Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

A Flaw In The Organization by A. E. W. Mason

 

ORGANIZATION was the long suit of Julian Clere, the eminent solicitor. Not probity, nor affection, but organization. Years and years ago when he had been defending in the Police Courts, prisoners little poorer than himself, one of his failures, not so indignant at the severity of his sentence as bewildered that he should have been sentenced at all, said:

"I saw a pigeon and I plucked 'im. Ain't that right, Mister?"

To Julian Clere that was very, very right. What was wrong was that the prisoner had not organized what he would doubtless have called his get-away. Mr. Clere meant to make no such mistake himself and through the years, as he rose, one might say, from pigeon to pigeon, he tucked a comfortable little fortune away in a bank at Stockholm, under the name of Hiram T. Clegg, of Cleveland, Ohio. He had made the acquaintance of the Bank Manager in Stockholm and through him had bought a small island with a comfortable house upon it on the lovely stretch of river between the city and the sea. All the links in the long and devious chain which stretched from his office in Waterloo Place, S.W.1, to his island had been regularly tested and he felt pleasantly safe.

He had need of that feeling now. Up till this year, by paying incomes out of capital, and some fortunate speculations made at critical moments, he had been able to meet all the clients whose affairs he had mis-managed, with an unclouded brow. But the American slump had caught him in the fall of last year and the recovery was too slow. It was now the month of May, he was fifty-one years old, a widower with a daughter of nineteen, and his time had come. Young Charlie Heseltine would come of age on Friday morning and to-day was Monday. Mr. Julian Clere had the sensation of pride a great general might feel who launches a campaign of which every detail has been planned and tested through a long succession of years.

Yet suddenly there appeared a crack in the organization. A clerk knocked upon and opened the door of his private office and before he could announce Mr. Heseltine, Mr. Heseltine with his boyish faith that everyone was his friend and delighted to see him, pushed by into the room.

"How do you do, Mr. Clere?" he cried. "I was passing. I thought that I'd run in;" and he shook his trustee and solicitor warmly by the hand.

Julian Clere rose hastily. He was aware of an odd sinking in the pit of his stomach. "Panicky! That won't do," he said to himself. But none of the panic showed in his face.

"Of course, of course," he replied heartily, and turning to his clerk, "Put a chair for Mr. Heseltine, Willis."

Whilst Willis placed the chair in position by the table Mr. Clere opened a drawer and slipped into it the little map on which he had been marking a neat little star in red ink. It was a map of the Cruising Club, giving the contours and the depths of some lonely inlets in the south-western corner of Ireland. "Did Heseltine notice it?" he asked himself.

But Charlie Heseltine gave no sign that he had noticed anything at all.

"I am really not going to take up your time, Mr. Clere," he said. "What I ran in to say was that I am crossing to Ireland to-night for three days of fishing."

"Where?" Julian Clere asked.

"The Shannon. But I shall be back on Friday for the meeting. It's fixed for ten in the morning, isn't it? Well, I might be a little late. Does that matter?"

"Not a bit," said Mr. Clere, speaking the truth. "I shall have all the securities and papers ready for you," he added, telling a lie. "Any time on Friday morning will do."

Obviously Charlie Heseltine had never noticed the map. Even if he had, what could he have made of it, except that a hard-worked solicitor was planning out his summer holiday? Mr. Clere breathed more easily. But he realized with a little shock of astonishment that he had been afraid. For fear had not entered at all into any of his possibilities. His organization was a thing of cast-iron solidity. There could not be the shadow of a reason for fear. Yet...yet...absurdly he had been in a veritable panic. Another shock awaited him. For as Charlie Heseltine edged towards the door, he said with some embarrassment:

"You know, perhaps, Mr. Clere, that I have been meeting your daughter a good deal lately, at luncheons, and dances, and that sort of thing."

Mr. Clere sat very still, but with his usual cordial smile upon his face.

