Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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 Chapter 12


There was a funny atmosphere in London in July. Everyone expected, not only war with Germany, but a massive aerial attack with poison gas. This attack, with skies full of big black planes with crosses on their wings, would occur within days of the outbreak. It might well occur on the very first day of war. After the bombs had broken the buildings and driven people into the streets, sinister hissing canisters would float down on little parachutes. There would be nowhere to run or hide. The heavier-than-air gas would seep into cellars, shelters, and the underground railway system.

Gas masks were being manufactured by the million, but there were many jokes about them. Almost no one expected them to be adequate to the scale of the attack. Many people, indeed, expected to be killed.

There were occasional conversations concerning the relative painfulness of death by poison gas, incendiary bomb, or high explosive, the latter being the mode of choice. However, that sort of talk was generally avoided. It tended to depress people.

A lot of people were, in fact, enjoying themselves. Some produced a manic gaity because they expected not to have much fun later on. But there were others who faced life with some equanimity because they thought that it would be other people, particularly the London slum dwellers, who would do the dying.

In his conversations on trains and in cafes, Sam came upon a number of affluent people who spoke of the joys of life in remote Somerset or Devon. There were even a couple of references to the freshness of the prevailing southwest winds (which would blow the poison gas in the cities in the opposite direction). He suspected that, the more dangerous the situation became, the more likely it was that these people would leave London.

Also surprising in view of the general situation was the fact that fashionable London continued to have attitudes which would be counter-productive in war. Muscular men didn't look well in dinner jackets, and women of a certain sort consequently preferred men who looked as if they could hardly stand up in a strong breeze. Guards officers cultivated small soft hands to prove that they weren't even descended from anyone who had ever done any manual labor. It was fashionable to say "Tawies" instead of "Tories", and to speak of "our Bwitish Empire." Some of those same men would walk upright through a hail of machine-gun fire at the head of their troops. Others, Sam thought, would dive into the nearest ditch.

Sam himself wouldn't be in Somerset or Devon when the Hokensen institute blew up, but he had confidence in Yo-wen and her father. They assured him that the Germans would be too shocked to react quickly, and that they could enter Holland simply by walking across a field. Yo-wen had a purse full of false documents for all of them, and it would be easy to get to Le Havre, and then on a ship for America. Brenda was convinced, and said to Sam,

"The Germans in Rosbeck aren't supermen, just a lot of muddled bureaucrats. We'll be gone before they collect themselves."

Sam thought of the little police agent who still turned up in the cafes without realizing that he'd been spotted. No one like that would be able to catch them. In any case, Sam, like the British, didn't like to think about unpleasant things.

Brenda had never been to England, and it was fun to take her around London. Whatever might be happening in the world at large, one felt uplifted by the casual vivacity of the shoppers as one walked down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus. But Brenda also wanted to see the places where people actually lived, and they took trains to Mitcham, Islington, and Hampstead. The place she liked best was Victoria Station because it mixed sleaze and elegance in an exciting way. She herself practiced stepping briskly along a littered sidewalk in expensive shoes, easily avoiding the stickier sorts of debris. At the same time, she looked imperiously over the heads of persons of low social standing. It seemed to be her view that it was this capacity that made one English.

The Great Northern Hotel, right across from Kings Cross Station, was an anonymous railway hotel patronized largely by northern businessmen when they came to London. Sam sent Brenda on in advance, partly so that he could watch for anyone following her, and also because she was in a better position to explain certain things to Jack.

Sam, watching over the heads of the crowds entering and leaving the station, saw Brenda go up the steps to the hotel. There was certainly no one following her, and, indeed, all the people in sight were moving purposefully in one direction or another. He found that he could see through the large windows of the hotel lounge to the right of the entrance, and, a few minutes later, he saw a figure he could just recognize as Jack escorting Brenda into it.

Jack, Sam knew, would be horrified at the idea of involving women in such dangerous work. In her previous meeting with him, Brenda might have slightly allayed his fears, but there would still be much to be done. However, Jack hadn't met Yo-wen. Brenda would have to explain that there was no question of leaving a woman of Yo-wen's military experience out of anything of this sort. Then, she would have to justify her own role. Sam didn't want to be around when she did that.

The coast remaining clear, Sam entered after half an hour. It was obvious that Jack liked Brenda. After all, everyone did. His own welcome was warm, but tinged with a slight scepticism. It looked as if Brenda had only just persuaded Jack of the appropriateness of her inclusion in the plans. There might even have been references to Mata Hari on the part of one or the other of them.

