By Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874 1965) an English playwright, novelist and short story writer

(The story is taken from the book Ashenden: the British Agent, a 1928 collection of loosely linked stories. It is partly based on the authors experience as a member of British Intelligence in Europe during WW I.)


It was high time. Snow had fallen in the morning, but now the sky was clear and Ashenden, with a glance at the frosty stars, stepped out quickly. He feared that Herbatus ['hə:bətəs], tired of waiting for him, might have gone home. He had at this interview to make a certain decision and the hesitation he felt about it had lurked throughout the evening at the back of his mind like a malaise that had only to become a bit more definite to be felt as pain. For Herbatus, indefatigable and determined, had been engaged in the arrangement of a scheme to blow up certain munition factories in Austria. It is not necessary to give (10) here the details of his plan, but it was ingenious and effective; its drawback was that it entailed the death and mutilation of a good many Galician Poles, his fellow countrymen, who were working in the factories in question. He had told Ashenden earlier in the day that everything was ready and he had only to give the word.

But please do not give it unless it is essential, he said in his precise somewhat throaty English. Of course we will not hesitate if it is necessary, but we dont want to sacrifice our own people for nothing.

When do you want an answer?

Tonight. We have got someone starting for Prague tomorrow

(20) morning.

It was then that Ashenden had made the appointment that he was now hurrying to keep.

Ashenden had qualms and he was conscious that it would be a relief if on reaching the hotel he found that Herbatus had left. That would give him a respite. <>

The Germans had blown up factories in the Allied countriesand there was no reason why they should not be served in the same manner. It was a legitimate act of war. It not only hindered the manufacture of arms and munitions, but it also shook the morale of the non-

(30) combatants. It was not of course a thing the big-wigs cared to have anything to do with. Though ready enough to profit by the activities of obscure agents of whom they had never heard, they shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour. <>

Ashenden entered the café of the hotel and saw Herbatus seated at a table facing the door. There was no escape. He must make the decision.

Im tired, I cant think with any clearness.

(40) I must go in a minute.

Then lets toss for it, shall we?


Yes, said Ashenden, taking a coin out of his pocket. If it comes down heads, tell your man to go ahead and if it comes down tails tell him to do nothing.

Very well.



a malaise a state of feeling generally unwell or mentally depressed

a good many very many

Galician[gə'liʃiən] a native of Galicia, a historical region in Eastern Europe (currently in Poland and Ukraine)

throaty husky

It was then that

qualm [kwɔ:m] a feeling of guilt, doubt or misgiving

Allied countries in WW I they were the UK, France and the Russian Empire

heads that side of a coin on which the head of a person (e.g. a monarch) appears, the other side being tails(.. )




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