Read an Excerpt
The Eagle Has Landed
By Jack Higgins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Jack Higgins
All rights reserved.
SOMEONE WAS DIGGING a grave in one corner of the cemetery as I went in through the lychgate. I remember that quite clearly because it seemed to set the scene for nearly everything that followed.
Five or six rooks lifted out of the beech trees at the west end of the church like bundles of black rags, calling angrily to each other as I threaded my way between the tombstones and approached the grave, turning up the collar of my trenchcoat against the driving rain.
Whoever was down there was talking to himself in a low voice. It was impossible to catch what he was saying. I moved to one side of the pile of fresh earth, dodging another spadeful, and peered in. 'Nasty morning for it.'
He looked up, resting on his spade, an old, old man in a cloth cap and shabby, mud- stained suit, a grain sack draped across his shoulders. His cheeks were sunken and hollow, covered with a grey stubble, and his eyes full of moisture and quite vacant.
I tried again. 'The rain,' I said.
Some kind of understanding dawned. He glanced up at the sombre sky and scratched his chin. 'Worse before it gets better, I'd say.'
'It must make it difficult for you,' I said. There was at least six inches of water swilling about in the bottom.
He poked at the far side of the grave with his spade and it split wide open, like something rotten bursting, earth showering down. 'Could be worse. They put so many in this little boneyard over the years, people aren't planted in earth any more. They're buried in human remains.'
He laughed, exposing toothless gums, then bent down, scrabbled in the earth at his feet and held up a finger-bone. 'See what I mean?'
The appeal, even for the professional writer, of life in all its infinite variety, definitely has its limits on occasion and I decided it was time to move on. 'I have got it right? This is a Catholic church?'
'All Romans here,' he said. 'Always have been.'
'Then maybe you can help me. I'm looking for a grave or perhaps even a monument inside the church. Gascoigne—Charles Gascoigne. A sea captain.'
'Never heard of him,' he said. 'And I've been sexton here forty-one years. When was he buried?'
His expression didn't alter. He said calmly, 'Ah, well then, before my time, you see. Father Vereker—now he might know something.'
'Will he be inside?'
'There or the presbytery. Other side of the trees behind the wall.'
At that moment, for some reason or other, the rookery in the beech trees above our heads erupted into life, dozens of rooks wheeling in the rain, filling the air with their clamour. The old man glanced up and hurled the finger-bone into the branches. And then he said a very strange thing.
'Noisy bastards!' he called. 'Get back to Leningrad.'
I'd been about to turn away, but paused, intrigued. 'Leningrad?' I said. 'What makes you say that?'
"That's where they come from. Starlings, too. They've been ringed in Leningrad and they turn up here in October. Too cold for them over there in the winter.'
'Is that so?' I said.
He had become quite animated now, took half a cigarette from behind his ear and stuck it in his mouth. 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey over there in the winter. A lot of Germans died at Leningrad during the war. Not shot or anything. Just froze to death.'
By now I was quite fascinated. I said, 'Who told you all that?'
'About the birds?' he said, and suddenly he changed completely, his face suffused by a kind of sly cunning. 'Why, Werner told me. He knew all about birds.'
'And who was Werner?'
'Werner?' He blinked several times, the vacant look appearing on his face again, though whether genuine or simulated it was impossible to tell. 'He was a good lad, Werner. A good lad. They shouldn't have done that to him.'
He leaned over his spade and started to dig again, dismissing me completely. I stayed there for a moment longer, but it was obvious that he had nothing more to say, so, reluctantly, because it had certainly sounded as if it might be a good story, I turned and worked my way through the tombstones to the main entrance.
I paused inside the porch. There was a notice-board on the wall in some sort of dark wood, the lettering in faded gold paint. Church of St. Mary and All the Saints, Studley Constable across the top and, underneath, the times for Mass and Confession. At the bottom it said Father Philip Vereker, S.J.
The door was oak and very old, held together by iron bands, studded with bolts. The handle was a bronze lion's head with a large ring in its mouth and the ring had to be turned to one side before the door opened, which it did finally with a slight, eerie creaking.
I had expected darkness and gloom inside, but instead, found what was in effect a medieval cathedral in miniature, flooded with light and astonishingly spacious. The nave arcades were superb, great Norman pillars soaring up to an incredible wooden roof, richly carved with an assortment of figures, human and animal, which were really in quite remarkable condition. A row of round, clerestory windows on either side at roof level were responsible for a great deal of the light which had so surprised me.
There was a beautiful stone font and on the wall beside it, a painted board listed all the priests who had served over the years, starting with a Rafe de Courcey in 1132 and ending with Vereker again, who had taken over in 1943.
