D., a widowed professor of Romance literature, has arrived in Dover on a peaceful yet important mission. He’s to negotiate a contract to buy coal for his country, one torn by civil war. With it, there’s a chance to defeat fascist influences. Without it, the loyalists will fail. When D. strikes up a romantic acquaintance with the estranged but solicitous daughter of a powerful coal-mining magnate, everything appears to be in his favor—if not for a counteragent who has come to England with the intent of sabotaging every move he makes. Accused of forgery and theft, and roped into a charge of murder, D. becomes a hunted man, hemmed in at every turn by an ever-tightening net of intrigue and double cross, with no one left to trust but himself.
Written during the height of the Spanish Civil War, Graham Greene’s “exciting . . . kaleidoscopic affair” was the basis for the classic 1945 thriller starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall (The Sunday Times).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 2, 1904
Date of Death:April 3, 1991
Place of Birth:Berkhamsted, England
Place of Death:Vevey, Switzerland
Education:Balliol College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
The gulls swept over Dover. They sailed out like flakes of the fog, and tacked back towards the hidden town, while the siren mourned with them: other ships replied, a whole wake lifted up their voices — for whose death? The ship moved at half speed through the bitter autumn evening. It reminded D. of a hearse, rolling slowly and discreetly towards the 'garden of peace', the driver careful not to shake the coffin, as if the body minded a jolt or two. Hysterical women shrieked among the shrouds.
The third-class bar was jammed; a rugger team was returning home and they scrummed boisterously for their glasses, wearing striped ties. D. couldn't always understand what they were shouting: perhaps it was slang — or dialect. It would take a little time for his memory of English completely to return; he had known it very well once, but now his memories were rather literary. He tried to stand apart, a middle-aged man with a heavy moustache and a scarred chin and worry like a habit on his forehead, but you couldn't go far in that bar — an elbow caught him in the ribs and a mouth breathed bottled beer into his face. He was filled with a sense of amazement at these people; you could never have told from their smoky good fellowship that there was a war on — not merely a war in the country from which he had come, but a war here, half a mile outside Dover breakwater. He carried the war with him. Wherever D. was, there was a war. He could never understand that people were unaware of it.
'Pass here, pass here,' a player screamed at the barman, and somebody snatched his glass of beer and shouted, 'Offside.' 'Scrum,' they all screamed together.
D. said, 'With your permission. With your permission,' edging out. He turned up the collar of his mackintosh and went up on to the cold and foggy deck where the gulls were mourning, blowing over his head towards Dover. He began to tramp — up and down beside the rail — to keep warm, his head down, the deck like a map marked with trenches, impossible positions, salients, deaths: bombing planes took flight from between his eyes, and in his brain the mountains shook with shell-bursts.
He had no sense of safety walking up and down on this English ship sliding imperceptibly into Dover. Danger was part of him. It wasn't like an overcoat you sometimes left behind: it was your skin. You died with it; only corruption stripped it from you. The one person you trusted was yourself. One friend was found with a holy medal under the shirt, another belonged to an organization with the wrong initial letters. Up and down the cold unsheltered third-class deck, into the stern and back, until his walk was interrupted by the little wooden gate with a placard: 'First-Class Passengers Only'. There had been a time when the class distinction would have read like an insult, but now the class divisions were too subdivided to mean anything at all. He stared up the first-class deck. There was only one man out in the cold like himself: collar turned up, he stood in the bow looking out towards Dover.
D. went back into the stern, and again, as regular as his tread, the bombing planes took off. You could trust nobody but yourself, and sometimes you were uncertain whether after all you could trust yourself. They didn't trust you, any more than they had trusted the friend with the holy medal; they were right then, and who was to say whether they were not right now? You — you were a prejudiced party; the ideology was a complex affair; heresies crept in ... He wasn't certain that he wasn't watched at this moment; he wasn't certain that it wasn't right for him to be watched. After all, there were aspects of economic materialism which, if he searched his heart, he did not accept ... And the watcher — was he watched? He was haunted for a moment by the vision of an endless distrust. In an inner pocket, a bulge over the breast, he carried what were called credentials, but credence no longer meant belief.
He walked slowly back — the length of his chain; through the fog a young female voice cried harshly and distinctly, 'I'm going to have one more. I will have one more': somewhere a lot of glass broke. Somebody was crying behind a lifeboat — it was a strange world wherever you were. He walked cautiously round the bow of the boat and saw a child, wedged in a corner. He stood and looked at it. It didn't mean a thing to him — it was like writing so illegible you didn't even try to decipher it. He wondered whether he would ever again share anybody's emotion. He said to it in a gentle dutiful way, 'What is the matter?'
'I bumped my head.'
He said, 'Are you alone?'
'Dad stood me here.'
'Because you bumped your head?'
