When Peter Moran picks up a man on the roadside while driving through a bitter rainy night on the South Downs, he embarks upon an adventure that will lead him into treasonous international plots, flying adventures and tests of both his bravery and his loyalty.
342 pages with a reading time of ~5.25 hours (85562 words), and first published in 1928. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2016.
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As I have said, this matter started in the night. I was agent to Lord Arner at that time; steward and agent, for most of the family affairs passed through my hands, and I ran the outdoor business of the house itself. I lived by myself in the Steward’s House at Under Hall, about a couple of miles from the little town of Under, in West Sussex. I live there still.
Very late, on the night of which I am writing, I was driving home over the South Downs, after a dinner in Winchester. I forget for the moment what that dinner was about; I do not think it can have been connected with my old school; because I was driving home in a very bad temper, and so I think it must have been the Corn Association. They tell me that I am reactionary. Very likely they are right, but they should give a man a better dinner than that before they tell him so.
In any case, all that is beside the point. I started home to drive the forty odd miles from Winchester to Under at about half-past eleven that night. It was March; a fine night with a pack of loose cloud in front of the moon that gradually turned to rain. I was in a dinner-jacket, but the hood of my old Morris is pretty watertight. I could take the rain phlegmatically, and so I set the wiper going, jammed my foot down a bit harder, and wished I was in bed with a fire in my bedroom instead of bucketing along at forty miles an hour over the black country roads.
Now, on that run from Winchester to Under, you pass over give-and-take sort of country for most of the way, but about ten miles from Under the road gets up on to the high ground by Leventer, and runs along the top for a couple of miles. That two miles runs with a fairly good surface straight over the unfenced down. You can let a car out there in the daytime, but at night you have to be careful, because of the cattle.
It was about half-past twelve when I came swinging up over that bit of down that night, doing about forty and keeping a sharp look-out for sheep. The night was as black as the pit. By that time the rain was coming down pretty hard. There was no traffic on the road at that time of night; I sat there sucking my dead pipe and thinking no evil, watched the rain beat against the windscreen, watching the wiper flick it off again, and thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t out in it.
About half-way along that stretch of down I passed a man on the road.
He was walking along in the direction of Under. I didn’t see very much of him as I passed, because the rain blurred the windscreen except just where the wiper caught it, and I was going at a fair pace. He seemed to be a tallish well-set-up fellow in a leather coat, but without a hat. The water was fairly streaming and glistening off him in my headlights. I drove past. Then it struck me that it was a pretty rotten trick to drive by and leave a man out on the road in a night like that. I jammed both feet hard down, and we stopped with a squeal about twenty yards beyond him.
I stuck my pipe in my pocket, switched on the dashboard light, leaned over, and opened the door.
“Want a lift into Under?” I called.
On a night like that I should have expected to hear his footsteps squelching along at the side of the road. When I didn’t, I turned and looked out of the little window at the back. He seemed to have stopped dead. I fancied that I could see him dimly in the rain, standing by the side of the road in the red light of my tail lamp.
The rain came beating steadily against the car, with little patterings. To put it frankly, I thought it was our local idiot. In a job like mine one gets to know the look of those chaps and the way they wander about the country in the worst weather, often with no hat on. We have a good few naturals about my part of the world, and they don’t come to much harm. Their people seem to like to have them about the place, and they’re good with animals.
In any case, it was a rotten night for an idiot to be out. It didn’t much matter to me what time I got to bed now, and I had a fancy to collect this chap and see him safely home. His people live at a farm about five miles off that road, more or less on the way to Under.
I thought that he was frightened at the sudden stopping of the car, and so I slid along the seat and stuck my head out of the door to reassure him.
“All right, Ben,” I said. They call him Ben. “I’m Mr. Moran from Under Hall. I’ll take you back home in the car if you’ll come with me. It’s a rotten wet night for walking. That’s right. Stay where you are, and I’ll bring the car back to you. Then you can come in out of the wet.”
I slipped the gear into reverse and ran the car back along the road to him. He was still standing motionless by the grass; I could see him in the gleam of the tail lamp through the little window. I stopped the car when he was opposite the door.
“Come on in,” I said. “It’s all wet out there. You know me–Mr. Moran.”