"No, Marjorie hasn't mentioned it. But nowadays young people manage their own affairs, don't they? We're lucky if we're consulted at all."

"Well, I'm consulting you now, sir," said Heseltine, gathering his courage. He returned into the room and sat down again in the chair. "I know that I only come of age on Friday, but I can tell you," and with his face reddening he blurted out, "Marjorie means all the world to me."

Julian Clere nodded his head, once or twice. Then he asked:

"Have you said anything of this to Marjorie?"

"Not a word."

Once more fear had gripped Mr. Clere and once more it relaxed its hold. He hardly listened to Heseltine's explanation.

"I thought you ought to know. I mean to ask Marjorie to marry me in any case. I want to be frank about that. But I hope you won't see any objection."

Mr. Clere raised his eyebrows and laughed genially.

"You are both of you rather young for matrimony, aren't you?" he said.

"I don't think so," Heseltine urged. "After all, I've taken my degree. I'm down from Oxford. And I shall be very well off, shan't I?"

The solicitor looked sharply at the young man.

"Very well off of course," he said.

"And I don't intend to waste my life doing nothing," Heseltine continued. "I'm going to work. I took a First, you know, in History."

Julian Clere patted the young man's arm.

"I know your record, my dear boy. It's clean and good, as good as any father could wish for his daughter. But you see, Marjorie is my daughter and—I've no one else." Nothing could have been better than his simple unaffected statement. He was the man of affairs quizzing himself because across his busy life a great love shone. "I would hate Marjorie to run into unhappiness because she had mistaken the depth of her feelings. Or because you had mistaken the depth of yours."

"I haven't," Heseltine insisted.

"I wonder how many young men have said that and learnt within the year that they were wrong," Mr. Clere rejoined. "You must remember," he added whimsically, "that I am a solicitor and come across a good many unhappy marriages. It's natural that I should be cautious. However, that's all that I am—cautious. I want you to think over the thing very carefully, whilst you are away."

He saw Charlie Heseltine's face brighten.

"I want you really to examine yourself whilst you are in Ireland. I am not a fisherman myself, but I understand that even with the best of you there are opportunities for a good deal of reflection." He laughed and Heseltine joined in his laughter. "Well, then, if when you come back you are still certain that you have made your choice for good and all, you shall have my blessing."

Young Heseltine wrung the solicitor's hand until he winced.

"Thank you very much, sir," he said.

Mr. Clere accompanied him to the door.

"But meanwhile," he said, "you have promised me, haven't you, not to hold any communication with Marjorie."

Heseltine had made no such promise, but he was not for the moment aware of it. The kindness of his father-in-law to be filled him with enthusiasm. He was ready to make him any reasonable promise, so long as it brought him nearer to Marjorie.

"I agree to that," he said.

"You are leaving for Ireland to-night," Mr. Clere insisted. "Mind, not even a telephone message before you go."

"I agree," Heseltine repeated. "But on Friday, after I'm definitely my own master, I'm going to try to get Marjorie to lunch with me."

"And in my turn I agree," said Julian Clere, with all the goodwill in the world. "You shall telephone to her through this instrument," and he touched the telephone upon his table.

But as soon as he was once more alone in his office his uneasiness returned. Heseltine's proposal, however, had no share in it at all. Marry Marjorie, would he! The idea was grotesque. Marjorie was a link in the organization though she was as yet unaware of it. She had her work to do. Besides, when he reached his island in the Baltic, Hiram T. Clegg would need a companion. Marjorie's marriage did not produce a single wrinkle in his forehead.

But—for a moment he had been afraid; and the sensation left an unpleasant savour in his mouth. Fear had not occurred to him as a possibility when he was creating his organization. Therefore he had not organized against it—as no doubt he might have done. He had a shadowy vision of himself living upon his lovely island in an unending palpitation of terror; starting to run if a launch swept up to his landing-stage; shivering at a knock upon the door. Mr. Clere looked about his office, frowning. He hated the room in which fear had first come to him.

