THE darkest of nights, with a watery moan and a few vague, tearful stars, and very melancholy sounds the swish of the sea, as I grope my way about the inky-black platform of Folkestone Harbour station in quest of the room where an official from Scotland Yard is installed. Imperative that I should find this official. For until he has inspected me and my passport, and declared both of us to be in good order, I shall not be permitted to cross the Channel en route to Dieppe. . . . Never such darkness, and the platform silent and deserted. I try a door, but it is locked. Another door ; also locked. Locked again is the entrance to the refreshment-room ; penny buns, stale sandwiches and thick cups of bitter tea have been banished from the Folkestone Harbour station of today. Now do I strike matches, one after the other. Then do I draw hard at my cigarette, so that it glows in the gloom. And at last, by the glow from the cigarette, I dimly discern a heavily curtained glass door, behind which, at a massive round table and in the thickest of mufflers and overcoats, Scotland Yard is established.
Friendliness, but firmness, on the part of Scot-land Yard. After I have produced my passport a vast, formidable-looking document enclosed in a black leather casethe official takes a long, steady look at me. Why am I crossing the Channel ? I am not carrying private letters, sealed documents or contraband goods ? I sup-pose I am aware that it is easier to get into France than to get out of it ? Very wellthis foreign gentleman seated at the same massive table, with the heavy woollen shawl round his shoulders, represents the Sûreté (or Criminal Investigation Department) of Paris : what has he to say of me and my passport ? After the Paris detective and myself have exchanged bows, again (in French) comes the singular, the even sinister question : I suppose I am aware that it is easier to get into France than to get out of it ? Très bien. Passport and self in good order, and the former (which already bears the black and purple seals of the Foreign Office and the French Consulate in London) is furthermore decorated with the official blue stamp of the Immigration Offices, Customs and Excise of his Majesty’s Port of Folkestone.
” You won’t meet any Germans. The Admiralty will look after you,” observes Scotland Yard genially.
” Vive la France ! ” I say to the Sûreté.
” Et vive l’Angleterre ! ” replies M. the French Detective, in the vast, comical woollen shawl.
Most certainly the Admiralty ” looks after ” the cross-Channel passengers” looks after ” them most handsomely and most nobly-in this War of all Wars. When, after again losing my way in the darkness, I have stumbled over the damp, slippery gangway on to the Dieppe boat, and zigzagged about the black deck, and finally found my way downstairs to the comfortable, cheerfully lighted saloon, the steward lâ-bas informs me that the steamer will not depart until the captain has received specific orders from the Admiralty, and that we shall be preceded across the Channel by a pair of Destroyers. Excellent, munificent Admiralty. Fancy a mere common steamer, imagine ordinary, quite insignificant people . . being escorted and protected by Destroyers ! And no extra charge for the destroyers” and they cost a bit in coal and etceteras,” observes the steward, as he polishes the glasses and folds up napkins into gay, coquettish shapes. Then a clatter on the staircase, and down into the saloon troop some eighty or ninety passengers just arrived by the London boat train, and in less than no time all of them are discussing the pair of Destroyers.
” Oh, father, isn’t it too splendid and thrilling for words ! ” exclaims a seventeen-year-old English girl, one of England’s own particular and incomparable blondes.
” When England does anything at all, she does it thoroughly,” replies her father, a middle-aged, stiff-looking gentleman. ” It has never been England’s way to do things by halves.”
” You hear, my good Amélie, you hear what they saytwo Destroyers to conduct us !” cries an elderly, corpulent little Frenchman to his wife.
It is admirable, it is prodigious ; ah, nom d’un nom, que c’est beau.”
Calm yourself, Hippolyte, or the blood will go to your head and you will not be able to eat any supper,” retorts the practical wife.
” For me, the wing of a chicken and a salad, and some Vichy water. After that, I shall repose myself.”
