Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 7


CHAPTER VII.
GRAF VON BASCHWITZ.

WHEN, six weeks later. Baron Eberhardt von Sydow, lieutenant of the First Bavarian Chevaux-Legers Regiment, "Fürst von Wittgenstein," entered a certain cozy house half a mile the other side of General von Bardeleben's divisional headquarters, he was conscious of that shock of surprise, disappointment, and, too, slight enmity which rose up and thudded against his chest with an almost physical impact every time he beheld his superior officer. Major Graf Wolf von Baschwitz, chief of the Royal Prussian Ethnological Survey Department for Army Field Service, as it was called lengthily, euphoniously, and mendaciously.

For the lieutenant was the blond beast par excellence, with his smooth, honey-colored hair, his broad-templed, flat-backed head, firm, cherry lips, and unflinching blue eyes; a typical German aristocrat, a machine, hard, crunching, erect; stupid in so far as he could not conceive a thought, could only develop it, though thoroughly, after somebody else had given him the germ, the initiative.

Von Baschwitz, on the other hand—descendant of Prussian robber barons who had followed their Hohenzollern liege lords from Nuremberg to the Mark Brandenburg, south to the conquest of Silesia, north to the raping of Schleswig-Holstein, and now west, for the second time, to murder the smiling fields of France—seemed foreign, almost Latin, from a German view-point. His head was long and well-shaped, his nose high-bridged, the eyes deep and black and fervid under hooded brows. Even his body, small, wiry, nervous, was un-German, and his gestures, his modulated voice, his very smile. Unlike so many of his countrymen, he was not an imitator but an originator; a man of strong intellect, who neither pitied the old nor was afraid of the new.

And he was clever. Terribly, dangerously clever.

The British and French intelligence branches knew who he was. Too, they knew the bitter scope of his work. Often, in these months of war, chiefly on the Picardy front, had they recognized his fine Italian hand in a German division hurled suddenly over the top, without artillery advertisement, against a weak spot in their armor of trenches, or a lightning shift of German guns and reserves when for days the Allies had made careful, dovetailing preparations for a raid on a large scale. If Von Baschwitz had been a master-spy, gathering his information in tiny bits and details from a number of agents who worked within the French lines, the latter would have sooner or later caught and executed these spies, or occasionally seen to it that the reports which they sent in to Von Baschwitz were primed with artistically camouflaged but catastrophically wrong information. Both of which methods would have ruined the man's game.

But he was not a spy at all, even affected to pity spying as a crude, antiquated, and inefficient weapon.

He called himself, with a languid, lop-sided smile, eine Autorität im Reich der analytischen Militärpsychologie—an authority in analytical military psychology," and he worked, not with learned text-books and dusty tomes, but by matching his merciless, algebraic cunning against that of the picked prisoners and deserters brought before him.

Not that the quizzing of these unfortunate people by officers familiar with their language was a new invention. The British and French used it, too. The only difference lay in the results which the German accomplished—but then, he called himself an authority—and, too, in his soul, which was curiously like that of a brilliant but wicked woman, a blending of diamond and fire-kissed steel, that punctured the thoughts of the men he examined with the dagger-point of his personality.

He never bullied, never swore, never brutalized; and his chief characteristic—the very non-Germanic characteristic which caused uneasiness and a slight feeling of enmity in a thorough-paced Teuton like Lieutenant Baron von Sydow—was a sort of deep, vibrant vivacity, a continual and open response to the individualities, the view-points, the virtues, the very prejudices of the men—French and British—who were his unwitting tools.

Nor was he a hypocrite.

He was a genius in his own field.

 

"Well, Herr Leut'nant?" he asked, looking smilingly at Baron von Sydow, who stood at the door, stiff and unbending as if he had swallowed the ramrod with which at cadets' school he had been deviled into patterned discipline. "What is it?"

"Our patrols brought in a private of the Seven Hundred and Thirty-First French Infantry."

"Oh"—the major looked slightly more interested—"one of those 'convict' chaps opposite the guards—opposite the Hohenstauffen trench?"

"Zu Befehl! You gave orders that our raiders should make special efforts to capture one of them—alive."

Von Baschwitz laughed.

"To be sure I did. Curious to see one of 'em. They gave our guards rather a drubbing."

"Herr Major!" came the lieutenant's shocked protest; and again the other laughed.

"They did, my dear baron. What's the use of trying to deceive ourselves with conscious semifalsities and unconscious semitruths when there's no neutral newspaper correspondent about, eh? They licked the guards, and though I told that precious commander of the fourth battalion that I needed a live specimen of these convict chaps—for—ah—purposes of experimental psychology—they didn't even manage to bring in a single prisoner!"

The lieutenant made a grudging admission:

"They can fight. There's no doubt of it."

"Of course they can. They don't let themselves be captured by the droves, like those Bavarian peasant swine. Well—never mind. You got one at last. Prisoner or deserter?"

"Deserter, Herr Major."

"Send him in."

"Zu Befehl, Herr Major!"

And three minutes later Bibi the Killer, in the mud-caked uniform of his old regiment, stood facing Von Baschwitz, who smiled at him ingratiatingly, addressed him in perfect French, asked him to be seated, and extended a silver case filled with excellent Turkish cigarettes his brother had sent him from Constantinople.

The two men were quite alone. There was nobody in the little house—a two-story affair, with a deep cellar reached by a trap-door from the inside of the entrance-hall in the typical Picardy style—nor was there a soul, not even a sentry, within half a mile. For Von Baschwitz was an artist in his line, with an artist's nervous, slightly nagging temperament, and, much to the annoyance of various transport, munitions supply, sapper, and ordnance officers, had insisted that his "laboratory," as he called it, should be quiet and undisturbed.