It was six o'clock. He rang for his clerk and ran over the list of his appointments for the morning. He wrapped his map round a little wooden roller and sealed it and placed it in his pocket. Then putting on his hat and taking his stick he sauntered a hundred yards or so to his Club in Pall Mall and played a couple of rubbers of Bridge, just as he had done on most days of his working months during the last fifteen years. The rubbers reassured him. His judgment was as cool, his calls as acute as they always had been. When bathed, and comfortable in his dinner-jacket he sat down at his table in his house in Charles Street, Mayfair, to dine with his daughter, he felt ready to press the button and set the organization in action.

"My dear," he said. "I want you to do something for me if you will."

Marjorie, his very pretty daughter, turned towards him a pair of big grey eager eyes.

She didn't ask "What?" she just said "Yes."

How well I have trained her, reflected Julian Clere. And indeed he had. He had sent her all by herself to Madrid to identify a man who had once dined at his house, and he had sent her with a false passport so that her relationship to him might not be suspected. Again, he had telegraphed to Marjorie in London to pick up a letter at an office in Berlin and join him secretly in Buda-Pesth. And he had found her waiting for him in the sitting-room of his hotel a day before he had expected her. Both these odd missions were nothing but a training and a preparation for the real work long-foreseen which she was now to do.

"I want you to take the train to Southampton tomorrow night," he explained. "You'll cross by the night boat to Havre. In Havre harbour I have a motor-yacht of two hundred tons. It's a French yacht, manned by a French crew, and it's called, like a hundred other yachts, Bagatelle. I want you to go on board of it as soon as you arrive on Wednesday morning. You will hand a letter to the Captain—Captain Morbaix—and a chart. You will sail that evening." He nodded carelessly. "You might travel as Miss Sadie Clegg, of Cleveland, Ohio."

For a second or two the quiet grey eyes rested upon Mr. Julian Clere with a look of doubt in them; and again fear caught him. Could Marjorie suspect? Could Marjorie know? He felt that he was standing on the edge of a precipice and growing dizzy. But Marjorie put her doubt into words—and Julian Clere stepped back from his precipice.

"Isn't Sadie short for another name?"

"You were christened Sadie at Cleveland, Ohio," Julian returned, and the girl clapped her hands and bubbled over with laughter.

"What fun!" she cried.

Here was another of the odd exciting missions in which from time to time she helped her father. That he never explained them enhanced their importance. She made of them deep mysterious affairs in which her father took a silent and dangerous part. They were not to be talked about, even when he and she sat alone at their dinner-table. For if he never took her into his confidence, she had the completest confidence in him.

"And after we have sailed?" she asked. She wanted her orders—that was all. Julian Clere, for his part, reflected, "The idea of a girl like that marrying Charlie Heseltine! Ridiculous!"

Aloud he said:

"We'll go into the library and I'll tell you."

He took her by the arm affectionately and sat her down in an arm-chair at the side of his writing-table.

"This is more important than anything else we have done together, Marjorie," he began, and her eyes shone and her body thrilled as he spoke. He certainly knew the right words to use. "I hate the phrase Secret Service. It has become rather silly, since the war. It has come to mean little conjuring tricks with chemicals, hasn't it? And yet I don't know a better one. I should take a good many clothes. Sadie Clegg of Cleveland wouldn't travel with a suit-case. Here's your passport. I've had it put through by Cook's."

He unlocked a drawer and took it out and opened it.

"Sadie's travelled a good deal," he said, with a smile. He made sure that the last visa was stamped correctly for Sweden and then he handed it to her. She shut up the little book and put it away at once in her hand-bag and leaned forward towards him.

"You had better get me your own passport," he continued, "before we forget it, and I'll lock it away."

Marjorie went off to her room whilst Julian Clere wrote his letter of instructions to Captain Morbaix. It was short and he had finished it by the time when Marjorie returned. He took her passport from her and laid it on his table.