Orders from the Admiralty to depart ; orders to the stewards for cold suppers. Just as in times gone by we consume the roast beef of Old England, the ham of Old England, the chickens of Old England, the pickles of Old England, the bottled ale of Old England yes, just as though Von Tirpitz of Prussia didn’t exist, and his sub-marines and torpedoes and periscopes were so many silly old myths ! The corpulent French-man mixes his wife’s salad with extraordinary care. The delightful English blonde cries out vivaciously : ” Father, here’s to those dear Destroyers and to the splendid Allies.” A grunt from ” father,” who is busy with cold beef ; but he nevertheless supports his daughter’s toast in a sip of whisky and soda. Then, from the practical French lady, the following typical speech to her corpulent husband :
” Hippolyte, I now leave you to repose your-self. Repose yourself also, over there in that corner, and do not talk to your neighbours about the war, or the blood will go to your head, and you will be red and congested in the face when we reach Dieppe. Therefore, keep calm. Dors bien, mon pauvre Hippolyte. Ta salade était excellente . . . peut-être un peu trop de vinaigre . . . mais enfin. Là : bon soir, mon brave Hippolyte, je te quitte.”
No sooner, however, has the good lady vanished than her husband promptly defies her instructions by entering into conversation with three fellow-countrymen. Out comes a map of the battle-field, out come pencils and pince-nez, and, their heads close together, their arms around one another’s shoulders, the four Frenchmen begin an animated conversation on military affairs. As for the English passengers, they compare pass-ports, exchange – English for French money, and scribble off picture post cards. Particularly busy with post cards is England’s own incomparable blonde. A third, a fourth, a fifth, yet another and I am persuaded that the messages of our seventeen-year-old blonde run almost exactly as follows ” DEAREST ETHEL,-THIS is written on the boat. Fancy, we are being taken across the Channel by two whole Destroyers ! Isn’t it too wonderful and thrilling for anything ? Am now going to have a sleep. Best love from Enid. P.S.–I wonder if the Censor will stop this ! ” Away, with her picture post cards, goes the blonde ; away disappear the other lady passengers ; closer and closer together the heads of the four French-men ; a snore from the blonde’s father, now stretched on a bunkand departure of myself up the steep little staircase, to have a look at the deck.
Blacker than ever, and the moon almost melted away, and the spray from the sea occasionally washing over the sides of the boat. Not a signnot a soundof the Destroyers. Not even the shadow of our captain, although he must be on the bridge. But, as I stand in the narrow door-way that gives on to the deck, a peevish and querulous male voice exclaims from somewhere in the darkness : Please shut that door ; there’s a draught ! ”
Yesalthough swept by the wind and sprinkled by sprayhere, somewhere or other on the inky-black deck, sits a passenger who complains of a petty little draught from a half-opened door.
” I say there’s a draught,” repeats the voice, with increased peevishness.
Putting my hand to my eyes, I peer hither and thither, but so impenetrable is the darkness that it is impossible to distinguish the speaker.
” If you don’t close that door, I shall send for the captain,” cries the voice. . . . What to do but to laugh ? And as I laugh the voice continues : ” You won’t find this a laughing matter in a minute. Something very serious will come of this, I can tell you.” Whereupon I call out : ” Where are you ? ” and the voice retorts angrily : ” Over here. Can’t you see me ? ” See him ? I can see nothing but blackness and blackness. And so, despairing of ever beholding this ridiculous, invisible passenger, I close the door with a bang, and return downstairs to the sociable, comfortable saloon.
But it is no longer sociable : for it sleeps. Frenchmen and Englishmen on their backs, on their sides, wrapped up in rugs, snoring gently or sonorously, with such calm, restful countenanceshow it would enrage savage Von Tirpitz, of submarine and torpedo notoriety, to witness these slumbers, and hear all this snoring ! Mingled with the homely, comfortable sound of snoring is the pleasant jingle of money, as the stewards count up the night’s receipts. In comes a middle-aged stewardess, who, after reporting all her own particular passengers asleep, sits down to a cup of tea” and don’t forget the four lumps of sugar.”
