William was silent for a few moments; then, with a burst of inspiration: “We’ll have a Secret Society.”
“Gosh, yes!” said Ginger. “That’s a jolly good idea.”
“An’ we’ll have passwords an’ disguises,” said William, “an’ put up a notice an’ have a meetin’ in the old barn an’ I’ll make a speech.”
“You can’t make a speech about a Secret Society,” said Henry. “If it’s a Secret Society it’s gotter be secret.”
“Yes, I s’pose so,” said William regretfully. He prided himself on his powers as a public orator and did not like to let slip any opportunity of using them.
- Number: 28.7
- Published: 1952 (same year in magazine form; not to be confused with the 1923 story, 3.7, of the same name)
- Book: William the Tramp
- Synopsis: William takes on a suspected Russian spy.
Of all William’s plans and schemes, his creativity in this story I think surpasses all others. Faced with the prospect of an evil Russian spy in their midst, William does not demur from the danger like Douglas (“I think we’d better be a bit careful of atom bombs: they’re s’posed to be dangerous”) but instead gets right in.
“We’ll take you to it,” said Henry. “It’s this way… over the stile.”
They entered the old barn. William sat in an impressive attitude on a packing case. His appearance had been copied faithfully (or rather as faithfully as possible) from the picture of Stalin in Henry’s encyclopaedia. He wore a golfing blouse of Robert’s that engulfed his figure, Ethel’s jockey cap, and a large straggling moustache that Robert had once worn in some amateur theatricals and that fell off whenever he moved.
Mr Kellyngs stood staring at him, open-mouthed with amazement. William rose to his feet with an air of dignity.
“Hail, Comrade!” he said, holding his moustache on with one hand and making a sweeping gesture with the other. “I’m Stalin come over to England to fetch thy papers about the atom bomb. I’m flying back to Russia ’ere nightfall an’ I’ll take them along with me. Thee will be well paid for thy trouble, but I haven’t any change on me at present. I’ll send thee a postal order from Russia when I get there. Hist! Not a word! Give me the papers and begone!”
An elaborate oath of secrecy was administered and a still more elaborate system of signals devised by which the Outlaws were to indicate to each other various degrees of danger – no danger, middling danger, special danger, deadly danger, pressing need for reinforcement and even the immediate calling in of Scotland Yard. And then suddenly things seemed to fall rather flat.
“Well, what’re we goin’ to do?” said Ginger.
“We’ve settled what to do,” said William a little irritably. “We’re goin’ to put down crim’nals.”
“They live in the underground,” said Ginger.
“You’re thinkin’ of the underworld,” said Henry. “It’s somethin’ quite diff’rent.”
“We ought to be a bit careful,” said Douglas. “They slash with razors.”
“I bet I’d get a crim’nal before he’d time to pull his razor out,” said William. “I’m jolly strong. Look! You can feel my muscle goin’ up an’ down when you put your hand on my arm. Gosh! It’s enormous.”
Of course, it turns out that Mr Kellyngs isn’t a Russian spy, but he ends up fairly grateful to the Outlaws anyway…
For a few minutes, William sat behind the teapot waiting for customers. None came. He began to grow bored. He began to grow hungry. To sit like this, surrounded by plates of buns and cakes – jam rolls, doughnuts, treacle tart, chocolate cake – was, he thought pathetically, an ordeal such as few are called upon to undergo in their country’s service.
Fraulein Schmitt is universally regarded as a sweet tribute to Britain’s generosity as a host of refugees. Under the pen name Miss Smith, she is a ‘help’ at the Vicarage by day, and by night she runs a canteen for servicemen.
“Miss Smith’s soldier” is a particular friend of hers, an elderly gentleman who speaks a little German. Every day she makes him a traditional Yorkshire tea-cake (just like his mother made). The touching tale is widely reported in the local press, thanks to Mrs Mason’s (William’s War-Time Fun Fair, 25.4) desperation for material.
A number of other villagers, Mrs Brown included, have their hearts warmed, and try to make their own wartime austerity tea-cakes. These are presented to Miss Smith to judge.
The news had already sped round the village. William walked homewards with a rollicking swagger. He would be famous now, he thought, for the rest of his life… But he was too late. Already Mrs Mason was typing her latest article: “How I Trapped a German Spy”.
When William is left in charge of the Forces’ canteen for a few minutes, he naturally manages to sell Miss Smith’s tea-cake to a tramp and give one of the imitation tea-cakes to the gentlemanly soldier.
But Fraulein Schmitt and the German-speaking soldier seem strangely anxious to recover their original tea-cake; and the tramp soon has some unwanted attention.
Sunday was the day of the mock invasion. Members of the Home Guard manned machine-guns in the ditches, and soldiers crept behind
hedges with rifles in their hands…
William, filled with enthusiasm, tried to trip up a soldier and was soundly cuffed for his pains.
The day wore on and William became more and more depressed. No one seemed to want his help. He even tried to “immobilise” a soldier’s bicycle by means of a pin but was caught, pin in hand, by the owner, from whose vengeance he narrowly escaped, as it seemed to him, with his life.
General Moult has recruited the boys of the village to act as messengers during his spectacularly elaborate ‘invasion drill’ for local Home Guard units (the Nazis being played by real British soldiers). He is offering a magnificent ostrich egg as a prize to whichever boy is most helpful, so naturally William and Hubert vye to be most helpful, less out of concern for national security, less too out of a real desire to own an ostrich egg, and more out of a determination to spite the other.
Then – quite suddenly – the idea came to him. Commandos. Why shouldn’t there be Commandos in the invasion? Probably just because no one had thought of it. The Home Guard surely ought to have a few Commandos to help it. He’d be a Commando… It only needed a tin of blacking and a pair of bedroom slippers.
William’s spirits fall when a volunteer urgently requests maps of the area and he has none to give, as against Hubert’s ten.
But when it turns out a fifth columnist is on the loose, William receives (undue) credit for his quick-thinking and initiative… and an ostrich egg.