By 1911 The Motor Cycle had already established a tradition of publishing Christmas stories. In later years they were generally humorous, well, slightly humorous, adventure stories about chaps and their machines set against a snow-covered Christmas backdrop; sometimes they took the form of ghost stories. But in the ‘fear-of-invasion’ years leading to the Great War even Christas stories involved nasty foreigners. Achtung! The Jerries are coming!
TIME HEALS ALL wounds, and I have the permission of very high authorities to seek tardy publication for the thrilling experiences detailed in the following narrative. They befell me one day in Christmas week, 1910. I may explain at the outset that I am a very humdrum individual, employed in a City bank, and that I am a bachelor. On the very rare occasions when I take a brief holiday, I invariably spend it on my motor cycle. This will explain why I was found on the road at a period of the year when most motor cycles are rusting in their sheds, and more fortunate owners than myself are basking at their firesides in the bosoms of their families. I live in lodgings, I have neither kith nor kin, and except for an annual fortnight in August my leisure seldom permits of long rides.
A Trip Up North.
Last Christmas, as readers will remember, the roads were frozen hard and smooth, and the sun shone warmly for eight hours a day or thereabouts. I may have been rash, but, as I had never toured in Scotland, I chose this rigorous season for a trip North. The ride to Edinburgh occupied two days, and was accomplished in tolerable comfort. The going was good, though the wind was abominably cold except at midday when the sun was strong enough to temper the bite in the atmosphere.
On the third day of my brief leave the wind dropped, and, as is usual on a calm day with the thermometer below freezing point, a thick fog soon descended, and blotted out the landscape. I dare not divulge the exact locality in which I was riding. Suffice it to say that I was well north of Edinburgh, and was crossing a low range of hills not far removed from the coast. Circulation had long since ceased in my lower limbs, and nothing but the difficulty of restarting my machine on a rising grade had prevented my dismounting to stamp some semblance of a glow into my chilled feet. As I breasted the shoulder of a dumpy range, a rift in the fog proved that I had attained the summit, and with a sigh of satisfaction I was preparing to dismount and give myself a cabman’s hug when, to my intense surprise, I sighted a powerful NSU twin with a sidecar attached reposing close to the ditch.
A Guttural Voice hailed me.
The prospect of company during my stoppage was attractive, but for a moment I could see no signs of a human being. I had already got my machine on its stand when a guttural voice hailed me, and I saw the owner of the sidecar outfit regarding me from over the wall. He vaulted nimbly over the low, mortarless wall, and revealed himself as a pleasant-looking young foreigner of about my own age, with a heavy moustache. He spoke English excellently, though his gutturals provided absolute proof of his nationality. We exchanged smokes and chatted in true comrade fashion about motoring matters. He was evidently an expert, and gave me two or three invalu- able hints with regard to the NSU gear. I happen to have this gear fitted to my own English roadster.
In the course of our conversation I began to be rather puzzled. His manner was contradictory. On the one hand, he evidently desired to be cordial and friendly. He offered me some excellent cherry brandy from his flask, pressed a cigar on me, and when I admired its flavour he insisted on my accepting two or three more. He even presented me with a most ingenious little tool of his own design and construction which was most useful for making sundry adjustments to the gear.
On the other hand, he was equally anxious to be rid of me. He spoke of the extreme cold, exaggerated the distance to my destination for the night (of which I had informed him), and finally got quite brusque and rude when I suggested that we should join company for a few miles. At first he said he had to be in Edinburgh by tea-time, but when I offered to return there with him, as I was tired of the cold and the fog, he grew positively abusive, and said his plans were not at all definite. In fact, he seemed quite angry and suspicious, as if he fancied I intended to sandbag and rob him. I am the last man to press my company where it is unwelcome, and before long I drew on my gloves and prepared to proceed north and be quit of this surly companion.
A Glimpse of Red over the Low Wall.
As my valve dropped and the engine fired, I thought I caught a gleam of red over the low wall, and the curious object I sighted through the low wreaths of mist looked remarkably like a pile of red petrol cans with two or three spars lying across them. However, the circumstance scarcely excited my curiosity at the moment, for I was exercised about the German’s curious manners, and was wondering whether such a burly and soldierly individual could really be fearing personal violence from a scrubby little under-sized bank clerk like myself.
These surmises soon merged into more urgent attention to the road, for its twists and gradients were very baffling in the thick fog. I had travelled as nearly as I could say some five or six miles from the scene of the meeting place, when my loneliness was removed by the sound of a distant exhaust. At first I mistook the sound for the low hoarse call of some moorland bird crying to its mate; but my motorist’s instinct was not long to be deceived, and I presently recognised it for the raucous crackle of a multi-cylinder engine being run rather slowly on the open exhaust.
