Authors: Eric Ambler
“Ambler may well be the best writer of suspense stories.… He is the master craftsman.”
“Ambler towers over most of his newer imitators.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Ambler combines political sophistication, a gift for creating memorable characters and a remarkable talent for turning exciting stories into novels of wonderful entertainment.”
“Mr. Ambler is a phenomenon!”
“The foremost thriller writer of our time.”
“Ambler is incapable of writing a dull paragraph.”
The Dark Frontier
Background to Danger
Epitaph for a Spy
Cause for Alarm
A Coffin for Dimitrios
Journey Into Fear
Judgment on Deltchev
State of Siege
Passage of Arms
The Light of Day
The Ability to Kill and Other Pieces
A Kind of Anger
To Catch a Spy
The Intercom Conspiracy
Send No More Roses
The Care of Time
Here Lies Eric Ambler
The Story So Far
FIRST VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD EDITION, DECEMBER 2003
Copyright © 1953
and renewed in 1981
by Eric Ambler
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in
hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York, in 1953.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Ambler, Eric, 1909–
The Schirmer inheritance / Eric Ambler—1st American ed.
To Sylvia Payne
n 1806 Napoleon set out to chastise the King of Prussia. Both at Auerstadt and at Jena the Prussian armies suffered crushing defeats. Then, what remained of them marched east to join a Russian army under Bennigsen. In the following February, Napoleon met this combined force at the town of Preussisch-Eylau, near Königsberg.
Eylau was one of the bloodiest and most terrible of Napoleon’s battles. It began in a blizzard and in a temperature well below freezing-point. Both armies were half starved and fought with desperate ferocity for the bleak shelter of the buildings of Eylau itself. Casualties on both sides were heavy, nearly a quarter of those engaged being killed. When, at night-fall on the second day, the fighting ended, it was from exhaustion rather than because a decision had been reached. Then, during the night, the Russian army began to retreat northward. The survivors of the Prussian corps, whose flank-guard action against Ney’s troops had nearly served to win the day, now had no reason to remain. They made their withdrawal through the village of Kuttschitten to the east. The cavalry screen of their rear guard was provided by the Dragoons of Ansbach.
The relationship between this unit and the rest of the Prussian army was absurd, but, in the middle Europe of the
period, not unusually so. Not many years before, and well within the memories of the older soldiers in it, the regiment had been the only mounted force in the independent principality of Ansbach, and had taken its oaths of allegiance to the ruling Margrave. Then, Ansbach had fallen upon evil times and the last Margrave had sold his land and his people to the King of Prussia. Fresh oaths of allegiance had had to be sworn. Yet their new lord had eventually proved as fickle as the old. In the year before Eylau the Dragoons had experienced a further change of status. The province of Ansbach had been ceded by the Prussians to Bavaria. As Bavaria was an ally of Napoleon, this meant that, strictly speaking, the Ansbachers should now have been fighting against the Prussians, not beside them. However, the Dragoons themselves were as indifferent to the anomaly they constituted as they were to the cause for which they fought. The conception of nationality meant little to them. They were professional soldiers in the eighteenth-century meaning of the term. If they had marched and fought and suffered and died for two days and a night, it was neither for love of the Prussians nor from hatred of Napoleon; it was because they had been trained to do so, because they hoped for the spoils of victory, and because they feared the consequences of disobedience.
Thus, as his horse picked its way through the woods on the outskirts of Kuttschitten that night, Sergeant Franz Schirmer was able to consider his situation and make plans for extricating himself from it, without much inconvenience to his conscience. Not many of the Dragoons of Ansbach were left, and of those who were, few would survive the hardships to come. The wounded and the badly frostbitten would die first, and then, when the horses had been lost or eaten, starvation and sickness would kill off all but the youngest and strongest of the remainder. Twenty-four hours earlier the Sergeant could reasonably have expected to be one of the enduring few.
Now he could not. Late that afternoon he had himself been wounded.
The wound had affected him strangely. A French cuirassier had slashed with a sabre, and the Sergeant had taken the blow on his right arm. The blade had sliced obliquely through the heavy deltoid muscles and down to the bone just above the elbow. It was an ugly wound, but the bone had not broken and it had therefore been unnecessary for him to seek torture at the hands of the army surgeons. A comrade had bound up the wound for him and strapped the arm against his chest with a crossbelt. It throbbed painfully now, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He was very weak, but that, he thought, might be due to hunger and the cold rather than to any serious loss of blood. The thing he found so strange was that with all his physical distress there went an extraordinary feeling of well-being.