"The other one—the one you used for Madrid and Buda-Pesth—we destroyed that, didn't we?" he asked.

"In the fire here," Marjorie replied.

"Good!"

Mr. Clere brought into view now the two little Cruising Club charts wrapped about the roller.

"Captain Morbaix will make for the inlet on the Irish Coast marked on these maps with a star. It's important that he should not arrive there before nightfall on Thursday and I don't want him hanging about in the neighbourhood during daylight either. He must slow down a good way out and then make a rush for it. You understand, Marjorie?"

"Yes, Father."

"It's quite easy. The entrance is broad, there's no bar, and there's a depth of forty feet. Show as few lights as possible when you are entering and dowse them all once you are in—until midnight. From midnight onwards show one strong light towards the sky."

"I give one chart to the Captain?" said Marjorie.

"Yes."

"And I keep the other?"

"No," said Julian Clere. He had come to a moment of peril. He had known that he must come to it ever since Charlie Heseltine had left his office that afternoon. Did Marjorie know that Friday was the day when he must render an account of his stewardship to Heseltine? Even if Heseltine had kept his promise to send no message of any kind to Marjorie, he might easily have told her that much before he gave the promise. But not a trace of his anxiety showed in his manner.

"No, I keep the other," he said gaily.

"You, Father! Oh, then—yes—you are joining us."

There was a hint of—something—in her voice. Disappointment? Perplexity? She knew! She knew! He must find a reason, and quickly, to explain why on Friday morning he must be in a creek of Ireland rather than in his office, handing over his inheritance to young Heseltine.

"Oh, of course, I am glad really," cried Marjorie, noticing the disorder of his face. "Just for a second I wanted to be doing something for you by myself."

Julian Clere took his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. "It wouldn't do," he was saying to himself. For the third time already, since the late afternoon, he had been in a panic—he who had made the perfect unassailable organization. There wasn't a flaw in it really—no. But the one thing he hadn't organized against was fear. Fear baseless and unreasonable, but still fear—fear that shook one to the centre and made one ill.

"Yes, I shall join you, or rather Hiram T. Clegg will join you," he said gaily. "And now, my dear, you had better get on with your packing."

After she had gone to her room he burnt carefully her genuine passport and his own in the fire.

"That's the end of the Clere family," he said. "Charlie Heseltine indeed. Marry my girl, would he! Charlie Heseltine must think again. Why, the fellow's a pauper. Damned impudence, I call it!"

Mr. Clere indignantly stamped the remnants of the passports into the burning coals and betook himself to bed.

On Thursday afternoon he returned to his office after luncheon at half-past two. He signed some letters, remarked that he would probably not be back again that day, put on his hat and went out. He walked up Lower Regent Street to the Circus, took a taxi which had just put down a passenger at Swan and Edgar's, and rode to Paddington. There he entered a first-class carriage in the three-thirty to Weston-super-Mare. He did not tip the guard to secure the compartment to himself, because he had no wish to call attention to himself in any way. He was not likely to meet any of his acquaintances on that train, and he did not. He arrived at Weston-super-Mare at seven-thirty-five. As he walked along the Parade a French seaplane roared over the hills and dropped through the mists of that evening of early summer on to the smooth water of the Bristol Channel. It taxied towards the land beyond the town and came to rest. Mr. Julian Clere ate in a shelter of the Parade some sandwiches which he had brought from town. Then he strolled out beyond the town and, coming to a small beach in a tiny bay after it was dark, he flashed an electric torch three times and waited. In a very little while he heard a splash of oars. He turned on his torch again and, laying it down with the light directed seawards, he took off his shoes and his socks and rolled up his trousers as high up his thighs as he could. By the time he had knotted his shoes together and hung them round his neck, a collapsible Berthon boat sculled by one man quietly approached the beach. Mr. Clere switched off his torch and walked into the water. He climbed carefully into the boat, and the sculler bent again to his sculls. A quarter of an hour later a flurry of broken water patched the darkness with white and the roar of the seaplane rose and diminished above the Channel. In the early hours of the morning the Irish hills heard it, but only the stars saw it swoop to an inlet of the sea where a small ship showed a great light. By daylight the seaplane was on its way back to France and the small ship under the full power of her Diesel engines was driving due West into the heart of the Atlantic.