My mechanical instincts were swiftly alert, and two things puzzled me extremely. The first was the intermittency of the crackling. It came in fits and starts, resembling the dot and carry one of a powerful motor cycle driven on the valve lifter by a timid rider; and one knows that powerful six -cylinder racing cars are not driven in this fashion. At first I thought the engine was missing badly, but careful listening discarded the suggestion; either the engine was being frequently cut out on the switch, or else the cut-out was being opened and closed in truly crazy fashion.
Then again I could form no estimate as to the whereabouts of the mysterious car. I could not decide whether it was behind me or in front of me, overtaking me or
approaching me dead on. Offhand 1 should have guessed that it was on a parallel road not more than 800 feet away, but I knew there was no other road anywhere at hand in this desolate moorland district and, even if there had been, my ear could not have decided whether the queerly driven engine was on my right or left.
The Strange Noise Dies Away.
Finally, the sound died away altogether, and I drove on in distinct confusion, wondering whether I had been the victim of some strange hallucination, or whether I had been deluded by some weird multiplex echo. Some peculiar formation of the hills, I finally decided, had caught the beat of my own noisy engine, which had ricochetted back, multiplied five or six times in fainter cadences. I was sharply and unpleasantly aroused from these speculations into stern reality.
Fancying I had the road to myself, I took a corner a trifle faster than I dare have done in summer, and much faster than I ought to have ventured in the fog. The highway curled round to the right, hugging a long shoulder of moss-grown crag, and as I swept round I encountered head-on a gigantic car tearing up the easy slope at over fifty miles an hour. I caught my breath, spied for one frightful second a white, strained face snatching madly at the steering wheel, and then I was past. On went my brakes and I was out of the saddle in a moment. The splendid car—a magnificent Rolls Royce—in its frenzied swerve to avoid me had charged the rock wall on my right, and its bows were a crushed mass of bent and splintered metal. All its wheels had been torn clean off by the impact and strain, and it lay drunkenly half over on its side against the wall of rock, its occupants strewn across the road to the left, each in a queer distorted heap. In my distress I barely noticed that its crew consisted of two naval officers and three blue-jackets. The driver was dead, lying crushed behind the damaged steering wheel. The three tars were spread in the road, struggling to rise, but so badly injured that they had no command of their limbs. The fifth passenger was evidently an elderly officer of exalted rank in his mess tunic, over which a rich fur cloak seemed to have been hastily flung; and, strangest of all, out there on the lonely road lay a bent and buckled machine gun, distorted by its impact with the frozen road.
I pulled out my flask of ‘Three Star’ and bent over the officer, whose head was cut and bleeding, and from whose lips was proceeding a stream of that special profanity of which the navy is credited with the monopoly. But he had his wits about him. “In the King’s name, young fellow,” he gasped, spitting blood and teeth from his mouth; “never mind us! A —— German aeroplane’s been over our new naval base at R—— while we were at lunch, and has photographed all the works. They are heading south towards Edinburgh; tanks must be nearly empty if they’ve come over the sea; secret stores on the hills seven miles off, probably. After ’em; raise the countryside on them! If they get those plates home, we’re done!”
Armed with Service Revolvers.
One of the tars was on his legs by this time, and, thrusting a brace of automatic revolvers into the pockets of my leather coat, he shoved me towards my machine.
“After ’em, sir! ” he spluttered, eagerly. “Mark ’em down when they land for petrol. “There’s help coming. We were the first car after them. There’s lots of help coming along!”
I mounted, getting the engine off first time by a gigantic heave, and, as I roared uphill through the fog on full spark and throttle, my scattered wits began to collect themselves. The mysterious noise was explained—I ought to have recognised it at once, for I had heard the Gnome engine at Bournemouth during a whole week in the summer.
My strange acquaintance, the NSU rider, was obviously on the look-out for the spying aeroplane, with a supply of petrol and a few spare parts; probably there were other German riders out on the hills, too.
Steering by compass, the aeroplane had slipped quietly across the North Sea in the calm and fog, hoping to achieve a task which precautions render impossible in ordinary weather, and to return to Germany, leaving England unconscious that her closely-guarded naval secrets were common property in Berlin. I am never a timid rider, but, my word! I shirked no risks in that dare-devil sprint through the mist. I drove as if I had Brooklands track to myself for an hour record, and a strange exultation glowed in me as I saw that I, who pass for a dull humdrum clerk in City circles, had a distinct chance of dying for my country, and of making my name famous wherever the British National Anthem is sung.