'He said it wasn't any cause to take on.' The child had stopped crying; it began to cough, the fog in the throat: dark eyes stared out of their cave between boat and rail, defensively. D. turned and walked on. It occurred to him that he shouldn't have spoken: the child was probably watched — by a father or a mother. He came up to the barrier —'First-Class Passengers Only'— and looked through. The other man was approaching through the fog, walking the longer length of his chain. D. saw first the pressed trousers, then the fur collar, and last the face. They stared at each other across the low gate. Taken by surprise they had nothing to say. Besides, they had never spoken to each other; they were separated by different initial letters, a great many deaths — they had seen each other in a passage years ago, once in a railway station and once on a landing-field. D. couldn't even remember his name.
The other man was the first to move away; thin as celery inside his thick coat, tall, he had an appearance of nerves and agility; he walked fast on legs like stilts, stiffly, but you felt they might fold up. He looked as if he had already decided on some action. D. thought: he will probably try to rob me, perhaps he will try to have me killed. He would certainly have more helpers and more money and more friends. He would bear letters of introduction to peers and ministers — he had once had some kind of title himself, years ago, before the republic ... count, marquis ... D. had forgotten exactly what. It was a misfortune that they were both travelling on the same boat and that they should have seen each other like that at the barrier between the classes, two confidential agents wanting the same thing.
The siren shrieked again and suddenly out of the fog, like faces looking through a window, came ships, lights, a wedge of breakwater. They were one of a crowd. The engine went half speed and then stopped altogether. D. could hear the water slap, slap the side. They drifted, apparently, sideways. Somebody shouted invisibly — as though from the sea itself. They sidled forward and were there: it was as simple as all that. A rush of people carrying suitcases were turned back by sailors who seemed to be taking the ship to pieces. A bit of rail came off, as it were, in their hands.
Then they all surged over with their suitcases, labelled with Swiss Hotels and pensions in Biarritz. D. let the rush go by. He had nothing but a leather wallet containing a brush and comb, a tooth-brush, a few oddments. He had got out of the way of wearing pyjamas: it wasn't really worth while when you were likely to be disturbed twice in a night by bombs.
The stream of passengers divided into two for the passport examination: aliens and British subjects. There were not many aliens; a few feet away from D. the tall man from the first class shivered slightly inside his fur coat. Pale and delicate, he didn't seem to go with this exposed and windy shed upon the quay. But he was wafted quickly through — one glance at his papers had been enough. Like an antique he was very well authenticated. D. thought without enmity: a museum piece. They all on that side seemed to him museum pieces — their lives led in big cold houses like public galleries hung with rather dull old pictures and with buhl cabinets in the corridors.
D. found himself at a standstill. A very gentle man with a fair moustache said, 'But do you mean that this photograph is — yours?'
D. said. 'Of course.' He looked down at it; it had never occurred to him to look at his own passport for — well, years. He saw a stranger's face — that of a man much younger and, apparently, much happier than himself: he was grinning at the camera. He said, 'It's an old photograph.' It must have been taken before he went to prison, before his wife was killed, and before the air raid of December 23 when he was buried for fifty-six hours in a cellar. But he could hardly explain all that to the passport officer.
'Two years perhaps.'
'But your hair is quite grey now.'
The detective said, 'Would you mind stepping to one side and letting the others pass?' He was polite and unhurried. That was because this was an island. At home soldiers would have been called in: they would immediately have assumed that he was a spy, the questioning would have been loud and feverish and long drawn out. The detective was at his elbow. He said, 'I'm sorry to have kept you. Would you mind just coming in here a moment?' He opened the door of a room. D. went in. There was a table, two chairs and a picture of King Edward VII naming an express train 'Alexandra': extraordinary period faces grinned over high white collars: an engine-driver wore a bowler hat.
The detective said, 'I'm sorry about this. Your passport seems to be quite correct, but this picture — well — you know you've only to look at yourself, sir.'
He looked in the only glass there was — the funnel of the engine and King Edward's beard rather spoilt the view — but he had to confess that the detective was not unreasonable. He did look different now. He said, 'It never occurred to me that I had changed so much.' The detective watched him closely. There was the old D. — he remembered now: it was just three years ago. He was forty-two, but a young forty-two. His wife had come with him to the studio; he had been going to take six months' leave from the university and travel — with her, of course. The civil war broke out exactly three days later. He had been six months in a military prison — his wife had been shot — that was a mistake, not an atrocity — and then ... He said, 'You know war changes people. That was before the war.' He had been laughing at a joke — something about pineapples: it was going to be the first holiday together for years. They had been married for fifteen. He could remember the antiquated machine and the photographer diving under a hood; he could remember his wife only indistinctly. She had been a passion, and it is difficult to recall an emotion when it is dead.
'Have you got any more papers?' the detective asked. 'Or is there anyone in London who knows you? Your Embassy?'
'Oh no, I'm a private citizen — of no account at all.' 'You are not travelling for pleasure?'
