nodding agreement. But she hadn’t quite agreed. It had been unimpeachable masculine logic, but inescapably it had been male. Mary instinctively mistrusted it. The tape might be used again, though perhaps not directly. Experience had taught her scepticism and now she applied it…. Rex was quite safe from blackmail — yes; but there were other things than blackmail. There were for instance men, and not all of them were honourable. Rex for the moment was needed, but suppose they succeeded in this Project A? It was one thing to stand by a man in crisis, another to sink him quietly when his crisis — your crisis too — was over. Sir William Banner sounded reliable, Rex was always praising him, but she herself had never met him, and men made absurd mistakes with other men. And the Executive at bottom were officials. They were people you could trust but their masters were politicians. Circumstances changed, a pack could be dealt again, and it was always a great deal safer without a joker.

Without, in fact, that tape.

Mary had left Charles Russell, slipping back to the nursing home, her mind made up. Rex had offered her security, though it would have been very unlike him to have mentioned it. She didn’t mean to risk it, nor, for that matter, his. Besides, she had her private pride. She had once told Rex Hadley that she was a middle-class woman, and she wasn’t ashamed of her standards. A woman should bring more to marriage than her body. She had saved a good deal, more, she imagined, than Rex would guess, and that could be her dowry. But she needed more than a dowry. Rex’s proposal had been made with a quiet formality more effective than conscious chivalry. The past was expunged in a single but final silence. Englishmen! They were courteous, easy to suspect of something near indifference, all the goods in 
the shop window. And when you got inside the shop it wasn’t
 a shop at all. Rex had been generous and she’d like to be the
 same; she’d like to give him a really good wedding present.

That tape would make a beauty.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

* “And that shocking schlumperei….” — Happy-go-lucky Austrian ineptness. In the mind of many Austrians, schlumperei symbolized the opposite of Prussian efficiency.

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”

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