For four days Bagatelle held her course, a little to the North of the curved trade-route to New York. Throughout the first day Mr. Clere was in fantastically high spirits. A schoolboy on a winter holiday at St. Moritz would have seemed sullen by the side of him.

"We are flying the French flag," said Marjorie, as they sat at their luncheon in the charmingly decorated saloon.

"Well, it's a French yacht," Julian Clere replied, with a chuckle.

"We ought to have a wireless on board," said Marjorie.

"So we ought, my dear. I must have forgotten about it." He laughed immoderately, as if aware that he had been very, very witty.

On the second day, however, hours of apprehension alternated with the hours of gaiety. He spent his time chiefly on the bridge with a telescope as often as not to his eye. In the late afternoon, against a clear red sunset, far to the South a great ship was sighted.

"A cruiser," cried Julian, in a panic.

"No, sir, a liner," the officer of the watch replied.

At dinner that night when they sat with the side ports secured and a covering over the skylight, he exclaimed after a long silence:

"They always go South. Spain or the Argentine. Sunny climes and the rest of it. Stupid! We go North."

He proposed to make a wide sweep round the Shetlands, creep down the coast of Norway, and run the Cattegat at night.

"Who always go South?" Marjorie asked.

"The explorers," Mr. Clere returned quickly, upbraiding himself for his imprudence. "I mustn't make mistakes like that again," he argued. "Some time, of course, I'll have to have a show-down with Marjorie. But not yet. Not till we reach my island."

He glanced apprehensively at Marjorie. He had not hitherto given much thought to what her reactions to his crime might be when she came to learn of it. He tried to push all such speculations out of his mind now. "Every little thing alarms me," he said to himself. "Absurd!"

Nevertheless he was up on the bridge with his telescope by daylight of the third day. They were North of the trade-route now, yet Mr. Clere managed to detect a good many destroyers and cruisers pursuing him, and gaining on him during the course of the day.

"This won't do," he said, taking himself to task. "I'm afraid when there's nothing to be afraid of. Of course it'll be different when we get home to the island."

But he no longer felt so sure upon that point. The vision of a life spent in terror which he had dimly seen in his office in Waterloo Place was getting clearer and clearer and more and more real. The hideous sinking in the pit of his stomach which had so surprised him, took him unawares now for such slight causes as an abrupt movement at his elbow or the dropping of a teacup on the deck.

On the fourth day after Captain Morbaix and his chief officer had worked out the position of the yacht and marked it on the chart, Julian Clere gave an order. Captain Morbaix ported his helm and steered due North; and with the change of direction Clere recovered some of his spirits. There was a small deck-house aft and he took his tea there with his daughter at five o'clock. The sea was like a shining mirror continually splintered by the swift and steady thrust of the yacht, the sun warm, the air balmy and mild. Mr. Clere was inclined to seize the moment and take his daughter a little deeper into his confidence.

"My dear girl," he had actually begun, when there was a sudden flurry on the deck. A whistle sounded, sailors were running, the First Officer who had been standing by the clock of the log hurried forward to the bridge—and Mr. Clere turned grey and sprang to his feet. He stood for a moment staring at his daughter as if she were a stranger; and for a moment, too, she did not know him. It was as if some chemical change had taken place in his blood, making him a creature different from man. She had never seen terror so dreadful.