'No. I have a few business introductions.' He smiled back at the detective. 'But they might be forged.'
He couldn't feel angry; the grey moustache, the heavy lines around the mouth — they were all new — and the scar on his chin. He touched it. 'We have a war on, you know.' He wondered what the other was doing now: he wouldn't be losing any time. Probably there was a car waiting. He would be in London well ahead of him — there might be trouble. Presumably he had orders not to allow anyone from the other side to interfere with the purchase of coal. Coal used to be called black diamonds before people discovered electricity. Well, in his own country it was more valuable than diamonds, and soon it would be as rare.
The detective said, 'Of course your passport's quite in order. Perhaps if you'd let me know where you are staying in London ...'
'I have no idea.'
The detective suddenly winked at him. It happened so quickly D. could hardly believe it. 'Some address,' the detective said.
'Oh, well, there's a hotel, isn't there, called the Ritz?'
'There is, but I should choose something less expensive.'
'Bristol. There's always a Bristol.'
'Not in England.'
'Well, where do you suppose somebody like myself would stay?'
The detective handed back the passport with a smile. He said, 'We've got to be careful. I'm sorry. You'll have to hurry for your train.' Careful! D. thought. Was that what they considered careful in an island? How he envied them their assurance.
What with the delay D. was almost last in the queue at the customs; the noisy young men were presumably on the platform where the train would be waiting, and as for his fellow-countryman — he was convinced he hadn't waited for the train. A girl's voice said, 'Oh, I've got plenty to declare.' It was a harsh voice: he had heard it before demanding one more in the bar. He looked at her without much interest; he had reached a time of life when you were either crazy or indifferent about women, and this one, very roughly speaking, was young enough to be his daughter.
She said, 'I've got a bottle of brandy here, but it's been opened.' He thought vaguely, waiting his turn, that she oughtn't to drink so much — her voice didn't do her justice: she wasn't that type. He wondered why she had been drinking in the third class; she was well dressed, like an exhibit. She said, 'And then there's a bottle of Calvados — but that's been opened too.' D. felt tired; he wished they'd finish with her and let him through. She was very young and blonde and unnecessarily arrogant; she looked like a child who has got nothing she wants and so is determined to obtain anything, whether she likes it or not.
'Oh yes,' she said, 'that's more brandy. I was going to tell you if you'd given me time, but you can see — that's been opened, too.'
'I'm afraid we shall have to charge,' the customs officer said, 'on some of these.'
'You've no right to.'
'You can read the regulations.'
The wrangle went interminably on. Somebody else looked through D.'s wallet and passed it. 'The London train?' D. asked.
'It's gone. You'll have to wait for the seven-ten.' It was not yet a quarter to six.
'My father's a director of the line,' the girl said furiously.
'I'm afraid this is nothing to do with the line.'
'If you want to take these drinks with you, the duty will be twenty-seven and six.'
So that was Benditch's daughter. He stood at the exit watching her. He wondered whether he would find Benditch as difficult as the customs man was finding his girl. A lot depended on Benditch; if he chose to sell his coal at a price they were able to pay, they could go on for years. If not, the war might be over before the spring.
She seemed to have got her own way, if that was any omen; she looked as if she were on top of the world as she came to the door which would let her out on to the bitter foggy platform. It was prematurely dark, a little light burned by a bookstall, and a cold iron trolley leant against a tin advertisement for Horlicks. It was impossible to see as far as the next platform, so that this junction for the great naval port — that was how D. conceived it — might have been a little country station planked down between the dripping fields which the fast trains passed.
'God!' the girl said, 'it's gone.'
'There's another,' D. said, 'in an hour and a half.' He could feel his English coming back to him every time he spoke: it seeped in like fog and the smell of smoke.
'So they tell you,' she said. 'It will be hours late in this fog.'
'I've got to get to town tonight.'
'It may be clearer inland.'
But she'd left him and was pacing impatiently up the cold platform; she disappeared altogether beyond the bookstall, and then a moment later was back again eating a bun. She held one out to him, as if he were something behind bars. 'Like one?'
'Thank you.' He took it with a solemn face and began to eat: this was English hospitality.
She said, 'I'm going to get a car. Can't wait in this dull hole for an hour. It may be clearer inland' (so she had heard him). She threw the remains of her bun in the direction of the track: it was like a conjuring trick — a bun and then just no bun at all. 'Care for a lift?' she said. When he hesitated she went on, 'I'm as sober as a judge.'
'Thank you. I wasn't thinking that. Only what would be — most quick.'
'Oh, I shall be quickest,' she said.
'Then I'll come.'
Suddenly a face loomed oddly up at the level of their feet — they must have been standing on the very edge of the platform: an aggrieved face. A voice said, 'Lady, I'm not in a zoo.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Confidential Agent"
Copyright © 1971 Graham Greene Estate.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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