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Epitaph for a Spyby Eric Ambler
I arrived in St. Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11.45 a.m. on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat.
For several kilometers on the way from Toulon to La Ciotat the railway runs very near to the coast. As the train rushes between the innumerable short tunnels through which this section of the line has been built, you catch quick glimpses of the sea below, dazzlingly blue, of red rocks, of white houses among pine woods. It is as if you were watching a magic-lantern show with highly colored slides and an impatient operator. The eye has no time to absorb details. Even if you know of St. Gatien and are looking for it, you can see nothing of it but the bright red roof and the pale yellow stucco walls of the Hotel de la Reserve.
The hotel stands on the highest point of the headland and the terrace runs along the south side of the building. Beyond the terrace there is a sheer drop of about fifteen meters. The branches of pines growing below brush the pillars of the balustrade. But farther out towards the point the level rises again. There are gashes of red rock in the dry green scrub. A few windswept tamarisks wave their tortured branches in silhouette against the intense ultramarine blue of the sea. Occasionally a white cloud of spray starts up from the rocks below.
The village of St. Gatien sprawls in the lee of the small headland on which the hotel stands. The walls of the houses are, like those of most other Mediterranean fishing villages, coated with either white, egg-shell blue, or rose-pink washes. Rocky heights, whose pine-clad slopes meet the seashore on the opposite side of the bay, shelter the miniature harbor from the mistral that sometimes blows strongly from the northwest. The population is seven hundred and forty-three. The majority depend for their livelihoods on fishing. There are two cafes, three bistros, seven shops and, farther round the bay, a police station.
But, from the end of the terrace where I was sitting that morning the village and the police station were out of sight. The day was already warm and the cicadas were droning in the terraced gardens at the side of the hotel. By moving my head slightly I could see, through the balustrade, the small Reserve bathing beach. Two large colored sunshades were planted in the sand. From under one of them two pairs of legs protruded, a woman's and a man's. They looked young and very brown. A faint murmur of voices told me that there were other guests out of sight in the shady part of the beach. The gardener, his head and shoulders sheltered from the sun by a huge straw hat, was painting a blue band round the gunwale of an upturned dinghy resting on trestles. A motorboat was coming round the headland on the far side of the bay and making for the beach. As it came nearer, I could distinguish the thin, lanky figure of Koche, the manager of the Reserve, drooping over the tiller. The other man in the boat was one of the fishermen from the village. They would have been out since dawn. Maybe we should have red mullet for lunch. Out at sea a Nederland-Lloyd liner moved on its way from Marseilles to Villefranche. It was all very good and peaceful.
I was thinking that tomorrow night I would have to pack my suitcase and that early Saturday morning I would have to go by bus into Toulon and catch the train for Paris. The train would be near Arles in the heat of the day, my body would stick to the hard leather seats of the third-class compartment, and there would be a layer of dust and soot over everything. I would be tired and thirsty by the time we reached Dijon. I must remember to take a bottle of water with me, with, perhaps, a little wine in it. I would be glad to get to Paris. But not for long. There would be the walk from the platforms of the Gare de Lyon to the platforms of the Metro. My suitcase would be heavy by then. Direction Neuilly to Concorde. Change. Direction Mairie d'Issy to Gare Montparnasse. Change. Direction Porte d'Orleans to Alesia. Exit. Montrouge. Avenue de Chatillon. Hotel de Bordeaux. And on Monday morning there would be breakfast standing at the counter of the Cafe de l'Orient and another Metro journey, Denfert-Rochereau to Etoile, and a walk down the Avenue Marceau. Monsieur Mathis would be already there. "Good morning, Monsieur Vadassy! You are looking very well. This term you will take elementary English, advanced German, and elementary Italian. I myself will take the advanced English. We have twelve new students. There are three businessmen and nine waiters. All are for English. There is none who wishes Hungarian." Another year.
But meanwhile there were the pines and the sea, the red rocks and the sand. I stretched luxuriously and a lizard darted across the tiled floor of the terrace. It stopped suddenly to bask in the sun beyond the shadow of my chair. I could see the pulse beating in its throat. Its tail lay curved in a neat semicircle, making a tangent of the diagonal division between the tiles. Lizards have an uncanny sense of design.
It was this lizard which reminded me of my photographs.
I possess only two objects of value in this world. One of them is a camera, the other a letter dated February 10, 1867, from Deak to von Beust. If someone were to offer me money for the letter I should accept it thankfully; but I am very fond of the camera, and nothing but starvation would induce me to part with it. I am not a particularly good photographer; but I get a lot of pleasure pretending that I am.
I had been taking photographs at the Reserve and had, the previous day, taken an exposed spool into the village chemist's shop to be developed. Now, in the ordinary way, I should not dream of letting anyone else develop my films. Half the pleasure of amateur photography lies in doing your own darkroom work. But I had been experimenting, and if I did not see the results of the experiments before I left St. Gatien, I should have no opportunity of making use of them. So I had left the film with the chemist. The negative was to be developed and dry by eleven o'clock.
The time was eleven thirty. If I went to the chemist's now, I should have time to get back, bathe, and have an aperitif before lunch.
I walked along the terrace, round through the gardens, and up the steps to the road. By now the sun was beating down so fiercely that the air above the asphalt was quivering. I had no hat and when I touched my hair it was burning hot. I draped a handkerchief over my head and walked up the hill, and then down the main street leading to the harbor.
The chemist's shop was cool and smelt of perfume and disinfectant. The sound of the doorbell had barely died away before the chemist was facing me over the counter. His eyes met mine, but he seemed not to recognize me.