Clere ran out of the deck-house. All about the yacht the sea was empty; ahead hung a curious fog. An expression of despair crept into Clere's face. The least little thing—the blast of a whistle, for instance—and he was overthrown. How long could one live if that was to be normal? Julian climbed to the bridge, with Marjorie upon his heels. The Captain and the First Officer stood together, perplexed, alarmed, looking ahead and every now and then exchanging a word. Certainly the spectacle at which they stared was disturbing and no one was surprised when Captain Morbaix laid his hand on the engine-room telegraph and signalled for half-speed. The yacht was moving over a smooth sunlit sea in the stillest and clearest air. But ahead a curtain of mist thick as wool and dark as night stretched across the world from rim to rim. It had indeed the look of a wall rather than of a curtain, it was so solid, so abrupt. Towards this wall Bagatelle was moving and not one of those upon her bridge could resist the fancy that there must be a collision and a shipwreck when mist and yacht met. They held their breath in suspense as the space between lessened and lessened.

"Two minutes...one minute...thirty seconds," said Captain Morbaix, and he began to count, "one, two, three," and so on like a man holding a watch at the start of a race. Another second and the bowsprit touched and pierced the mist and disappeared entirely from before their eyes. The bows of the little ship followed—vanished. It was as though some unknown elemental force destroyed the yacht section by section noiselessly and dispersed it into atoms so fine as to be invisible. Then the bridge was swallowed up; and at once it was night and very cold. The beat of the propellers in the water astern alone seemed to belong to this world. Captain Morbaix pressed a button and his siren screamed harshly twice. To the consternation of passengers and crew it was answered loudly from a spot on the port side very near at hand. Captain Morbaix with a cry once more seized the handle of the telegraph and jammed it down to stop.

"No, no," Julian Clere shouted—it was less a shout than a panic- stricken scream. "Carry on, Captain. Starboard her and carry on! At full speed!"

He moved towards the telegraph to wrest it out of the Captain's hand, and suddenly there was no motion in the ship. Mr. Clere turned and hurried down the ladder from the bridge. On the bridge they heard him stumbling along the deck to the companion.

Marjorie was troubled. She had never known her father to be nervous. And nervousness had been growing upon him these last days. No doubt this odd change from sunlight to darkness and winter-cold was enough to make anyone nervous. The Captain and the First Mate were talking together in hushed tones. They, sailors, more accustomed to the violent transformations of the sea, were at a loss. She listened for the siren again to sound across the water, and suddenly realized that she was chilled to the bone.

She descended to her cabin, feeling her way down the companion ladder, for the cabin lights had not yet been switched on from the engine-room. She came to her father's door and knocked upon the panel.

"Father, are you all right?" she asked, and she got no answer. She turned the handle and opened the door. It was quite dark in the cabin.

"Father," she cried, and hearing nothing but her own voice she went in. Something touched her and yielded to her, something soft and fluttering. She thought that she caught a whisper very close to her. Then the something swung against her or she pushed it—she never knew which. But she knew what the something was. She called aloud for help and until the help came she supported her father in her arms. But when the rope was untied and her father laid upon his bed it was too late. His heart had ceased to beat.

"Will you leave us together now," she asked in a quiet voice. "For the moment what is to be done, I can do."

They left her alone in the dark cabin with the dead body of her father. In half an hour the propellers began once more to beat the water and the ship to vibrate. But Marjorie was not aware that the yacht was moving until many minutes had passed. Then she went up again on to the bridge. The mist was thinning. Between wraiths of it overhead could be seen patches of blue and suddenly the yacht burst out of it into the sunlight.

Captain Morbaix was free to offer his sympathies to Sadie Clegg, alias Marjorie Clere. She listened and thanked him and asked:

"What ship was that in the fog which signalled you to stop? A cruiser? A destroyer?"

Captain Morbaix looked at the girl in bewilderment.

"But, Miss Sadie, there was no ship. What you heard was the echo of our siren flung back at us from an iceberg."

There was, you see, after all a flaw in Julian Clere's organization. He had not organized against fear.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page