Once they were settled down, Jack asked,

"Can we blow up the building without killing innocents?"

"We did have a tentative plan for the classics department on the second floor. The idea was to put on a conference at a nearby seaside hotel that would lure the faculty and students away with free meals and other benefits. Then, the Tso family and I would dress up as cockroach exterminators and tell the secretaries and anyone else that they'd have to leave."

"What about Hokensen's bunch. There are probably some innocents there."

"That includes Princess Missy. I'll have to figure out some way of getting her away."

"We could clear her out in advance, along with your other friends."

"They'd have to replace her with some other secretary, who might be harder to lure away."

"There are probably also some ordinary scientists in the group who aren't all that Nazi."

"I'm sure there are. But, when Otto and Annaliese are about to leave, we could ask him if there are a couple of others whom he'd like to have come with him. We couldn't overdo it without attracting undue attention to ourselves, but we could save a couple of people."

"This reminds me of the war. There were lots of times when we had to send perfectly good American soldiers and airmen to almost certain deaths. They might survive that day, and the next, but you knew that they couldn't last very long."

"This time, it'll be some fairly ordinary Germans."

"Yes. However, from everything we've heard, Hokensen's institute is the principal center for applications of science to military problems."

"And we can wipe it out at one stroke."

"The other thing, of course, is your escape. If you're hanging around, pretending to be exterminators, until just before the explosion, that won't give you much of a head start. Besides, it's pretty hard to imagine you as a cockroach exterminator, Sam. You just don't look right."

"Well, some other things have come up in that connection."

At first, Jack could hardly believe that the classicists had become fervent Nazis. He said,

"I grant you that Plato was a bit of an authoritarian, but he was nothing like a Nazi. And, anyway, the sorts of people who study ancient cultures tend to be pacifists."

It was hard to explain the Nazis to someone who hadn't been around them, but Sam concluded,

"There's a real revolution going on in Germany, Jack. Some ordinary people have lost their bearings and gone beserk. There are little professors with thick glasses and concave chests who dream of leading infantry assaults. Even the middle-aged secretary of the classics department is an ardent fascist who encourages students to denounce one another to the Gestapo."

"Aren't there any sane people left in Germany?"

"Sure, but they're keeping very quiet and hoping not to be noticed. There are other people like Otto in Hokensen's unit, and there are lots German humanists who hate the whole regime. But some organizations have succombed to a mixture of euphoria and hysteria. The classics department at Rosbeck happens to be one of them."

"Well, then, I guess we shouldn't try to save them from themselves. I would never have imagined that I'd be a party to killing someone's secretary."

After pausing to sip from his glass of bitter, Jack returned to the matter of their escape.

"If you travel together, that'll be five people, including two women. Not exactly an inconspicuous group."

Brenda replied,

"They'll have no way of knowing that women are part of the plot, and our presence may mislead them."

Jack didn't seem very convinced, and addressed Sam,

"You wrote me that you have a rowboat, and have been rowing in the ocean. That gave me some ideas."

The main idea was for Jack to buy a good-sized sailboat in England, put her under American registry, and cruise along the German coast just outside the three-mile limit. He said,

"If you can blow up the building, lay up somewhere until dark, and then row out, I'll pick you up. A million things could go wrong, but it would at least put a piece of America within reach."

"Even if we missed connections, we'd be well out to sea by dawn. We could eventually make it to England."

"The problem is that the Germans aren't likely to respect the three-mile limit. They'd investigate any small boat they found, and an American flag on a forty foot sloop might not even stop them."

"They'd at least think twice about it."

"And, of course, we wouldn't let them take you without a shootout. We might also get some protection from the Royal Navy. I can't try to arrange that in advance, but I could find out who to radio a message to in an emergency."

At that point, a pink-faced rather rotund man in a bright shirt came over and said,

"Say, I could see that you folks are Americans like me. The missus and I kinda wanted to hit some of the hot spots in London. Can you tell us where to go?"

Jack looked profoundly discouraged, but Brenda answered brightly,

"You could watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Go right across the street to Kings Cross and take the train to Green Park."

Their acquaintance looked a little dubious, but led his wife in the general direction of the station. Brenda asked Sam,

"Is Green Park the right station?"

"Pretty near. Will the guard really be changing shortly?"

"I have no idea, but those people were about to be embarrassing. One had to say something."

Jack suggested dinner at an Indian restaurant, adding,

"Americans in England never seem to go to Indian restaurants."

Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
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