The faithful speedometer told me when five miles of the return journey towards the ridge-summit had been covered and I thought it wise to close my cut-out so that I might approach the summit silently if the giant plane had sunk to rest on the top of the moor.
Spying out the German Aeroplane.
The dial on my handle-bar registered the sixth mile from the point where I had left the disabled car, and then it began to tick off the tenths of the seventh and last mile. I recognised the sharp corner just below the summit, and lifted my valve. Hiding my machine in the ditch I ran up the road, keeping close to the wall and stooping furtively. As I approached the plateau I saw the twin and sidecar just where it had been three-quarters of an hour before, but there was no sign of its owner or of the aeroplane.
Lifting my head cautiously I peered over the wall and, thinking I heard voices out on the moor, I edged further and further up towards the derelict sidecar. The fog was thick, but as I drew nearer the summit certain indistinct lines, dimly sighted through it, took shape and definiteness. At last all was plain. There lay the huge aeroplane amid the stones which were scattered over the rank brown moor-grass, no longer graceful, but like some crippled dragon-fly, one wing hopelessly buckled by a foul landing. Twenty yards nearer was a stack of petrol cans and a group of three men, excitedly chattering in German.
One of the men was my acquaintance of the fore-noon; the other two, heavily swathed in furs and aviation helmets, were obviously the two intrepid pilots of the damaged aeroplane. Even as I gazed, their plans evidently took shape. One of the aeronauts clambered hurriedly up into the boat-shaped body of his machine and extracted a small black oblong case; even the fog could not prevent me from recognising a folding camera. He thrust this into the hands of my acquaintance, with emphatic orders and gesticulations.
My friend of the forenoon stowed it hastily in an inside pocket and, waving a reassuring message to the airmen, turned his back on them, and ran for the sidecar. I kept my head over the wall long enough to see the two airmen disappear into the fog, abandoning their useless plane, and then I lay down in the ditch. I heard the German motor cyclist vault heavily over the wall, haul his machine round with its nose towards Edinburgh, and spent a moment or two, turning on taps no doubt. I occupied the brief interval in pulling out one of the Mauser pistols the sailor had given me, and as soon as the echo of the exhaust broke on the soundless air I slipped back to my own machine, and, with cut-out closed, headed hard after him.
A Stern Chase in the Fog.
The German’s machine was being driven fairly fast on the open exhaust, and by keeping my silencer shut I was able to ride within earshot in the fog without his being aware of my proximity. In this way, we covered perhaps a couple of miles, and then, with never a hoot from behind, a Prince Henry type of Vauxhall racer drew silently up to my shoulder in the mist. It was manned by naval officers, and the adiniral I had already seen was in the rear body. They slowed down, and I gave them all my information without dropping below twenty-five miles an hour. “Hang on to us,” said the sporting young” lieutenant at the wheel; then bang went his foot down on his accelerator, and we simply fell off the hills into the fog of the valley below.
There was some pretty shooting when we caught up my friend with the sidecar. The sailors perforated his back tyre, and mangled his rear frame and mudguards and carrier into bent iron work with revolver bullets before he stopped, and then he only stopped because a broken chain stay and a flat tyre sent him swerving into the ditch. The bluejackets were on him in an instant like tiger cats, and his camera was waved aloft in triumph. They had the spy lashed up like a mummy in two minutes, and when another car came up he was sent back in it to await his trial.
I never heard his fate, and only know that this aspect of the affair, like many secret service matters, never got into the papers. For myself, I can only add that the admiral and the young officers on the Vauxhall stood me a royal feed at the Carlton in Edinburgh that night, and made me swear to keep my mouth shut—a promise from which I have only just obtained a partial release.
How I Kept the Secret.
When I reappeared at the office I answered queries as to what sort of Christmas I’d spent with a grumpy reticence, and my fellow clerks have no notion that I am the man who saved England.
Perhaps the sternest test I faced over the matter was when all London was mystified by certain newspaper paragraphs early last Januiary, referring to a bad motor smash in which certain naval officers were involved, and to the towing of a damaged aeroplane into Edinburgh for repairs. I think both were commonly ascribed to over-indulgence in the wassail bowl; I know the son of a Scotch cotton millionaire was freely accused of taking his initial flight on a racing Bleriot when overfull of champagne. But managed to hold mv tongue through it all.