The stewardess relates that a lady friend of hers has just taken a small house at Balham : rent, thirty pounds a year ; garden ” back and front ” ; a fire-station at the end of the street ; trams and motor buses pass the door ; a policeman ” always handy ” : in fact, everything that a widowed lady, with three children, could possibly desire. A steward, however, prefers Brixton to Balham. A second steward supports Notting Hill . . . daisies and wallflowers in his garden . . . no apparent reason why he shouldn’t ” start ” roses. The small son of a third steward has just been decked out in a new suitbought at Denton’s, High Street, Dalston” 8s. lld. all complete.” Such, the homely conversation, in spite of Germany’s ” blockade of Old England. More and more sonorous becomes the snoring, in the face of the submarines. Drowsily, I see the stewardess disappear from the saloon. Still more drowsily, I wonder what is happening to that invisible, querulous and windswept passenger on deck : ” Please close that door ; there’s a draught. . . .” Another drowsy reminiscence : ” Dors bien, mon pauvre Hippolyte. Ta salade était excellentepeut-être un peu de vinaigremais enfin.” . . . Then, after a period of oblivion, I am awakened by a bustle and a clatter : passengers disentangling themselves from their rugs, putting on collars, smoothing down their hair, collecting their luggage, rubbing their eyes and their faces, struggling into overcoats, whilst the practical French lady, picking up her husband’s handkerchief, reproachfully exclaims :
” Tu vois, mon pauvre Hippolyte, comme to oublies tout.”
And the incomparable English blonde takes her elderly, stiff-backed father by the arm and hurries him up the steep little staircase, and over the damp gangway, and into the darkened, shadowy harbour station of Dieppe.
Shadowy porters, shadowy engines, shadowy cranes, pillars and trucksnothing but shadows, phantoms, ambiguities, until we are once again ushered into the presence of the detective police. They might be the twin brothers of their colleagues at Folkestone : a vast, comical woollen shawl for the Sûreté; the heaviest of mufflers and overcoats for Scotland Yard. The same questions, the same formalities, then coffee and rolls in the buffet, more picture post card scribbling, and a friendly little gossip with the detectives.
Why,” I ask, ” is it easier to get into France than to get out of it? ”
And the answer isspies. In spite of the formidable passports, spies. No matter the pre-cautions and exertions, spies. There was a frail, silver-haired old ladya spy. There was a stout, fussy gentleman who went about denouncing the Kaiser as a ” madman ” and a ” murderer “a particularly dangerous spy. Only yesterday in Dieppe, arrest of two spies. So many spiesand so audacious, and ingenious and artfulthat had Scotland Yard and the Sûreté their own way, they would not admit a single foreign civilian into France. . . Now, departure of the detectives, to make a professional tour of the station ; and then, at six o’clock in the morning, the old familiar cry of : ” Messieurs les voyageurs pour Paris.” Broad daylight and a blue sky when the train passes out of the station into the cobbled streets of Dieppe. The day’s work has begun. As the train proceeds ever so slowly, I behold the energetic French housewives shaking pillows and mattresses out of their windows. Then (through another open window) a mother washing the face of her small son, and, through a third window, an obvious old bachelor laboriously sweeping the floor. On his doorstep, in white cap and apron, stands the bakerany amount of excellent white bread, and of brioches and cakes, in his shop. Down come the shutters of the cafés. Here, in a sentinel’s box, a middle-aged French-man in a shabby old uniform. Dogs sniffing the gutters, cats in a reveriea long, silent train vividly labelled with the Red Crossvisions of the French soldier’s new bluish-grey uniforma glimpse of the khaki of Old Englandbutchers on their doorstepsmore trim, prosperous bakers the last café in Dieppeand our train, at last entering on the permanent way and putting on speed, makes a bold dash for Paris.