There was no noise except the steely, dramatic rumble of the guns and, once in a while, like a hysterical woman's laugh, the crackling of rifle-fire running down a trench and dying in the distance. But these sounds he did not mind. By this time they were to him part of the landscape, part of life itself.

His civil greeting acknowledged by the apache's coarse mutter, he leaned back in his chair and watched his visitor light a cigarette with steady fingers. He, too, helped himself to one. He did not speak. Presently, he thought, he would take the other's mind and—gently, very gently—squeeze it quite dry of information. But he must not hurry. First he must familiarize himself with this new type—this new "experimental specimen." So he looked at him and smiled.

Bibi the Killer, on the other hand, said to himself that here, for the first time in his life, he was alone with a representative of that class which he hated most in all the world. He had seen Von Baschwitz's doubles walk down the boulevards, frock-coated, orchids in their buttonholes, silk hats with eight reflections set well back on oiled, perfumed heads, ivory malaccas crocked from elbows.

Occasionally he had seen them in his own quartier, even in his own favorite dive, but always carefully guarded by headquarters detectives when they came on slumming expeditions. They had bought him drinks, in their negligent, damnably kind manner—just as this man across from him had given him a cigarette, as the plump stock-brokers in the Silver Glen had given him tips.

He felt his muscles tauten. His heart was congested with hate and rage; doubly so, as, a few days after he had joined his old regiment, Pierre l'Rongeur and Anatol' Chapin had been blown to bits by a German high-explosive shell.

He wanted to kill, kill.

But he, too, was in no hurry. He, too, must watch and observe: not psychological reactions, as the German was doing, but prosy, physical details. For, though neither he nor the other realized it, it was his skill and strength of body against the German's skill and strength of mind.

He had noticed before that the house was empty, that no sentries were in sight, and that there was a trap-door in the outer hall leading presumably to a cellar. All this was good.

He measured the distance which separated him from Von Baschwitz. About three feet. He could make it in a quick, easy jump without a preparatory bunching of muscles which might cause the other to smell a rat. Of course, his weapons had been taken away from him, while the German was armed with a heavy-caliber revolver. It was strapped to his left, with the butt just below the metal ring that connected shoulder and waist belt, and the muzzle resting in a fold of the riding-breeches where loin and thigh joined.

That, too, was fortunate. For it would hamper the process of drawing and firing, lengthen it by that fraction of a second which, by former experience, Bibi knew to spell the difference between life and death.

He would jump direct from his chair, sidewise, turning slightly in mid air—it was a trick he had learned in the quartier—and thus, even if Von Baschwitz succeeded in pulling his revolver, the first bullet would miss him by about a hair's-breadth, and Von Baschwitz would not live to fire a second shot.

Bibi smiled.

He would succeed. He felt sure of it. And he added in his thoughts that the main reason why he would succeed was because that dirty specimen of a boche was too cursed cock-sure, sitting there negligent and grinning like an ape and offering cigarettes—ah! l'aristocrat!

Which, though partly, was not entirely true.

For that which beat Von Baschwitz—what in the long run is destined to beat the German nation, the German idea—was what before and since has beaten many another scientist, be he an expert in experimental biology, or, like the German officer, in analytical military psychology. He had studied and observed too thoroughly. Had drawn his conclusions too finely, too logically, leaving no room for the new element which might upset all his delicate, ultra-efficient, wire-drawn calculations.

He had cross-examined hundreds of prisoners and deserters, and imagined that he knew them all: dour Scots, vituperative North-of-Ireland men, gloomy Welshmen, impudent Londoners, bovine Yorkshiremen, nervous, petulant Parisians, pungent Gascons, cold, blue-eyed Normans, stodgy Burgundians, high-strung Auvergnats. He had seen them come to this little house, had talked to them, had watched their various reactions, had squeezed them dry as he might a sponge.

Some had cursed, others had wept, others still had been haughty and silent and reserved. But he had known how to handle them—one and all—by a tigerlike shift and pounce of his extraordinary intellect.

His revolver was always ready to hand, though he disliked the very fact of it having to be there. But he could not help himself. For there are some prisoners who lose their temper, who go vabanque, who refuse to acknowledge that they are beaten. Only two weeks earlier he had been forced—regretfully forced—to shoot and kill when a raw-boned, hook-nosed desert Arab in the crimson and blue of a Spahi regiment had hurled himself at him with a terrible, guttural cry of rage.

Thus was he prepared for all emergencies, for all reactions, for all temperaments—except Bibi's. That a man might lose his head, his temper, see red on the spur of the moment—yes! That was in the cards. But he had never even dreamed of the possibility of a man like Bibi, who had deserted with only one idea in mind: to kill. To kill deliberately, cold-bloodedly, scientifically.

Perhaps, at the very last, he did understand, since in every great climax of life there is always one impression more poignantly bitter than the rest; and it is generally the pin-point of a fraction when fear first springs.

But he did not live to crystallize the thought—nor the fear.

For, the next second, Bibi l'Tueur was upon him.

The apache jumped, then turned, just as the other fumbled the gun from its holster, where it was slightly caught by the belt-ring and the fold in the riding-breeches. With the mathematical precision of a camera-shutter Bibi caught the German's right elbow with the open palm of his left hand so that the bullet crashed harmlessly against the ceiling. An atom of an instant later he was sitting astride the other man, his muscular legs crushing the arms against either thigh, and holding them as in a vise, while his lean, wiry, cruel hands found the throat, and pressed, pressed, with thumbs and second fingers—