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When Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-nine Steps, is recalled by the Head of British Intelligence from the Western Front at a critical moment in the battle for France, he has little idea that his contribution to the war effort will be much more crucial than the command of his Brigade in Flanders. In his strange odyssey to unravel the most sinister of conspiracies ‘to defeat the allies in the West’ he travels from an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds to a provincial Garden City where pacifism is the order of the day, through Scotland and London under attack, and thence back to the trenches, and the greatest battle of the First World War. There, amid the devastation and the squalor, he finds both love and a horrifying glimpse of chemical warfare before the thrilling dÃ©noument in the skies above the battlefield.
I spent one–third of my journey looking out of the window of a first–class carriage, the next in a local motor–car following the course of a trout stream in a shallow valley, and the last tramping over a ridge of downland through great beech–woods to my quarters for the night. In the first part I was in an infamous temper; in the second I was worried and mystified; but the cool twilight of the third stage calmed and heartened me, and I reached the gates of Fosse Manor with a mighty appetite and a quiet mind.
As we slipped up the Thames valley on the smooth Great Western line I had reflected ruefully on the thorns in the path of duty. For more than a year I had never been out of khaki, except the months I spent in hospital. They gave me my battalion before the Somme, and I came out of that weary battle after the first big September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I had received a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my Matabele and South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a chest like the High Priest’s breastplate. I rejoined in January, and got a brigade on the eve of Arras. There we had a star turn, and took about as many prisoners as we put infantry over the top. After that we were hauled out for a month, and subsequently planted in a bad bit on the Scarpe with a hint that we would soon be used for a big push. Then suddenly I was ordered home to report to the War Office, and passed on by them to Bullivant and his merry men. So here I was sitting in a railway carriage in a grey tweed suit, with a neat new suitcase on the rack labelled C.B. The initials stood for Cornelius Brand, for that was my name now. And an old boy in the corner was asking me questions and wondering audibly why I wasn’t fighting, while a young blood of a second lieutenant with a wound stripe was eyeing me with scorn.
The old chap was one of the cross–examining type, and after he had borrowed my matches he set to work to find out all about me. He was a tremendous fire–eater, and a bit of a pessimist about our slow progress in the west. I told him I came from South Africa and was a mining engineer.