Beyond was a small, dark chapel, candles flickering in front of an image of the Virgin Mary that seemed to float there in the half-light. I walked past it and down the centre aisle between the pews. It was very quiet, only the ruby light of the sanctuary lamp, a fifteenth-century Christ high on his cross down by the altar, rain drumming against the high windows.
There was a scrape of a foot on stone behind me and a dry, firm voice said, 'Can I help you?'
I turned and found a priest standing in the entrance of the Lady Chapel, a tall, gaunt man in a faded black cassock. He had iron-grey hair cropped close to the skull and the eyes were set deep in their sockets as if he had been recently ill, an impression heightened by the tightness of the skin across the cheekbones. It was a strange face. Soldier or scholar, this man could have been either, but that didn't surprise me, remembering from the notice board that he was a Jesuit. But it was also a face that lived with pain as a constant companion if I was any judge and, as he came forward, I saw that he leaned heavily on a blackthorn stick and dragged his left foot.
'I was talking to the old man out there, the sexton.'
'Ah, yes, Laker Armsby.'
'If that's his name. He thought you might be able to help me.' I held out my hand. 'My name's Higgins, by the way. Jack Higgins. I'm a writer.'
He hesitated slightly before shaking hands, but only because he had to switch the blackthorn from his right hand to his left. Even so, there was a definite reserve, or so it seemed to me. 'And how can I help you, Mr Higgins?'
'I'm doing a series of articles for an American magazine,' I said. 'Historical stuff. I was over at St Margaret's at Cley, yesterday.'
'A beautiful church.' He sat down in the nearest pew. 'Forgive me, I tire rather easily these days.'
'There's a table tomb in the churchyard there,' I went on. 'Perhaps you know it?' "To James Greeve ..."'
He cut in on me instantly. '... who was assistant to Sir Cloudesley Shovel in burning ye ships in Ye Port of Tripoly in "Barbary, January fourteenth, sixteen seventy-six."' He showed that he could smile. 'But that's a famous inscription in these parts.'
'According to my researches, when Greeve was Captain of the Orange Tree he had a mate called Charles Gascoigne who later became a captain in the navy. He died of an old wound in sixteen-eighty-three and it seems Greeve had him brought up to Cley to be buried.'
'I see,' he said politely, but without any particular interest. In fact, there was almost a hint of impatience in his voice.
'There's no trace of him in Cley churchyard,' I said, 'or in the parish records and I've tried the churches at Wiveton, Glandford and Blakeney with the same result.'
'And you think he might be here?'
'I was going through my notes again and remembered that he'd been raised a Catholic as a boy and it occurred to me that he might have been buried in the faith. I'm staying at the Blakeney Hotel and I was talking to one of the barmen there who told me there was a Catholic church here at Studley Constable. It's certainly an out-of-the-way little place. Took me a good hour to find it.'
'All to no purpose, I'm afraid.' He pushed himself up. 'I've been here at St Mary's for twenty-eight years now and I can assure you I've never come across any mention of this Charles Gascoigne.'
It had been very much my last chance and I suppose I allowed my disappointment to show, but in any case, I persisted. 'Can you be absolutely sure? What about church records for the period? There might be an entry in the burial register.'
'The local history of this area happens to be a personal interest of mine,' he said with a certain acidity. 'There is not a document connected with this church with which I am not completely familiar and I can assure you that nowhere is there any mention of a Charles Gascoigne. And now, if you'll excuse me. My lunch will be ready.'
As he moved forward, the blackthorn slipped and he stumbled and almost fell. I grabbed his elbow and managed to stand on his left foot. He didn't even wince.
I said, 'I'm sorry, that was damned clumsy of me.'
He smiled for the second time. 'Nothing to hurt, as it happens.' He rapped at the foot with the blackthorn. 'A confounded nuisance, but, as they say, I've learned to live with it.'
It was the kind of remark which required no comment and he obviously wasn't seeking one. We went down the aisle together, slowly because of his foot, and I said, 'A remarkably beautiful church.'
'Yes, we're rather proud of it.' He opened the door for me. 'I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help.'
'That's all right,' I said. 'Do you mind if I have a look around the churchyard while I'm here?'
'A hard man to convince, I see.' But there was no malice in the way he said it. 'Why not? We have some very interesting stones. I'd particularly recommend you to the section at the west end. Early eighteenth-century and obviously done by the same local mason who did similar work at Cley.'
This time he was the one who held out his hand. As I took it, he said, 'You know, I thought your name was familiar. Didn't you write a book on the Ulster troubles last year?'
'That's right,' I said. 'A nasty business.'
'War always is, Mr Higgins.' His face was bleak. 'Man at his most cruel. Good-day to you.'
