Jack Higgins – The Savage Day
Jack Higgins – The Savage Day
Between two groups of men that want to make inconsistent kinds of worlds I see no remedy except force… It seems to me that every society rests on the death of men.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
They were getting ready to shoot somebody in the inner courtyard, which meant it was Monday because Monday was execution day.
Although my own cell was on the other side of the building, I recognized the signs: a disturbance from those cells in the vicinity from which some prisoners could actually witness the whole proceeding, and then the drums rolling. The commandant liked that.
There was silence, a shouted command, a volley of rifle fire. After a while, the drums started again, a steady beat accompanying the cortege as the dead man was wheeled away, for the commandant liked to preserve the niceties, even on Skarthos, one of the most unlovely places I have visited in my life. A bare rock in the Aegean with an old
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Turkish fort on top of it containing three thousand political detainees, four hundred troops to guard them and me.
I’d had a month of it, which was exactly four weeks too long and the situation wasn’t improved by the knowledge that some of the others had spent up to two years there without any kind of trial. A prisoner told me on exercise one day that the name of the place was derived from some classical Greek root meaning barren, which didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
Through the bars of my cell you could see the mainland, a smudge on the horizon in the heat haze. Occasionally there was a ship, but too far away to be interesting, for the Greek Navy ensured that most craft gave the place a wide berth. If I craned my head to the left when I peered out there was rock, thorn bushes to the right. Otherwise there was nothing and nothing to do except lie on the straw mattress on the floor, which was exactly what I was doing on that May morning when everything changed.
There was the grate of the key in the lock quite unexpectedly as the midday meal wasn’t served for another three hours, then the door opened and one of the sergeants moved in.
He stirred me with his foot. “Better get up, my friend. Someone to see you.’
Hope springing eternal, I scrambled to my feet as my visitor was ushered in. He was about fifty or so at a guess, medium height, good shoulders, a snow-white moustache, beautifully clipped and trimmed, very blue eyes. He wore a panama, lightweight cream suit, an Academy tie and carried a cane.
He was, or had been, a high ranking officer in the army, I was never more certain of anything in my life. After all, it takes an old soldier to know one.
I almost brought my heels together and he smiled broadly. ‘At ease, Major. At ease.’
He looked about the cell with some distaste, poked at the bucket in the corner with his cane and grimaced. ‘You really have got yourself into one hell of a bloody mess, haven’t you ?’
‘Are you from the British Embassy in Athens ?’ I asked.
He pulled the only stool forward, dusted it and sat down. ‘They can’t do a thing for you in Athens, Vaughan. You’re going to rot here till the colonels decide to try you. I’ve spoken to the people concerned. In their opinion, you’ll get fifteen years if you’re lucky. Possibly twenty.’
‘Thanks very much,’ I said. ‘Most comforting.’
He took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and threw them across. ‘What do you expect? Guns for the rebels, midnight landings on lonely beaches.’ He shook his head. ‘”What are you, anyway? The last of the romantics ?’
‘I’d love to thinkso,’ I said. *But as it happens, there would have been five thousand pounds waiting for me in Nicosia if I’d pulled it off.’
He nodded. ‘So I understand.’
I leaned against the wall by the window and looked him over. ‘Who are you, anyway ?’