"I left a spool of film yesterday to be developed."
"It is not ready yet."
"It was promised for eleven o'clock."
"It is not ready yet," he repeated steadily.
I was silent for a moment. There was something curious about the chemist's manner. His eyes, magnified by the thick pebble-glasses he wore, remained fixed on mine. There was an odd look in them. Then I realized what the look was. The man was frightened.
I remember that the realization gave me a shock. He was afraid of me--I who had spent my life being afraid of others had at last inspired fear! I wanted to laugh. I was also annoyed, for I thought I knew what had happened. He had spoiled the film.
"Is the negative all right?"
He nodded vehemently.
"Perfectly, Monsieur. It is a question only of the drying. If you will be good enough to give me your name and address, I will send my son with the negative as soon as it is ready."
"That's all right, I'll call again."
"It will be no trouble, Monsieur."
There was a strange note of urgency in his voice now. Mentally I shrugged. If the man had spoiled the film and was so childishly anxious not to be the bearer of the bad news it was no affair of mine. I had already resigned myself to the loss of my experiments.
"Very well." I gave him my name and address.
He repeated them very loudly as he wrote them down.
"Monsieur Vadassy, Hotel de la Reserve." His voice dropped a little, and he ran his tongue round his lips before going on. "It shall be sent round to you as soon as it is ready."
I thanked him and went to the door of the shop. A man in a panama hat and an ill-fitting suit of Sunday blacks was standing facing me. The pavement was narrow, and as he did not move to make way for me, I murmured an apology and made to squeeze past him. As I did so he laid a hand on my arm.
"I must ask you to accompany me to the Commissariat."
"What on earth for?"
"A passport formality only, Monsieur." He was stolidly polite.
"Then hadn't I better get my passport from the hotel?"
He did not answer but looked past me and nodded almost imperceptibly. A hand gripped my other arm tightly. I looked over my shoulder and saw that there was a uniformed agent standing in the shop door behind me. The chemist had disappeared.
The hands propelled me forward, not too gently.
"I don't understand," I said.
"You will," said the plain-clothes man briefly. "Allez, file!"
He was no longer polite.
The journey to the police station was accomplished in silence. After the initial demonstration of authority the agent dropped a few paces to the rear and allowed me to walk on ahead with the plain-clothes man. I was glad of this, for I had no wish to be marched through the village as though I were a pickpocket. As it was, we drew some curious glances, and I heard a jocular reference by two passers-by to the violon.
French slang is very obscure. Anything less like a violin than the Commissariat de Police would be difficult to imagine. The only really ugly building in St. Gatien, it is a forbidding cube of dirty concrete with small windows like eyes. It lies some hundreds of meters away from the village round the bay, and its size is accounted for by the fact that it houses the police administration of an area of which St. Gatien happens to be the center. The facts that St. Gatien is also one of the smallest, most law-abiding, and least accessible villages in the area were evidently disregarded by the responsible authorities.
The room into which I was taken was bare except for a table and some wooden benches. The plain-clothes man retired importantly, leaving me with the agent, who sat down on the bench beside me.
''Will this business take long?''
"It is not permitted to speak."
I looked out of the window. Across the bay I could see the colored sunshades on the Reserve beach. There would not, I reflected, be time for a swim. I could, perhaps, have an aperitif at one of the cafes on my way back. It was all very annoying.
"Attention!" said my escort suddenly.
The door opened and an elderly man with a pen behind his ear, no cap, and an unbuttoned tunic beckoned us out. The agent with me did up his collar, smoothed out his tunic, straightened his cap and, gripping my arm with unnecessary force, marched me down the passage to a room at the end of it. He rapped smartly on the door and opened it. Then he pushed me inside.
I felt a threadbare carpet beneath my feet. Sitting facing me behind a table littered with papers was a spectacled, businesslike little man. This was the Commissaire. Beside the table, wedged in a small chair with curved arms, was a very fat man in a tussore suit. Except for a clipped mouse-colored bristle on the rolls of fat round his neck, he was bald. The skin of his face was loose and hung down in thick folds that drew the corners of his mouth with them. They gave the face a faintly judicial air. The eyes were extraordinarily small and heavily lidded. Sweat poured off his face and he kept passing a screwed-up handkerchief round the inside of his collar. He did not look at me.
It was the Commissaire who spoke.
The Commissaire nodded to the agent behind me, and the man went out, closing the door softly behind him.
"Your identity card?"
I produced the card from my wallet and handed it over. He drew a sheet of paper towards him and began making notes.
"You are, I see, a teacher of languages."
"Who employs you?"
"The Bertrand Mathis School of Languages, one hundred and fourteen bis, Avenue Marceau, Paris, six."
While he was writing this down I glanced at the fat man. His eyes were closed and he was fanning his face gently with the handkerchief.
"Attention!" said the Commissaire sharply. "What is your business here?"
"I am on holiday."
"You are a Yugoslav subject?"
The Commissaire looked startled. My heart sank. The long and involved explanation of my national status, or rather, lack of it, would have to be given yet again. It never failed to arouse officialdom's worst instincts. The Commissaire rummaged among the papers on his table. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of satisfaction and flourished something in front of my face.
"Then how, Monsieur, do you explain this?"
With a start I realized that "this" was my own passport--the passport that I had believed to be in my suitcase at the Reserve. That meant that the police had been to my room. I began to feel uneasy.
"I am waiting, Monsieur, for your explanation. How is it that you, a Hungarian, are using a Yugoslav passport? A passport, moreover, that has not been valid for ten years?"
Copyright © 2002 by Eric Ambler
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