It had come upon him as the wound was being bandaged. The feelings of surprise and terror with which he had first regarded the blood pouring down his useless arm had suddenly gone, and in their place had been an absurd, splendid sense of freedom and light-heartedness.
He was a bovine young man of a practical turn of mind, not given to fancies. He knew something about wounds. His had been bound up in its own blood and could therefore be reckoned healthy; but there was still no more than an even chance of his escaping death from gangrene. He knew something about war, too, and could see not only that the battle was probably lost but also that retreat would take them into a countryside already picked clean by armies on the move. Yet this knowledge brought no despair with it. It was as if he had received with his wound some special forgiveness for his sins, an absolution more potent and complete than that which any mortal priest could give. He felt that he had been touched by
God Himself, and that any drastic steps he might be obliged to take in order to stay alive would have Divine approval.
His horse stumbled as it fought its way clear of a snowdrift, and the Sergeant reined in. Half the officers had been killed and he had been put in command of one of the outlying detachments. He had orders to keep well out on the flank away from the road, and for a while it had been easy to do so; but now they had emerged from the forest, and in the deep snow the going was bad. One or two of the Dragoons behind him had already dismounted and were leading their horses. He could hear them floundering about in the snow at the rear of the column. If it proved necessary for him to lead his own horse he might not have the strength to get back into the saddle.
He thought about this for a moment. After a two-day battle fought so desperately, the chances of there being any French cavalry still capable of harrying the retreat from a flank were remote. The flank guard was therefore no more than a drill-book precaution. Certainly it was not worth taking risks for. He gave a brief word of command and the column began to turn into the forest again towards the road. He had no great fear of his disobedience being discovered. If it were, he would simply say that he had lost his way; he would not be severely punished for failing to do an officer’s duty. In any case, he had more important matters to consider.
Food was the first thing.
Luckily, the haversack beneath his long cloak still contained most of the frozen potatoes he had looted from a farm building the previous day. They must be eaten sparingly; and secretly. At times like these, a man known to have private stores of food went in some danger, whatever his rank. However, the potatoes would not last long and there would be no soup pots bubbling at the end of this march. Even the horses would be better off. None of the supply wagons had been lost and there
was a day’s fodder still in them. The men would starve first.
He fought down a rising sense of panic. He would have to do something soon and panic would not help him. Already he could feel the cold eating into him. Not many hours could elapse before fever and exhaustion took irrevocable charge of the situation. His knees tightened involuntarily on the saddle flaps, and at that moment the idea came to him.
The horse had started and passaged a little at the pressure. Sergeant Schirmer relaxed his thigh muscles and, leaning forward, patted the animal’s neck affectionately with his left hand. He was smiling to himself as the horse walked on again. By the time the detachment reached the road his plan was made.
For the rest of that night and most of the next day the Prussian corps moved slowly eastward towards the Masurian Lakes; then it turned north to Insterburg. Soon after nightfall, and on the pretext of rounding up a straggler, Sergeant Schirmer left the detachment and rode south across the frozen lakes in the general direction of Lötzen. By morning he was south of that town.
He was also nearly at the limit of his strength. The march from Eylau to the point at which he had deserted had been bad enough; the cross-country journey from there would have taxed even an unwounded man. Now, the pain of his arm was at moments intolerable and he was shaking so much from fever and the bitter cold that he could scarcely stay in the saddle. He was beginning to wonder, indeed, if he might not have been mistaken in his estimate of God’s intentions, and if what he had supposed to be a sign of Divine favour might not prove to have been an intimation of approaching death. He knew, at all events, that if he did not very soon find shelter of the kind his plan called for, he would die.
He reined in and with an effort raised his head again to look about him. Far away to the left across the white desolation of
a frozen lake he could see the low black shape of a farmhouse. His eyes moved on. It was just possible that there was a nearer building to investigate. But there was nothing. Hopelessly he turned his horse’s head in the direction of the farmhouse and resumed his march.