He closed the door and I moved into the porch. A strange encounter. I lit a cigarette and stepped into the rain. The sexton had moved on and for the moment I had the churchyard to myself, except for the rooks, of course. The rooks from Leningrad. I wondered about that again, then pushed the thought resolutely from my mind. There was work to be done. Not that I had any great hope after talking to Father Vereker, of finding Charles Gascoigne's tomb, but the truth was there just wasn't anywhere else to look.
I worked my way through methodically, starting at the west end, noticing in my progress the headstones he'd mentioned. They were certainly curious. Sculptured and etched with vivid and rather crude ornaments of bones, skulls, winged hourglasses and archangels. Interesting, but entirely the wrong period for Gascoigne.
It took me an hour and twenty minutes to cover the entire area and at the end of that time I knew I was beaten. For one thing, unlike most country churchyards these days, this one was kept in very decent order. Grass cut, bushes trimmed back, very little that was overgrown or partially hidden from view or that sort of thing.
So, no Charles Gascoigne. I was standing by the newly-dug grave when I finally admitted defeat. The old sexton had covered it with a tarpaulin against the rain and one end had fallen in. I crouched down to pull it back into position and as I started to rise, noticed a strange thing.
A yard or two away, close in to the wall of the church at the base of the tower, there was a flat tombstone set in a mound of green grass. It was early eighteenth-century, an example of the local mason's work I've already mentioned. It had a superb skull and crossbones at its head and was dedicated to a wool merchant named Jeremiah Fuller, his wife and two children. Crouched down as I was, I became aware that there was another slab beneath it.
The Celt in me rises to the top easily and I was filled with a sudden irrational excitement as if conscious that I stood on the threshold of something. I knelt over the tombstone and tried to get my fingers to it, which proved to be rather difficult. But then, quite suddenly, it started to move.
'Come on, Gascoigne,' I said softly. 'Let's be having you.'
The slab slid to one side, tilting on the slope of the mound and all was revealed. I suppose it was one of the most astonishing moments of my life. It was a simple stone, with a German cross at the head—what most people would describe as an iron cross. The inscription beneath it was in German. It read Hier ruhen Oberstleutnant Kurt Steiner und 13 Deutsche Fallschirmjäger gefallen am 6 November 1943.
My German is indifferent at the best of times, mainly from lack of use, but it was good enough for this. Here lies Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and 13 German paratroopers, killed in action on the 6th November, 1943.
I crouched there in the rain, checking my translation carefully but no, I was right, and that didn't make any kind of sense. To start with, I happened to know, as I'd once written an article on the subject, that when the German Military Cemetery was opened at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire in 1967, the remains of the four thousand, nine hundred and twenty-five German servicemen who died in Britain during the First and Second World Wars were transferred there.
Killed in Action, the inscription said. No, it was quite absurd. An elaborate hoax on somebody's part. It had to be.
Any further thoughts on the subject were prevented by a sudden outraged cry. 'What in the hell do you think you're doing?'
Father Vereker was hobbling towards me through the tombstones, holding a large black umbrella over his head.
I called cheerfully, 'I think you'll find this interesting, Father. I've made a rather astonishing find.'
As he drew closer, I realized that something was wrong. Something was very wrong indeed, for his face was white with passion and he was shaking with rage. 'How dare you move that stone? Sacrilege—that's the only word for it.'
'All right,' I said. 'I'm sorry about that, but look what I've found underneath.'
'I don't give a damn what you've found underneath. Put it back at once.'
I was beginning to get annoyed myself now. 'Don't be silly. Don't you realize what it says here? If you don't read German then allow me to tell you. "Here lies Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and thirteen German paratroopers killed in action sixth November nineteen- forty-three." Now don't you find that absolutely bloody fascinating?'
'You mean you've seen it before.'
'No, of course not.' There was something hunted about him now, an edge of desperation to his voice when he added, 'Now will you kindly replace the original stone?'
I didn't believe him, not for a moment. I said, 'Who was he, this Steiner? What was it all about?'
'I've already told you, I haven't the slightest idea,' he said, looking more hunted still.
And then I remembered something. 'You were here in nineteen-forty-three, weren't you? That's when you took over the parish. It says so on the board inside the church.'
He exploded, came apart at the seams. 'For the last time, will you replace that stone as you found it?'
'No,' I said. 'I'm afraid I can't do that.'
Strangely enough, he seemed to regain some kind of control of himself at that point. Very well,' he said calmly. 'Then you will oblige me by leaving at once.'
There seemed little point in arguing, considering the state of mind he was in, so I said briefly, 'All right, Father, if that's the way you want it.'
Excerpted from The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins. Copyright © 1975 Jack Higgins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.