It is the spring of 1940 and John Sidney Howard wants nothing more than to enjoy his fishing holiday in southern France in peace and quiet. However, the Nazi conquest of the Low Countries puts an end to that, and he is asked by friends to take their two children back to England. Crossing France with his young charges seems simple enough at first—until the Germans invade, rendering them fugitives. As Howard struggles to sneak across France, he picks up several more helpless children of various nationalities. They walk for miles in an endless river of refugees, strafed by German planes and hiding in barns at night. By the time Howard and his flock of little ones reach the Channel, his plan of escaping on a fishing boat has become utterly impossible, and in their final confrontation with the invaders, all their lives are at stake.
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His name is John Sidney Hoard, and he is a member of my club in London. I came in for dinner that night at about eight o'clock, tired after a long day of conferences about my aspect of the war. He was just entering the club ahead of me, a tall and rather emaciated man of about seventy, a little unsteady on his feet. He tripped over the door mat as he went in and stumbled forward; the hall porter jumped out and caught him by the elbow.
He peered down at the mat and poked it with his umbrella. 'Damned thing caught my toe,' he said. 'Thank you Peters. Getting old, I suppose.'
The man smiled. 'Several of the gentleman have caught their foot there recently, sir' he said. 'I was speaking to the Steward about it only the other day.'
The old man said: 'Well, speak to him again and go on speaking till he has it put right. One of these days you'll have me falling dead at your feet. You wouldn't like that to happen—eh?' He smiled quizzically.
The porter said: 'No, sir, we shouldn't like that to happen.'
'I should think not. Not the sort of thing one wants to see happen in a club. I don't want to die on a doormat. And I don't want to die in a lavatory, either. Remember the time that Colonel Macpherson died in the lavatory, Peters?'
'I do sir. That was very distressing.'
'Yes.' He was silent for a moment. Then he said: 'Well, I don't want to die that way, either. See he gets that mat put right. Tell him I said so.'
'Very good, sir.'
The old man moved away. I had been waiting behind him while all this was going on because the porter had my letters. He gave them to me at the wicket, and I looked them through. 'Who was that?' I asked idly.
He said: 'That was Mr. Howard, sir.'
'He seemed to be very much concerned about his latter end.'
The porter did not smile. 'Yes, sir. Many of the gentlemen talk in that way as they get on. Mr. Howard has been a member here for a great many years.'
I said more courteously: 'Has he? I don't remember seeing him about.'
The man said: 'He has been abroad for the last few months, I think, sir. But he seems to have aged a great deal since he came back. Getting rather frail now, I'm afraid.'
I turned away. 'This bloody war is hard on men of his age,' I said.
'Yes, sir. That's very true.'
I went into the club, slung my gas-mask on to a peg, unbuckled my revolver-belt and hung it up, and crowned the lot with my cap. I strolled over to the tape and studied the latest news. It was neither good nor bad. Our Air Force was still knocking the hell out of Ruhr; Rumania was still desperately bickering with her neighbours. The news was as it had been for three months, since France was overrun.
I went in and had my dinner. Howard was already in the dining-room; apart from us the room was very nearly empty. He had a waiter serving him who was very nearly as old as he was himself, and as he ate his dinner the waiter stood beside his table and chatted to him. I could hardly help overhearing the subject of their conversation. They were talking about cricket, re-living the Test Matches of 1925.
Because I was eating alone I finished before Howard, and went up to my bill at the desk. I said to the cashier: 'The waiter over there—what's his name?'
'That's right. How long has he been here?'
'Oh, he's been here a long time. All his life, you might say. Eighteen ninety-five or ninety-six he come here, I believe.'
'That's a very long time.'
The man smiled as he gave me my change. 'It is, sir. But Porson—he's been here longer than that.'
I went upstairs to the smoking-room and stopped before a table littered with periodicals. With idle interest I turned over a printed list of members. Howard, I saw, had joined the club in 1896. Master and man, then, had been rubbing shoulders all their lives.
I took a couple of illustrated weeklies, and ordered coffee. Then I crossed the room to where the two most comfortable chairs in my club stand side by side, and prepared to spend an hour of idleness before returning to my flat. In a few minutes there was a step beside me and Howard lowered his long body into the other chair. A boy, unasked, brought him coffee and brandy.
Presently he spoke. He said quietly: 'It really is a most extraordinary thing that you can't get a decent cup of coffee in this country. Even in a club like this they can't make coffee.'
I laid down my paper. If the old man wanted to talk to me, I had no great objection. All day I had been working with my eyes in my old-fashioned office, reading reports and writing dockets. It would be good to take off my spectacles for a little time and un-focus my eyes. I was very tired.
I felt in my pocket for my spectacle-case. I said: 'A chap who deals in coffee once told me that ground coffee won't keep in our climate. It's the humidity, or something.'
'Ground coffee goes off in any climate,' he said dogmatically. 'You never get a proper cup of coffee if you buy it like that. You have to buy the beans and grind it just before you make it. But that's what they won't do.'
He went on talking about coffee and chicory and things like that for a time. Then, by natural association, we talked about the brandy. He approved of the club brandy. 'I used to have an interest in a wine business,' he said. 'A great many years ago, in Exeter. But I disposed of it soon after the last war.'
I gathered that he was a member of the Wine Committee of the club. I said: 'It must be rather interesting to run a business like that.'